Niels Arestrup is an icon in France. Heir to the Depardieu lineage of meaty Gallic men, the sixty-four year old actor is less wacky than his predecessor––more restrained, severe, and in recent films, menacingly paternalistic. Director Jacques Audiard made brilliant use of this talent––playing Laius to a younger actor’s Oedipus––in A Prophet, one of the great European films of the last decade. More recently, Steven Spielberg cast Arestrup as a rural Grandfather, straight out of a Brueghel painting, in the World War One epic War Horse. In Arestrup’s latest film, You Will Be My Son, the actor plays an exacting French vintner who doubts his son’s ability to steward the family grapes. Here Arestrup––who is in New York for the first time––talks about his imposing air, why the French are serious about wine, and what his own father thought of his decision to become an actor.
You Will Be My Son is all about vineyards and vintages. Are you a wine connoisseur yourself?
In France it’s almost like we’re born with a bottle of wine on the table. It’s our tradition; it’s something very close to us. Even when I was a young child I understood what wine was, where it came from. But now, even though I love a good bottle of wine, I wouldn’t call myself a connoisseur. I’m much more of an amateur wine lover. And now we are always told to drink in moderation so that’s what I do.
The stereotype is that the French take pleasure seriously. To them, pleasure is not a frivolous, superficial matter. This is definitely the case for your character in the film.
Wine is part of our history and there’s a whole culture that’s developed. Yes it’s meant to give pleasure to the people who love it and love to drink it. But it’s also a great source of jobs for the people who grow and make the wine.
This role made me realize how often you’re cast as the intimidating father figure in films that are, at their root, Oedipal struggles. Where does that come from?
This is something that I’ve tried to understand myself––understand why they have this image of me. Despite the roles that I play, I’m someone who’s basically very shy. Maybe it’s because people who are shy have a reserve and a distance. And this distance can be interpreted by others as coldness.
There’s also a generational conflict in this film that hints at a larger split between the young and old in French society. Who will inherit France? Or am I making too much of this?
It’s a hard question to answer. There’s always been inter-generational conflict. The young always have difficulty understanding the old and vice versa. But I think today the distance between the young and the old is perhaps becoming bigger. Partly because of technology. Partly also because in France today there is a real mix of cultures, languages, behaviors like there wasn’t in the past. So perhaps this has made the generational gap even broader.
What did your own father say when you decided you wanted to go into the cinema? How did he react?
I think my case was more one of fatherly indifference. When I first expressed the idea of becoming an actor he kind of smiled and thought it was another one of my ideas. He assumed it was a passing fancy on my part and one day I would realize that what I really needed to do was something more serious, which for him was factory work. He was prepared to offer me a place in the factory.
I also wanted to ask about your work with the English theater director Peter Brook. He’s a legend. And this happened early in your career.
My meeting with Peter Brook was one of the most important events in my life. I worked with him on The Cherry Orchard. He is an extraordinary artist who allowed me to see so many new things.
Speaking of new things––any first impressions of New York?
You know, before you visit New York, you have a dream of a city you’ve dreamt of your whole life. It’s something imagined, something you’ve gotten from the cinema. So when you arrive you’re shocked to find it’s a real place, like any other place. This is what was so interesting about my visit here. I suppose I was expecting an imaginary city––instead I found a real one. But I’ve only been here on a short trip. As with people, it takes time to get to know a place.