The agnostic Belgian actor and Dardenne brothers favourite reflects on his new role as a priest and his stellar career so far.
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16 Nov 2012 - 2:17 PM  UPDATED 16 Nov 2012 - 2:17 PM

Belgian actor Jérémie Renier will forever be known as the kid who got his break in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's The Promise (1996) and who went on to star in their 2005 Cannes Palme d'Or winner, The Child. He also appeared in the Dardennes' Lorna's Silence (2008), which won the Cannes award for best screenplay, and The Kid with a Bike (2011), which took out the Cannes Grand Prix.

We all question our convictions at some stage in our lives

Are the Dardennes like his second fathers?

“Yeah, two fathers, two muppets,” 31-year-old Renier says good-naturedly. “I would feel very sad if I was forced to cut this connection. We deeply respect each other.”

He demurs, though, when asked if he has remained tied to the directors' work. “Actually, there was a long period between The Promise and The Child and I've always wanted to do different things. But they're still very important in my life.”

Indeed. When we met this year in Cannes, the Dardennes had just attended the premiere of Renier's new movie, White Elephant, directed by Argentina's Pablo Trapero (Lion's Den, 7 Days in Havana). In fact, they had something to do with his being in it.

“Luc and Jean-Pierre know Pablo very well,” Renier explains. “They had met at different film festivals and when Pablo was speaking about casting his next film, they suggested me. Pablo sent me the script, which I read and adored. I didn't know much about Argentina and through the film I discovered a lot about the cities, the religion and culture.”

In the film, the self-confessed agnostic plays a French priest who works in the ruins of what was once to be a tuberculosis hospital—hence the title White Elephant—which is now part of the toughest shantytown in Buenos Aires. Renier's priest Father Nicolás and his colleague Father Julián (Ricardo Darín) hold very different views on the drug wars that are tearing the inhabitants apart. Nicolás wants to engage with the gangsters, but Julián believes this will make the priests combatants and likely targets.

“It was very interesting because beyond the religious aspect of learning what it means to be a priest, and having met many priests who work in the slums in order to prepare for the role, I think what Pablo examines is the doubts that we all have as human beings,” says Renier. “For a priest, faith is the essence of his life, and if he happens to question it at a certain point, he just shows us he's human. We all question our convictions at some stage in our lives, social workers like Julián even moreso. For me, being there in that slum and seeing barefooted kids all around really touched me, it overwhelmed me and triggered feelings in me that were quite unknown in terms of my own lifestyle and my living standards.”

As he did with his English-language roles in The Vintner's Luck and In Bruges, Renier learnt the role by heart. “Spanish is close to French and after three months I could understand everything.”

Today, he understands English questions though answers in French. He admits he'd like to improve his English, “but I need some time”.

Over the years, Renier has worked extensively in French cinema. His first prominent role was in 2001's Brotherhood of the Wolf and he has since appeared with the most famous of French actresses, including Juliette Binoche in Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours (2008) and Catherine Deneuve in François Ozon's French-Belgian comedy Potiche (2010). His Potiche role as Deneuve's buff gay blade son wearing tight stretchy '70s fabric was particularly amusing.

“Everybody thought I was gay,” he admits with a chuckle. “I'm gay in the movie but not in real life. “You can let yourself go in comic situations, like when I made Potiche and The Adventures of Philibert, Capitaine Puceau [2011], which actually did not live up to our expectations. But I do love humour. I also love English humour, but Flemish humour more. We try and use it in developing different subjects in different circumstances.”

Renier loves New York, doesn't want to live in Los Angeles and says “even if in Belgium we don't have sun, in London the weather is most difficult.”

To get his adult career going, he lived in Paris for eight years—“it's very connected, like a suburb of Paris"—and he now resides in Brussels with his wife, Helene Helinck, a former television presenter and now a kids fashion designer, and their two children. Just a regular happily married man, I suggest. “Yes,” he agrees.

So far Renier says he has been very content with his career. “It's been very smooth for me. I didn't feel any frustration despite the fact that I had to refuse Avatar.”

Renier grew up the son of osteopaths and started acting at an early age. “I didn't really have the opportunity to discover any other job or to try and give myself time to see if I wanted to do something else. But I've always felt very close to filmmaking and to cinema.”

It of course has helped that his older brother Yannick (from 2009's Welcome) is an actor. Now the pair are planning a movie together. They are The Brothers Renier? "Yes," he replies enthusiastically. “I want to direct.” It comes as no surprise that those other brothers, his old friends Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, are co-producers.

He will not discuss the film, though offers a few clues, admitting he loves Asian cinema, particularly the movies of Wong Kar Wai. “I also love the movies of Jacques Audiard, and We Need to Talk About Kevin was incredible.” We shall see.

White Elephant screens at the La Mirada Film Festival on November 17, 21 and 22. Click here for more details.