At 21, Pierre Niney became the youngest actor ever to be accepted into the French state theatre company, La Comédie-Française. Six years later he’s now France’s fastest rising star, with François Ozon calling him “the best actor of his generation” as well as “a tireless worker” after he learnt to play the violin and studied German for their new film Frantz.
Still, when I came to interview Niney at the Venice Film Festival, I was not expecting the 27 year-old to be quite so outgoing or to speak near-fluent English. The mention of Australia came out of the blue as we discussed the French and German post-World War One guilt embodied by the film’s characters.
I suggested that as Australians we don’t know of such guilt.
“Are you kidding? The Aborigines?” he retorted.
“Oh I mean in terms of the war...”
“Yes, you're a new young country. I have to say I love Australia. My girlfriend is Australian. I could live there but it’s too far from my family.”
Actress and photographer Natasha Andrews, who hails from “the bush” near Brisbane, as the French love to refer to it, is also family to the actor. When Niney gave his speech after winning the 2015 best actor César for his portrayal of Yves Saint Laurent, he thanked his family and in English thanked “my love Natasha”, an actress (Magic in the Moonlight) and avid photographer who amongst other things, has compiled an extensive portfolio on Palestine.
Since the pair met in 2007 at acting school in Paris, they have been devoted to each other, standing side by side on red carpets and supporting each other’s careers. They share similarly informed views on ecology and immigration, topics Niney refers to when discussing his two recent vastly different roles for which he is on billposters all over France.
In Ozon’s mostly black and white drama, he is pale and effete, mysterious and possibly gay (the openly gay Ozon loves playing with sexual identity) as a sensitive former French soldier visiting the grave of a German soldier. While in Jérôme Salle’s sun-drenched The Odyssey, he is bronzed and athletic as Philippe, the younger seafaring son of celebrity oceanographer Jacques Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) and Simone Melchior (a chain-smoking, gung-ho Audrey Tautou).
Watch 'The Odyssey' trailer:
For the latter film, a father-son story partly based on Cousteau’s elder son Jean-Michel’s book, "My Father, the Captain: My Life With Jacques Cousteau", Niney is quick to point out that everything was for real.
In the Bahamas he swam with sharks, “20 to 30 of them, I felt so in harmony with them, it was magnificent”, and he filmed in Antarctica. “When Jérôme said we’d go there I told him, ‘I’m in!’ It’s rare you get to travel so much for a French film [which was also filmed in South Africa and Croatia]. It’s about the Cousteau family discovering the oceans and was quite a big adventure. It was a time when ecology was not a preoccupation.”
The impressively shot film is framed around the short life of Philippe who would influence his father to become a conservationist. Interestingly Philippe Cousteau Jr., who was born after his father’s tragic death in a light plane accident, has followed in the family tradition and has spent considerable time in Australia. He was working with Steve Irwin on "Ocean’s Deadliest" when the crocodile hunter was stabbed by a stingray and died in Philippe’s arms.
"In the long term we shouldn't be afraid, because fear creates hate and it leads to bad decisions."
In Frantz, a loose adaptation of the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch World War One drama Broken Lullaby, Niney discovered “a strong modern story which talks about borders, about the fear we have of each other and of accepting each other”. Though he adds that Ozon presents it in a very poetic manner.
“All the characters are motivated by love and the idea to do good and it offers hope to traverse those borders.”
Niney says he still enjoys living in Paris despite the recent terrorism. “It happened seven minutes from my home but life goes on. It’s normal to be scared when there is a bomb near your place or in your country, but in the long term we shouldn't be afraid, because fear creates hate and it leads to bad decisions.
'The Odyssey' is currently screening at the Alliance Française French Film Festival.
Watch 'Frantz' trailer: