“We had to stop for 24 hours because I fainted due to hypothermia”: Actor Jérémie Renier on Drift Away (Albatros)
Perhaps best known for his frequent collaborations with the Dardenne brothers and François Ozon, Jérémie Renier takes the lead in director Xavier Beauvois’s Drift Away (Albatros), premiering in competition at the 2021 Berlinale. The Belgian actor plays Laurent, the chief of police for a small, strikingly scenic coastal town. A series of professional complications culminate in a workplace accident which causes Laurent to unravel in a reflective, internalised way. We caught up with Renier to discuss how he prepared for the role, along with the impact that the pandemic has had on his work and cinema in general.
You’ve played a lot of different roles throughout your career – do you have any specific way to approach each role? For example, how did you prepare yourself to play a small-town cop?
Jérémie Renier: I was lucky enough to spend a whole month in a gendarmerie [a police station]. It is actually the one that we see in the film – in the company of the real gendarmes, who are the actors in the film – so I had the opportunity to dive into this environment, and to surround myself with them and their daily practices, which was then very helpful for me when we were shooting the film. I had this incredible opportunity to experience daily life, the daily work, and for me to observe how they move, how they talk and what they do in their daily practices. It was extremely useful because Xavier Beauvois wanted the film to be rooted in the reality of the life of the gendarmes, and of course, in the life of one specific gendarme, which is Laurent – the character I play in the film.
Is there a greater satisfaction as an actor to play such an emotionally complicated role?
JR: Yes indeed, there was an instant wish and desire as soon as I read the screenplay, beyond being familiar and admiring the work of Xavier Beauvois in his previous films. As soon as I read the script, I was immediately overwhelmed with this character and the events that took place that radically changed his life through his arc, and I felt the wish to portray him.
There are a great deal of silent moments in the film while Laurent internalises his trauma. Is that difficult as an actor, or can these silent moments be used as a tool for your performance?
JR: Of course, it depends on the character and the film, and I’ve also happened to play very talkative characters in some of the films I’ve made. But it’s true in the case of a film and a character that is inhabited by silence – those are the films and the roles that touch me because it means that a character goes deep down to a depth that you can’t access, that words cannot describe, and therefore as a viewer, you find yourself in a very emotional state in your attempt to see and understand what is upsetting the character so much.
Tell us about working with Xavier Beauvois. Was everything by the script, or did he give you room to improvise?
JR: It was very pleasant for me to work with Xavier Beauvois. First of all, he’s an actor himself and he knows what it’s like. He’s very respectful, very careful and attentive with actors. My encounter with him was not only a professional one and it soon turned into a friendship, and a relationship of mutual trust was born from our encounter. He’s not very keen on respecting the screenplay – quite the opposite. He loves improvising and he loves the freedom of allowing the actors to improvise, and this is the reason why he doesn’t like to rehearse a lot – just a very little. This can be tricky from a technical point of view. He needs to have this urgency that is the right ingredient to give this realism that he wants to portray in his films – this one in particular. Also considering that we were working with non-professional actors, so it was even more important not to rehearse.
You’ve frequently worked with both François Ozon and the Dardenne brothers. Is it a matter of connecting with a director whose style you appreciate, and is there a style of working that you prefer?
JR: I love to do different things. I would be bored working all the time with the Dardenne brothers – although I love them – and the same goes for the other directors I’ve worked with. I love versatility in my profession and I need to be free to be versatile.
Did you find the internal nature of your character’s struggle difficult to convey? There’s a lot of information that must be provided without actually being said.
JR: That’s the magic of cinema. Sometimes you, as a viewer, have the feeling that you share the same emotion as a character, while myself, playing the character in that moment, I was thinking what I was going to eat for dinner. Of course, to fill in, to nourish, to feed the character, we talked about many things, but then a lot of the things we have not shared or said to each other went into the character as well that are, for instance, what I felt for Laurent, my character, on a personal level. It’s what I put about myself in that character in terms of experiences, and also in terms of my own sensitivities, and how I was going to fill in those silences. It’s sort of the magic of the relationship that an actor builds with their character. We were also helped by the fact that we shot with full continuity, in chronological order, and that helped with building the character as well.
Has your work been affected by the pandemic, and what are your hopes for cinema when things return to some sense of normality?
JR: I was lucky enough not to suffer in my work. Of course, I had to stop, as did everyone else, but I managed to continue. At present, I’m focussing on a film that I plan to direct this year, so every time I stop, I have the opportunity to focus on that. But in France, the system – the economic system – is designed in such a way that we were allowed to continue. The shoots continued, and the problem is that now there are so many films that are ready and waiting to be released. I myself have five films as an actor that are waiting to be released, and this sort of over availability of films that are ready – this sort of bottleneck that we risk – will probably have an impact on the system that was present until recently, and which will probably need to change, which is interesting. We have to find solutions to these different situations that present themselves. We have a system designed with specific tools for a specific reality that has now changed. We want to do what is best depending on the situation and we have learned in this past year that everything can change, and we can only live by basing ourselves on daily life. We can’t foresee what will happen in future.
You talked about shooting the film in chronological order, which means that you spent a great deal of time alone on a yacht during the shoot. How much realism was used when putting these scenes together?
JR: Everything was very real. Xavier Beauvois is very keen on being realistic and having that on all levels in terms of props on the set. So I had to spend one month with a coach, learning how to sail, which is something I didn’t know how to do. Everything that you see on the boat is me in the Northern Sea and the Atlantic – even the scene with the storm is real. We had to stop for 24 hours because I fainted due to hypothermia – just to give you an idea of the level of realism. But I learned to sail and I fell in love with sailing. It’s been a thrilling part of the shoot. It was very physically demanding, in a very particular way, and I loved doing it.
Drift Away (Albatros) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read our review of Drift Away (Albatros) here.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for Drift Away (Albatros) here: