Lambert Wilson, who plays Jacques-Yves Cousteau in the upcoming The Odyssey, talks about making this dramatic film about the controversial godfather of scuba-diving
Before you were approached about playing Jacques-Yves Cousteau, what did you know about the man and his life?
His story took me back to childhood. Cousteau was very present, as were his crew-members. There were very few TV channels in France at the time, so whoever appeared on television became an obvious conversation topic for everyone.
Because of the heroic music of the documentaries and the incredible images they showed, Captain Cousteau’s adventures were a dream for kids my age.
And even though there were sharks, for example, it never seemed really dangerous, just fun, exciting, almost like going on holiday!
It really is a generational thing. Recently in Italy I met some fishermen who told me they used to play at being Cousteau or Falco just like I did, when they were kids in Portofino near Genoa.
When I told them I was making The Odyssey, it was something very important to them.
Did this contribute to your decision to accept the part?
I remember the moment my agent called me to talk about the film. I was in London standing outside a theatre, and I didn’t hesitate for a second!
The angle of the film was not what I was expecting. I had heard it was going to be some kind of Cousteau biopic, from his youth to his death.
Jérôme Salle (the director) had already worked on the story a lot and had realised that finding an actor physically capable of playing the character over a period of 60 years would be complicated and more expensive. I also think that it would have been a little tedious.
The idea of concentrating the story on the relationship between Cousteau and his two sons, Philippe and Jean-Michel, was the right choice.
Obviously it meant skipping certain fundamental subjects, such as his invention of the aqua lung in the 1940s, enabling divers to breathe under water, or the making of his first films, which led to the triumph of The Silent World at Cannes in 1956, or the final part of his life after Philippe’s death, which was very important in ecological terms.
Although I was frustrated to begin with, telling myself selfishly that it was taking away acting possibilities, I didn’t think this when I saw the film.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s very essence can be found in The Odyssey, with all his faults, his qualities, his contradictions and his relationship with his family.
How did you prepare for the role?
I shared a few physical traits with Cousteau, tall and gangly, same-shaped nose. For this kind of exercise, directors and actors have to understand very quickly that what we’re giving the public is a sensation, a glimmer of a character, not an imitation.
I may look quite like Cousteau, but I hope some sort of truth and sincerity will come across and, in particular, I hope that those who knew him will be convinced.
With Cousteau, the sheer volume of existing material is almost overwhelming! Firstly there are all his documentaries, in which he appears. Then there are many books, particularly Franck Machu’s huge volume A Filmmaker Called Cousteau, which has the advantage of being a biography seen through his films.
The story begins with his first black-and-white films, then approaches The Silent World as well as all the episodes of the TV programmes. Everything Cousteau filmed is listed and mixed with elements about his life. It’s enthralling.
I also read his own book Cousteau, My Testament: Man, Octopus and Orchid, a sort of great ecological manifesto. And there is a very good English book called The Sea King by Brad Matsen, which is extremely objective.
For a whole year before the filming, I literally gobbled up anything about Cousteau to feed my inspiration.
The work on the costumes and make-up was achieved by watching the images over and over again. Jérôme Salle got me to listen to recordings of Cousteau’s voice, but I gave up on the idea of trying to imitate it, and concentrated more on the rhythm of his speech.
Capturing and reproducing the vocal range would have meant too much time and work, with the risk of missing some of the more important aspects of Cousteau: a mixture of charisma, fierce egocentricity but also an incredible ability to convey energy and the idea of freedom to others.
He was a weak character in terms of his dislike of conflict and the way he fled family or professional tensions, but one who could convince you to follow him to the end of the world or to take out your chequebook to finance his projects!
He was also a man who built his dream with Simone, his first wife.
Yes, with and without her at the same time – one of the paradoxes that make him interesting. This selfish choice of freedom was made by them both.
Whatever anyone says or whatever we know about them, Simone and Jacques-Yves were a couple and they chose this incredible life travelling the world. It reveals a lot about them.
To begin with, they impose this way of life on their children, who follow them as best they can, learning to read only at the age of eight, living like little savages.
When the parents wanted to travel further afield, the boys were sent to boarding school. Simone chose this eccentric life and, afterwards, remained alone on board the Calypso with the crew.
I had never really made a proper sea crossing – I had mainly sailed near the coast. For the film, we went to the Antarctic, and through the Drake Passage, one of the most dangerous seas in the world. I understood right there and then – the excitement of being out at sea, without the slightest bit of land in sight, the total freedom – I felt it in my flesh.
Cousteau’s divers, for example François Sarano, told us that at the end of one expedition they stopped at a port in the middle of a storm off the coast of New Zealand. They gave themselves just enough time to refuel and restock the food supplies, and then the Calypso was off again into the midst of the storm. Neither Jacques-Yves nor Simone wanted to remain in port.
I think that deep down, they were both fleeing the rest of mankind, even though he spent part of his life going to the USA to find money to finance this flight.
How did you manage to achieve a physique like Cousteau’s?
It was somewhat of a failure for me.
I think that an American actor (Matthew McConaughey, for example) would probably have pushed the boat out further. The difficult thing with Cousteau was that I had to be very thin, but at the same time, I had to do very physical things like diving. The problem is that, below a certain weight, you’re weak.
I had to swim under water carrying these very heavy cylinders, with 14-hour days of filming, so I needed to have enough energy. I lost 10kg quite quickly, without putting on any more during the filming. In fact Jérôme carried out a permanent surveillance of my meals because he thought I was too bulky!
I do regular weight-training and my body was supposed to be like a diver’s, more lean than muscular.
Ever since I was a child, as soon as I get in a pool, a lake or the sea, I spend my time under water. I had even gone as deep as 3 or 4m by exhaling. But no one ever told me that all I had to do was put on some air cylinders in order to breathe and be the happiest of men!
For The Odyssey I had to learn professionally, of course. We had to have recreational-diver but also commercial-diver certification because we were diving for work. That meant an extremely thorough medical and a four-day diving exam, which is what oil-rig divers have to take. I’m very proud of that qualification.
The only problem came during our first lesson (with Pierre Niney, who plays Philippe, the director and his assistant). We were in Marseille industrial port, in extremely dirty water. We couldn’t see our instructor, who was just a metre away, and we were standing in mud, silt and oil.
We had to do exercises where we had to take off our masks under water, and I immediately got an eye infection. Awful!
Fortunately, for the next few days we went to dive the islands nearby and were able to enjoy ourselves a little at the same time. I’d like to acknowledge the fantastic guys who trained us, in particular Philippe Le Meuner, all of them so incredibly calm, efficient and kind.
Diving was a revelation to me. I went mountain-climbing for Five Days One Summer, had to train as a fighter for other films, and I’ve been horse-riding regularly since I was a child. But with diving, I met some completely different people.
They are all peaceful, calm nature-lovers, reassuring in their promptness to help their diving buddy.
These professionals weren’t with us all through the filming, but their presence at the beginning, in Croatia, with the sun, the warm water and the magnificent scenery, helped the whole crew – actors and technicians – to form a close bond.
Croatia was used to depict the French Riviera in the 1940s and ’50s, a kind of lost paradise before the arrival of concrete – it’s a part of the Mediterranean that has been preserved, and is slightly old-fashioned. It all had a strange yet charming sense of travelling back in time.
Then we went to South Africa, but that’s completely different: Cape Town is like an enormous studio where we could recreate scenes in Paris, New York or Marseille.
How would you define the film?
The Odyssey is definitely not a hagiography of Captain Cousteau. It shows that the oil-industry financed his early work, and that he agreed on compromises with the US TV channels so that they would finance his films, that his relationship with wildlife fluctuated and that his real ecological conscience was awakened much later on. This may surprise the audience, which has a very different image of Cousteau.
There are two possible ways of looking at the man. The first is admiring but basic – a well-loved personality but one we don’t really know.
The second way surprises and annoys me. Among a certain section of supposedly more aware intellectual types, there is a kind of desire to destroy the icon.
For example, some people insist on associating Cousteau with the open anti-Semitism of his brother, Pierre-Antoine, who wrote some appalling things. These people are completely misinformed.
In terms of ecology, he acknowledged his mistakes by going very far in the opposite direction, and succeeded in getting a moratorium to protect the Antarctic for the next 50 years.
He was one of the first people to set off the alarm bells that all well-informed people hear ringing today.
When he made The Silent World, he had no idea of the extent to which the ocean was in danger, but at the beginning of the ’60s, Cousteau was the one who got scientists at the Monaco Oceanographic Institute to agree not to bury nuclear waste at the bottom of the ocean.
He is a true hero of mankind whose message has gone practically unheard. All the things international organisations are saying about industrialisation, over-fishing, global warming – Cousteau was the first to speak out about these things.
So putting him on trial over his lack of environmental awareness is stupid and unfounded, and talking about him through this film is a way for me to put his message back into the heart of the debate.
But this does not prevent the film from showing Cousteau from every angle.
He was only human, then?
Yes, absolutely. He certainly had his faults. In his private life he was a womaniser, who had relationships with many women during his travels.
The part I find less easy to excuse is his relationship with his children – I found similarities with the way my father was with me. They were both men capable of sharing all the excitement and value of their work with you, yet at the same time they abandoned you by hardly ever being with you and, in particular, they hated the fact that you encroached upon their territory by becoming rivals.
Cousteau had a kind of passionate paternal love for Philippe, but he expressed it by showing great harshness. He loves him, but also wants to punish him for his talent.
Some scenes were quite upsetting for me. I’m thinking of the one where father and son meet in a restaurant in Los Angeles. In Philippe’s voice I heard the sort of recriminations I could have made to my own father. Yet I was the one who was embodying the very things I hated!
On Cousteau’s financial opportunism, I must admit that I understand that. He needed a lot of money to live this dream that has benefited so many people.
He understood very quickly that he was the most important and visible cog in the machinery of the media. This saga needed a hero and he put himself at the centre – probably through narcissism, it’s true, but also knowing that people needed a point of reference for it all to be viable.
When he went to America to negotiate millions with the TV companies, it was because the oil industry had cut off his finances. I think this is a great story, because that was when a new adventure began that put him back at the centre of his true occupation.
Cousteau was more than just an underwater explorer, he was a film-maker, and from then on he concentrated on the photography, constructed his own cameras, invented things. Louis Malle himself said that he had learnt a huge amount working with Cousteau.
Talking of film-makers, how would you describe Jérôme Salle?
Jérôme is a real chameleon, thanks to his intelligence. He is an intellectual, with whom you can talk philosophy for hours or discuss theories about a character, but he is also a man of action, a decision-maker, a group-leader.
The Jérôme I met at the beginning over a cup of tea to discuss the project was the essence of subtlety. When we went off to train as divers, I discovered that he was always willing to take up a challenge.
During filming, Jérôme was always the first to put on his wetsuit, even when it wasn’t absolutely necessary for him to dive. He is also a film-maker, and there are not many people who are able, on the one hand, to film very psychologically intimate scenes between two characters, and on the other, to launch themselves into large-scale stuff with planes, or men under water surrounded by sharks.
He always remains completely unperturbed – in fact he loves it.
And Pierre Niney, who plays son Philippe?
Like myself, Pierre was playing a character he wanted to develop at length and defend. I admire him as an actor enormously – he has incredible finesse and intelligence. He is a quick, funny, sensitive adventurer.
It was very touching to find myself in an almost paternal relationship with an actor who is very similar to how I was at the same age of 25.
Pierre is very demanding with himself, and in this case, he wanted to create a real person, to make Philippe a hero. He worked on his physique too, and was an intrepid diver. I was almost jealous of him. It was a film about Cousteau, after all, and he was the one who got to swim with sea-lions and sharks!
Simone Cousteau, played by Audrey Tautou, may be a new character to audiences.
When we saw the film and the lights came up in the auditorium, I turned to Audrey straight away and just said: “Hats off to you.” She is extraordinary in the role – she manages to create Simone’s character in a very subtle, unique way.
Audrey knew how to take inspiration from the real Simone, even though very few books or documents about her exist. She was an admiral’s daughter, so a seafaring girl, a middle-class girl who chose to leave society.
Simone also experienced pain in her marriage, and to piss Cousteau off she decided to remain on board the Calypso, leading the boat, as the head of the crew.
All those men really respected her – for those still alive, she’s untouchable.
Audrey knew how to portray Simone’s psychological evolution: she goes through the film becoming increasingly bitter, but remaining tender, gracious. I loved her performance!
And she is one of those actresses who is capable of going from great beauty to something self-destructive. Simone Cousteau was a highly intelligent woman, who was always very attentive to what was happening around her, but also capable of toughness. I think that Audrey has something very close to that.
You’ve worked for 40 years with some great directors – what did The Odyssey mean to you?
The Odyssey was not just any old film – we all approached the story, this family, this adventure, at close range.
Of course we were playing characters, but characters we knew, or after meeting the people who had known them. For me there was a culminating factor in all this.
At the end of the film, I weep over the death of my son, Philippe, with my other son Jean-Michel, sitting on a bench overlooking the ocean. Frankly, at that moment, I really was crying for Philippe.
I didn’t need to think of my loved ones, which is a technique actors use in order to cry on screen. This story had become my own. My sorrow was Cousteau’s sorrow for his son. That had never happened to me before.
It’s very rare to get the chance to play a character over such a long period of his life, between the ages of 37 and 70. All the make-up artistry by Rick Findlater to achieve this was exceptional.
For me, The Odyssey was a great accomplishment. It’s the type of film I dreamt of making when I first discovered cinema: large-scale, epic.
And I’m convinced that the most precious things in life, more than personal accomplishments, are travel and encounters. I was particularly spoilt in that respect.
Lambert Wilson, 58, as Jacques Cousteau. The actor was born in Paris and is half-French, half-Irish. His first feature film was Five Days One Summer in 1981 and he has made many films with French directors as well as English-language movies including Matrix Reloaded, Matrix Revolutions and Catwoman.
The Odyssey goes on release in UK cinemas on 28 July 2017
Appeared in DIVER June 2017