Yof Michael Caine is the quintessential London actor, Romain Duris could become his Paris equivalent. Born and raised in the city, he rose to international fame in 2005 playing the real-estate hustler with ambitions to be a pianist in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Quick to the punch but nifty in his fingerwork from him, dropping rats in a sack on unwanted tenants while wearing Cuban heels, he was Parisian squalor and glamor in one snake-hipped paradox. Then he cashed in his tousle-haired bourgeois-bohème cachet in Christopher Honoré’s Dans Paris and Cédric Klapisch’s Paris. And now the pinnacle: he is starring in a new biopic about engineer Gustave Eiffel.
Duris couldn’t resist the man’s ubiquity. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m Parisian, but Eiffel is really a figure in France who matters,” he says. “He is everywhere – there are lots of Gustave Eiffel bridges, lots of buildings at the bottom of courtyards signed by him.” And, of course, that tower. The film shows the fraught atmosphere around the competition to design a showpiece exhibit for the 1889 Exposition Universelle; how Eiffel’s peers and the press deemed what was the world’s tallest structure at the time a dangerous act of hubris – and how he fought to make it happen.
He was, in Duris’s eyes, the Steve Jobs of his day: “He made it look easy, like a children’s game. A bit like Jobs, who had the intelligence to think of his computers as almost like toys that anyone could use. Eiffel fabricated the tower in sections in gigantic warehouses in Paris, and really assembled it as if it were a game for children with numbered pieces.” A quick, agile talker who pinpoints the eager aesthetic qualities of his projects, Duris is speaking on the phone from the set of the film he is working on in south-west France.
Duris makes it look easy too, playing Eiffel as a kind of dashing control freak, fretting over wind speeds and hydraulic pressures. And what kind of Paris picture would this be without some romance? Director Martin Bourboulon – who picked up the project after it had passed through many hands down the years, including Ridley Scott’s – gives Eiffel an unrequited love affair with a Bordeaux landowner’s daughter, Adrienne (drawn from cursory suggestions in his biography of him).
In truth, this forbidden-love plot – based on the Titanic blueprint – feels a bit schematic, even inadvertently comic: as Eiffel tries to win her back, the tower comes to seem less hubristic than horny – the biggest over-compensatory erection until the Trump Tower. But Duris feels the flashbacks energized the script, as did the casting of the Anglo-French Sex Education actor Emma Mackey as his lover de ella: “It’s like when you’re cooking a mayonnaise, and it takes.”
The film also came to serve as a tribute to Duris’s architect father Philippe, who died at the end of 2019, just before a Covid-enforced break in shooting. His dad’s job was another reason why he signed up: “It’s a profession that speaks to me.” Its specific mixture of flair and exactitude was one he was familiar with. “One thing my dad and Eiffel had in common was that they made their blueprints freehand, without rulers or computers. So I always used to see these huge blueprints in the house, traced by hand, and that always impressed me.”
Duris clearly inherited some of this talent, and originally trained as an illustrator. But his drawings of him were anarchic, sexual – deliberately so: “It was my way of doing things in relation to my father.” Life coaxed him further down the freeform artistic path as a teenager, when a casting director spotted him outside a school in Paris’s third arrondissement as he was waiting to pick up his girlfriend from him. “This had happened a few times before. I had a bit of an edgy look: my hair sticking up, trousers covered in paint. So people used to stop and ask me about doing adverts, films, photos. But I always said no.”
This time, a friend persuaded him to read the script that came with the offer for Cédric Klapisch’s rowdy 70s Paris youth memoir Le Péril Jeune. Luckily Duris liked it, and it was the start of a partnership that has seen them make seven films together. What does he think the casting director saw in him at that moment? “It’s hard to have that kind of distance,” he says. “But I think it was a nice mixture of fragility and modesty, but at the same time being a bit of a loudmouth.” I have scoffs. “You know, that kind of big I-am at school, the kind where you say: ‘Oh-la-la, either he’s going to end up badly or he’s going to become something.’”
Now he is one of the most sought after French actors, so not bad. The 48-year-old is currently shooting Le Règne Animal, a dystopic sci-fi picture about humans who turn into animals being interned in concentration camps. Production has been halted until the autumn because some of the sets burned down during the recent wildfires: “It’s a catastrophe, but that’s the world we live in,” says Duris.
The film sounds like another idiosyncratic turn in a recent unclassifiable filmography that has oscillated between more mainstream punts such as Eiffel and the 2018 post-apocalyptic thriller Hold Your Breath, gruff social realism such as 2019’s Our Struggles and a few dollops of period drama. It seems he is no longer penned into the charmers and chancers of his early career but rather searching for direction in that tricky post-40 phase. Despite his magnetic turn in The Beat That My Heart Skipped and a couple of films – Heartbreaker and Populaire – at the turn of the last decade that tried to position him in the Euro-swoon category, and a small English-speaking role in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, an international career has not happened for him.
But Duris is relaxed about it, saying he doesn’t think of his career as something that needs a direction: “I like to manage my present, my life. But managing a career or journey, that’s a pain in the ass.” He responds to projects on a one-by-one basis: “It’s a very sincere, instinctive feeling. There’s no calculation there. I’ve never done things calculatingly, never.”
What has been a constant is the vivacious tempo of his performances, which you could see as operating on Parisian rhythms. When his on-screen energy is contained and channeled, he is precise and decorous; but he often threatens to overspill into something nervous and ragged. He’s a delight in the 2018 crime black-comedy Fleuve Noir, as a prissy French teacher with grand literary ambitions, trying to outfox Vincent Cassel’s detective but always flirting with disaster.
Even as Duris gets older, gravitas isn’t his natural mode, he admits. “I have problems when I’m asked to play authority figures. It’s not something I’m at ease with. That kind of cold, calm authority that certain people can project very well – I have to work at that.” Even as the real-life father of two sons, his on-screen dads have n’t got any more commanding: “Fathers have changed these days. So I can play the modern ones better. My ones are either a bit quirky, or just as crazy as the kids.”
He’s never lost his natural anti-authoritarianism, he says. This kicks in when I ask him whether he admires Jobs, or the other visionaries of our age: “Anyone with too much power makes me suspicious. Anyone like that today at the head of a business or an empire can’t be spotless – so I don’t take much inspiration from that.” Remaining on the side of the poets, he was well cast as Vernon Subutex, the wastrel record-shop owner and alt.culture diehard on a Parisian odyssey in the recent TV adaptation of Virginie Despentes’ bestselling novels.
Maybe this allergy to authority figures is why Duris remains reluctant to step up to directing – even if he’s happy to play a director, as in Michel Hazanavicius’s recent meta-zomcom Final Cut. He just hasn’t found the “life and death” subject matter that would justify him devoting all his time to it. “It has to be essential and visceral,” he explains. “And I already communicate that way through illustration. When I finish a film, I love drawing on my own, and I get to communicate certain things. That’s more natural for me.”
So for now Duris is still doodling, keeping it loose on screen. Next up are a pair of Three Musketeers films with Bourboulon, in which the actor gets to lark it up with Cassel and Pio Marmaï. Duris is Aramis, the conflicted seducer and would-be man of the cloth: “Either he’s doing one thing and regretting it, or doing the other and regretting that.” It sounds like a fun paradox to navigate freehand. No doubt it will be done with gusto, no different from his D’Artagnan days, when he was the ingenue on the Paris boulevards: “I always played the clown, I always made people laugh. I knew that the camera wasn’t going to be a problem.”