Manu Payet: “As an actor, you must ask yourself what makes you, your work and your character unique”

In his home country, French all-round actor Manu Payet (39) is primarily known as a celebrated comedian. Starting his career on radio, first on his native area, the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean (born in Saint-Denis on December 22, 1975), and from 2002 in Paris in the radio show ‘Morning’ where his sense of humor made him a revelation, he started working for television (2003) and appeared on the stage with his one-man show (2007). Graham Guit’s comedy “Hello Goodbye” (2008) starring Fanny Ardant and Gérard Depardieu introduced him to the big screen, and from then on, his career has been thriving ever since. Last year, he wrote and directed the romantic comedy “Situation amoureuze: c’est compliqué” (2014).

He now plays the leading role in Emma Luchini’s “Un début prometteur” (a.k.a. “My Men”). His character is a tragic figure, it seems at first, who, after a long absence, returns to what appears home to find his younger brother (Zacharie Chasseriaux) and their father (Fabrice Luchini, in real life he is film director Emma Luchini’s father), until both brothers meet a mysterious woman (played by Veerle Baetens). An obvious change of pace for a comedian since this powerful drama, now out in theaters, limits the use of his skills as a comedian. But because of his versatility, he manages to combine his wide range of talent perfectly and—at times—makes the most out of it by turning a drama into a comedy/drama.

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Zacharie Chasseriaud, Manu Payet and Veerle Baetens in Emma Luchini’s “Un début prometteur”

Perfectly multilingual, Mr. Payet also speaks as if it were his second native language. So off we went, in the Belgian city of Namur, where he showed up to promote “Un début prometteur” at the 30th edition of the Film Festival du Film Francophone de Namur.

Mr. Payet, it is a big surprise to see you in a dramatic role; it is pretty unexpected. What convinced you to accept the part?

The challenge was to be somebody else than who I usually am: [director] Emma [Luchini] asked me to play the character of Martin, a man who’s not really like me. He’s broken on the inside, his heart has been broken many times, he has suffered from love, and he doesn’t believe in anything anymore. I have been this guy one or two times. It’s just that I’ve never shown it before. I realized the real challenge was actually trying not to disappoint her because she had chosen me to play the role.

Were you surprised that you were cast to play Martin?

It was an amazing surprise in the beginning. When I first read the script, I thought, ‘She sent it to the wrong guy; I’m sure she wants somebody else.’ But I loved the script so much, so when we met, I asked her, ‘Are you sure you want me to play Martin?’ And she said, ‘Yes because he’s not that sad. He used to be joyful, but he’s like a sad clown, and that’s what I see in your eyes when I look at you, even when you’re funny.’

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Manu Payet and Fabrice Luchini as son and father in “Le début prometteur”

In the opening scene of the film, when you leave the supermarket after having bought several bottles of liquor, you see an unhappy man. But in that particular scene, you play him with a light touch of humor. How do you do that?

I try to work with my own memory, and feel what it was like when I was sad before, the memory of what I know of this guy after reading the book and the script, after talking with Emma for so long about Martin. I try to put it all together in one moment—one take—everything I know about him and that’s inside of me. It has something to do with honesty. Since I also directed a movie in the meantime, I know that when all of your body cells say your lines, live the moment with you at the moment you’re living it and playing it, then you’re honest. In my opinion, honesty is the first step of being a good actor. I think the work must be done in terms of acting. I also have to know how to leave this character behind and not to take him home with me by the end of the day. So there has to be a clear dividing line between the moment when we are at work, the moment we finish shooting, and go home. But on the other hand, there is a general state during the whole stage of shooting that this character is with you, so somehow, in a way, he does go home with you, especially with the physical change [some extra pounds to gain, a long beard, longer hair]. When I learned all about comedy in one of my earliest films, I used to work with a lady who once asked me, ‘What did your director say to you today?’ I said, ‘Well, he was happy, he said that I was fine and juste [in the French sense of the word].’ And she said, ‘That’s what he said? That you were fine and juste?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ Her answer was, ‘Well, tomorrow you go back on the set and apologize to him.’ ‘Apologize? Why? He said I was fine.’ ‘Well, your job starts with what you do after being fine, so you have to go much further than that: what do you bring to your character?’ As an actor, more than anybody else, you must ask yourself what makes you, your work, and your character unique. It’s not just being fine and knowing your lines. That was the best advice I ever got.

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Veerle Baetens, Manu Payet and Zacharie Chasseriaud in “Un début prometteur”

When you appear on the set, do you need a lot of space for yourself to improvise, to experiment, make suggestions, things like that?

When it’s a comedy, yes. Then I like to have ideas and give more of myself. But for this particular role, I really loved being directed. I loved asking Emma lots of questions about the character of Martin, and she had all the answers. I trusted her completely, so I felt free and secure—and it’s great to feel secure on the set when your character is very insecure—knowing that she was not only watching me but also was looking after me, and I just let her giving me the direction. So I would just have to bring what I thought Martin would be like at this particular moment. She would only have to say, ‘Manu, a little more like this, a little more that way, I don’t think he should have his hand in his pocket.’ That’s great; why do you think he shouldn’t do that? Okay, let’s try that. And then we’d take a look at the screen to see the take, and sometimes I’d say to her, ‘Okay, but I think I can do better than that, I just found something, I got an idea.’ So I had the opportunity to work on this character with and for a director. That’s a great way to make movies.

Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur, Namur (Belgium)
October 3, 2015

“Un début prometteur” (2015, trailer)


COMME T’Y ES BELLE! (2006) DIR – SCR Lisa Azuelos PROD Jani Thiltges CAM Nigel Willoughby MUS Alexandre Lier, Sylvain Ohrel, Nicolas Weil ED Philippe Grellat, Nathalie Hubert CAST Michèle Laroque, Aure Atika, Valérie Benguigui, Géraldine Nakache, Manu Payet (Man in synagogue)

HELLO GOODBYE (2008) DIR Graham Guit PROD Fabrio Conversi, David Silber, Francesco Pamphili, Leon Edery, Moshe Edery SCR Michael Lellouche CAM Gérard Sterin ED Marie-Blanche Colonna CAST Fanny Ardant, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Benguigui, Lior Ashkenazi, Manu Payet (Shapiro)

COCO (2009) DIR Gad Elmaleh PROD Ilan Goldman [Alain Goldman] SCR Gad Elmaleh, Caroline Thivel CAM Gilles Henry MUS Lopez CAST Gad Elmaleh, Pascale Arbillot, Jean Beguigui, Manu Payet (Steve), Ary Abittan, Daniel Cohen, Noémie Lvovsky

R.T.T. (2009) DIR Frédéric Berthe PROD Dominique Farruagia, Cyril Batteux, Jean-Baptiste Dupont SCR Matthieu Delaporte, Julien Rappeneau, Alexandre de La Patellière CAM Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci ED Damien Codaccioni CAST Kad Merad, Mélanie Doutey, Manu Payet (Serkine), Francis Renaud, Pierre Laplace, Daniel Duval, Nathalie Levy-Lang

TOUT CE QUI BRILLE, a.k.a. ALL THAT GLITTERS (2010) DIR – SCR Hervé Mimram, Géraldine Nakache PROD Lisa Azuelos, Farid Lahouassa, Aïssa Djarbi CAM Guillaume Deffontaines ED Scott Stevenson CAST Leïla Bekthi, Géraldine Nakache, Virginie Ledoyen, Linh-Dan Pham, Simon Buret, Audrey Lamy, Manu Payet (Éric)

L’AMOUR, C’EST MIEUX À DEUX (2010) DIR Dominique Farrugia, Arnaud Lemort PROD Dominique Farrugia SCR Arnaud Lemort (original idea by Arnaud Lemort, Franck Dubosc) CAM Eric Guichard ED Sylvie Gadmer CAST Clovis Cornillac, Virginie Efira, Manu Payet (Vincent), Annelise Hesme, Laurence Arné, Shirley Bousquet

LES AVENTURES DE PHILIBERT, CAPITAINE PUCEAU (2011) DIR Sylvain Fusée PROD Nicolas Altmayer SCR Jean-François Halin, Karine Angeli CAM Régis Blondeau MUS Jean-Louis Bianchina ED Reynald Bertrand CAST Jérémie Renier, Alexandre Astier, Manu Payet (Martin), Élodie Navarre, Eric Savin, Aurélie Montea

ET SOUDAIN TOUT LE MONDE ME MANQUE, a.k.a. THE DAY I SAW YOUR HEART (2011) DIR Jennifer Devoldère PROD Farid Lajouassa, Aïssa Djabri SCR Jennifer Devoldère, Romain Lévy, Cécile Sallam CAM Laurent Tangy MUS Nathan Johnson ED Stéphane Pereira CAST Mélanie Laurent, Michel Blanc, Florence Loiret Caille, Claude Perron, Manu Payet (Atom)

RADIOSTARS (2012) DIR Romain Lévy PROD Alain Attal SCR Romain Lévy, Mathieu Oullion, Philippe Mechelen CAM Laurent Tagny MUS Robin Coudert ED Stéphane Couturier CAST Manu Payet (Alex), Clovis Cornillac, Douglas Attal, Pascal Demolon, Benjamin Lavernhe

LES INFIDÈLES, a.k.a. THE PLAYERS (2012) DIR Jean Dujardin, Michel Hazanavicius, Emmanuelle Bercot, Fred Cavayé, Alexandre Courtès, Jan Kounen, Eric Lartigau, Gilles Lellouche PROD Jean Dujardin, Marc Dujardin, Guillaume Lacroix, Éric Hannezo SCR Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Stéphane Joly, Nicolas Bedos, Philippe Cavarivière CAM Guillaume Schiffman MUS Pino D’Angiò, Evgueni Galperine ED Anny Danché CAST Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Géraldine Nakache, Guillaume Canet, Manu Payet (Simon), Alexandra Lamy

NOUS YORK (2012) DIR – SCR Hervé Mimran, Géraldine Nakache PROD Farid Lajouassa, Aïssa Djabri CAM Stéphane Le Parc MUS ED Benjamin Weill CAST Leïla Bekthi, Géraldine Nakache, Manu Payet (Michael), Nader Boussandel, Baptiste Lecaplain, Marthe Villalonga, Sienna Miller

BOULE & BILL (2013) DIR Alexandre Charlot, Franck Magnier PROD Sylvain Goldberg, Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Serge de Poucques, Jean-Baptiste Dupont SCR Alexandre Charlot, Franck Magnier (comics by Roba) CAM Axel Cosnefroy MUS Alexandra Azaria ED Samuel Danési, Cyril Nakache CAST Frank Dubosc, Marina Foïs, Charles Combrez, Nicolas Vaude, Lionel Abelanski, Manu Payet (Bill, voice only)

JULIETTE (2013) DIR Pierre Godeau PROD Philippe Godeau, Nathalie Gastaldo SCR Pierre Godeau, Saskia De Rothschild CAM Muriel Cravatte MUS ED Pierre Godeau, David Dan, Thierry Derocles CAST Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Féodor Atkine, Yannik Landrein, Élodie Bouchez, Sébastien Houbani, Manu Payet (Oscar)

SITUATION AMOUREUSE: C’EST COMPLIQUÉ (2014) DIR Manu Payet, Rodolphe Lauga PROD Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Jean-Baptiste Dupont SCR Manu Payet, Nicolas Peufaillit, Romain Lévy CAM Martial Schmeltz MUS We Are the Knights ED Frédérique Olszak CAST Manu Payet (Ben), Anaïs Demoustier, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Philippe Duquesne, Jean-François Cayrey, Romain Lévy

LES GORILLES (2015) DIR Tristan Aurouet PROD Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Jean-Baptiste Dupont SCR Tristan Aurouet, Romain Lévy, Matt Alexander, Mathieu Oullion CAM Denis Rouden ED Cyril Besnard CAST Joe Starr, Manu Payet (Damien Walter), Alice Belaïdi, Gilles Lellouche, Jean Benguigui, Adel Bencherif

UN PEU, BEAUCOUP, AVEUGLÉMENT! (2015) DIR Clovis Cornillac PROD Pierre Forette, Grégoire Lassalle, Thierry Wong SCR Clovis Cornillac, Lilou Fogli, Tristan Schulman CAM Thierry Pouget MUS Guillaume Roussel ED Jean-François Elie CAST Clovis Cornillac, Mélanie Bernier, Lilou Fogli, Philippe Duquesne, Grégoire Oestermann, Manu Payet (Picard)

UN DÉBUT PROMETTEUR, a.k.a. MY MEN (2015) DIR Emma Luchini PROD Albane de Jourdan, Maxime Delauney, Romain Rousseau SCR Emma Luchini, Nicolas Rey, Vanessa David (novel by Nicolas Rey) CAM Jérôme Alméras ED Benjamin Favreul CAST Manu Payet (Martin), Veerle Baetens, Zacharie Chasseriaud, Fabrice Luchini, Jean-Michel Balthazar, Romane Barron

UN COUP À PRENDRE (2015) DIR – SCR Cyril Gelblat PROD Philippe Rousselet, Laetitia Galitzine CAM Pierre-Hughes Galien CAST Manu Payet (Antoine), Audrey Lamy, Aure Atika, Pascal Demolon, Bruno Clairefond, Vanessa Guide, Pascal Demolon