Johan Heldenbergh: “When you’re in character, even your fingers define the person you are playing”

Johan Heldenbergh (b. 1967) is a Flemish character actor who rose to fame when he played the leading role in Felix van Groeningen’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown” (2012, Mr. Heldenbergh also co-wrote the play). The film got rave reviews and was well received on the international film festival circuit; it got nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign-Language Film, and picked up a César in that same category.

Since then, the Belgian-born actor frequently appeared in continental and American co-productions. He played opposite Jessica Chastain in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (2017) and is now Hilary Swank’s husband in Bille August’s “55 Steps”—a.k.a. “Eleanor and Colette,” a true-life 1980s California courtroom drama about the rights of psychiatric patients to decide whether or not to be medicated.

Helena Bonham Carter plays Eleanor Riese, a woman with mental disabilities locked up in a San Francisco facility, and Hilary Swank is her workaholic lawyer Colette Hughes.

Mr. Heldenbergh was a guest of honor at the latest Ostend Film Festival to promote this heartfelt drama, and that’s where our paths crossed.

Mr. Heldenbergh, you’re a stage actor who became a screen actor. Is it correct to put it thay way?

I’m foremost a stage actor; I’ve been on the stage for about twenty-five years, I had my own company and was always working, so it allowed me to turn down TV and screen roles for quite some time while in fact, many years ago, I went to drama school to become a screen actor. But back then, it was not that easy since they only made two or three films a year in Flanders. Now they make about fifteen features a year. I was already in my mid-thirties by the time I did my first feature. So only in recent years, I began appearing more in films.

With your training and experience on the stage, how do you recognize a good actor?

When I was in drama school, they taught me that you have to look at his fingers, his feet, and everything he projects on the screen. And that’s true. You can try really hard, but when you’re in character, even your fingers define the person you are playing. Your face is not the only feature to project the emotions of your character; you need your whole body. And then you have actors like Steve McQueen, when he did his first major screen appearance in “The Magnificent Seven” [1960], Yul Brynner had said, ‘Who is this young man, what is he doing the whole time? Whenever we do a scene together, he takes off his hat, or he wipes off his sweat, he’s always doing something to get noticed.’ [Laughs.]

Filmmaker Bille August and Johan Heldenbergh at the Ostend Film Festival | Leo/Film Talk

And whenever I see you on the screen, you always remind me of those highly versatile character actors like Claude Rains, Eli Wallach, George Sanders, Maureen Stapleton…

I don’t think I can aim any higher than being a supporting actor. I have never made it to the top of a call sheet. The only leading role I played so far was in “The Broken Circle Breakdown” [2012], and that’s mainly because I had also written it. So I’m pretty used to be billed third or fourth, and I feel very comfortable about that. Since you mention Claude Rains, well, he did the closing scene with Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” [1942], so that’s not too bad, is it? And actors like M. Emmet Walsh, they’re all over the place. If they would ever compare me with someone like him, I would be incredibly proud. I tend to think those supporting roles are far more interesting to play compared to leading roles. Villains or foul-mouthed gangsters are often more fun, and those roles are for character actors.

How did you get involved in “Eleanor and Colette”?

I work in French films from time to time and to work there, you need an agent in Paris. So I had one in recent years, and one day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from Paris, ‘Would you like to do it?’ So I said, ‘Who’s directing it? Who are the other actors?’ And when they told me Bille August, Hilary Swank, and Helena Bonham Carter, I didn’t think it over; I agreed right way, I didn’t even need to read the script. Since it was a German-Belgian co-production, they also needed Belgian cast and crew members, and apparently they chose me for one reason or another [laughs].

When going over the list of your leading ladies so far, like Veerle Baetens, Jessica Chastain, Hilary Swank, or Helena Bonham Carter, I don’t see any difference on the screen: they’re all incredibly talented and gifted actresses.

Yes, that’s true. That’s one of the things I noticed when working abroad: we’re all alike. The American cinema culture is much bigger than ours of course, but when you pick out one character to play or one single performance, we don’t have to be embarrassed at all. On top of that, I know a lot of stage actors that the audience hardly ever heard of, who are as talented as they are. And the opposite is also true: I have worked with famous actors who can’t compete with a number of Flemish actors. So being an actor or playing a part has no geographical boundaries. But those really great actresses such as Veerle Baetens, Jessica Chastain, Hilary Swank or Helena Bonham Carter, all have the same passion, the same energy. Yet there are a few actors, Antony Hopkins, for example, who act on another level though, they are absolutely the best. For me, it’s no coincidence that more Flemish actors are appearing in French films now: Wim Willaert, Sam Louwyck, I’m sure Matteo Simoni will be next, and Matthias Schoenaerts—well, of course, he’s larger than life. I’ve been saying this for more than twenty years: we have very accomplished actors here in Flanders and internationally, film-wise, they’re discovering Flanders now.

Hilary Swank in “55 Steps” a.k.a. “Eleanor and Colette,” playing Helena Bonham Carter’s lawyer and Johan Heldenbergh’s wife

You speak several languages perfectly, but still, do you ever need a dialogue coach when you’re working abroad and speak a foreign language?

Helena had a dialogue coach; she’s British, but she played an American, and he always listened to her very carefully, to every word she said. He also coached me, and he told me, ‘Johan, you don’t have to play an American; your character has been living there for about fifteen years. Maybe pay a little more attention to this or that.’ He gave me very interesting advice from time to time. He also suggested to me that I’d say every line of dialogue in a foreign language very slowly, and say it over and over again, and always do it faster. So that’s what I’ve been doing now, and it works very well. Sometimes I work for hours to prepare for one particular scene because I begin with [speaks very slowly], Je commence à parler comme ça en français, and as you practice, you need to adapt this line in terms of the sense, the precision, and truthfulness of the language you’re speaking. It’s like you’re playing a guitar solo; your fingers need a memory of their own, and that’s what I do with my mouth. Nobody can teach you that; it just takes a lot of practice to get it right.

Film Festival Oostende, Ostend (Belgium)
September 8, 2018

“55 Steps,” a.k.a. “Eleanor and Colette” (2018, trailer)


ANTONIA (1995) DIR – SCR Marleen Gorris PROD Gerard Cornelisse, Hans de Weers, Hans de Wolf CAM Willy Stassen ED Wim Louwrier, Michiel Reichwein MUS Ilona Sekacz CAST Willeke van Ammelrooy, Els Dottermans, Dora van der Groen, Jan Decleir, Veerle van Overloop, Esther Vriesendorp, Filip Peeters, Johan Heldenbergh (Tom)

ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS (2003) DIR – SCR – MUS Tom Barman PROD Alex Stockman, Kat Camerlynck CAM Renaat Lambeets ED Els Voorpoels CAST Frank Vercruyssen, Diane De Belder, Eric Kloeck, Natali Broods, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dirk Roothooft, Jonas Boel, Sam Louwyck, Frank Focketyn, Jan Van Looveren, Johan Heldenbergh (Schoesetters), Guido Hendrickx, Ben Segers

STEVE + SKY (2004) DIR – SCR Felix van Groeningen PROD – CAM Dirk Impens ED Nico Leunen MUS Soulwax, Dewaele Brothers CAST Titus De Voogdt, Delfine Bafort, Johan Heldenbergh (Jean-Claude), Romy Bollion, Wine Dierickx, Vanessa Van Durme, Sylvie Buytaert

FIRMIN (2007) DIR Dominique Deruddere PROD Dominique Deruddere, Chris van den Durpel SCR Dominique Deruddere (story by Frank Van Laecke) CAM Danny Elsen ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Raymond van het Groenewoud CAST Chris van den Durpel, Jan Decleir, Josse De Pauw, Peter Van den Begin, Ben Segers, Marc Van Eeghem, Frank Focketeyn, Bruno Vanden Broecke, Titus De Voodgt, Johan Heldenbergh (Bush)

BEN X, a.k.a. NOTHING (2007) DIR Nic Balthazar PROD Peter Bouckaert, Erwin Provoost, Michiel De Rooij, Sabine Veenendael, Burny Bos SCR Nic Balthazar (also novel “Niets is alles wat hij zei” [2002] and play “Niets” [2003]) CAM Lou Berghmans ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Praga Kahn CAST Greg Timmermans, Marijke Pinoy, Cesar De Schutter, Gilles De Schryver, Bavo Smets, Katrien Pierlet, Rebecca Lenaerts, Dirk Van Dijck, Wim De Vilder, Wim Vandekeybus, Johan Heldenbergh (Teacher)

AANRIJDING IN MOSCOU, a.k.a. MOSCOW, BELGIUM (2008) DIR Christophe Van Rompaey PROD Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem SCR Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem, Pat van Beirs CAM Ruben Impens ED Alain Dessauvage MUS Tuur Florizoone CAST Barbara Sarafian, Jurgen Delnaet, Johan Heldenbergh (Werner), Anemone Valcke, Sofia Ferri, Julian Borsani, Bob De Moor

DE HELAASHEID DER DINGEN, a.k.a. MISFORTUNATES (2009) DIR Felix van Groeningen PROD Dirk Impens SCR Felix van Groeningen, Christophe Dirickx (novel by Dimitri Verhulst) CAM Ruben Impens MUS Jef Neve ED Nico Leunen CAST Valentijn Dhaenens, Kenneth Vanbaeden, Koen De Graeve, Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh (Breejen), Bert Haelvoet, Gilda De Bal, Natali Broods, Pauline Grossen, Charlotte Vandermeersch, Steven Van Herreweghe, Tom Audenaert

TURQUAZE, a.k.a. TURQUOISE (2010) DIR – SCR Kabir Balci PROD Dirk Impens, Gülin Üstün CAM Ruben Impens ED Nico Leunen MUS Bert Ostyn CAST Burak Balci, Charlotte Vandermeersch, Nihat Altinkaya, Tilbe Saran, Sinan Vanden Eynde, Pasqual Pronesti, Katelijne Verbeke, Tine Embrechts, Gilles De Schryver, Maaike Cafmeyer, Johan Heldenbergh (Koenraad De Schepper)

HASTA LA VISTA, a.k.a. COME AS YOU ARE (2011) DIR Geoffrey Enthoven PROD Mariano Vanhoof SCR Pierre De Clercq (story by Mariano Vanhoof, original idea by Asta Philpot) CAM Gerd Schelfhout ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Meuris Papermouth CAST Gilles De Schryver, Robrecht Vanden Thoren, Tom Audenaert, Isabelle de Hertogh, Karlijn Sileghem, Johan Heldenbergh (Maarten), Marilou Mermans, Tuur De Weert, Veerle Baetens

THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN (2012) DIR Felix van Groeningen PROD Dirk Impens SCR (adaptation by Carl Joos, Felix van Groeningen, Charlotte Vandermeersch; play ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama’ by Johan Heldenbergh, Mieke Dobbels) CAM Ruben Impens ED Nico Leunen MUS Bjorn Eriksson CAST Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh (Didier Bontinck), Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Bert Huysentruyt, Jan Bijvoet, Ruth Beeckmans

LA RÉSISTANCE DE L’AIR, a.k.a. THROGH THE AIR (2015) DIR Fred Grivois PROD Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Nicolas Lhermitte, Mourad Belkeddar, Sidonie Dumas, Jean Duhamel SCR Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré CAM Glynn Speeckaert ED Géraldine Mangenot MUS Sacha Galperine, Evgueni Galperine CAST Reda Kateb, Ludivine Sagnier, Tchéky Karyo, Pascal Demolon, Johan Heldenbergh (Ranaud), Blanche Hemada Costoso, Thomas Bidegain

LE TOUT NOUVEAU TESTAMENT, a.k.a. THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (2015) DIR Jaco Van Dormael PROD Jaco Van Dormael, Daniel Marquet, Olivier Rausin SCR Jaco Van Dormael, Thomas Gunzig CAM Christophe Beaucarne ED Hervé de Luze MUS An Pierlé CAST Benoît Poelvoorde, Catherine Deneuve, François Damiens, Yolande Moerau, Pili Groyne, Laura Verlinden, Serge Larivière, Johan Heldenbergh (The Priest), Johan Leysen, Dominique Abel, Pascal Duquenne, Jaco Van Dormael

BELGICA (2016) DIR Felix van Groeningen PROD Dirk Impens SCR Felix van Groeningen, Arne Sierens CAM Ruben Impens ED Nico Leunen MUS Soulwax CAST Stef Aerts, Tom Vermeir, Stefaan De Winter, Dominique Van Malder, Ben Benaouisse, Boris Van Severen, Charlotte Vandermeersch, Sam Louwyck, Johan Heldenbergh (Bruno Schollaert), Titus De Voogdt

LE CONFESSIONI, a.k.a. THE CONFESSIONS (2016) DIR Roberto Andò PROD Angelo Barbagallo SCR Roberto Andò, Angelo Pasquini CAM Maurizio Calvesi ED Clelio Benevento MUS Nicola Piovani CAST Toni Servillo, Connie Nielsen, Pierfrancesco Favino, Marie-Josée Crozé, Moritz Bleibtreu, Lambert Wilson, Daniel Auteuil, Johan Heldenbergh (Michael Wintzl), Lisa Eichhorn

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) DIR Niki Caro PROD Kim Zubick SCR Angela Workman (book by Diane Ackerman) CAM Andrij Parekh ED David Coulson MUS Harry Gregson-Williams CAST Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh (Jan Zabinski), Daniel Brühl, Timothy Radford, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas, Michael McElhatton

55 STEPS, a.k.a. ELEANOR & COLETTE (2017) DIR Bille August PROD Lesley Bruce-Neary, Anita Elsani, Sara Risher, Laurie Shearing SCR Mark Bruce Rosin CAM Filip Zumbrunn ED Hansjörg Weissbrich MUS Annette Focks CAST Hilary Swank, Helena Bonham Carter, Cynthia Hoppenfeld, Johan Heldenbergh (Robert), Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Culkin, Jonathan Kerrigan, Tim Pletser, Vincent Riotta

KLEINE IJSTIJD, a.k.a. YOUNGER DAYS (2017) DIR Paula van der Oest PROD Sabine Brian, Kaja Wolffers, Alain De Levita SCR Paula van der Oest, Rifka Lodeizen CAM Guido van Gennep ED Eline Bakker CAST Ariane Schlutzer, Hannah Hoekstra, Johan Heldenbergh (Alex), Monic Hendrickx, Anniek Pheifer, Cees Geel, Thijs Boermans

GASPARD VA AU MARIAGE, a.k.a. GASPARD AT THE WEDDING (2018) DIR Anthony Corbier PROD Nicolas Blanc SCR Anthony Corbier, Julie Peyr, Nathalie Najem CAM Nicolas Gaurin ED Christel Dewynter MUS Thylacine CAST Félix Moati, Laetitia Dosch, Christa Théret, Marina Foïs, Johan Heldenbergh (Max), Guillaume Gouix, Élodie Bouchez, Noémie Alazard-Vachet

LARGUÉES, a.k.a. DUMPED (2018) DIR Eloïse Lang PROD Stéphanie Carreras, Philippe Pujo SCR Eloïse Lang (original screenplay ALL INCLUSIVE [2017] by Mette Heeno, Daniel Karlsson) CAM Antoine Monod ED Valérie Deseine, Thibault Blanchet MUS Fred Avril CAST Miou-Miou, Camille Cottin, Camille Chamoux, Johan Heldenbergh (Thierry), Thomas Scimeca, Olivia Côte, Youssef Hajdi

CARNIVORES (2018) DIR Jérémie Renier, Yannick Renier PROD Hugo Sélignac, Vincent Mazel SCR Jérémie Renier, Yannick Renier, Bulle Decarpentries, Agnès de Sacy CAM Georges Lechaptios CAST Leïla Bekhti, Zita Hanrot, Bastien Bouillon, Johan Heldenbergh (Paul Brozek), Hiam Abbass, Octave Bossuet, Christophe Sermet

THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT (2018) DIR – SCR Kim Nguyen PROD Pierre Even CAM Nicolas Bolduc ED Nicolas Chaudeurge, Arthur Tarnowski CAST Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Salma Hayek, Michael Mando, Johan Heldenbergh (Amish Elder), Ayisha Issa, Mark Slacke, Sarah Goldberg