The face is familiar even if the name is not. Rémy Girard, who stars as the opinionated, feisty - and fatally-ill - academic historian in Denys Arcand’s celebrated The Barbarian Invasions," has some 30 feature films and just as many television appearances on his resume.
The Barbarian Invasions is the sequel to the 1986 art house hit The Decline of the American Empire and it took two awards at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival - one for screenplay and the other for Girard’s costar, actress Marie-Josee Croze (Maelstrom). Once tagged a "Canadian Big Chill" the sequel catches up with a small group of friends and academics who were once the creme-de-la-creme of university intellect and ideals and whose private lives are messier than their public personas could ever belie.
A jovial, emotive and accessible actor who totes an English dictionary in order to better his language skills, 53-year-old Girard is as different as he is oddly similar to the rakish, irascible Rémy. He’s much more doggedly devoted to his family (he’s perplexed that his cell phone can’t ring through to his wife, who’s in France) yet his larger-than-life personality is clearly the trait that attracted Arcand to the actor, who is the pivotal character in both films.
Paula Nechak: How did a law student in Quebec in 1969 evolve into an actor who has won three Genie Awards and appeared in over 30 films and just as many television shows?
Rémy Girard: To be a law student, well it’s like in The Barbarian Invasions. I wanted to make my father pleased (laughs). He told me, "You’re playing theater. It’s a good hobby but you’ll never make your life of this." My father was a politician and he had a dream one night and saw me being the Minister (laughs). But things happened differently. At university, as a law student, we had a theater troupe, Troupe des Trieze. After 2-1/2 years I said I’ll never be a lawyer and I went to theater school. My father was really upset. But seeing I was going to school he saw I was serious. He finally said, "If you’re serious, okay, go."
PN: You’ve made five films with Denys Arcand. Do you feel indebted to him for the success of your film career?
RG: The success came after The Decline of the American Empire. In our country we are mostly known for television. I was known for film. Decline... changed my life. I was an unknown and producers didn’t want me and they said to Arcand, "Are you sure you want this guy in the leading role?" Something funny happened because he wrote the script for me. It’s why I’m Rémy in the script. Arcand kept our first names. I had made a small part in a film by Denys before (the 1984 film Le Crime d’ Ovide Plouffe). It was where we met. He had seen me in a play in Quebec City and he said, "I’m gonna make a movie, I have a project, I’ll send you the script." I read it and thought, "This is some project!" But the producers wanted me to pass an audition. Everything begins there.
PN: How was it reconvening with the cast from The Decline of the American Empire 17 years later? So much has changed in the world, especially in the past few years, that would be of importance to academics and historians raised with ’60s values.
RG: It was really magic. The first scene we shot, I think, was the scene where Rémy arrives at the hospital. It was the first scene we shot all together again as a group and everybody was talking and Denys finally said, "Shut up everybody and begin again." We are a lot of people, we all know each other and we like to talk. There was no changing.
PN: But the world’s changed. Your characters have gotten older and in the face of their frailties, have lost their innocence.
RG: That touched me very much the first time I saw the finished film. Baby boomers that we are, we are concerned at change and what we will leave behind. I remember when we shot the death scene, we were at that marvelous lake in the Eastern Township and they were changing cameras and Pierre Curzi approached me and said, "Do you think about death Rémy? We are on the next line you know." I’m immortal, I don’t want to die. It’s the great issue of the film I think.
PN: Denys Arcand is an historian and his films irreverently present an historical perspective. He presents this story of middle-aged academics against a backdrop of history repeating itself and each generation believing they are the ones who make a difference.
RG: Denys was an historian before he was a director and everything he talks about is concerned by an historical point of view and what happened. I admire him for this. Some say his films are intellectualism but I think his sense of humor says it all.
PN: Arcand says the person in the film who dies has to be Rémy because he has the largest appetite for life. Talking with you I can see that that also pertains to you.
RG: I was surprised by it. I never thought Denys would want to make another film after Decline.... Then he said to me two years ago that he had had a flash. "I’m going to take my gang and reunite them and make Rémy die. He’s the one who loves life the most of all of them," he said. I was really touched and I expected a better life from this character when I thought about him during the 17 years in between. He’s good living. But when I saw him in the The Barbarian Invasions I saw him alone, apart from his wife and most important, from his kids.
PN: The actors who play your children and Marie-Josee Croze, the young junkie daughter of your character’s friend and ex-lover Diane, are wonderful. Stephane Rousseau who plays your son, is a comic and he also brought a ton of family baggage to the set. Croze won the Cannes Film Festival prize for her performance.
RG: Stephane’s father was dying during the shoot, he died one month after. I asked him - and my own son is 6-1/2, I’m a late father, and as I did not have this issue with my own father, our relationship was more harmonious - how it was with his father because in truth, Stephane could be my son. He said it was very hard, "We didn’t have the relationship you have with your father." So I asked myself what is the relationship we baby boomers have with our daughters and sons? What have we done with our kids? I think The Barbarian Invasions is one of the rare movies that talks about this thing. The sense of culpability is awful, this notion of "it’s my fault."
PN: So what did Marie-Josee and Stephane bring, what different energy and new dynamic, to the set and film?
RG: It was very interesting. It’s not my first movie with Marie-Josee, she played my daughter in a comedy we made ten years ago in Florida called La Florida. She has this sensibility, this huge generosity and hers was a very hard part, what with having to do with her being a junkie and the heroin. We worked very closely to have this kind of feeling between us. She was very wonderful. With Stephane it was very different. Dominique Michel had said, "You should see this young man," and Denys called and said he was going to pass an audition with Stephane Rousseau. I said, "Are you crazy? He’s not an actor he’s a comic." Denys just said, "Well, we’re gonna see." We saw in his eyes the same humor Rémy has in the first movie. Most actors who auditioned were very serious. Stephane was serious but with the twinkle in the eye Rémy has and we saw it was possible. Denys chose him and he was right.
PN: You’ve made sporadic ventures outside the Canadian film industry - Varian’s War for example - but you tend to stay within its borders. Do you have any desire for an international career?
RG: Oh yes (laughs). Varian’s War was made two years ago for Showtime and Barbra Streisand was a producer. It was a co-production between three countries and I’m very happy to work with people in other countries. I have a project in France right now. I work more easily there because of the language, you know? I don’t think it’s possible to have an American career but to work with Americans I should like.
PN: How do you define or explain your appeal to audiences? You’ve sustained a long and very successful career yet you aren’t typically leading man material. Is it true that character actors maintain a greater longevity in the end? What makes audiences want to see your work?
RG: I really don’t know (laughs). I think my first concern when I accepted the script to The Barbarian Invasions was that it was different than before. Is it a different role. I don’t want to be typecast, it’s like a phobia. It’s happened to me to refuse some roles because I thought they were typecasting. That pays off I think, because I want to bring something different even with the same character. I don’t think I played Rémy as the same man in the first and second films. He’s very different. It’s a challenge, a really good challenge and I think people in Quebec, in Canada, love me for this.