American audiences may have seen Simon Abkarian in the French film When the Cat's Away, or as Lt. Dessalines in Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie, or as the painter Arshile Gorky in Atom Egoyan's Ararat. Though he's not (yet) a household name in America, his latest film—Sally Potter's YES—gives him the part of a lifetime. My conversation with Abkarian took place at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel on April 29, 2005.
Groucho:Your character has definitive elements as well as allegorical shades of meaning. Did you share responsibility for portraying the symbolic elements, or did you focus on making him a distinct individual?
Simon Abkarian: I think there is both. I think my worry, if we can call that a worry, is not to make him someone like an architect of—just to make him a human being with his background—cultural, historical, et cetera, and to...come out of what we think we know about these kind of people coming from this side of the world. And his apartment, let's say, was very much important to set up with the set designer. I took some photos from my place in France, and I brought with me some carpets and stuff to make it warmer, et cetera. But the physicality was also important—lots of hands in it. I had—I went to Jesuit school when I was younger in Gabon, and we had a Jesuit father who used to say, "Lebanese is gesture before speech, and speech before thought."
SA: He was a very sharp man and funny. Well, it was important to point little things out to draw him in a—it's his particularities but without making him a non—let's say, a non-civilized or a non—we belong to the same place, I think, everybody. It's just a matter of point of views.
G: In these symbolic terms, what do you think he represents about men at large—since we have a love story between a man named "He" and a woman named "She"?
SA: (Sighs.) As an Eastern man, let's say, relating to woman, it's difficult—the access to women is difficult in this part of the planet and the sexuality's kind of not developed. And it shows often in the behavior of men. So when he talks about a secret country—all these things, I think it's true. It's not a Latin relation that Eastern people have towards women. It's a kind of idealized and sometimes—maybe sometimes too much, and the praise is not—let's say it can be a little bit awkward and old-fashioned. There was a sentence that we cut in the film that she used to tell him—I don't remember the exact formula—but she used to tell him, "I'm sorry, I'm turning my back on you," and he would answer, "A flower has no back, so when you turn, I feel no light." Things like that—it's very old-stylish, you know, things. But still it's a—I can tell you about the people who used to come from, you know, Lebanon, during the war in France, who were much disappointed because they thought that it would be easy to get a blonde French woman and go to bed on the spot. And they would end up with the prostitutes, I suppose. Because it was quite the image that they had toward the Western world is quite, let's say, caricatural, sometimes. Not always. It depends—its false and wrong point of view—of what is the reality in this country—I mean, Western countries.
G: Obviously, the difficulty of bridging those different point of views or getting to understand the other person is a primary element of the relationship between the two characters. What is it that first attracts him to her, what gets in between them, and what convinces him to reconcile?
SA: I think what attracts him to her is her beauty and her loneliness. Because he is lonely also, he can recognize—when you are lonely, you recognize on the spot who is like you. And he sees, and he tells her right at the beginning of the film, "I wouldn't let such a beauty out of sight—not for one moment." I think it is without knowing where she comes from, but obviously she is not Eastern—she is American or European. When there is attraction, you don't tell—oh, she's Chinese, Turkish, Jewish, or whatever. She's—you're attracted and you don't know why. And then—the first step is attraction, and then you realize differences—sometimes contradictions, sometimes frustrations, misunderstandings etc. But what I think attracts him is her beauty and her loneliness. And, what—the second part of the question is—?
G: Defining what comes between them, and then what eventually convinces him to return to her, or reconcile.
SA: His effort. His intelligence and effort. When there is a real desire to be with someone, whatever she is or he is—wherever she comes or he comes from, when there is a real desire, at the end he understands that he must, and has to, put his pride aside. Which is not the better side of his pride. He accepts the ticket. And he comes to Cuba with the ticket that she pays for. Because, for an Eastern man—for a man in general, even in the Western world, you have to be the one who pays. So he understands the relation and the love is beyond who's buying the ticket, who's giving food. In countries, when there is a nice gesture from one country to another, to give food, or to give money or to give help, you put aside your pride because its something you need: not only the thing that is given—you need the relation. And I think it's good to make the effort to put the pride aside and to go there. Even if some people would say it's a weakness. I will encourage these kind of weaknesses if the purpose is to get together again. Because there is a need. I think there is a mutual need now. And they have to understand how to build this need into life.
G: There can be no defensiveness in love.
G: Your character is also—you were speaking of the pride and the love relationship—there's an element of pride also in his immigrant experience in transforming his vocation from a doctor to a chef. What meaning did you derive from that transition that he has to undergo?
SA: What meaning—like what—can you?
G: How does that affect him? Is he able to be open to that new experience or is it a kind of weight on him?
SA: I think it's a weight because you invest yourself—you draw something to you in your life—a road, a path—and suddenly something happens—it's called war in this case—and life is completely outside that. And to get away from this hell, because it was hell, and come here and find shelter, we must not forget this aspect of being given shelter, work. And say, okay, at least I'm not being shot at. Not being shot down because I am this or that. But, on the other way, he disappears. In the bad sense of the word. I mean, he disappears. His social condition is no longer what it was, so he makes himself invisible in a way——but people don't know what he really is. So he swallows that pain and—the fact of being unknown. No matter who you are and where you come from, when you're away from the place—your country, let's say—there comes a moment that people don't know you. You have to re-create life; you have to re-create the social condition cell. And he is not able to re-create the cell of family—he is alone in this film. And love could be also a way of shelter. I mean, to be loved, to be accepted is a kind of—when I was in France, in the beginning, because I was born in France, and the French are very conservative; it has not changed very much since years—but I was asking what was due to me, because I was born there. And the woman gave me a paper, and she told me to sign that. And fortunately, I read the paper—because—it was a certificate where it said I repudiate my French nationality. If I would have not read this paper, I would have, you know. As an immigrant, for someone who is in exile, if he's not recognized for what it is, he cannot become something else. In America, this is well done, and well—intelligently done. For years, you are all American citizens no matter where you come from. There's differences, of course. But you have the same rights, et cetera. Here, in this film, he's not English, you know—and also he's too old to rebuild, to go back to school and do his job—so it's survival. Fitting as much as he can himself and survive the pain. And to be in love with someone—I am married to a French woman—to be in love with someone who is—English, or American in this case, is being accepted: welcome to the club. That's what it's all about, also.
G: Obviously, to not be known is isolating. That feeds that isolation.
SA: Yes. It's kind of death.
G: And the opposite is making yourself known to someone else that's—
SA: And to be known also is to speak out the frustrations and the discontent that someone might have without anger—just say, you know, we are not only this, we are also that. You know, we are many, many things. And in this case, he says that "We are this, but we are also that—we have history, we have culture, we have mathematics from long ago, we have been in astrology from long ago, in philosophy from long ago." All this is forgotten because of present events that erase all these things, because violence erases everything. And also the thing is to say, "Let's get out of the cycle of violence and let's recognize ourselves, even if we cannot live together." Even if we don't fall in love, maybe we can just accept—
G: Reach a truce.
SA: Yes. Yes.
G: You have classical training, and you've done obviously a number of French-language films.
G: What path brought you to Sally Potter's attention? How did you get cast in the film?
G: Oh. I met Sally when she was shooting The Man Who Cried. And I was cast in this film to do a gypsy—a small character. After the film was finished, we went to a wrap party. And we got to talk to each other. We talked to each other for quite a long time, because I was at that time trying to direct a play about Trojan women. And I told her my project. This comes from my mother—because of the war my father was in—she was quite lonely, my mother. So I wanted to talk about this women-loneliness because of war. So we talked about this with Sally, and a year and a half later, she called me for the five-minute project she had. And when she gave me the script, it was astonishing because I said, "How come this woman knows me so well?" So I got the script, and we did the five-minute film with her, and at that time it was Fiona Shaw that was doing "She." And then, it became a long, long—and an adventure started, because I had to work in English, and by doing, my English improved since. And I said it was a mark of trust that she gave me in order to do my work because, first of all, I mean, what brought us together is the fact that we want to do a film. So no matter where I come from, first of all, that she liked the work I did, and I like the work she did, and we wanted to tell a story about these issues without being heavy. I think the film has some deep issues but there is still a lightness in it. And it was important to go on that path and we got along. We were friends now, with Sally, and with Joan also.
G: Let's talk a little bit about your preparations as an actor for a particular project. What was your preparation for this film versus, say, playing a real-life painter in Ararat?
SA: Ah. My preparation is—I knew about Gorky already because I was interested in his, you know, work. And I worked with some painters who showed me how to manipulate the brush et cetera, et cetera. And it was a speechless role, if you remember. So preparation is also to accept what is written, to accept, to say "yes," in a way, to—not to fight against, but to fight for something. Even if, in this case, there was no major disagreement with Atom, he told me things and I did it because he was right. He's a—like Sally, he's a great listener. That's one of his greatest qualities. I think great directors have this great quality—great listeners, no matter who you are—big, small, white, green, Jew, French, Chinese. When once the process of conversation is on, they really listen to you. So something happens. So for this role, my preparation—yes, I was quite often working with brush and et cetera, not to look real, but to create—and in my work I often do this—to be free of the movement, so I can work other things while my hand is painting—to work on dissociation—
G: And, for this film, you had a few weeks of rehearsal. How did you find working with verse? Since that is a relatively rare form—and, in film, certainly.
SA: Yes. It's the first. I think that it's always important when—as an actor, I have a proposal of form, which is a poetical obstacle that you have to overcome. For this, I thought that if it was like a cage, the bird inside or the tiger inside would exist—would create freedom in work, as long as there was a limit—a cage. And in this case, the verse. There's many things to say about these verses because also it was not done by aesthetic worry that Sally could have had; it was coming out of poetical necessity that she wrote this way, and that's why it was easy for us in a way. It was not difficult to play the verses because whatever, you know—it was like music and well-written and coming out of the necessity, and again, I say, it was not an aesthetic, manner-ish thing to do. And also, working with Joan was amazing because she—I must confess that she is the one who started it like—to discuss it. The film is a discussion in itself. And she could make the form disappear. So I followed my partner on this path, and we could discuss what was written.
G: I want to get to that, a little bit, the relationship with Joan. How did the two of you build the trust—for such an intimate relationship on screen?
SA: I think there is a—the word is perfect—for this situation—trust. Trust is to tell who you are. And with Joan we had long, long discussions about trying to say who I was, what were my worries as an actor—as a French actor, because I am French. And with my Armenian origins, knowing the Middle East because I was living there. So we talked a lot about East-West, men, women. The job was done also off-stage a lot in discussions and rehearsals and brainstorming. But I remember saying to Joan, "I'm gonna work with you, and I'm gonna work for you." It's important to—for me as an actor—all I'm saying is on my behalf; it's like that. It's not tablets, you know, written in tablets. It's me—what I think. As an actor, it's important at one point to work for the partner, to be at his or her service, to work for what is written—for the project. And it comes back to you. In a way or another, it comes back to you. And to put aside frights, for acting frights or human worries also. There was no, even if it is a very beautiful film, it's not a narcissistic film. We avoided that trap I think, all of us.
G: What was your experience like working with Jonathan Demme on The Truth About Charlie? That's a different sort of film.
SA: Yes. My experience with Jonathan started—we met in a hotel and he said (snaps fingers) I want to—because Tim Robbins, that I worked with years ago in a workshop in the theatre, told him about me, et cetera. We met and he said, "I want to work with you, but there's no part for you in the film." I said, "Well, then, that's no problem." Then he called me back, and he said, "I have a character who is mute. Do you agree to play with someone who doesn't talk?" I said, "You can express without words." So here it started also—a friendship with Jonathan because he's one of those who, you know, also is a great listener, with no matter of who or why the man or woman is speaking to him. So he's someone very human and very aware of his time and worth, you know—and the necessity to practice also, you know, to create spaces where you can practice joy and intelligence no matter where you come from.
G: Do you think you'll have more directing gigs in the future, or are you focusing on acting?
SA: For the moment I am focusing on acting, but I have a project that I want to direct one day in the cinema because I directed plays in Paris, and I think that now I need to have a—to express myself on a larger scale. There are things—there are many roads to open yet still. Between words, because one of the—I don't like this word too much, but, our duties is to often endorse [for] people to meet. Because we live in the century of communication, and still people ignore each other—Because of my cultural background—I lived there, I was born there—I want to create, you know, links between different cultures and because, no matter—people can keep each other in wars and et cetera and have turbans or neckties or whatever—weapons, et cetera. There is one thing that we are all related to, and everybody—wherever they are: in Africa, in Afghanistan, France—we all aim for the same thing: happiness. Every human on every part of the planet—they try to build something that is called happiness. So we can work on that. And how do we do that? Maybe it's a utopia. But I like this challenge. Because it's not only a matter of hope. It's also a matter of—act! Actions. So as a director, and I don't want to carry the planet's griefs on my shoulders, no. But once in a while I have to feel in these things that the main media has taken—confiscated—we have to take this material back—and open closed doors and say, "Okay, this is also this way." We can relate to each other, and we sing these kind of songs. And we know your songs. My father—I started to learn English listening to swing music when I was a kid and going to see American '30s, '40s, '50s films.
G: Well, I hope you only hear "yes" in the future. Good luck to you.
SA: Thank you.
G: It was wonderful to meet you.
SA: Yes, you too. It was a nice talk. Thank you very much.
[Click to read Groucho's reviews of YES and YES: Screenplay and Notes and interviews with Joan Allen and Sally Potter. To read more about Yes, including Potter's blog (with her description of her San Francisco stay), check out http://www.yesthemovie.com.]