French actor Lambert Wilson is perhaps most famous, worldwide, for his portrayal of the Merovingian, a sinister and deliciously campy artificial intelligence in the Matrix films. But when it comes to the actual AI, the 65-year-old shares the concerns and fears of his American colleagues, who are handling the SAG-AFTRA pickets in part to prevent studios from using new technology to render them obsolete. . “I’m on his side, 100 percent,” Wilson says. “I think this fight is crucial to our future.”
speaking to THR Rome At this year’s Locarno Film Festival, where he heads the competition jury, Wilson highlighted his solidarity with the strikers, explained why AI is a threat he has been “talking about for 20 years” and why, after nearly 50 years in the business, he is proud of everything he has done (including catwoman).
I have to ask you about the strike, where artificial intelligence is one of the most discussed topics, and you embodied a highly evolved AI in the Matrix saga.
I’m on their side (the SAG strikers), 100 percent. I am also a member of the SAG, but since I am not a resident of the United States, I am exempt from the strike, but during the last night of the festival, I plan to stand in solidarity with my colleagues. I believe this fight is crucial for our future. Now we are being manipulated as artists and spectators. They hide the essentials from us, they do not tell us who the real audience is, how they “sell” us, or what we are really winning for them. As for artificial intelligence, I am an eyewitness. when they did the Matrix videogame, enter the matrix, they kept me one day making all kinds of expressions to capture and replicate using motion capture techniques, then another day recording as many words as possible to make my avatar look perfect. What will happen to that other me? I could happily declare a war, using my face and my voice. And here we are talking about 20 years ago. Therefore, I support my American colleagues. I think they are fighting a battle of civilization, after which nothing will ever be the same. Whoever wins will decide a lot, not only about cinema but about our future.
What can non-US actors do to support the strike?
Although I’m not flashy—in fact, right now I’m doing a series in French for Apple TV+, Home, about haute couture, but I can speak and reiterate my support. I would like to see the other arts involved: music, for example, is even more at risk than cinema. Artists are seeing that our work is “stolen” by these economic and communication giants; we have been forced through purchase contracts to cede the exploitation rights of the studios for centuries to come, and of universes and galaxies to discover. Stars excluded, of course: if you’re Leonardo DiCaprio, you’re part of the board that he decides. But the rest of my colleagues, 99.99 percent, are condemned to accept this abdication of our rights. That they are very personal, because it is about your image, who you are and what you represent. You realize when you are on a train or on a plane or on the bus, and on the smartphone of the person walking next to you, someone has a screen, big or small, with your face, your voice. And you gain nothing from all those listens, all those views. We don’t just fight for a few extra bucks, we fight to get ourselves back. We are passing from one era to another, and we have to decide how we want to inhabit it.
Many already fear that we are witnessing the end of theatrical cinema.
I thought that too, then I came to the Locarno Film Festival, that magical place where this art still thrives, in the midst of thousands of people lining up to enjoy it, and in a few hours I calmed down. I was very worried but now I see in front of me a strong light of hope, thanks to this great little miracle that we have before us. I feel an energy here that warms my heart. The festival is probably where we should look to start over.
What does a great actor who acts as a jury at a festival look for?
My approach is to ask myself every time what is cinema. For us, actors or directors, it is important to reflect on the essence of our art. Actually, it is true for all creatives: I think of a world that I love very much, the world of music, which is more definable than the Seventh Art (cinema) that somehow also contains all the others. After 46 years, I still don’t know: but I do know that here my colleagues and I have to choose what is cinema and what is not, reflect on the form, on the expressive grammar, but also on the content. Because I feel there is a need, now more than ever, for films that talk about politics, that deal with issues that are at the center of our concerns, from the environment to minority rights, from ecology to war.
Are you an actor who likes to watch other people’s movies?
Of course! I know a lot of my colleagues who don’t like to do it because they’re too focused on themselves and their work, but I don’t get it. I find that being on a jury also allows me to improve as an actor, to understand what works and what doesn’t, why something moves me and something else bores me. It’s important to understand that, because the most difficult thing for the actor is choosing the scripts. If you don’t immediately understand whether a script is good or not, you’re ruined – on set it will be too late to change.
And are you good at this, choosing scripts?
No, I’m desperate, a real disaster. An actor should become a director while he reads, but I can’t do that. I have directed several plays, but the stage is a totally different world. Here in Locarno, we present five hectares by Emily Deleuze, which I initially defined as a confrontation-clash between the city and peasant culture. Actually, after seeing her again and talking to her, I realized that it is mainly a feminine look at the deafness of men, about their childish obsessions that explode when they come into contact with the earth: their sense of possession, of rivalry, of revenge. If they own a piece of land, they become children. And I saw myself in it. I suddenly saw that it was a very political job.
You have worked in England, France, Italy and Hollywood. Does the way of being an actor change depending on where you are?
I’m a mercenary, I go where they pay me. Jokes aside, the only real difference for me is between Europe and Hollywood. We are more intellectually honest (in Europe). A casting director will let you know right away if he or the filmmaker who is supposed to cast you doesn’t like you, but they will think of you for a role more suited to your talents. In Hollywood they walk you to the door and tell you that you are a genius, that they love your work, and as soon as they close it they forget you. The producers, the agents, the industry in Los Angeles, they give you a week to decide whether or not you’re going to make them money, and then they dump you. I know that directors are given five scripts and in a few days the writer has to figure out which one is bankable. I think of poor Pitof. I went to Hollywood with him, to make a really horrible movie, I can say that now: catwoman. He went wrong and was catapulted into oblivion. Without remorse. It could have been his fault as well, but only a little, believe me. In France they would have forgiven him for this failure, we would have allowed him to make mistakes. Hollywood is another world, another planet, and I don’t speak his Martian language. I don’t understand the blackmail of big budgets, the excesses dictated by the supposed luxury of having millions of dollars. I live on Earth.
I have to ask: How does it feel to be a part of one of the most beloved film franchises of all time? Matrixand they’ve also been in perhaps the most mocked, hated and ridiculed movie in superhero history, catwoman?
(laughs.) I’ll try to give a serious answer: I’m proud of everything I’ve done because I put my best effort into it. I am a soldier, a sailor. He did not leave my companions alone in the trenches. I do not abandon the sinking ship, I defend it. Although I have doubts from the beginning, I stay there and fight. I did so in the case of catwoman, although with some difficulty, I admit it. The essential difference between these two projects was the strength of the author. In Matrix there are the Wachowski sisters who, despite impressive budgets, remain in control of everything, resisting any outside pressure, taking an interesting subject and developing it to the best of their ability. On the other hand, you have a young man, Pitof, who was given an interesting 40 million dollar movie. Then Sharon Stone and Halle Berry get in on it and it turns into something else, a $100 million+ movie. And the studio freaks out: they want a story that targets all kinds of viewers because they’re too financially exposed. The Wachowski sisters run it all as European authors. Pitof at that time became a mere gun-for-hire. I was with him when he received the final draft of the script a day before shooting. Compared to his draft, there was almost nothing left. There were entire pages that we had never seen before. It had been completely rewritten to “hit” the most important business targets. They wanted to please both children and grandmothers. It could only be a disaster. I have seen so many, too many, independent European or American authors get cannibalized by that system. Maintaining one’s own creative identity, in Hollywood, is incredibly difficult.