Gaspard Ulliel takes us inside the historical drama The Princess of Montpensier

Actor Gaspard Ulliel discusses playing Henri de Guise in The Princess of Montpensier, working with director Bertrand Tavernier, and much more

Most American audiences will recognize Gaspard Ulliel (who has one of the coolest names in the biz, for the record), as the younger Hannibal Lecter in the 2007 prequel Hannibal Rising. However, he is just getting his young career started at the age of 26. He has amassed solid credits with roles in the fantastic period drama Brotherhood of the Wolf, as well as A Very Long Engagement, Paris, je t'aime, and The Vintner's Luck, which hits theaters in America on May 11. Before that, Gaspard Ulliel stars in another compelling period piece, The Princess of Montpensier, which will be released in New York and Los Angeles on April 15. The drama will also be shown on the Sundance Selects VOD platform starting on April 20 before its nationwide expansion on April 29.

Gaspard Ulliel portrays Henri de Guise, a cunning warrior who was likely the first person in history to be dubbed "Scarface." He is in love with Marie de Mezieres (Mélanie Thierry, and although she loves him as well, her father arranges Marie to marry the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). When the Prince is sent off to war, he leaves his new bride with his loyal friend Chabannes (Lambert Wilson). When he returns from war, along with Duc d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), all four men become smitten with Marie and vie for her affections.

I recently had the chance to speak with Gaspard Ulliel over the phone to discuss this engrossing drama. Here's what he had to say.

The movie is based on a short story from 1662, but these are all real characters. Can you talk about the research you did to play this character, Henri de Guise?

Gaspard Ulliel: Well, I think it can be quite helpful to be working on a character who actually existed, historically. Of course, you might have material to study and help you create the character. (Director) Bertrand (Tavernier) gave us many readings to do on this period in history and on the characters. I did some research on the Internet, but most of it is going through readings with the rest of the cast and meeting with the director. That's a great thing that I really enjoyed on this experience, that the director was fully available with the cast, to meet way ahead of the shooting and talk about the characters. This is not always the case. I have worked with many directors who would just go on the set and you would talk to them on the first day of the shoot, and that's a shame. I remember he insisted on what time he wanted to meet with each single actor on the film, even those with just a small part, each of them, one-on-one.

As you did your research on this character, were there any particular aspects that surprised you about him, that you might not have known before?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah, a lot of things, because I was not very well acquainted with this period of French history. I was not a very good student in school (Laughs). I was not really interested about history. This particular period of French history is kind of obscure to many people, even historians. Today, they still fight about different things about this period of history. It's kind of nice to be working on a film like this, set in this time, because I get a chance to learn many, many things.

One of the things that really struck me was that, despite being set in this time period, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, the story really does mirror our own times, with the corruption and betrayal. It was interesting to see these kinds of themes explored in a period piece like this.

Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah. I think many things in this story have a really strong resonance with modern life. There are many strong themes we see today, like the condition of women in society, and forced marriage, which still happens a lot today. The idea of fighting in the name of God, these religious wars, are still happening today. It was really appealing, the first time I read the script, and it gives a really modern feeling to this film. It was great. Also, I think the idea of working with all those young actors gives a really refreshing feeling to this film. I was actually quite surprised to discover that the actual people we portray were even younger than we are. It's crazy to think that people were the head of the Army at 17 years old.

You have quite a bit of the actual action in the movie, with the swordplay. I read you went through some extensive training to handle the sword. Can you talk a bit about that?

Gaspard Ulliel: Oh yeah. We had to train, that's for sure. This was totally new to me, except for horse riding, so I had to train. Also, Bertrand told us from the very beginning that he didn't want to use any body doubles or stunt men in any scene. He also told us he would film those fight scenes with long takes and he wouldn't cut, so we had to be prepared for this. At some point in the film, we were on standby because of budget issues, and the preparation was on standby. All of a sudden, they called us and said, 'OK, we're shooting in two months.' That's when we started training, and I wish we did have more time to train. We would work about four hours in a row, three times a week, with the choreographer. I really loved it. It was a bit tiring, of course, but at some point, it felt more like dancing than fighting. Obviously, you have to know what the guy in front of you is going to do, and it's more about getting the right pace and the right rhythm.

Yeah. I thought Bertrand captured the fights very effectively. It didn't feel choreographed like a lot of fights do. These really do seem natural.

Gaspard Ulliel: That's a good thing, yeah. I liked the idea of filming those scenes the way he did, with long shots and not cutting all the time. That's what you're used to seeing nowadays in a lot of action scenes, and he wanted long takes so you can feel the exhaustion. You can see that the character is getting tired as the fight is going on.

There is a wonderful cast in place here. Can you talk a bit about getting to work with this cast and just about the overall mood on the set?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah, I was really thrilled with the idea of working with these young newcomers, who are all great actors. I knew a bit about Mélanie. We have some friends in common. She was beautiful and sweet and it was great to work with her. Grégoire, who plays the young Prince, one of my first experiences on a feature film was with him on Strayed, which was directed by André Téchiné. That time, I was 17 and he was 14, so it was quite moving to meet again, this young guy who became a man, on this film. All of the older actors on this film are great as well, like Lambert Wilson. It's one of his best parts, I think. He's just perfect for this role. I also really like, and have a lot of respect for, the man who plays the father of the Prince, Michel Vuillermoz. He's been a respected actor in France, mostly for his stage acting, but he is so funny in this film.

Bertrand obviously has a very unique style. This is a fairly long movie, but it really doesn't feel like a longer movie. It has a great flow to it, in the writing and directing. Can you talk about your work with him, and how he might compare to other directors you've worked with?

Gaspard Ulliel: He's one of those directors who are really committed to working with their actors. You can feel he has a very strong love for his actors, and that's not always the case. As I said before, it was great to see him as many times as we wanted. He was totally available to us. We would go over the characters, talking about the readings, have lunch together, way ahead of the shoot. Then, on the set, he gives a lot of freedom to the actors. Of course, if it's not what he expects, he'll come and tell you, and he's always on your back. It's one of his priorities to be sure the actor is feeling free in the scene. I don't know how to put it. He would never really go through rehearsals or blocking for technical purposes. It would be quite demanding to the operator, because we would never have specific marks on the floor, and we were able to move as we wanted during the scene, with the operator just following us. This is great for an actor because you're just so into the scene and you just have so much freedom in your acting.

I also read that you always wanted to direct. Is that something you are still pursuing?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah, it's something I keep in mind. It's deep inside me, it's haunting me and I still think about it a lot. At some point, I would really like to direct. That's why I was in film school. At the same time, when I was at film school studying directing, that's when I was getting more and more offers as an actor. I just thought it would be a shame not to give it a try as an actor, so I decided to stop with film school and become an actor. I don't really regret it today. I am fulfilled with my job and fascinated and absorbed by acting. But, sometimes, I miss those great moments in film school where I can discover all those amazing filmmakers from all around the world. It's something that I still think about a lot, but, at the same time, the more I work as an actor, and the more I get a glimpse at what it is to be to direct a film and a whole crew, it's such a demanding, hard job. I don't think I feel confident enough yet to go through with it. At the same time, another important notion is as I'm building this small notoriety as an actor, on the other hand, I can feel more pressure that my films as a director will be more awaited and more criticized, maybe.

Is there anything acting-wise that you're looking to join in the near future, or that you're signed on for?

Gaspard Ulliel: After this film with Bertrand, I worked on a French comedy with Emmanuel Mouret. It's kind of funny because he really has his own sense of humor. It's really quite witty and has a special type of comedy. It's very French, and it was quite refreshing and funny to do. Then I'm supposed to be working this summer on a really good script that I really love. It's a French production from a French filmmaker, and I'd be working with Emmanuelle Béart, who I worked with years ago on Strayed. There is also another young French actress who is very interested named Christa Theret, who was in this movie called LOL (Laughing Out Loud), and the French director (Lisa Azuelos) is doing a remake in the US (LOL), with Miley Cyrus and Demi Moore. She was the actress in the original. I have a few other scripts I read, and offers, but I think I've reached this moment in my career, that I have to pick the right projects to be able to last in this industry. It's not enough to have your breakthrough, the hardest part is when you reach the next step and you have to last. That's where it becomes tricky on how to pick the next thing.

Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who is curious about The Princess of Montpensier about why they should check it out in theaters on April 15?

Gaspard Ulliel: I think it's a great, epic film, with a mixture of many different strong themes, emotions, and actions. I think it can work with many different audiences, and even young audiences. They might think it's stiff and slow, but that's not the case. It's full of life and great rhythm and pace and you have all those young actors. It's kind of, sometimes, like a teenager film, and it feels like it was directed by a young new director, and it's not. It's directed by one of the greatest French filmmakers we have.

Excellent. Thank you so much for your time. Best of luck.

Gaspard Ulliel: OK. Goodbye. Thanks.

You can watch the wonderful Gaspard Ulliel as Henri de Guise in The Princess of Montpensier, which arrives in New York and Los Angeles theaters on April 15. The Princess of Montpensier will be available on the Sundance Selects VOD platform on April 20, and the movie will expand nationwide on April 29.