Even though he underwent emergency quintuple bypass surgery 17 years ago, Gérard Depardieu was inhaling a Gitanes as he sat down for our interview in New York this week.
“Now they show that Gitane is death,” France’s most famous film star declared concerning his cigarette pack’s warning label (which covered nearly the entire surface, front and back, as dictated by European Union regulations). “Even if you fart, you can pollute—you can kill somebody,” Depardieu added, punctuating his witticism with a puff of smoke and a high-pitched “hee-hee-hee!”
A few head-spinning moments later—surrounded by his agent, his publisher and his translator in a tiny outdoor garden off the dining room of the Mark Hotel—Depardieu was musing on whether the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s might have been the result of U.S. government research into biological weaponry, involving monkeys.
“So AIDS was developed by the Pentagon?” I asked.
“They say so many things. We know nothing,” he answered with charming insouciance. “Maybe we will know with your president, because he speaks a lot.”
Donald Trump, he added, is “like Kim Jong-un Two. They are like two cartoons. Dangerous cartoons. But we start with the cartoon we don’t believe—like Hitler. He started like that and after the fear, even the very smart people do nothing.”
Depardieu arrived in Manhattan on Sunday afternoon, and was gently questioned Monday night by his friend Candice Bergen before a packed house at the French Institute Alliance Française, as part of the American book tour for the just-published English translation of Innocent, his 2015 French bestseller.
A relentless raconteur and lecturer—sitting across a table from his massive bulk is a little like being drenched in a steamy word bath—Depardieu likes to tell a story about the “amazing surgeon” who cracked open his chest and repaired those perilously blocked arteries.
Before the operation, the doctor reproachfully interrogated him on his staggering drinking habit—up to 14 bottles of red wine a day, topped off by multiple glasses of champagne and a tumbler of whiskey—to say nothing of his cigarette smoking.
“Can I tell you, you have a very good constitution—because a lot of people die,” Depardieu quoted the surgeon to his rapt Alliance Française audience. “And now he’s dead,” he added to laughter and applause.
His 143-page paperback contains his pensées on politics, religion, cinema, the hypocrisy of power, the pernicious influence of the United States in the world, and the incomparable wisdom of his good friend Vladimir Putin who, when Depardieu was trying to escape apparently unbearable French taxation, granted him Russian citizenship in 2013.
“Putin, he’s an old rogue,” Depardieu writes affectionately about his patron, whom he met in 2008 at a museum in Moscow, after Putin invited him as a guest of the state. “I see Putin regularly, and most of the time we talk about geopolitics”—notably Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea, of which Depardieu wholeheartedly approves, arguing in his book that Russia’s claim on the territory dates back at least to 988. “That region has always been considered sacred land by the Russians.”
Depardieu writes of Putin’s many critics: “When you’re eating with a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals in Paris, it’s [Russia’s right to Crimea] obviously more difficult to understand. But intellos, the only people they don’t despise are themselves, which is why they must be left to themselves. And those people are so used to talking about things that they don’t know or live, they’re of no importance. I’m not going to try to fuck them in the ass, anyway their asses are full, the Americans are already deep in there fucking them on and on.”
Depardieu, who also enjoyed a friendship with Fidel Castro (based on their mutual love of gourmandizing), seems to have a weakness for autocrats who are regularly accused, by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations, of trampling liberty—torturing, poisoning, jailing and even murdering political opponents. He has also socialized with the Putin-installed president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, whose human rights record is possibly even worse than Putin’s.
“I don’t follow the politics,” he claimed, notwithstanding that Innocent fairly froths with political opinions. “I’m not a journalist or an investigator of politics.”
But how can he be friendly with such men?
“I say to my critics, go there and see for yourself,” he argued. “Take the risks for yourself. I went there. I was not tortured. I was not poisoned, and I wasn’t exactly in agreement with everything that I saw…
“I saw that things were strange there, but I wasn’t there to amuse myself and ask for a kind of change. I didn’t want to ask Fidel Castro about human rights,” Depardieu continued. “But I visited several of Putin’s jails, even the jail where [Soviet dissident] Andrei Sakharov was. And you know what? They say this is the best jail, where you eat a wonderful meal.”
Not that Depardieu doesn’t acknowledge his enormous propaganda value to Putin as part of the Russian strong man’s campaign to be a major player on the world stage and undermine the influence of Western democracies and NATO.
“I love Russian history and I was lucky enough to have Putin like me and invite me,” Depardieu said. “And, of course, Putin is very intelligent, and the reason he did that, too, was to be a pain in François Hollande’s ass.”
In 2012, Depardieu began trashing then-president Hollande, changed his residence to Belgium, and later accepted Putin’s offer of Russian citizenship in response to Hollande’s policy of taxing wealthy citizens at 75 percent. But Depardieu, who said he also enjoys residence status in Dubai and carries Belgian and Algerian passports as well as travel documents for France and Russia, insisted that he continues to pay taxes in France and Belgium, as well as in his new adopted country.
He’s a grade-school dropout who is self-taught, well- if eccentrically-read and completely aware of his charisma and capacity to provoke. During our own conversation that alternated between fearlessly fractured English and translated French, he shared a great many insights, some of them certifiable.
Among his nuttier assertions, he endorsed the long-discredited claim that Nazi experiments on Jews in concentration camps resulted in important medical and pharmaceutical advances (he was also critical of the American government for helping German scientists who served the Nazi war effort avoid accountability and continue their research in the United States). And he mentioned, as though it were widely accepted fact, that malevolent FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, by most accounts a closeted gay man who lived with his deputy Clyde Tolson, had taken a black lover despite his overt racism and attempts to destroy Martin Luther King Jr.
And he suggested that even terrible wars might have their benefits. “We’ve never had peace for one single day in the world, but maybe that’s better because there are too many people on Earth. The population is too high,” he said.
“I’m not a philosopher,” he added. “I just try to translate what I feel, and what a lot of people feel.”
At 68, Depardieu is a miracle of persistence, not only because of an acting career that spans five decades and almost 200 movies (The Last Metro, Jean de Florette, Cyrano de Bergerac and Green Card among them) but also because he has lived his life with the sort of reckless abandon that would have put most humans into an early grave.
Born in the central French town of Châteauroux to an illiterate alcoholic father and a mother who told him she didn’t want him and had tried to induce a miscarriage using knitting needles (an anecdote recounted in Innocent), Depardieu’s odds of success were ridiculously stacked against him.
There was, for instance, his brief teenage stint having sex-for-money with men (“They sucked me,” he confided, acknowledging that he sometimes beat them senseless and stole their cash), a few other misadventures in juvenile crime, as well as the endless eating and all-day drinking as a form of self-medication in his later years, a young marriage and countless mistresses, motorcycle accidents, the 2008 death of his troubled actor-son Guillaume at age 37, and the shocking 2011 incident in which his fellow Paris-to-Dublin passengers were privileged to witness him peeing into a bottle, and splashing onto the carpet, after a flight attendant denied him lavatory access because the aircraft was taxiing to the runway.
Those, and any number of other experiences, arguably make him the real-life Most Interesting Man in the World.
“I survived all of that,” Depardieu told me. “And because I was surviving, I was completely delivered, I always was free. I consider myself like a gift, that’s all. I can say what I want even if I’m wrong. But I’m not violent. I respect the people, even if sometimes I am angry against the people. But it is never anger to kill somebody.”
Yet his hazel eyes flashed when he discussed the French journalism establishment, which has chronicled his every misstep with a certain finger-wagging glee.
“The problem with the press—the fucking French press—I say ‘fucking’ because I don’t like them,” he seethed, leaning forward across the table and raising his voice. “Because they don’t know. They just work for little shit that they have inside. Look in my eyes. I am very angry against all journalists who think like that. Because they are chi-chi-chi-chi, like that. They don’t know nothing! And I say, ‘You would like to be me, eh? I’m sure you want to, but you don’t dare!’”
He also expressed bitterness toward the French criminal justice system, which he blamed for the death of his son. Guillaume Depardieu served prison time for drug-dealing, and died five years after having his right leg amputated, the result of infections and complications from a motorcycle accident.
“I think American justice is better than French justice,” his father said. “They killed my son for two grams of heroin. There is an angry old woman judge who wanted to kill my son…She was a judge from Versailles who really wanted to nail a Depardieu. So she called me up with my son, and if she could have she would have put the cuffs on me.”
Guillaume Depardieu, who acted in 20 movies, including with his dad, and won film awards, had a long struggle with addictions since his teenage years and—as he wrote in an autobiography—even as a male prostitute. He did two terms in jail for drug dealing and theft.
Later, he attacked his famous father both in his book and in interviews. “He is a coward, a cheat and lazy,” the son said of Gerard in an interview with Le Parisien. “All there is in his life is deceit. He’s the only person I know who goes as far as to lie to his own analyst.”
As Candice Bergen told the elder Depardieu on Monday night, “It seems that living has been almost too painful for you, because you feel things so deeply.”
“I recognize that sometimes I make mistakes,” Depardieu told me. “That sometimes I drink too much. But it’s always for something deep and new.”
As for his legendarily vigorous love life and suspicion of monogamy, Depardieu confided that maybe isn’t quite done. “I don’t say it’s my last word,” he said, “but this,” he added, pointing with both hands to his crotch, “my bird is tired.”
And to what does he attribute his unlikely success as perhaps the planet’s busiest film actor?
“I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “Because there is nobody else who can do it…I did a lot of shit, too.”
He said the French cinema pays hardly anything compared to Hollywood, but by acting in four or five films a year, he has managed to become wealthy enough to purchase multiple homes along with a vineyard in France. (He said he’s currently trying to sell all his properties, especially the vineyard.) His biggest payday—$4 million, he said—was for Bogus, a forgettable 1996 Hollywood fantasy movie in which he played a magician opposite co-star Whoopi Goldberg.
Money aside, Depardieu said he has little use for the American film industry, which he characterizes as more focused on commerce than art. “Unfortunately, not many,” he said when asked if he’s liked any Hollywood movies lately (although he praised the television series Breaking Bad). “I don’t see very interesting movies,” he added, while expressing a possible desire to see the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle mother! “It’s all the same.”
Meanwhile, he’s still ruminating over the 1991 Academy Awards ceremony in which he was nominated for Best Actor for his performance in Cyrano, but then endured an onslaught of negative press—and didn’t win the statue—after he let slip in an interview with Time magazine that, as a boy, he had participated in a rape.
“I was a victim of the Oscars,” he said. “When I was nominated, they said I did a rape at nine years old. It was very serious. I had to take lawyers.” At the time, he argued that he was misunderstood and misquoted in the interview conducted in French, but Time stood its ground.
“I understand America,” Depardieu said about the country he accuses in his book of dominating Western culture through propaganda, as well as exaggerating its role, compared to that of Russia and other countries, in defeating the Nazis and saving France. “I can say that 10 years ago, 20 years ago, it was a better place…
“I went to Harlem yesterday and I feel life in Harlem,” he continued, mentioning his dinner at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que on 125th Street. “It is a restaurant that looks like a real restaurant, and has people who eat for not much money, and they eat all the same BBQ. And I wonder how the people there make it when they are sick. It’s very hard to be sick in America.”
Depardieu said that he sped up to Harlem immediately after getting off the plane and unlike many French visitors, he plans to avoid Brooklyn, because he sees it as a place in which the “bobo” residents pretend to be hipsters while living a well-to-do bourgeois lifestyle.
“Harlem, yes, because Brooklyn is finished.”