Lambert Wilson in the Spotlight

“Just take a deep breath and relax!” Lambert Wilson tells me as we sit down to discuss his stage and film projects for the year. Given the actor-singer’s reserved character and his sometimes strained relationship with the press, the advice sounds more like self-encouragement.

Despite numerous misconceptions about his private life and personality, Wilson fights to maintain a certain degree of mystery about his image. “It’s true that I won’t do certain television programmes where you have to sit down and start laughing with the guys. It’s just not me.” The 38-year-old bachelor is well aware that mystery has its price. Despite roles with internationally known stars such as Sean Connery (“Five Days One Summer”) and Jane Fonda (“Julia”), Wilson has yet to score a real hit at the box office. He has also appeared onstage as a narrator and singer. The public has had a hard time following his unconventional career. So, who is this secretive chameleon whose character puzzles his own people?

Although the French can easily identify the son of veteran stage actor Georges Wilson, they find it much more difficult to identify with  him. Nevertheless, Wilson is hoping that some of his image problems will dissipate as French people see more of him on stage and screen in the months ahead. This year brings the release of three films (two French and one British), a collection of French cinema songs (“Démons et Merveilles”) and an onstage performance (same name) at the Théâtre des Abbesses (to May 10). By focusing on exclusively French projects, Wilson hopes to shed the image of an actor ill at ease in his homeland.

It could be argued that Wilson doesn’t have the look or physique of the “ordinary guy” movie stars that the French seem to champion. In addition, he often has expressed more interest in foreign cultures than his own, which did little to endear him to his own people. “Perhaps I spoke too much about my admiration for English theater and English films, and they started thinking, ‘He’s not one of ours,'” Wilson muses. Furthermore, there’s his almost singular status as a truly bilingual actor. Not only does Wilson appear in  British and American films, he has sufficient linguistic mastery to take parts written for Anglo-Saxon characters. Unlike Juliette Binoche, who played a French-Canadian in “The English Patient,” or Gérard Depardieu, whose accent sounds “cute” to American ears, Wilson is capable of passing for an Englishman. (Listen to his crisp British accent in “The Leading Man,” scheduled for UK release later this month.) His ability to assume different nationalities is a remarkable feat indeed, considering that he did not even set foot in the UK until he was 18. He was dubbed the “English Dandy” by his compatriots, very few of whom realize that no one in his household ever spoke anything but French (the surname comes from his Irish grandmother, who died when Lambert’s father was 11.)

While dozens of French actors have stammered their way through British or American films with the help of language tutors, few have dared to walk onstage in London. (Last year, for instance, the British press crucified Isabelle Huppert for her interpretation of “Mary, Queen of Scots.”) Only Wilson could carry off a part in a play – a musical comedy, no less! An avid fan of Stephen Sondheim, the baritone could not resist the challenge of playing in “A Little Night Music” at the National Theatre. By consciously maintaining a low profile while in London, he was spared the usual harpooning reserved for actors from the Continent. His individual performance aside, the whole idea of performing in musical comedy raised eyebrows at home as the genre is considered somewhat vulgar by the French. Tourists may buy tickets to see “42nd Street” in New York as a kind of cultural curiosity, but they prefer to patronize their own state-subsidized theater in Paris. “As far as French musical projects are concerned,” Wilson sighs, “we don’t have the composers or the tradition. Furthermore, actors in France receive no vocal training whatsoever, so casting for something like ‘Les Misérables’ becomes a huge problem.” Wilson also blames young avant-garde French directors, who, he says, “wouldn’t dream of producing anything that wasn’t German or existential.”

One exception, however, was the internationally renowned film director Alain Resnais (“Hiroshima Mon Amour,” “Last Year at Marienbad”), who approached the actor last year with the idea of doing a kind of musical tribute on film to the late English playwright Dennis Potter (“Pennies From Heaven,” “The Singing Detective”). The French director was fascinated by Potter’s unique way of advancing a story by inserting songs. Resnais is currently piecing together his latest film, “On Connaît la Chanson,” along these lines as a kind of tribute to the Englishman. Wilson plays an unscrupulous real estate agent who seduces his victims into buying overpriced apartments, in a film he describes as “an existential comedy with six characters about the modern lack of communication and games of appearances.”

With a solid script in hand by Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui (authors of the tremendously successful “Un Air de Famille”), Resnais and Wilson delved into the archives of French cinema songs and discover long-forgotten jewels. In fact, Resnais often suggested material for Wilson’s new studio recording, “Démons et Merveilles.” Although the record company encouraged Wilson to use a full orchestra, he opted for far more intimate arrangements that allow him to emphasize interpretation instead of vocal production. “I like the idea that they’re sort of whispered in a way,” he says. While paying tribute to black and white French cinema of  the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, Wilson wants to breathe new life into “little masterpieces” by giving them funny or unexpected reinterpretations.

Unlike today’s soundtracks, in which songs are used primarily as marketing tools and often clumsily tacked onto the film during the closing credits, songs from that era played a vital role in the development of the characters and were inextricably linked to the theme of the film. Selecting pieces from hundreds of films, was no easy task, and Wilson steps in and out of myriad roles during the Resnais’ two-hour spectacle. The abrupt changes of character certainly present the actor with an opportunity to display his intelligence and emotional agility as a performer. A greater challenge, however, is to pick up a thread of continuity essential for the show to succeed –  a continuity, some say, that Wilson’s career in general has lacked. As a curious public turns out to see the chameleon change colors, Wilson feels confident about all his choices.

Lambert Wilson performs “Démons et  Merveilles, Chansons du Cinéma Français des Années 35-60”  to May 10, Théâtre de la Ville/Les Abbesses, 31, rue des Abbesses, 18e, Mº Blanche, tel: