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Film: Godzilla: my part in his downfall

The grandaddy of screen monsters is back in town. James Mottram talks to the actor Jean Reno about playing number two to a giant digitised lizard, while Joseph Gallivan asks whatever happened to good old rubber puppets
`I don't think you lose your culture by immersing yourself in other cultures. It is like a mille-feuille - you have a base level which you never lose." Life may indeed be like a bon-bon for France's increasingly iconic Jean Reno.

Usurping Gallic cinema's elder statesman, Gerard Depardieu, as France's premier export to the US, Reno's own brand of laconic cool is ripe for American consumption.

Reno is the natural successor to the chic Sixties style of Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. He has starred in his country's most successful film, Les Visiteurs, the time-travel comedy that outgrossed Jurassic Park in France.

More important, unlike Depardieu - last seen in the abysmal Man in the Iron Mask - he has cracked Hollywood. A traitor sporting red braces in Brian De Palma's update of Mission: Impossible, Reno was equally at home in Lawrence Kasdan's lightweight French Kiss. About to star in Godzilla, the summer's biggest piece of popcorn, and Roland Emmerich's first film since Independence Day, Reno is set to widen his fan base, if not his repertoire.

In a mixture of French and English, (two of the five languages he speaks), the words pour out as he defends his choice to play second fiddle to a 20-storey reptile: "If you don't want to do Godzilla, don't do it, but I know that doing it will lead to a dozen scripts. We've already contracted to do a sequel - it's just part of the system.

"Sometimes people who do action films become a real product. I haven't anything against that. It's the choice of your life. You can stop, go do a play or a low-budget film. C'est vrai. The question remains, is it interesting enough to do Godzilla?

"Yes, of course. Roland Emmerich called me in 1996. A simple human being, saying: `We'll do a movie about Godzilla and have a French character in it. Simple, and let's have a glass of wine.' Merde. Why I am going to say `No'?

"I was spending time with people I'm happy with. It was not that I had this American dream - it was rather that I wanted to realise the maximum potential from my work. That way, my dream would be accomplished."

With the monster's growth blamed on French nuclear testing, Reno plays a covert French intelligence operative sent to "clean up" his country's experiment.

Spending the first half of the film peddling a running saga about the poor state of American coffee, expatiating on the delights of Elvis Presley and chewing gum, it's a role tinged with resonance. Reno, too, is a detached observer of the country, while remaining critical of his own.

Smoking and laughing, the 49-year-old discusses the hackneyed political undercurrent of the film.

"It's not the fault of Chirac, because Mitterrand took up the programme. I am not defending him - that's the facts. Now France has finished nuclear testing, and I'm pleased. I'm glad it was raised in our film. It was well written in that sense. I hope it gives people a fright. You cannot have fun when such a lethal force is at stake."

Reno, who was born in Casablanca to Andalusian parents (exiles of the Franco regime), is no stranger to military procedure. He left Morocco when he was 18, joining the French army where he was stationed in Germany as a ranger.

Moving to Paris in 1970, he began working in theatre with the esteemed Didier Flamand. Despite working in the late Seventies for Costa-Gavras (on Claire de Femme), Reno's break came when he met Luc Besson, (then an assistant director), in the early Eighties.

"When I met Luc Besson I was playing petit bourgeois roles in the theatre, but someone else's view can change your perception of what you can do. He was one of the first who believed in me," says Reno.

Casting Reno as an aviator in his first film, Le Dernier Combat, Besson went on to use him again (briefly) in Subway, subsequently elevating him, via Nikita and The Big Blue, to the title role in Leon, the hitman with a heart - only the second lead of his career.

While losing the chance to reprise his Nikita role to Harvey Keitel in the American remake The Assassin, Reno welcomed the chance to diversify.

Never more so than when he starred last year in the charmingly black Roseanna's Grave as an Italian trattoria owner attempting to secure for his dying wife the town's last grave plot.

"I have great admiration for people who survive in this business. You have to be daring, but must respect the character and not go too far immediately," he says.

"Look at Clint Eastwood, who has played in everything from Dirty Harry to Madison County - still many different shades of character and spirit. You have to dare; you can't take an apple and turn it into a pear. You have to go via an apricot on the way." Fruit metaphors aside (he frequently compares his work to tennis players and farmyard animals), Reno's self- analysis is clinical.

"I am an actor so I try to act. But basically I am a human being, I am fragile; I have fears. I love people. I try to interpret what you want from me, that is all. It is some kind of chemical reaction sometimes, very strange to explain, why you believe me when I act.

"The only enemy I have is myself. It is the desire to please, that's for sure. The desire to seduce and convince. I do not have a sense of ego."

Having rejected LA life, Reno now lives on a farm in the village of Arles in Provence - "where no one talks about cinema" - with his teenage son and daughter from his first marriage, as well as his girlfriend and their infant son, Tom. " You have to find a good balance between spending time with the family and work: it's like a machine, Hollywood, boom-boom-boom, sending you scripts all the time."

Careful to strike equilibrium also between the machine and more low-key projects, Reno is currently hoping to appear in an American remake of Les Visiteurs, produced by Home Alone's John Hughes, with Besson potentially set to direct.

Of more interest is an as-yet-unnamed love story with Juliette Binoche. "This is something more intimate - like stopping at a small hotel," he hints. "I prefer this, rather than playing a monster like Leon."

Yet, delighting in his chance to play the Hollywood game, Reno's next screen appointment will be alongside Jonathan Pryce and Robert De Niro in Ronin, the veteran John Frankenheimer's thriller about mercenaries, set in Paris.

"It's a very strange story," Reno concludes. "A classical movie, because Frankenheimer is a 68-year-old director. I was happy to be working with De Niro." Ever the true Frenchman, he adds with a smile: "It was fun, eating and drinking all the time."

Godzilla is released on 17 July