Just over a year ago, Jean Dujardin was a French actor best known, if known at all on the international stage, for playing the sexist, racist secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath in the OSS 117 spy parodies.
Then came the last-minute entry of the French silent film The Artist at Cannes. As soon as the credits started to roll, the festival glitterati knew that they were watching something special, and it was no surprise when Dujardin picked up the Best Actor prize. The Weinstein Company bought the film for international distribution and earmarked The Artist as an Oscar contender. It went on to sweep the board, taking home the Best Picture award, and the 40-year-old became the surprise winner of the Best Actor Oscar – its first French recipient ever.
"When I won the Oscar I yelled "Bloody Hell! Brilliant! Thank you!" he says about the speech in which he accidentally swore in French in all the excitement. "That meant, 'I'm free!'. I was breaking out of the chains. It was all over. It was the end of something – six months of planes and stuff. It was like I was getting my life back again. I think that is what my shout, 'bloody hell', meant. Sometimes I felt like hitting my head against the wall in a hotel room asking myself, 'Why on earth am I doing this?' But at the same time, it was great. A very contradictory feeling."
Winning an Oscar changes everything in an actor's career. They get paid more for roles. Hollywood comes calling and producers constantly try to attach them to their film, knowing that it will exponentially increase the chance of getting the film made. For an actor, opportunities arise that had previously seemed the stuff of dreams. It's no surprise to hear that Dujardin is now going to play a Swiss banker in Martin Scorsese's next picture, The Wolf of Wall Street, an adaptation of Jordan Belfort's memoir about his rise and fall as a stockbroker, also starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jonah Hill.
And yet Hollywood was not ever really on the cards for the actor born on the outskirts of Paris. Asked whether he ever imagined having a career in America he says: "Well, no, my name is Jean Dujardin. I am of the garden. I'm not that naive – I could play the role of a French lover or a European bad guy." In reality, the actor is charm personified. The winning smirk that made his silent character so alluring is present but success doesn't seem to have gone to his head, and he remains courteous and polite. For him, he says, it is all about keeping the balance between "my real life, my personal life – and my artistic life".
He adds that he had resisted learning English so that he wouldn't be tempted by American offers. And not even having the famous gold statue on his mantelpiece has changed his attitude. "I don't want to become a superstar and not see my family anymore. I like simple things. I like being in my family in the south and playing pétanque."
Dujardin married French actress Alexandra Lamy in 2009 and has two sons from his previous marriage. He met Lamy when they starred in the television series Un Gars, Une Fille from 1999 to 2003. The series was made up of 10-minute episodes that followed the couple over the course of their relationship. Coincidentally Lamy also appears in Dujardin's new episodically structured film, The Players, in which the Oscar winner plays five testosterone-charged male characters who spend most of their lives wondering how they can sleep with anyone but their own wives.
The first film after an award-winning breakthrough is always a curious thing. Would the actor have made the same choice if they'd know that they were about to win an Oscar? At first glance The Players is a bold choice. A scene involving a 9/11 joke was reportedly cut so as not to harm Dujardin's Oscar campaign, and when the film was released in France a poster that has Dujardin posing between the spreadeagled legs of a woman was banned from the Paris Metro. It's not the behaviour one would expect from an Oscar winner looking to build on his success.
Yet there is no doubt that Dujardin would have done the risqué film, Oscar or not. He is one of the writers and directors on the portmanteau project which involves seven different directors, including The Artist's, Michel Hazanavicius. Dujardin, currently filming the spy thriller Möbius in France alongside Tim Roth and Cécile de France, insists that he's not going to let his future choices be governed by the need to protect his image. "I don't care about my image", he says. "If I did, I wouldn't be showing my arse in films."
'The Players' is out now