Interview: Anthony Delon - Playing the part en famille

He's been a jailbird, trouble-maker and womaniser. Now, despite frosty relations with his film star dad Alain, Anthony Delon has followed him into acting. Tobias Jones met him
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Yeah, there were scandals, stuff happened". It's taken me an hour to build up to the crunch question about his family's murky past, and Anthony Delon, otherwise supremely confident, is suddenly bashful. "I was a nasty kid," he says in a French-American accent, "and then I was a nasty young man who wanted to f*** around and do some nasty things. Also, deep inside, there was some provocation, because people would just break my balls for years, maybe because of my name."

Anthony Delon is the son of Alain, the French film star who announced his retirement from acting this month. Delon pere is a man who, like De Niro or Al Pacino, represents the very pinnacle of cinematic cool. He was, along with Jean-Paul Belmondo, one of the pillars of the French post-war film industry.

But the French like their role models a little more roguish and risque than us, and Delon pere certainly fitted the mould. A marine who had fought in Indochina, he was also notorious for a major murder, sex and drugs scandal which broke in 1968: the corpse of his bodyguard was found in a garbage dump, and - although cleared of criminal suspicion - Delon's political and underworld connections, like Sinatra's, came under scrutiny for years.

Like father like son: Anthony, now 34 and an actor, has had problems of his own. "When I was young, I just didn't care, I was thinking 'I'm going to do what I want to do, I'll steal a car, whatever'. All that time, I didn't enjoy it, but I had to live my life." When 19, Delon had his own leather company and part-owned a club, but his business partner in the venture was shot. Delon himself, for unrelated incidents, went to prison for a month: "Oh, that was for guns and stuff, for stealing a car. Every young guy is more or less rebellious," he says with a Gallic shrug, his embarrassment very genuine.

Keen to lose his enfant terrible image, Delon wants to talk about acting. We are sitting in the plush apartment of a Knightsbridge hotel, Delon holed up to promote his latest acting venture, a television adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek (to be shown on ITV next Sunday). Delon is, bien sur, good-looking, and is like many famous children: assured, engaging, nonchalantly name-dropping international actors and agents, most of whom seem to be friends, godparents or mentors. He's clearly lived in the jet-set stream, and speaks perfect English.

His film career originally took off in 1986 with a French version of Chronicle of a Death Foretold but, having taken it to Cannes to great acclaim, he quit acting. "I wasn't ready for it. I was young, looking for love, couldn't face the commitment. I went to America as my mother lives out there, in Sundance. I lived in New York and LA - I was born there, actually - doing nothing, just bullshit. I took some acting classes for about six months, and then just partied. My godfather was my agent, but I said 'no' to all the movies they offered me."

In 1990, he starred in La Femme Fardee, a spectacular flop. He starts laughing when he recalls the experience. "I was a gigolo, some weak guy who committed suicide. The movie was terrible. I was too inexperienced to realise how bad it was. None of us were very good, and when it came out all the people who praised me in Chronicle pulled me down big time. They criticised my lifestyle, my acting, brought up all sorts of mean things. It destroyed me."

He went back to square one, training in the theatre again. "Luc Besson is a friend, and he suggested I train with Pascal Luneau. It was Pascal who worked with Anne Parillaud for her leading role in Nikita. He did a fantastic job on Anne, I mean really good, so I went to meet him when I got back from LA. I worked with him for two years and learnt a lot. It just was a very small school that he formed with a few others."

There's more than a little luvvie effusion when he talks about his new project. Frenchman's Creek is a bodice-ripper set in the aftermath of England's Civil War. Delon plays, predictably enough, the dastardly French pirate who, hiding in a Cornish creek, woos the English rose (played by Tara Fitzgerald: "a great, wonderful, fantastic girl"). "The script is less slushy than the book. The relationship between the man and woman is more conflictual, and they both have loads of guts. She's an aristocrat who gambles and drinks and goes dog-fighting."

As he describes his role, it almost sounds as if a little autobiography is creeping in. "I play a baddie, but although he's a bad man for the society, he is a good man with a hard life. He's much better than all the aristocrats, he's real. He is a rebel, but also romantic, sensitive. He's a hero." Delon had to lose his LA drawl for the part. "In English, you now use little sentences, but for this, we had to be all very formal. They had to work on my accent, to make it more neutral, more believable. Instead of saying France, I was having to say Fraahhnce. Ha ha."

But, Anthony, can I ask you about your father? "That's always a sure question," he laughs. "People don't really ask me about him anymore. You do because you're British, but the French journalists know all the stories. There's nothing new to say, so when they ask me about him I just say 'You f***ing stupid or what? What else do you want to know?'"

He issues a polite plea to back off. "You know, just get over it. My life is my own and it's very different to his. When I was much younger and all this interest started, I found it very boring and annoying." Delon has said before that he isn't particularly close to his father, so are they still in touch? "Not really. Well, sort of. Acting is international and takes up a lot of time, and he did a lot of movies while I was young. Listen, I know in the States the acting dynasties - the Sutherlands, Sheens or Bridges - are seen as a good thing, like why not? They have no problem with that, but they do in France. I suppose they're narrow-minded, I don't really know. Of course it's jealousy, but it's weird. For me it was very difficult in the beginning just because my father was, along with Belmondo, the biggest. Paul Belmondo is now driving professionally, so I am the big name son to go into acting. People always make the connection."

He seemed pleased to be in Britain, where - but for a little journalistic intrusion - he is unmolested. "We finished filming in June and it was fantastic weather. Cornwall's beautiful, more beautiful than Britanny, because it's a mixture of Britanny, south of France, and Greece: there are all those coloured houses, the blues and reds and yellows. I'm not at all well known here. In France, they will always stop me in the street. It's been like this all my life, I'm used to it now."

But then, leading the life of an international playboy, he hasn't exactly kept a low profile. Because he has cavorted with fast cars and faster women (Princess Stephanie of Monaco amongst them), Delon has been a staple fixture in the gossip-columns of Paris-Match for years. He was even once, alongside Ivana Trump, Joan Collins and Richard Branson, one of the Miss World judges. "Why me? I think they thought I was a specialist. I did it because I had never been to South Africa. I thought I would work for two hours looking at these girls, and then go to the casinos. But it was bloody boring, just sitting there. They would come in and you would have to ask them questions. They were all like dolls; I just wanted to ask them nasty and dirty questions."

His time behind the wheel has been a far more pleasant experience. "I haven't been driving this year, though I was in a touring car for Alfa Romeo last year," he says. "I love the speed, the adrenaline, the competition of racing with the others; and then there's the technical part, just fixing the car, sorting out the aerodynamics. When you're behind the wheel, time changes. For you, one second is nothing, but on the track it's very important, you have a different relationship with time."

Delon now has a long-term girlfriend and a young daughter. "My girlfriend doesn't do anything, she looks after me. My daughter is two and a half. If she wants to go into acting, I will help her, whatever she wants to do. But I don't feel at home in the industry, I'm totally an outsider in France because I have a family who aren't actors, they're regular guys. I'm not really part of the bullshit, I don't play games, I'm myself."

After watching a short comic film he's just done, Delon begins enthusing about his "dream" to help the Parisian ghettos. It doesn't sound like token do-goodery. "This is something I have thought about for years. I want to create an institute for cinema for the neighbourhoods. All around Paris we have a belt of neighbourhoods that are dangerous, but dangerous because we have made them that way. They have been sacrificed by our society, and the neighbourhoods are prisons. Big prisons, but prisons.

"They have a lot of expressive ways, not just rap, but graffiti, interesting paintings, dancers. It's very specific and strong and special. There are a lot of problems, a lot of violence and shootings. People are being sacrificed all the time. I want to set up a centre for cinema, but about the technical side: make up, grips, stunts, the decor. These guys have a lot of ideas, and dancing is a better form of expression than violence. I like these kids. I like them because they're real. They need structure, and that's going to be the hard part."

We talk for another hour about the project, Delon seemingly pleased to be off the subject of himself and his father. For a person permanently in the spotlight, with an entree into all the glamour of high society, he's very modest. He says he's happier now than he has been before. "I'm pretty quiet, I don't get involved with crazy things. I've got my own family and my work. I don't feel at all political, only a little idealistic like everyone else."

'Frenchman's Creek' will be screened on ITV next Sunday at 8 pm

WHAT ANTHONY SAID...

On his early life

"I was a nasty kid, and then I was a nasty young man who wanted to f*** around and do some nasty things. Also, deep inside, there was some provocation, because people would just break my balls for years, maybe because of my name"

On his relationship with his father

"You know, just get over it. My life is my own and it's very different to his. When I was much younger and all this interest started, I found it very boring and annoying"

On judging Miss World

"I thought I would work for two hours looking at these girls, and then go to the casinos. But it was bloody boring, just sitting there. They were all like dolls; I just wanted to ask them nasty and dirty questions"

On being in jail

"Oh, that was for guns and stuff"

On breaking into acting

"For me it was very difficult in the beginning just because my father was, along with Belmondo, the biggest"

On his partner

"My girlfriend doesn't do anything, she looks after me"

On his early critics

"They criticised my lifestyle, my acting, brought up all sorts of mean things. It destroyed me"

On his outlook

"I'm pretty quiet, I don't get involved with crazy things. I've got my own family and my work. I don't feel at all political, only a little idealistic like everyone else"

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