The big cheese: The crazy life of Gérard Depardieu

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He has 180 screen credits to his name. He has awkward attitudes to life, love, food and drink. He has two new films out. And he's taking no prisoners. Welcome to the world of Gérard Depardieu, France's biggest film star

Such is the effect he conjures that those ushered into the company of Gérard Depardieu are prone to making wild comparisons: the build of a Charolais bull and the resilience of a builder's skip, said one interviewer; like a circus acrobat at the bottom of a human pyramid, noted another of his vast torso. As a child, his nickname was Petarou – the little firecracker. As an adult, he was referred to by the late Marguerite Duras, who directed him in two films, as "a big, beautiful runaway truck of a man". He has a thatch of straw-blond hair and sausage-thick fingers, though Pope John Paul II thought he looked like Saint Augustine.

Depardieu has survived 17 (at the last count) motorbike accidents, a quintuple heart bypass and a runway accident when his small plane smacked into a Boeing 727 at Madrid airport. He's also seen through a poverty-ravished childhood, a short spell in jail for theft and a 26-year marriage. Little wonder the French call him "une force de la nature". Dressed today in a navy suit and pale-blue shirt, the buttons straining at his considerable girth, not even a hurricane would blow him over. "I am a killer of life," he tells me, "but I've never used my bullets!" No, I'm not really sure what he means either. But it sounds good.

When we meet, he is sitting in the boardroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Berlin. A beleaguered-looking interpreter is by his side. If Depardieu is wary of the media, he's just as cautious of those employed to put his words into English. Back when he was nominated for an Oscar for Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), perhaps the only time a character's nose has outflanked his own bulbous protrusion, he looked to be the favourite, until an article in Time alleged the actor might have "participated in" a rape while young. In fact, it should have said he "witnessed" one. By the time the slapdash translation was corrected, the damage was done – and he'd lost to Reversal of Fortune's Jeremy Irons.

While he allows his (word-perfect) bilingual minion to bring his first couple of answers to life, he then switches to his own inimitable English, mixing and matching verbs like ingredients in a rustic dish. "I understand much better than I speak," he says, a phrase that doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Still, he's entirely able to articulate his bile for Hollywood movies. "I refused more than I did," he spits. "In Hollywood, you still have wonderful actors but it's so hard to work there. To work becomes a Kafka nightmare – it's the last communist country!"

His sojourns in Los Angeles have been rare – 1990 rom-com Green Card was a high point, but the likes of 102 Dalmatians (2000) and Last Holiday (2006) were not. But his work rate in Europe is ferocious; more than 180 film and TV credits since he began in 1970. That's four-and-a-half films a year for four decades. Cameos. Support. Top-billing. When you're the most famous man in French cinema, size really doesn't matter. "It's the people you work with [that matter]," he explains. "It's not the role. I don't give a shit about the role. I don't have any ambition or career plans."

It seems strange for a man who met the Pope, lunched with Princess Diana and calls Fidel Castro a close friend to claim he has no ambition. "I never have," he protests. "I'm living in the present. I have no ambition. It's true. But I want to live. I'm curious about people. That's what I've always done since I've been a small boy. I'm curious about others. I do this profession. I'm an actor. And it is, for me, an opportunity to meet people. One of the advantages of my profession is I come into contact with many people."

But acting is just one part of the Depardieu portfolio. Quite apart from the investments in Cuban oil fields (hence the Castro connection) and Romanian telecommunication and textiles industries, most famously he's a producer of wine, purchasing in 1989 the 13th-century Château de Tigné estate in Anjou, in the lower Loire valley of western France, which now annually produces 12 cuvées – 350,000 bottles. He's since expanded globally, co-owning a series of tiny estates in Argentina, Italy, Algeria, Morocco and Bordeaux with wine mogul Bernard Magrez. "I'm not passionate about wine-making," he stresses. "I'm passionate about the country. I know the people who grow my grapes."

His mobile rings and he briefly interrupts the conversation to answer. Apparently, he runs so many businesses, he's had pockets sewn into his period-movie costumes to house his various phones. He also owns the restaurant Le Fontaine Gaillon, nestled in the heart of the Opéra district of Paris. "I take care of the restaurant and also the people who come to the restaurant," he says. "So when you have a restaurant, if you want to make a good cook, you have to take care of the food. How it tastes, the clarity of everything. The meat, food, fish, birds, how they grew up, who takes care of that, so that makes you alive. And that means communication with the people who are passionate about that."

Despite these entrepreneurial activities, he's still entranced by film. Of his two new efforts, the tragi-comedy Mammuth is the one he clearly holds dear. Looking like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, with his long, blond locks, Depardieu plays Serge, an abattoir worker on the verge of retirement. When his wife discovers that he won't get his full pension due to some iffy paperwork, he takes off on his Mammut motorbike on a journey into his past to uncover some vital missing documents. "My father lived just like the man in the film," says the actor. "He was exploited by everyone and he never went in search of his pension. In fact, both my parents died too soon for that. But it is the poetry of their lives that we're looking at here."

Poetry: it's an interesting choice of word. Depardieu was born the third of six children in Châteauroux, 160 miles south of Paris. His father, Dédé, was an illiterate, alcohol-dependent sheet metal worker; his mother, Lilette, so crushed by poverty, once let slip that she considered aborting young Gérard with a knitting needle. Not much poetry there, you might say. The family was so poor that they could rarely afford even the cheapest meat, but Depardieu likes to put a romantic spin on his youth. "At Christmas, we had maybe one orange," he wrote in his foody tome My Cookbook, "but I had my freedom."

He left home at 12, so the story goes, to live with a pair of ageing but apparently hospitable prostitutes who worked the US army base on the other side of town, before hitting the road in his mid-teens. Hustling hand-to-mouth, even selling stolen booze, he eventually wound up in Paris where he enrolled in an acting school. It's why he's so wrapped up in his Mammuth character. "I'm almost a vagabond myself," he says. "I'm an absolute spectator of life, so I'm very like this man. I'm luckier than him because I have a job where I earn a lot of money. But there is also a lot of silliness and stupidity surrounding my job – like the effect that money has on people."

He says the film reminded him of his early days as an actor, after he graduated from the Théâtre Nationale Populaire (having overcome a damaging stammer). "It was fun to make a film as one used to make them – like Les Valseuses," he says. "Although even that was too organised for me! We were organised making this film, of course, but there was a lot of freedom. We felt free. It's bit of a change at least, from all the stinky boring films." Depardieu's 1974 breakthrough, Les Valseuses cast him as a young thug prone to car theft and GBH; a role many thought was autobiographical, it almost seems like a precursor to Mammuth.

Yet another significance is that the film is dedicated to his son Guillaume, the product of his long marriage to actress Elisabeth Guignot, with whom he starred in Jean de Florette. Guillaume died two-and-a-half years ago – aged 37 – after contracting viral pneumonia on location in Romania. It was a tragic end to a tormented life, one that seemed to take his father's wayward youth and shade it much darker. Caught robbing a phone box at 16, Guillaume graduated to more serious crimes – from drink-driving to dealing heroin, which saw him serve three months of a one-year sentence. Worse was to come: a motorbike accident led to 17 operations to repair his damaged knee. During one, he contracted a bacterial infection that caused so much pain he eventually chose to have his leg amputated.

It hardly helped that he and his father were at odds. In the French magazine Paris Match, Depardieu called his son "difficult" and "incorrigible", only for Guillaume to retort that his father was a coward and an imposter. "There is nothing in his life but deceit," he wrote in his autobiography. "He's the only person I know who lies to his analyst." I met Guillaume on more than one occasion; usually the encounters were strange, edgy affairs. He became an actor, he once told me, "to understand something about my father". And what did he learn? "It's an addiction. The first film I made, I understood many things: why he wasn't there all the time, why I had to raise myself alone."

Certainly, this tallies with the case for the defence when Guillaume went on trial for selling heroin – his lawyer argued that his client's father had been largely absent and emotionally uninvolved during his childhood. For his part, Depardieu is not afraid to admit his failings as a parent. "My only model for being a father was my father, an illiterate on the margin of society," he once said. Yet it would be unfair to simply chastise him for being brutal or uncaring. Guillaume's younger sister Julie, also an actor, is by all accounts far more stable. "She's the girl who will always act well, who will always do everything well," says her father. "She's the one who resembles me most."

After separating from Guignot, Depardieu had a third child, a daughter named Roxanne – after the female character in Cyrano de Bergerac – with model Karine Sylla. He then took up with the actress Carole Bouquet, whom he got engaged to before separating after eight years together. By 2006, he'd had a second son, Jean, with the French-Cambodian actress Hélène Bizot before moving in with the Harvard-educated novelist Clémentine Igou. "I had wonderful companions during my life, and afterwards we separated – but not like enemies," he says. "We stayed friends. It was always a costly thing to get a divorce, for example, but it's just money. It's not important. I had children with really wonderful women. I still like them."

He meanders now, pleasantly, as he talks more generally about his appreciation for the opposite sex. "I think we can learn everything from women. And I especially learnt from women who have been my lovers or my mistresses. But I also learnt a lot from female writers, like Virginia Woolf and Anaïs Nin. I prefer them to, say, Hemingway, and I would always prefer them. Although I very much like F Scott Fitzgerald, I would prefer Colette, for example. Because we can learn from them. Also because these women are born mothers. They live as mothers. And they often wait; they wait for something in their life, especially if they're strong women. And these are the human beings that make me patient, make me want to wait and accept inertia."

But if there's one woman he's not so keen on, it's actress Juliette Binoche. Last year, he ripped into her in an interview with the Austrian magazine Profil. "Please can you explain to me what the secret of this actress is meant to be? I would really like to know why she has been so esteemed for so many years. She has nothing. Absolutely nothing!" he exclaimed, never having worked with her. "Compared with her, Isabelle Adjani is great even if she's totally nuts. Or Fanny Ardant – she is magnificent, extremely impressive. But Binoche? What has she ever had going for her?" Whatever the logic behind his rant – some suggested he was jealous of her Oscar – it's proof that there's still fire in that belly of his.

Compared with a few years ago, Depardieu is slimmer and no longer smokes. But his alcohol consumption is still a little mysterious. There was a time when he boasted that he was drinking five or six bottles of wine a day. "Now it makes me heavy and a little bit sad, so I stopped drinking," he says. "I prefer to not drink so much." Just this sentence sums up Depardieu's contradictory nature – stopping drinking is not the same as preferring not to. Indeed, this is a man who is known not to regard wine as alcohol. "He didn't drink a drop of alcohol during the shooting," says Gustave de Kervern, co-director of Mammuth. "He was very focused on his work. But every so often he'd bring us a bottle of what he called 'working wine'."

While this may be true, François Ozon – who directed him in his other new film, the uproarious 1970s-set comedy Potiche – has a different tale to tell. The film sees Catherine Deneuve play a trophy wife who takes control of the family's ailing umbrella factory; Depardieu is a union leader – and her former lover. The director remembers how, for the film's standout scene, in which both leads dance in a disco, Depardieu refused to rehearse. "Apart from anything else, Gérard had had a few drinks too many that day."

Certainly, for a man who once said, "When you have heart disease, you start to be tired of everything," he doesn't give the impression of one who's losing the will to live. From his multiple bypass operation 11 years ago to his numerous motorbike accidents, he seems to have flirted with death almost annually. "This is part of my life," he shrugs. "And then others are no longer part of my life, because they died. But they are still a part of my life. So life is not an end. Life is about continuity – with obstacles. You need energy to live this life." He pats his heart for a second. "The body is fixed, but if I was to become a legume, you know... if I have an accident... it is not important. The most important is what you are. I never changed since when I was three years old, I don't think."

Retirement, of course, is not an option for Depardieu. He's already added a fourth Asterix film (he once again plays Obelix) to the franchise he began in 1999; he will play opposite Diane Kruger's Marie Antoinette in the film Farewell, My Queen; and there's talk he has joined the cast of Ang Lee's long-gestating adaptation of Yann Martel's fable Life of Pi. But such career trifles are of little consequence to a man once called a caveman crossed with Cary Grant. Rough round the edges, but still full of life, we finish on a philosophical note, when I ask whether he still believes in love. "Yes, I believe in love," he smiles. "But I don't believe in love for all life." Maybe this is what has kept him alive.

'Mammuth' opens on 3 June. 'Potiche' on 17 June

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