Jean Reno: ‘I was shocked to learn how many US soldiers in Vietnam were black’

The actor speaks to Ed Cumming about his role in Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’, his north African upbringing, and why ‘Leon’ would not be made today

Friday 19 June 2020 19:17 BST
'It's the right time to talk about racism'
'It's the right time to talk about racism' (Rex Features)

Jean Reno calls from his home in Provence, where he has been locked down since the start of March with his six children and wife Zofia, who is mother to two of them. The actor will be 72 in July, and although probably still best known for playing the hitman in the cult but controversial Leon: The Professional (1994), he now finds himself at the centre of one of the most politically charged films of the year: Spike Lee’s Vietnam War epic, Da 5 Bloods. He’s been doing publicity by phone and Zoom, “like calling back from space, speaking in a little square”.

“We’re quite isolated down here, far from the disease, so I wasn’t worried about [getting ill]” he says, his accent unimpaired by three decades of working in English. “It was more that you worry life will be finished. You think ‘what will I do, what will happen to me, what kind of work will I find?’ The first month was difficult, mentally. After that, we found a way to revive ourselves. I’ve been trying not to gain weight and not to drink a lot. We have been looking after the trees. We make our own olive oil. It’s a very generous tree, the olive. A bit of water and it gives you olives, oil, wood for the fire.”

Meanwhile, Da 5 Bloods launches amid a storm of rage and indignation. The film tells the story of four ageing former GIs, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) who return to Vietnam to find a cache of gold bullion. Opening with Muhammad Ali’s observation that “no Viet Cong ever called him “n*****”, and anchored by Lindo’s performance as a psalm-quoting Trump supporter, the film tells the forgotten story of the black contribution to the war with Lee’s usual stylish fury.

Given its subject, Da 5 Bloods would never have been less than polemic, but even its director must be surprised at the circumstances in which the film has opened. The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota, has prompted the biggest black rights protests since the Sixties. Da 5 Bloods ends with a classroom chanting “black lives matter”, a call echoed in the real world from Los Angeles to London. It gives the film an eerie sense of precognition, as if it was turned around in a month.

“It’s unbelievable,” Reno says of the timing. “I’m not sure ‘luck’ is quite the right word. But it’s the right time to talk about racism. The way [George Floyd] died, it’s shocking. It’s difficult to accept that you’d kill someone for the colour of their skin.” He watched the film with his children, and says he sees changing attitudes most clearly in them. “Like me, they were shocked to learn 30 per cent of the American soldiers in Vietnam were black. For them to have a boyfriend or girlfriend [of colour] is nothing to discuss. It’s normal. I’m happy, because that’s hope. Everyone has red blood.”

Reno plays Desroche, a French smuggler hired by the gang to fence their loot. Sweating in a white linen suit, carrying a little more timber than in Reno’s lean Leon heyday, he is the model of the seedy colonial power broker. “He’s a merchant in the sense Jesus meant when he threw the merchants out of the temple,” Reno explains. “Here is a guy who would sell his own mother to make money.”

The French have a special resonance in Vietnam as the former imperial rulers, who fought their own disastrous war against Vietnamese independence before the Americans arrived. Lee has known Reno for many years, but they hadn’t worked together until he arranged a meeting in New York to offer him the part.

“We met and [Spike] explained that he needed this guy to be French,” Reno says. “He said: ‘you’ll think about the part, and then we’ll do it.’ It was very simple.”

Man in the white suit: Reno as smuggler Desroche in ‘Da 5 Bloods’
Man in the white suit: Reno as smuggler Desroche in ‘Da 5 Bloods’ (Netflix)

Contrary to the director’s reputation for intensity, Reno said it was an easy working relationship. “He has a clear idea of what he wants. But since my youth I’ve known how to understand what kind of a demand I have in front of me. I come to serve. I don’t want to impose myself, my rhythm or my ego. You tell me and I’ll do it. If you’re not happy, I’ll change until you are.”

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This attitude helps explain why Reno has been in constant demand since he broke through in the early Eighties with a series of Luc Besson films, starting with Le Dernier Combat in 1983. It might also explain why he is able to cheerfully shrug off some of the pay-cheque dross he has worked on. For every Mission: Impossible there has been at least one Godzilla. In France he is equally known as a comic actor, but it wasn’t until Leon that he broke through with western audiences. His hitman strikes up an unlikely bond with a 12-year-old orphan, Mathilda (Natalie Portman). The film is a cult favourite but has recently come under criticism for its central relationship, which looks increasingly odd 26 years on. Would Leon be made again today?

“No,” he says, after a pause. “The rhythm would be different. You might have that kind of story, about the relationship with the little girl, but it would be with someone else. Not a killer. Someone more common.” So the killer is the problem, rather than the relationship between an adult man and a 12-year old girl? “Yes.”

Although he has routinely injected a dose of Frenchness to Anglo-American casts, he was born to Spanish parents, in Casablanca. Morocco, and only moved to France after his mother died when he was 17. His real name is Juan Moreno y Herrera–Jimenez. In his best work: Leon, Le Femme Nikita, Ronin, he grounds his unappealing characters in a hard-won soulfulness that draws us to them even as they sow death and destruction. It’s a cool rather than suave energy, far more flamenco than Folies Bergeres.

Reno alongside a 12-year old Natalie Portman in 'Leon'
Reno alongside a 12-year old Natalie Portman in 'Leon' (Rex)

As part of becoming a French citizen, Reno had to complete military service, which he served out mainly in Germany, but he says the experience gave him no special insights on Vietnam. “I have very few memories of the war from the time. It was far from me. I didn’t know what the French were doing in Vietnam; in my childhood France was getting rid of the colonies. Even when America invaded, I didn’t know it was about fighting communism.”

Although Reno says he has not seen racism on any film set he has worked on, it’s impossible to be brought up in north Africa and not have a keen awareness of racial tensions in France. “It’s a different kind of racism [from the US],” he says. “Here in France it is mainly against people from north Africa more than blacks, Arabs and Muslims. Also, in America black people are Americans. They feel American and act like Americans. In France, you have a lot of people coming from North Africa saying, ‘This is not my country.’ But I’m not an expert.”

Questions about politics follow Reno around, mainly because of a well-publicised friendship with the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he met when they were walking their dogs in Paris and who was best man at his wedding. Is he a Macron man? “No no no,” he says. “We have met many times, but no. The government has made many errors [around coronavirus]. But French people love to complain, it’s always the same. I stay away from politics. I prefer to talk about film, books, art, songs.” He is worried about the effect of the virus on the theatre. “People like to share vibrations and heat. We like to be among people. With a book or a painting, it’s yourself with your history and your own emotions. But a play or ballet or concert, that’s completely different.”

Later this year Reno will appear with Ruby Rose in The Doorman. Beyond that he is “imaginating” a film about a ruined Latino singer. For the time being he has his family, the Provencal sunshine and the satisfaction of knowing that he is part of one of the most charged and vital films of the year. “I feel proud and lucky that I got the call [for Da 5 Bloods],” he says. “Because it’s about humanity. I’m in some kind of step against racism.”

‘Da 5 Bloods’ is available on Netflix now

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