French actor Lambert Wilson is perhaps most famous, worldwide, for his portrayal of the Merovingian, a sinister — and delightfully camp — artificial intelligence in the Matrix movies. But when it comes to actual AI, the 65-year-old star shares the concerns, and fears, of his U.S. colleagues, who are manning the SAG-AFTRA picket lines in part to stop the studios from using new technology to make them obsolete. “I’m on their side, 100 percent,” says Wilson. “I think this struggle is crucial for our future.”
Speaking to THR Roma at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, where he heads up the competition jury, Wilson stressed his solidarity with the strikers, explained why AI is a threat he’s been “talking about for 20 years” and why, after nearly 50 years in the business, he’s proud of everything he’s done (even Catwoman).
I have to ask about the strike, where artificial intelligence is among the most talked-about subjects, and you embodied a highly evolved AI in the Matrix saga.
I am on their side [the SAG strikers], 100 percent. I am also a SAG member, but since I am not a U.S. resident, I am exempt from the strike, but during the final night of the festival, I plan to show solidarity with my colleagues. I think this struggle is crucial for our future. We are now being manipulated as artists and viewers. They hide the essentials from us, they don’t tell us what the real audience is, how they are “selling” us, or what we are really earning for them. Regarding artificial intelligence, I am an eyewitness. When they made the Matrix video game, Enter the Matrix, they kept me for a day making all kinds of expressions to capture and replicate using motion-capture techniques, then another day recording as many words as possible so that my avatar would be perfect. What will happen to that other self? He could happily declare a war, using my face and voice. And here we’re talking about 20 years ago. So, I stand with my U.S. colleagues. I believe they are fighting a battle of civilization, after which nothing will ever be the same. Who wins will decide a lot, not only about cinema but about our future.
What can non-U.S. actors do to support the strike?
Although I am not striking — in fact, right now I am doing a French series for Apple TV+, La maison, about haute couture — but I can speak out and reiterate my support. I would like to see the other arts involved: Music, for example, is even more at risk than film. We artists are seeing our work being “stolen” by these economic and communication giants; we have been forced through buyout contracts to give up exploitation rights to studios for centuries to come, and for undiscovered universes and galaxies. Stars excluded, of course: If you are Leonardo DiCaprio, you are part of the board that decides. But the rest of my colleagues, the 99.99 percent, are condemned to accept this abdication of our rights. Which are very personal, because they are about your image, who you are and what you represent. You realize when you’re on a train or plane or on the bus, and on the smartphone of the person walking next to you, someone has a screen, big or small, with your face, your voice on it. And you earn nothing from all those listens, all those views. We’re not just fighting for a few extra dollars, we’re fighting to reclaim ourselves. We are moving from one era to another, and we have to decide how we want to inhabit it.
Many already fear we are seeing the end of theatrical cinema.
I thought that too, then I came to the Locarno Film Festival, this magical place where this art still thrives, amid thousands of people lining up to enjoy it, and in a few hours I was reassured. I was very worried but now I see in front of me a strong light of hope, thanks to this little big miracle we have before us. I feel an energy here that warms my heart. The festival is probably where we should look to start again.
What does a great actor serving as a juror in a festival look for?
My approach is to ask myself every time what is cinema. For us actors or directors, it is important to reflect on the essence of our art. Actually, it is true for every creative: I think of a world that I love very much, the world of music, which is more definable than the Seventh Art [cinema] which somehow also contains all the others, too. After 46 years, I still don’t know: But I do know that here, my colleagues and I have to choose what is cinema and what is not, to reflect on the form, on the expressive grammar, but also on the content. Because I feel that there is a need, now more than ever, for films that talk about politics, to deal with issues that are at the center of our concerns, from the environment to the rights of minorities, from ecology to war.
Are you an actor who likes to watch other people’s films?
Of course! I know many of my colleagues who don’t like doing it, because they are too focused on themselves and their work, but I don’t understand that. I find that being on a jury also allows me to improve as an actor, to understand what works and what doesn’t work, why something moves me and something else bores me. It’s important to understand that, because the most difficult thing for the performer is to choose scripts. If you don’t understand right away whether a script is good or not, you are ruined: On the set it will be too late to change.
And are you good at this, picking scripts?
No, I’m hopeless, a real disaster. An actor should become a director while reading, but I can’t do that. I have directed several plays, but the stage is a totally different world. Here in Locarno, we presented Cinq hectares by Emily Deleuze, which I initially defined as a confrontation-clash between city and peasant culture. Actually, after rewatching it and talking to her, I realized that it is mainly about a female gaze on the deafness of men, on their childish obsessions that explode when they come into contact with the land: their sense of possession, of rivalry, of revenge. If they own a piece of land, they turn into children. And I saw myself in that. I suddenly saw it was a very political work.
You have worked in England, France, Italy and Hollywood. Does the way of being an actor change depending on where you are?
I am a mercenary, I go where I get paid. Joking aside, the only real difference for me is between Europe and Hollywood. We are more intellectually honest [in Europe]. A casting director will let you know right away if he or the filmmaker who is supposed to cast you doesn’t like you but if they will think of you for a role more suited to your talent. In Hollywood, they walk you to the door and tell you you’re a genius, that they love your work, and as soon as they’ve closed it, they forget you. Producers, agents, the industry in L.A., they give you a week to figure out whether you’re going to make them money or not, then they throw you away. I know directors are given five scripts and in a few days the writer has to figure out which one is “bankable.” I think of poor Pitof. I went to Hollywood with him, to make a frankly awful film, I can say that now: Catwoman. It went badly and they catapulted him into oblivion. Without remorse. It might have been his fault, too, but just a little, trust me. In France he would have been forgiven for this failure, we would have allowed him to make mistakes. Hollywood is another world, another planet, and I do not speak their Martian language. I do not understand the blackmail of big budgets, the excesses dictated by the supposed luxury of having millions of dollars. I live on Earth.
I have to ask: How does it feel to be part of one of the most beloved film franchises of all time, Matrix, and also have been in perhaps the most mocked, hated, ridiculed film in superhero history, Catwoman?
(Laughs.) I’ll try to give a serious answer: I’m proud of everything I’ve done because I put my best effort into it. I am a soldier, a sailor. I don’t leave my comrades alone in the trenches. I don’t abandon the sinking ship — I defend it. Even if I have doubts from the beginning, I stay there and fight. So I did in the case of Catwoman, although with some difficulty, I admit. The essential difference between those two projects was the strength of the author. On Matrix you have the Wachowski sisters who, despite impressive budgets, keep control of everything, they resisted any outside pressure, they took an interesting subject and developed it to the best of their ability. On the other, you have a young man, Pitof, who was given an interesting $40 million film. Then Sharon Stone and Halle Berry get cast in it and it becomes something else, a $100 million-plus film. And the studio gets scared: They want a story that targets all kinds of viewers because they are too exposed financially. The Wachowski sisters run everything as European auteurs. Pitof at that point became a mere gun for hire. I was with him when he received the final draft of the script a day before shooting. Compared to his draft, there was almost nothing left. There were whole pages we’d never seen before. It had been completely rewritten to “hit” the most important commercial targets. They wanted to please both children and grandmothers. It could only be a disaster. I have seen so many, too many, European or independent American auteurs be cannibalized by that system. Maintaining one’s own creative identity, in Hollywood, is incredibly difficult.