Interview with Peter Coyote
How did you get involved in this French production? How does an American actor get in French cinema?
When I was much younger I did a film called A Man in Love — Un Homme Amoreux — that was a huge hit in Europe. The director was a French woman, and though it was filmed in English it put me on the cover of any magazines like Vogue, Elle, etc, all over Europe. Both people who saw it in America liked it, but it was victimized by a lusterless ad campaign that marketed it as a “woman’s” film. Anyway, from that film I got my wonderful French agent, Celine Kamina of UBBA and she keeps her eyes open for good roles for me.
How did you prepare for this role?
Most of my prep involves working with my extraordinary coach, Tanya Blumstein, a French/American girl with an extraordinary ear and a suitcase full of useful exercises. After warm-up we begin with vowel sounds as they appear in the dialogue, then words and then phrases. Although I speak passable French, in a script are many words and phrases I would never use and I have to prepare more fully than the French actors so that I no longer have to think about the language at all, but can trust that I have it, and let my feelings and intuitions flow. It’s twice the work of working in English.
When and where did you learn to speak fluent French?
Well, my French is pretty fluent, but that’s not to say correct. I learned to speak “sur les plateau du cinema” and so many words and phrases are rough and not quite correct—“Je me tire” (I’m splitting), ‘Fil moi une tige’ (give me a cigarette) etc. I love French and work on it diligently when I’m there, but there are not as many opportunities to speak it in America as there are Spanish (which I also speak and have worked in).
What would you say are the main differences between working in the US and Europe? Do you have any favorite?
I’ve actually retired from American films. They are so overwhelmed by the “business” as to make the work brutal - shorter times for films, longer hours, no life at all while one is working. My kids have graduated with post-graduate degrees, debt free and I no longer need to put up with it and won’t. Europe is entirely different. You come to work at a reasonable hour in the morning, can eat breakfast with a lover or children, get in costume and makeup. Eat lunch and then usually work for eight hours with all-day buffets available when you’re hungry. You get out early enough to get your dry-cleaning or go to the market or see your sweetie, and don’t get the sense that you’ve sold your sole to the company. After all, what’s your life worth? At my age I have more money than time, so I’m very careful with what I do with it.
People remember dearly your role in E.T., looking back in time, what memory do you cherish the most from the filming days of that movie?
When we were making E.T., Stephen was not yet the iconic figure he’s become. Consequently the set was relaxed and very collaborative. My most precious memory is that he let me write three drafts of the scene in the Hospital where I tell Elliot that I was glad that E.T. had come to him. Although Mellissa Matheson, the author, did a final polish, all of my stuff is in it. It came about because I told Stephen that I did not want to make adults or science the villain, and he agreed and told me to try my hand at writing the scene. That’s an unheard of privilege today, and I remain grateful, all these years later.
Are you working on any projects at the moment, can you tell us something about them?
Currently, the Ken Burns’ project The Vietnam War is playing - 18 hours in 9 two hour segments. It’s very powerful and garnering a lot of good attention. I did my farewell film in Canada last winter, a six-part series called The Disappearance — that’ll be out later this year. Lovely script. Lovely actors and director, but the fun had gone out of acting by this time and I knew that it was time to go. Working in Sub-zero temperatures did not help.
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