How Les Miserables Actor Damien Bonnard Prepped to Play a Painter With Bipolar Disorder in His New Film11/05/2021
With his intense gaze and buoyant personality, Damien Bonnard has emerged as a promising French talent since playing a conflicted rookie cop in Ladj Ly’s Cannes-prizewinning, Oscar-nominated “Les Miserables” in 2019.
Although Joachim Lafosse’s “The Restless” is the only the third film which he has headlined — alongside Leila Bekhti — his face will look familiar to anyone who has been watching French movies for the last decade. A workaholic with an insatiable curiosity, Bonnard has appeared in nearly 70 films, shorts and TV series since launching his acting career in 2009. Notable titles include Alain Guiraudie’s “Rester Vertical,” Dominik Moll’s “Only The Animals” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”
“The Restless,” in which he plays a father and husband suffering from bipolar disorder, was his most physical and challenging role to date.
The film was well-received in its Cannes competition slot and is currently playing at the Colcoa festival in Los Angeles. Luxbox has sold it to major territories and U.S. rights are still available.
For the role, Bonnard, who graduated from the prestigious fine art school Les Beaux Arts, drew from his own background to play a painter, collaborating with Belgian visual artist Piet Raemdonck to emulate his working style and put the finishing touches on the large tableaux featured in the movie. But his commitment went way beyond that, Bonnard took a deep dive in the world of psychiatry to understand the realms of this mental condition and how it can impact family life and ties.
“We wanted to tackle bipolar disorder in this film but the idea was not to make it the central theme, because it could have been alcoholism or drug addiction. The story is really about being in a loving relationship and all of the sudden, something comes and destroys everything, and you’re no longer a wife or a husband or a parent, you become just an ill person or a nurse,” says Bonnard.
One thing that stands out is Bonnard’s chemistry with his onscreen wife, Bekhti, and onscreen son, Gabriel Merz Chammah, who happens to be Isabelle Huppert’s grandson and was cast from among 300 kids, per Bonnard.
“The Restless” is Lafosse’s most personal movie to date and it became Bonnard’s and Bekhti’s passion project, too, thanks to Lafosse’s collaborative approach to filmmaking. They rehearsed for 10 days on location before the start of the shoot and worked with the script as they bonded with one another and their respective characters.
“Preparing for a part and becoming someone else is like a childhood delight. I love transforming myself for a part, learning how to move, walk, do everything differently,” says Bonnard, who held a flurry of different jobs before becoming an actor and continued doing shorts and bit parts even when he started getting meatier roles.
“I discussed a lot with (Lafosse), because his father, who was a photographer, suffered from it, and also spoke to a friend of mine who suffered from depression, and then I read loads of books about the topics, including novels and also testimonials, autobiographies, and some scientific, medical books, qnd spoke to several psychiatrists and some of their patients,” says Bonnard, who had sessions with a psychiatrist to “help him build bridges’ between himself and his character in the film. He also took sailing and swimming lessons for certain scenes.
Bonnard was looking for a way to embody that character inside and out, and convey his volatile temper and aggressiveness, so he also worked with a boxing instructor. “The work I did with him on the ring allowed me to reach that state of mind where you switch from calm to violence. It’s something that I wasn’t familiar with,” says the actor. In order to also express the manic and depressive phases of the bipolar disorder, he created sense memories that would make him feel up or down, like visiting beautiful things such as olive trees or going swimming with pink flamingos, and then the next day, going to a dark place where people have died by suicide.
Bonnard, who was also in Cannes with Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” now has several French and international projects in the pipeline, notably upcoming projects by Ilan Klipper (“Processus de paix”), Spanish helmer Pedro Aguillera, American filmmaker Nathan Silver (“The Great Pretender”) and Brigitte Sy.
“I love the idea of working with talented people in Spain, Eastern Europe, Germany, Britain, it’s fantastic to be able to do your job with people from other cultures and see these films cross borders — of course it would be easier if we did silent films, but the opportunities for international cinema are there today,” says Bonnard.
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