The Thalys heads for Brussels. Sitting towards the rear of the carriage, next to the window in a set of 4 club seats, separated from the hallway by a glass panel, his press attaché is next to him.
He motions for us to join them.
Hélène, my boss, the editor-in-chief, practically falls into his arms in a noisy, exaggerated show of effusion. She simpers in exactly the way that 40-something teenagers who wear Zadig & Voltaire should simper:
“Elias…Oh, Elias, still as handsome as ever, I see! What do you do to get such beautiful skin? What’s your secret, eh? Go on, tell me! Courchevel? Santa Monica? Tulum?”
I feel a bit embarrassed for her, for both of us actually. Whatever happened to keeping “journalistic distance”?
Each of his answers comes with a ravaging smile, hands running through his magnificent crop of curled hair, and a hint of suppressed laughter. In fact, he too puts on simpering airs, only he has talent for it.
Perhaps it's because I’ve seen his face plastered everywhere for months, but I find his face luminous, surreal and yet at the same time, familiar… cinematic . That’s it, cinematic. Well I guess the guy who played the lead role in Danse avec les Djiins (in English “Dance with the Djinnis”) would have a face made for the silver screen, after all.
The press attaché, a 30-something Eurasian with crimson lips, stares me down as if to say who’s she?
My boss jumps in:
“That’s Mathilde, our trainee. She works on our website, creating social media content… Since the New York Times does it and Vice is popular among the young ones, it’s become incredibly trendy. Our publisher swears by it. But hey, I’m not so sure that 15 second video clips are what’ll save a doomed profession from planned obsolescence…”
It’s a line she uses every time she introduces me… Fake self-mockery that always comes with a laugh as embarrassing as a Like on her own Facebook status.
I set up my equipment, drawing attention away from this awkward moment: GoPro camera clamped to the armrest of my seat, smartphone as a backup, I ask the actor if I can clip my microphone to his jacket. My casualness is not met with approval.
“Where are your manners Mathilde? We’re not in a rush! Let Elias take the time to feel at ease,” blurts out the editor-in-chief, annoyed at having someone else set the pace. The actor comes to my rescue:
“She’s right. The journey to Brussels is short, better to start right away!”
“Twenty-six days to go Mathilde, only twenty-six days… and then you won’t have to put up with this b----…”. The mere thought is all it takes for an SMS from Laetitia to pop up on my smartphone’s screen: “Surviving the bitch? And is he as handsome in real life?”
Panic-stricken, I snatch the device from the table. Hélène is still banging on relentlessly. But thankfully she doesn’t seem to have noticed the message. He, on the other hand, apparently has. I can read an irrepressible desire to laugh in those green, almond-shaped eyes. He gives me a slight twitch of an eyebrow. He really is a handsome bastard. I blush, or something like that. For God’s sake, the last thing I need is to start simpering too… The press attaché is annoyed not to know what’s behind this sudden complicity. She scowls at me. It’s official, we won’t go on holidays together…
Busy rummaging through her bag looking for a notebook, the editor-in-chief, is oblivious to this skirmish. Now with her little Moleskine on her lap, she has the appearance of a student, like Sophie Marceau in an old film from the eighties.She puts her first question to the actor, about his rapport with the world of culture in general, and with the cinema in particular. A bemused flash glints in his eyes before disappearing behind a smirk. I’ve seen it dozens of times, that flash. Live or recorded, more or less fleeting, from actors, directors, singers, writers, politicians… In short, anyone whose job it is to endlessly remind the audience who they are. It means If I told you what I really think, you could write an excellent article, but for me, my career would be over.However, his answer is more surprising than what I imagined:
“Well, you know… the milieu, I know nothing about it really. They talk a lot, they know everything. Me, I perform. I am just passing through.”
“Just passing through, really? Twenty-two million spectators in France, sixty million worldwide, a Cesar for the Most Promising Actor, the Best Actor Award at Cannes, on your way to an Oscar…”
The actor hunkers down in his seat, as if crushed beneath the weight of the awards.
“Of course, it is incredible… far beyond my wildest dreams. Insane, as the kids would say nowadays. But I’m aware that it can all cease just as fast as it began.”
“I’ve heard that the night you walked up the red carpet in Cannes, you went back to your hotel room early to be at work on time the next day…”
“And why wouldn’t that be true? I was spotted during an open casting call. Shooting for Danse avec les Djinns took six weeks over the summer. When I got back, as far as my coworkers were concerned, I had just taken longer holidays than usual, that’s all. When the film came out the next year, I was nearly as surprised as them.”
“Listening to you, one could think that you’d never wanted to become an actor?”
“That’s right, I never wanted to be an actor.”
Glacial silence in the club 4. The press officer shot a piercing look at the GoPro, which hadn’t missed anything of the discussion. I can’t help but drool thinking of the buzz created by such a tiny sentenceNirvana in less than 140 characters. But the actor continues after two interminable seconds:
“As a teenager, I spent all my time at the movies. I went there three, four, five times a week, until it gave me a headache. At sixteen, you start wanting something else. Charleville-Mézières, it’s 50,000 inhabitants and nothing much to do once school’s out… The last bus runs at 19:30 and after that, the city sleeps. As I’m not Rimbaud, it’s movies that allowed me to escape. Later, my interest in what I was seeing grew, and the virus spread from there. I never wanted to be an actor, but I always wanted to be a player. It just took time to allow myself to do it. In my family, being an artist was not considered a profession. A hobby, at best.”
“So what happened between Charleville-Mézières and Danse avec les Djinns?”
“What happened… well, 15 years happened, that’s what. An engineering degree, a bachelor’s degree in Cinema in parallel, a few failed castings, a job in Paris, a lucky encounter, a first film.”
Hélène browses through her Moleskine, seemingly intrigued. She goes on:
“It’s rare to hear you talk about your vocation, your journey…”
“Some media are so good at making up a life for me… that I don’t even need to talk about it.”
“You’re referring to the scandal following your appearance in…”
Here, he interrupts her as if he didn’t even want to hear the name of the show being pronounced.
“Well that was my own fault really. I went into it without thinking, and it turned out to be an ambush. Ten days after the November attacks, with those people around the table, it was sure to go wrong…”
“Do you regret what you said?”
“No, I don’t regret anything. Regret isn’t my thing. But that said, I shouldn’t have taken part in that debate. I’m an actor who came to talk about a film. I’m not the guy from Bonjour Tristesse (French “Hello, Sadness”).”
“You don’t believe in engagement?”
“Did I say that? I said: I shouldn’t have taken part in that debate.You conclude: He doesn’t believe in engagement.Unbelievable!”
“Elias Seidah, you are the one playing the innocent here. You went to promote a film in which the main character, Ilyes, guided by Djinnis’ voices – that is, supernatural beings from Muslim mystic tradition – holds hostage his coworkers at the bank where he works, before going on a spectacular chase around Europe. Isn’t this an understandable parallel with the identity crisis of some young French people from immigrant backgrounds who end up falling into the arms of jihad?”
“What do you mean, no? Sorry to say this, but that’s going beyond naive — it’s outright bad faith.”
“Bad faith ? The only bad is how you pitch the film. The first time I went through the script, that’s not what I read at all. For me, it’s the story of a guy whose life goes haywire after a heartbreak, a kind of a Taxi Driver from the 2010s. The topic isn’t Islamist terrorism at all.”
Hélène's face fills with skepticism. He gathers steam:
“Even if that were the case, I don’t see how revealing my and my family’s story would have enlightened the debate…”
“Even so, your words were widely picked up on the web, including various community media – the muslimosphere, as some refer to it – who found in you an opinion leader.”
“And if I told you that my father was born Lebanese and Catholic, should I become the spokesman for Middle Eastern Christians?”
The actor is on edge, but it’s the press attaché who scares me: in her gaze, I could see the irrepressible desire to smash the GoPro in order to erase all proof of this discussion.
Elias sighs deeply, closing his eyes. Then, in a monotone like a mantra repeated to himself…
“I am nobody’s opinion leader. I do not represent anyone. This is a performance. I am in a film.”
Right at that moment, the words escaped from me:
“But you can understand that what you say holds importance, that some people find comfort in your words, your story, your trajectory, especially in those hard times.”
I expect my boss to pounce on me for encroaching on her territory, but instead she says nothing. We waited with bated breath for him to respond. He looks away, as if to gather his thoughts. Narrowed eyes, a disillusioned smile stretching his face, it’s Ilyes, his nemesis on Danse avec les Djinns who makes his appearance. Only for a few seconds. The actor regains a foothold, and concedes:
“I understand that… I understand it all too well. Even before getting into cinema I knew only too well the impact of a name, a face, an image on people’s opinion. My middle name is Michel. As a child, when I went to my mother’s family for holidays, that’s what they called me. In the village, that’s how my grandmother introduced me to friends, to neighbors. She found it easier. She would say that I had a name that didn’t go with my face. And so, to make them happy, I acted as Michel three weeks a year. So there you have it, your story about a vocation.”
“Speaking of which, do you…”
“Coffee, I need a coffee. Let’s take a break, do you mind?”
It’s a question that doesn’t wait for an answer. He has already jumped out of his seat, slipped around the glass partition. The press attaché just manages to grab him by the arm:
“Where are you going? You want a coffee? I’ll go get it for you!”
- “Keep calm,Valentine. I just need to get some air, to stretch my legs… a 15-hour flight then that, I’ve maxed out.”
“Elias…! But, wait, I’m telling you… You’re not in L.A anymore, wake up…!"
She takes a baseball cap from her bag and asks him to put it on. The actor screws up his face like a kid refusing to put on his coat on a sunny winter day. But he ends up doing it. I ask the editor-in-chief if I should follow him to get a few mood shots. She’s deeply focused on her notes. “Go ahead, go ahead, but keep a low profile,” she whispers without looking at me. The press attaché, ready to go with us, is held back by a phone call.
In First Class, the suits have their eyes glued to their screens, discussing in hushed tones the customer meeting that awaits them in Brussels or that they have just left behind them in Paris. Elias makes his way incognito through the two wagons that separate us from the dining car. Leaning on the counter, he orders his coffee, jokes with the pretty waitress, asks her where she comes from in Belgium “Ah, Antwerp? Flemish, then?” Then he continues in the same charming tone in the young lady’s native language. She blushes, or something like that. Fawning, etc. He swallows his coffee in one gulp, giving me an amused look. I am Lost in translationAnd he knows it. He knows that I’m dying to ask him for explanations. Did little Michel speak Flemish with his grandmother? Who is this father to whom he owes his name? But I feign indifference, taking a picture of him and posting a live tweet from the magazine’s account: On our way to Brussels with @EliasSeidahOfficial. Coming soon, the premiere of his new film #Fratelli by Stefano Sollima #DanseAvecLesDjinnsMeetsGomorra.The picture is immediately retweeted a hundred times. My smartphone is purring with pleasure. I show him the screen, but he’s not very impressed. “You want to see the real thing ?" He takes his smartphone out of his pocket and reposts the picture on Instagram. His device instantly develops Parkinson’s due to the deluge of notifications. Chain reaction: two teenagers, a black guy as thin as a rake, and a blond one with a round face, are filming with their cell phones from the other side of the car. “Go ahead snap, brother. Snap!” says the liveliest of the two to the other one. From afar, I hear “snipe”. And the warrior-like pose they have struck with their device is questionable… Valentine, the press attaché, arrives in a fury:
“You’re going too far! I told you not to post anything, it’s going to be another shitshow when we get there.”
Bingo. Twenty minutes later, at the Brussels-Midi station, a large crowd of curious people have gathered behind the safety cordon, smartphones in hand.
The Thalys’ chief conductor, a little grumpy, helps us reach the parking lot through a back door. A black sedan is waiting for us. Elias sits in the front. The driver, an Arab in his twenties, eyes him nervously as if he had Al Pacino next to him. He has trouble breathing and is shaking slightly. A heart attack is around the corner… In the back, I am stuck between two women angry at me, one for tweeting without asking for her approval, the other for not mentioning her in my post. Great vibes.
When we arrive, the screening is already over. Elias Seidah joins the Italian director, Stefano Sollima, in the press conference. The final question is for the actor. A German journalist points out that in Fratelli, like Danse avec les Djinns, the character he plays has mystical visions and has a tortured relationship to identity, before asking him if he drew on personal experiences to prepare for these roles. Elias has the same weary expression as on the train. He tries to defuse the question:
“They are outsiders, I’m an outsider. It’s a good start for getting into character, I guess. As for the rest, I don’t hear voices if that makes you feel better…”
Cleverly evasive reply. A brief chuckle ripples across the audience. A French journalist insists:
“And the relationship to identity?”
“Which identity?” asks Elias, surprised, as if he was asked for news about someone he’d never met.
The host closes the Q&A session. Cocktails are served. The actor is the center of attention. He smiles, repeats over and over again with candor: “Ah yes, really?” as if he was expecting someone to come up and tell him that it was all just an aside. That he is still little Elias who played the role of Michel one summer.
Just passing through.
After that, we get back on the train, the actor sits by the window, his press attaché beside him, Hélène and I in a club 4. We could continue with the interview, gather his impressions, but he is looking out the window, his white headphones on. The landscape is gray, ordinary. Fields, houses, a few apartment blocks. No longer a cityscape, nor countryside. He seems to be searching for something to fix his attention on. An anchor. A role.
Don't miss the next stories ...!