Oh, the holidays! Filled with festive family fun and, evidently, engagements. We’ve all heard the news about Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, Drew Barrymore and her art dealer, and last week we said congratulations to Aretha Franklin and Willie Wilkerson.
We were expecting the marriage proposals to slow down a bit until the Valentine season, but it seems that well-wishes might also be in order for Evan Rachel Wood and Jamie Bell, and, as of this morning, Halle Berry and French actor Olivier Martinez. A new means of fighting off the January blues, perhaps?
In light of this latest nuptial news, and as fans of Ms. Berry, we wanted to make sure her new beau is up to scratch—just who is this Olivier Martinez? Those of you familiar with the Adrian Lyne’s Oscar-nominated film Unfaithful will recognize Mr. Martinez as Diane Lane’s midlife lust-object (so much better than a tennis instructor!). Or, if tabloids are of more interest to you, the name Martinez might ring a bell in conjunction with the many famous ladies he has romanced—Juliette Binoche, Kylie Minogue, Mira Sorvino. We decided to refresh our Olivier Martinez trivia by re-reading our May 2002 interview with the actor. My, the things we learned! It seems that Martinez is from a family of professional boxers, and once hoped to pursue the sport himself (we are thankful that this plan was never fully actualized, as we’re still quite upset about what professional boxing did to Mickey Rourke, once our Rumblefish heartthrob). In this interview, Martinez chats with novelist Vince Passaro about his favorite films and desire to remain anonymous and “free.” Something tells us this last wish is about to become much more difficult…
Olivier Martinez: Liberté, Egalité, Sensualité—Enter a New International HeartthrobBy Vince Passaro
Though he’s been a star in France since the early ’90s, and had a small role in Julian Schnabel’s award-winning film Before Night Falls, Olivier Martinez makes his U.S. presence known on a large scale in Adrian Lyne’s new Unfaithful. The thriller is Lyne’s latest passion-and-punishment morality tale, about a suburban wife and mother (Diane Lane, in her finest performance) who has an affair with a young SoHo book dealer (Martinez), much to her husband’s (Richard Gere) pain and dismay. Since it’s a Lyne film (9 ½ Weeks, 1986; Fatal Attraction, 1987; Indecent Proposal, 1993), I won’t be giving too much away to say that the affair between 40-ish Lane and putatively 28-ish Martinez is intensely erotic, and that it ends very, very badly.
Martinez actually is 36, a fact that shows in a few of the close-ups in Unfaithful, but you don’t mind the film’s small lie: His presence is always boyish, energetic, remarkably handsome and utterly charming. He plays the book dealer with just the right mix of callousness and caring that a decent but essentially immature man would feel toward an older, married woman who really, really likes to drop by and have sex with him. A lot.
The stylishly explicit love scenes in Unfaithful are of the kind that can make stars of far less handsome men than Martinez, who has the dark heat of Antonio Banderas but whose looks leave room for the comic touch, in the manner of Giancarlo Giannini. Offscreen, the Frenchman has been dating Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino for a couple of years and is the kind of relaxed, funny, low-ego conversationalist with whom you’d like to have a couple of drinks and talk about movies. Here we do just that, sans drinks.
VINCE PASSARO: How long have you been living in the United States?
OLIVIER MARTINEZ: I’ve been here since the filming of Unfaithful. Most of the time I am in Los Angeles. I’m working on my English because, as you can hear, I have a really terrible accent.
PASSARO: It works. It makes you sound, you know, French. [Martinez laughs] Has it been an ambition of yours to move into American films?
MARTINEZ: No, and it’s funny—after the success of the Horseman on the Roof  everybody asked me, “Are you going to move to Hollywood?” and I said, “No.” I mean, I didn’t even speak English. I was just not interested in coming to America. But then, with the Schnabel film [Before Night Falls], when I started to work here, I would say by accident, I started to… like the taste of the country. Also, I have found that I really like to work in English. It’s very strange because it’s exactly the opposite of what I thought it would be like. I don’t feel restricted by the language: I feel more free. In English, I don’t travel with my culture, my social background, my “luggage.” I feel like a new person.PASSARO: What is your background?
MARTINEZ: I was born and raised in a suburb of Paris by a working-class family. I am the son of a professional boxer whose family is Spanish from North Africa, so half of my blood is Spanish. My father was champion of North Africa and he beat the European champ. He was very good, a professional for 12 years. We’re from a big family of boxers. My father has seven brothers.
PASSARO: In the film there were a number of shots of you standing near a punching bag that’s hanging in your character’s apartment.
MARTINEZ: Yes, it’s mine.
PASSARO: It looks like an antique bag.
MARTINEZ: Yes, they brought it over from France. [laughs] Can you believe it? It’s an English bag from the ’30s. I bought it in a market in Naples and now it is here in Los Angeles.
PASSARO: Did you box competitively?
MARTINEZ: For three years. I quit after a bad car accident. The thing about boxing is that you can be a star for five or six years, but when you go back to the old life, it’s tough.
PASSARO: That’s true for many athletes.
MARTINEZ: Most of them, yes, but with boxers I think it’s tougher because you have health problems. I wanted to become a champ—I was surrounded by champs in my family and in my neighborhood—and because of this stupid accident, I lost my opportunity. It’s like all the signs were telling me that I shouldn’t become a boxer, so I quit.
PASSARO: So how did you become an actor?
MARTINEZ: Well, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to act but I passed an audition at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique. It’s the best school in France, and all the [film] professionals come to see the students. I played a scene at the end of my first year, and that’s how I was discovered. I was offered my first movie, IP5 , which was Yves Montand’s last movie. And then after that I worked with [Marcello] Mastroianni [on 1993’s 1,2,3 Sun]. [laughs] It was unfair—after two movies I played with my two favorite actors.
PASSARO: How did Unfaithful come about?
MARTINEZ: In a very simple way, actually. I read for Adrian and he picked me for the role.
PASSARO: Oh, so that’s how it works. [laughs] Did he have a French character in mind for you part?
MARTINEZ: No. It was written for a regular New York guy. But Adrian decided, “Why not make him French?” Adrian has a house in the south of France and he is very familiar with the culture.
PASSARO: Then how did it come that you auditioned for this part that was not intended for a Frenchman?
MARTINEZ: The first time Adrian saw me was on tape. But you should know that this never works—never in the history of movies has someone been cast from a video. But apparently—I read this in an interview, so I don’t know for sure—Adrian’s daughter saw the tape and said, “Dad, this is interesting, you should watch it,” and that’s how I got my chance. I had an audition with him and Diane [Lane] was also there. It almost never happens that way—you see the casting director and read the part in front of a camera. But when you work with the director and the real person who is playing opposite you, it changes everything. You are almost in a working session. I was very comfortable, and that’s maybe what helped me to get the part.
PASSARO: Was the eroticism of the film uncomfortable?
MARTINEZ: I was raised in a very traditional and old school way, so I’m not very comfortable with these kinds of love scenes on the screen. I don’t really like doing them. I had problems with them, more than Diane did, I think. It’s a movie, and we don’t do it for real, of course, but we need to be very convincing, and I was kind of shy. For example, I never play naked and I explained to the director, “If I play naked, I stop acting completely, so what do you want—an actor or naked people who do not act?” It’s as simple as that. I can’t do it. I admire people who can, however, because it’s very difficult. It is a handicap for an actor; we should be able to get past this kind of stuff.PASSARO: What are you working on now?
MARTINEZ: I’m going to do a movie with Helen Mirren and Anne Bancroft. It’s supposed to be set in Rome. The part is very nice and I speak a lot in the movie—
PASSARO: In English?
MARTINEZ: In English with an Italian accent. So after the Cuban accent of Before Night Falls and the French accent of Unfaithful, I’m going to do an Italian accent.
PASSARO: Are there any particular American actors or directors that you would like to work with?
MARTINEZ: Tons. But what I really like are old Hollywood movies. Very often I watch AMC—this television channel with old movies—two days ago I saw White Heat with James Cagney.
PASSARO: That’s a really great picture.
MARTINEZ: It’s so modern. It’s so real. It’s so violent. But it’s so smart. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Cagney was one of those actors who can be so mean, dangerous, violent and ignorant, and yet so likeable. This is art for me—when you can mix the bad and the good together.
PASSARO: In Cagney’s last film he played the police chief in Milos Forman’s Ragtime , and he was physically unable to do much, yet it’s an extraordinary performance. He was well into his eighties and very sick.
MARTINEZ: I really believe great actors, even with disease and age, can be great. There was Steve McQueen in Tom Horn —he was also sick, and it’s a great performance.
PASSARO: Recently I’ve been watching a lot of the later work of Robert Mitchum.
MARTINEZ: Oh, yeah. Amazing.
PASSARO: This is someone who did not at all rely upon his Hollywood persona. He invented parts.
MARTINEZ: He did. He escaped the cliché. He is always something different. And I think it is the genius of actors to be able to escape whatever people are expecting of them. Otherwise you become like a factory worker.
PASSARO: Unfaithful, because of the great cast and the eroticism and the attention the combination of the two will bring, can potentially push you into stardom. How do you feel about the concept of becoming a Hollywood movie star?
MARTINEZ: I don’t exactly know what you mean.
PASSARO: Well, right now, for instance, if you want to go out to a bar or to the market, you can do that and no one is going to bother you.
MARTINEZ: That’s true. People sometimes recognize me here, but they are very nice. I’m not a movie star like other actors in the way that I need to walk around with a bodyguard. My goal is just—and I know it seems very cliché—to get some interesting parts and make enough money to live free. Otherwise, to be a movie star, it’s a lot of compromise and also a lot of headaches. You can’t do what you want. You become a prisoner of your fame. This happened to me in France and I don’t want it. I want to go to the terrace [of a café], have a coffee. I have no problems with the fact that people recognize me, I’m very glad about it, but to be a movie star is kind of unreal for me.
PASSARO: But it happened to you back in France—how did you deal with it?
MARTINEZ: It was not actually a big problem. It became complicated for me to walk on the streets, but as I said, I come from the working class. I see my friends, my family, my cousins, work all day long for very little money, and if I have this problem of not being able to walk on the streets, it’s not a big deal. I want to become a great actor, and a great actor needs great parts. It’s as simple as that. All the rest is just part of the process.