Picture an artistic, hyperkinetic boy growing up in the south of Paris, imagining his future cinematic roles. It’s unlikely he’d have cast himself as France’s most celebrated fashion icon, the gentle, broken genius, Yves Saint Laurent. Yet, 25-year-old Pierre Niney so successfully embodies the late designer in director Jalil Lespert’s upcoming fashion biopic that one might think it was custom tailored to his talents. Already a serious actor in his home country, Niney might just find that playing a global legend has a way of making an international career.
The Paris-based actor originally from Boulogne-Billancourt spent five months preparing for the role of Saint Laurent, a process that included learning to sketch—”I really sucked,” he admits—and obsessively studying mental illness of the sort that plagued the designer throughout his life. Niney spent hours in intimate, animated meetings with Saint Laurent’s confidants, like his longtime lover and business partner, Pierre Bergé, and his muse Betty Catroux. The latter spoke so candidly and with such love, recalls Niney, that “I felt like Yves was going to come back from the bathroom in five minutes.”
Niney’s own exposure to cinema began early. His father is a professor of documentary film, and his house “full of tapes, then DVDs, and a lot of books, always some creative vibes.” In 2003, Niney began studying at the Paris school Lycée Claude Monet, and it was there, at 17, that he met his current agent. The actor is quick to acknowledge the strength of their relationship in a business where loyalty is hard to come by. “My agent is really ethical and takes things calmly. On the contrary, I get excited and angry,” he says. He likens this balance to the foundation of the bond between Bergé and Saint Laurent. “It’s such a rare thing, loyalty between business people and artists on the basis of trust.” While shooting the film in Paris and Marrakesh, Niney began to understand the profundity of these relationships. “To find someone really complementary to you—to do what you can’t do—is unique,” he says. “We can’t say what would have happened if they weren’t together. What we know for sure is that together they created an empire from almost nothing. That is beautiful and maybe happens once in a century.” Maybe a rare role like playing Saint Laurent was just waiting for a rare actor.