Isaach de Bankolé: The Quiet Man Speaks
This year’s New York African Film Festival screened Philippe Lacôte’s Run, which premiered last year at Cannes in Un Certain Regard and features Isaach de Bankolé as a dissident who assists the title character. FILM COMMENT’s Margaret Barton-Fumo took the opportunity to speak with de Bankolé about the film and his career over tea at a restaurant in Harlem.
You were discovered on the street in Paris, right?
Yes! I was crossing the street when Gérard [Vergez] approached me and I said yeah, what do you want? I wasn’t an actor then but I had some dreadlocks, kind of around the same time as Bo Derek or someone like that [chuckles]—so he goes listen, I'm a director and I'm working on this project, it's a version of Robinson Crusoe and I want you to play Friday . . . At that point I took two steps back and looked at the guy from head to toe. We were in Saint-German-de-Prés near the Café de Flore and I’m like, you know what? Follow the guy, you can take care of yourself. So I went to Gérard's place and talked to him for two hours about film. He was a real gentleman and before I left he gave me a novel by a guy named Michel Tournier called Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique, and the movie is called Vendredi ou la vie sauvage (a 1981 television movie). I read the novel that same night and it was the first novel I ever read all the way through. I had read comic books, I was all math, science, and physics, you know? But I stayed up reading the novel until five o’clock in the morning, and I went to bed saying, ah, I’m going to be an actor! Gérard and I would meet up and discuss the film, but after two weeks he told me that the producer didn’t want to cast someone who had never acted before. I said okay, fine, I’ll just go back to pilot school. But six months later he called me again and told me that he had shot the movie and I said that's great Gérard, so what? He told me that he shot the movie in English, and asked me to come and dub the film for French television, for the same character that he wanted me to play in the first place, Friday.
So I went to the studio in Paris and that’s where the magic happened. I met this English actor who I loved, and it was the first time I ever saw an actor in the flesh in my entire life. It was Michael York, and he was the one playing Robinson Crusoe in the movie. And I took his hand and I was petting it like, are you really Michael York? He was a god on earth, and Gérard was behind him going, come on, Isaach, hey! Come on over here and let me explain to you how this works: on top of the screen you’ve got the image, underneath you’ve got dialogue, there's the red light and now you’ve got to match the timing! Coming from a background of physics and math, this was all technical stuff for me and for two days straight I had a blast. I never in my life thought this kind of work existed. So Gérard gave me the names of four drama schools, and I chose the Cours Simon at random. But then after two years of studying acting, I left one day because I wanted to do a play and they said, no, you can’t perform in it because the character is white, and I said what? It’s a character. So I left. Then I was an extra in a movie here and there until I got the role in Black Mic Mac  and the rest is history. But my first professional work was actually ADR!
That must have been challenging.
Jim [Jarmusch] always says that I'm the champion of ADR and I say, yeah man, ADR! It can change a movie, and I love it. It's where I actually discovered the world of words. It was almost like I was on earth and in the sea, two completely different worlds, of science and of literature.
So do you still fly planes?
No, because I was going to flight school for multi-engine planes, but I have my private license to fly small planes. Hopefully some day within the next 10 years, I will renew my license and take off. I love hotels and I love being in planes.
How did you come into contact with Jim Jarmusch? Did he see one of your movies?
No, no, no. I met Jim in ’84 at Cannes. I was a young aspiring actor just barely out of drama school, but at the time I was working on the weekends for this company Videoclub de France that used to buy films and distribute them on video. It was the Eighties and they were using a computer, a small IBM, so I computerized the whole system for the company over the weekends, Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes Friday evenings, while during the week I went to drama school, pilot school and I was also working as a waiter! My boss knew that I was an aspiring actor, so he sent me to Cannes! It was my first time there, and in the morning I saw Strangers in Paradise. Later that same afternoon I was walking along the Croisette and I ran into this guy who used to run four or five cinemas in Paris, Frédéric Mitterand—he later became the Minister of Culture—and he handed me an invitation to a party in the hills at some villa. So I went to the party and I saw Jim. I had to talk to this guy because I had seen his movie that morning and loved it so I approached him, and I gave him a small head shot and he gave me the business card for his production company here in New York, Exoskeleton. A couple of weeks later I sent him an envelope with more details or whatever, but I never heard back from him. Then four years later I shot Claire Denis’s first film, Chocolat . Claire had been Jim’s AD before on Down by Law, so in January ’88 Jim went to visit Claire editing the film in Paris and he saw me in the footage and said, hey, I met this guy four years ago! And that’s how we met.
Black Mic Mac
But first you did Black Mic Mac , which is a lighthearted comedy, right?
Yes, I did, and I actually won a César for that film.* Black Mic Mac was already out when Claire was planning Chocolat, and she saw it and was like, no, this is not my actor, this is too different. But I also happened to be on stage for a wonderful director in France, Patrice Chéreau, in a play called Retour au désert by a brilliant playwright who also passed away, Bernard-Marie Koltès. It was a play with just two cast members, a dealer and his client, and that's when Claire was convinced. And then she came back one day with Wim Wenders, who was her co-producer on the film, and afterwards she told me that Wim said to her, yes, he’s good but isn’t he a bit too big? I had a huge belly in the play, I mean huge. But Claire said no, no, we'll meet him afterwards at the bar and you'll see . . . because the belly was prosthetic and that’s when Wim said, oh yeah, yeah, now I understand! [Laughs] So that’s how I connected with Wim, Jim, and Claire, and we all became part of a family.
And ever since Chocolat you proved to be able to carry these very serious, quiet roles.
Chocolat was my start of few words in movies! Maybe what I like about European cinema is the silence. My take on American cinema is that there’s no sense of pacing, that you have to notice and feel all of the silences, all of the gaps.
This is something I started to think about early in my career when I acted in a play for Patrice called Key West, also written by Bernard-Marie Koltès. I played one of the leads who decides right at the start of the play that he isn't going to talk, and the play was almost three hours long. That was very instructive for me. I learned that no monologue is really a monologue; it’s always a dialogue. Depending on the weight of the silences, your own “monologue” can shift and change from one sentence to the next. The wind, the emotion, the space has an impact on you and you cannot ignore it. Therefore you’ve got to be aware of what’s going on. So I like working with few words because words have got to be said only when they’re necessary.
When you’re performing on stage and you have to really project—do you sense the audience when you’re acting?
It’s a great exercise because when you're on stage, it’s different every night. I still believe that the energy, when it’s right, can be perceived whether it’s close or further from the audience, by the camera and through the lenses. When I started out, I used to think that it was more difficult to act in the theater than in film, but the more I do it the more I realize that no, that’s not true. On stage you’ve got to be focused and concentrate each night for three hours. On film you have to focus and concentrate for three months or six months at a time.
Do you feel like you have more control on stage? Have you ever watched a film after it was edited and felt chopped up?
Of course. Yeah, on stage you feel more in control because you hold onto the time, you know, the curtain rises and you captivate the audience. With film the director is the captain of the boat, he can go to the editing room and change everything.
In 2011 the Museum of Art and Design dedicated a program to you called “Isaach de Bankolé: An Unexpected Gentleman” and you gave a master class on acting. What was that like?
I had already done a workshop in Kenya in the Nineties, and the one I did at MAD was kind of like a condensation of that. When MAD asked me if I could do the same thing but with only two hours I said okay, why not? It’s a challenge, you know? In Kenya we would stage a couple of plays over three or four weeks, then I went to Ghana in 2004 and did the same thing. It was a German play, three hours long and translated into English—it was called Innocence. That was a cool experience.
I gave a workshop on how to create a character, how to portray someone using a kind of mathematical method. In life we do things intuitively, but as an actor with a method we are trying to re-create that intuition. I used a diagram and it was a lot of fun to do. First they told me that I had an hour and a half to do it . . . finally it became two and a half hours and my girlfriend asked me afterwards if I noticed that out of the 30-some people there I was the only man—and I was surprised because I never even noticed! Since the MAD workshop I've started to write a book on acting, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.
I hear that you've written a few scripts. Do you also have plans to direct?
Yes, I wrote my first script in the Eighties in France. It was in French and I never got funding for it but then I wrote a short, for which I got funding in ’96. I even went scouting for locations in the Ivory Coast with Agnès Godard, who was going to be my cinematographer. But in ’97 I was about to shoot and a week before starting I got a fax from my co-producer in France saying that I had to give up my rights as a director. I told him that isn’t going to happen because I got the funding myself, everything I did on my own. So I just stopped everything. My fiancée at the time [jazz singer Cassandra Wilson] was about to go on tour through Australia and New Zealand so I said I’m going to come along with a small crew and do a movie about you, and that became Traveling Miles .
It’s funny because I wanted to shoot the movie on film and in black and white, so my producer told me about this movie that played at Sundance in ’95 called Brother Tied, a beautiful movie in black and white with a soundtrack that was so incredibly rich—but it was too expensive to get the rights to all of those songs, so the movie never came out. My producer Juan showed me a copy of the movie and I hired the filmmaker Derek Cianfrance to be my DP, and he was a great cinematographer. We traveled together to Australia and New Zealand with a very small crew.
But I still had this short script from ’97 so when I moved here everything came together, and I started to write a feature film that touches on the Amadou Diallo shooting. It's called One Way Ticket and I'm starting to get funding for it now.
This is a feature film about the Amadou Diallo shooting?
No, it’s loosely about that but it's different. The film is about two friends, one is a street vendor in Harlem on 105th St. who gets shot—he ends up in a coma and his parents and his childhood friend from the Ivory Coast come to New York to see him but after a week he passes away. So the parents have to take the corpse back home and as they are delivering the paperwork for his release the friend goes to pay his last respects. He props his friend up and grabs him by the wrist and says I’m taking you for a last ride, and they go to Africa and come back on a kind of sci-fi trip that goes under the Hudson river and into the ocean. So I started to get funding for that and in the meantime I wrote another script last year that Jim Jarmusch wants to executive produce, called My Name Is Nobody. That one is about a guy who travels to a war-torn country where the south is split from the north, kind of like the Ivory Coast but he is traveling in a convoy that is carrying diamonds and gold across the country, and there is a politician involved who is tied up in some dirty business. Then I have a third script that was written by Jim Stark, who produced Jim Jarmusch’s earlier films, and who also wrote Mirage. It's a script of three shorts that he put together called La Vie and he wants me to direct.
I’m happy too, because I have had a very great ally in Willem Dafoe, who is going to be in both of my films. About 12 years ago I had him in mind for one of the roles in One Way Ticket so I went downtown to the Wooster Group, I dropped off an envelope with the script in it and two hours later—two hours later—I got a call from Willem! I was like no way, did you read the script? And he said, yeah, let’s sit down and talk! So we did and since then we’ve become really good friends and he wants to be in both movies.
What is the latest project that you worked on?
I just acted in a film by Joseph Cedar, a young Israeli filmmaker who lives here in New York, who directed a film called Footnote. In his new movie [Oppenheimer Strategies] an Israeli politician comes to New York, played by Lior Ashkenazi—a great actor and a very nice guy. In the scene we shot here I’m working at a luxury store and this Israeli politician stops in front of the window and admires a pair of shoes that he can’t really buy, because of the political implications. So Richard Gere enters my store with him and we both try to sell him the shoes. It’s a very long scene, like 20 pages long.
You’re also starring in a Hungarian Western that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival?
Yes, Mirage, and I saw it in Toronto for the first time. I hadn't seen any of the dailies while we were shooting and I didn’t do any ADR on the movie either. I was a little worried because the morning after the press screening Jim Stark sent me the first critical review and when I read it I was like, this journalist must be on something because this is not the movie I shot! So that evening I went to the premiere and he was right (it was a very positive review). I would say 40 percent of what we shot is not in the movie, but the director managed to get it right and use his own voice. I was really pleased with the movie, which in my opinion is kind of a cross between Jarmusch and Tarantino. It’s a very distinctive, interesting movie that’s going to be tough to get distribution for.
And Run, that just screened at the New York African Film Festival—you didn’t see that until it was completed either?
Yeah. I just saw it at Cannes and I was really surprised—in a good way. You never know with a first-time director.
How did your involvement in that project come about?
I was in Paris about four years ago with a dear friend of mine who was working for the foreign office there. I knew this woman since the Nineties, when she asked me to teach an acting workshop in Kenya. Then four years ago I met her at her office and she told me how she had met a young director who did a documentary on the war in the Ivory Coast and I told her that I would love to see it. So she calls [the director] Philippe Lacôte to see if he had a copy that he could lend to me and the next day we met—he had a copy of the DVD for me and he also had a script, it was for his first feature film and he had written a small part for me. Once I got back to New York I sent him an email with my notes and we kept communicating and exchanging ideas, he was really open . . . Then after a couple of years of going back and forth with different drafts, we went to the Ivory Coast to shoot—and I hadn’t been to the Ivory Coast in 16 years!
Is this the only film you've made that is set in the Ivory Coast?
I shot a French movie there in the Eighties, but it was a nightmare and it didn’t end well. I ended up being on set for almost four weeks without shooting, trying to deal with the production and it was a catastrophe! I’ve been involved with different filmmakers from the Ivory Coast and West Africa but nothing really happened until I met Philippe, because he was determined and he is someone who really wants to move things forward in terms of African cinema.
Your role in the film is small but crucial. You become a father figure for the main character who is running from one influential person to the next. He spends a lot of time with a group of agitated rebels but it seems like your character has a stronger political influence on him.
Yeah. His character is a young guy that I could have related to at his age. I kind of take him under my wing and instill in him a certain consciousness, if you will, because he doesn’t really know what he wants to do with his life. The thing is that my character is himself a little bit nostalgic of this era of the Sixties when you had idealists like Patrice Lumumba who were quickly assassinated. In the Eighties we had one figure like that, Thomas Sankara from Burkina Faso who unfortunately was assassinated—one of his friends succeeded him as president and was actually ousted this year by the youth revolution, just now catching up 25 years later.
By the same token I would say my relationship with Run is similar to my real-life partnership with Philippe, who is nearly 20 years younger than me. I’ve just created my own company in the Ivory Coast and together we’re going to line-produce several movies. Also about 25 years ago I went to the authorities about starting a film school in the Ivory Coast and I said to them, listen, I’m kind of doing well in Europe and I would love to give five to 10 kids a scholarship for three years and see what happens. The government at that time didn’t really understand about art or film but 25 years later, Philippe and I were lucky to have a meeting with the President and the same idea came up again, so now we are working together on a different kind of project.
I've noticed that many films set in Africa are shot in the West, in Burkina Faso. Why is that?
Yes, because Burkina Faso has a strong cinema culture, more so than other African countries. There are more resources on the ground and also they have a crew who have been doing movies there regularly since the Eighties, whereas in other countries they might do a movie one year and then not make another one for five or 10 years. Burkina Faso has the crew, the cameras, the lighting equipment, and the culture. My only issue is that the country is still controlled by the French, so it’s kind of tough to be free there and tackle any kind of subject matter.
How was your experience filming Oka! (11) in Central Africa?
It was very interesting. I’ve been talking with people who are still living there, like Louis Sarno himself, and it’s tougher today for him and what I would call his family, the tribe of pygmies than it was when we shot there. The infrastructure of the country—you know the camp where we shot is practically disappeared now and the pygmies have to keep going deeper into the forest. But I really had a great experience shooting there, and the people in the village near our camp were great. I love how we were able to mix real people with professional actors. Unfortunately I don’t know the status of the distribution and handling of the film.
I was able to watch it on Netflix.
That’s great, I’m glad you watched it. I’m trying to get a copy for myself! It was tough because when I saw the movie—I had a very difficult relationship with the director when we shot the movie—but when I saw the film at the premiere here in New York I was pleased because it was funny, but at the same time it addressed serious issues that are happening today, like the influence of the Chinese industrialists in Africa, the greed of our politicians—it’s all over the place.
There's a new generation of African filmmakers now. I mean, of course we have Nollywood, but there’s a lack of quality there. In terms of subject matter, experience and technique, I think we have a new generation that wants to make films and not be judged according to international standards, and not judged because they come from Africa. So I’m very pleased when these young filmmakers approach me.
*Isaach de Bankolé was the first black actor to win a César Award, for Most Promising Actor in 1987. Omar Sy was the second, and the first to win the Best Actor award—in 2012.