While his incisive though sympathetic police chief role in Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! may garner him awards attention in the French Cesars – he just won for best actor in the Lumieres, the French Golden Globes equivalent – he is particularly effective as the newly elected French President in Savages, a television mini-series by Rebecca Zlotowski (Grand Central, Planetarium) that just took out the French critics prize for best series.
Zem has much in common with his President Idder Chaouch in Savages, as both came from poverty to become super-successful. While Chaouch is of Algerian parentage, Zem’s parents came from Morocco to live in France. The 54 year-old actor, who has also directed five films including 2016’s Monsieur Chocolat starring Omar Sy, has tried throughout his career to portray diverse characters, including Napoleon’s General in Monsieur N (2003), a Jewish father in Va, vis et deviens (Live and Become, 2005) where he learnt Hebrew and a transgender prostitute in 2001’s Change moi ma vie (Change My Life).
He is also at the forefront of a wave of Arab talent, as they represent the rapidly evolving French nation on screen. It came to the forefront with Rachid Bouchareb’s 2006 World War Two feature Indigenes (Days of Glory), a worldwide hit starring French-Arab actors including Zem, Samy Naceri, Sami Bouajila and comedian Jamel Debbouze. Together, they were awarded the best actor prize in Cannes for their portrayal as North African men enlisted into the French army.
“It was a great adventure from the beginning to end,” Zem says at the Marrakech Film Festival. “I’d shot a few films with Rachid beforehand, but this was one-of-a-kind in my career. Jacques Chirac was so impressed by the film that he decided to pay the pensions of people in the former French colonies, in Morocco, Algeria etc., so there was a positive political consequence. Few films have such an impact.”
Zem, who has worked with some of France’s most respected filmmakers, including Andre Techine and Patrice Chereau, explains how “working with a succession of auteurs enabled me to continue and to last.”
He is the most unlikely of actors to achieve such fame and success.
“I come from the northern part of Saint Denis,” he says of the northern Parisian and often dangerous suburban French neighbourhood. “I didn’t even think of becoming an actor, [I thought] that I’d go through school and learn a trade. But directors were looking for actors who looked like what they were seeing on the streets. They were looking for North African actors and I did a casting, and this is how I got my first cinema roles. They gave me time to learn the trade without pressure. As the roles became more complex, I started taking it more seriously.”
Initially he kept his day job, selling clothes at his parents’ stall at the flea market in Clignancourt.
“Even when I first went up the steps in Cannes, I was convinced it was going to be a short stint. The next day I was unpacking my stuff at the opening of the flea market. I decided life was going to be this. But after some success I realised this was a chance in a lifetime and I could no longer do both.”
That success he says was accelerated with his 2006 directing debut The Other Side of the Sea (Mauvaise foi), a romantic mixed-race drama co-starring Cecile de France.
Zem has made six movies with Bouchareb and six with Pierre Jolivet. “Feeling that you belong to a family is very important because people know each other,” Zem says. “They know exactly who I am.”
In terms of working with other actors he says, “You have to look for emotion. The more generous your partner, the better it becomes. Even when working with people who are meant to be moody, maybe because I’m tall and impressive they don’t dare do things that would inspire conflict. I always play a very low profile on set. Some actors need to be shaken; there’s no single way to lead an actor as they all have their moods and ways.”
Even if he is a very big deal in his own right, Zem was flattered when leading French auteur Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale, My Golden Days, Ismael’s Ghosts) offered him the starring role in his detective drama, a genre more familiar to Zem.
“I’d known Arnaud for 20 years and was sad to not be part of his universe,” Zem admits. “I thought I would never work with that kind of director, so when he offered me this role, such a present and complex part, I was deeply touched.”
Desplechin says he had been thinking of casting Zem for some time.
“It’s true, but I didn’t think he meant it.”
The thing that triggered Desplechin’s mind was when he saw Zem cry on screen, though he’d never seen him smile. In Oh Mercy!, the actor plays a gentle, sensitive though ultimately firm police chief.
“Arnaud said, ‘I see you smile a lot in life, so I’d like to see more smiling on screen’. The film was shot in six weeks and normally he takes twice as long, but the atmosphere was very relaxed. We did a lot of work ahead of the shoot. I went through a lot of police interviews where I saw the police being authoritarian, even aggressive. But Arnaud said, ‘No, no! Be kind. They didn’t do anything to you. Ask them things nicely. It’s not an interrogation, it’s an interview’. So, this was an interesting aspect of the character. I didn’t realise it at the outset, but each one of Arnaud’s proposals was echoing inside me. I’d never thought of doing it that way, so this is how it happened during the shoot. I came to the conclusion that Arnaud is a genius in the way he directs actors and takes you exactly where he wants you to go. He made me realise how emotions are right there; you don’t need to look for it. People tend to do farfetched things and it’s not necessary. You can do much simpler things.”
As to whether he might receive a Cesar nomination for his widely acclaimed portrayal, Zem remains philosophical. He has been nominated five times previously.
“I was never given a Cesar in 25 years, even if I’ve had so many roles. You can’t have it all. It would be nice to have it as recognition but it’s not necessary.”
“I play the President of the French Republic, who started from drug addict to become the President.”
It is ultimately a wonderful metaphor of what Zem has achieved.
“People said, ‘Oh he can’t play this’. It was quite pleasurable because this project seduced lots of people who were fascinated to imagine a Muslim president in France. There was something that echoed positively in the minds of people and we showed it. Of course, he comes from the north of Africa, but he’s had a tremendous career and studied at Harvard. I don’t think this is going to happen next week in France. A Muslim President? Are you crazy? Who would vote for a Muslim President? But the important thing is to figure out if he’s going to be a good President. Once you reach a certain threshold of power you get blocked, there are some natural blockage points and you will need another generation or two to see people other than Caucasians come to such powerful positions.”
While his previous policemen roles made him aware of being in a position of power, he did not get up close and personal with the French President. He says he didn’t need to.
“These people can be seen everywhere in the media. Since Sarkozy, it’s been easy to study and to analyse and mimic. Of course, I had to choose between the recent French Presidents but then I tried to mix up with the likes of President Obama whose career and background was similar – he went to Harvard and had obstacles to overcome during his rise towards the Presidency.”
As for Zem, did he ever think that a kid from the impoverished northern Parisian suburbs would play President of the Republic?
“You’re always pessimistic or fatalistic when you’re young and when you look at what happened to me in the past 20 or 30 years, it is exceptional,” Zem responds. “I was extremely lucky. Interestingly 80 per cent of the cast of Savages was made up of people with Arabic names and it’s a French series – this is not something that was conceivable 20 or even 10 years ago.”
Oh Mercy! and Savages will play at the Alliance Francais French Film Festival, which commences on March 10, 2020