Each time one watches French-Algerian actor Reda Kateb on the big screen, it is a surprise. Even though Kateb doesn't resort to gimmicks or much make up to embody his multifaceted and varied characters, he somehow reinvents the art of acting along the way.
He first appeared on everyone's radar with his turn as Jordi in Jacques Audiard's A Prophet in 2009. Then Kathryn Bigelow cast him as Ammar in Zero Dark Thirty and
he appeared in David Oelhoffen's Far from Men, a film based on The Guest by Albert Camus. He starred as the enigmatically named "The Man" in The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez by Wim Wenders, which played in Venice in 2016 and soon after, Kateb channeled the talent and spirit of legendary guitarist Jean "Django" Reinhardt in Django by Étienne Comar, the film which opened Berlinale in 2017.
These days, he can be seen playing Adel in En thérapie, a French TV series and in Promises by Thomas Kruithof, playing Yazid, a politician's chief of staff, opposite the ever stunning Isabelle Huppert who plays Clémence, the fearless mayor of a town near Paris completing the final term of her political career. Together, Huppert and Kateb create a fantastic duo, the kind of dream team that filmmakers must fantasize about when casting their project. For filmmaker Kruithof, at his second feature, not only did that dream become a reality but the combination proved a winning one. Promises is both an important film yet also one that doesn't try too hard, or seem to require too much of its audience. At the end of the film, one is left with a feeling of hopefulness, and that's something very rare these days. Promises (in French 'Les Promesses') is featured in the Orizzonti competition at this year's Venice Film Festival.
About his leading actor, Kruithof said "every actor brings something different on the set, Reda brings a vibe to the set -- it’s not always the same vibe but there is a definite Reda vibe."
We got to sit down with Kateb for a chat, after the official screening of the film in Venice. Kateb, who is pleasant and playful up close, answered all our questions in a wonderfully French-accented English, even though the translator was seated in the room with us. Wearing some cool sneakers and baggy white cotton trousers, at one point he propped his feet up on the table, unwrapped a piece of bubble gum and slouched down into the sofa, completely at ease. Although Kateb is known as someone who guards his private life and working process, he was open and candid with us, talking about how his late father is his one role model and inspiration, how special film makers felt during the pandemic as they continued to work, and what an actor and a director each bring to the table in the project.
How was it working with Thomas Kruithof?
We had a trust relationship since the moment we said we would do the movie together. He gave me the space to propose certain things and share the process with him. He was always available to share ideas and also had me meet a chief of staff which was helpful for the part. During all the shooting we were connected but he gave me enough space to feel free as an actor. Thomas is very humble, he gives the best of himself all the time, and that’s the way he can get the best from all the people around him. They see him, he doesn’t have to ask and people want to please him. I really prefer people who give their best and make you want to give the best of yourself in return, rather than those who ask, which makes it all seem like a job.
What did you think of working with Isabelle Huppert?
Working with Isabelle Huppert is the dream for every actor, and I knew she was Clémence when I read the script the first time -- so I could have her face in my mind and it gave me a lot of motivation. It’s challenging to work with such a great actress and I think the idea of challenging yourself is a big part of the acting.
The desire to work together and to be happy on set in the morning, this is the basement of what we can build together and tell a story together. So this was a trio of sorts along with all the crew and everybody. And I really want to pay tribute to all the actors of the movie because you have many supporting roles and when I saw the movie I thought they are really great. Unknown faces, theatre actors and we told the story all together.
Who are the artist who inspire you?
I started when I was a child with my father, who was a theatre actor [Malek Kateb]. I think it’s from him. I don’t have to look for someone else.
How do you prepare as an actor, for a role. Do you go out and research, does it come from inside, do you read about your character? How does your technical preparation go?
I don’t have any process that I use all the time. I imagine it’s a kind of mix of what you said. I also discovering the character while I’m shooting so I imagine the shoot is like a puzzle. Sometimes you shoot the end, which was the case with this movie, and after a scene in the middle and after that the beginning. And touch by touch you get a kind of idea of the shape of the character. I like discoveries so I met a chief of staff, found a lot of guys involved in politics but who were not politicians.
I don’t work so much on the psychology of a character, I don’t really know what to do with it. That is more intellectual and I need something very physical also. For me acting is like playing music, it’s like dancing — things happen in the moment. But the base for me is to be truthful in my job, on every character. If you believe I’m a chief of staff, I can take you into my story. If you don’t, I can cry, I can smile, I can do everything
But I’m not an Actors’ Studio kind of actor, I wouldn’t say I have a method I use all the time and the building of the character depends also on the director. I think this relationship between actors and directors is very important and when I arrive the first day on set, I try to show the director’s dream in the camera in a way.
So how would you describe what goes on between an actor and his director?
I once I heard an actor speaking about the relationship between actors and directors and I like the story he told. He said “actors, we’re like in the jungle, so you move in the jungle, you cut the trees, you see the lion and then you have to escape from the lion; and the director is in the helicopter and he shouts at you, in his walkie talkie and from this point of view, he knows better which way you have to go to escape from the lion, or to find some water.” I like this idea, even if it’s not true all the time, I think it’s just that from the jungle you can’t really see what is after ten meters, and from the helicopter, you can’t smell the trees and know how it is on the ground. With these two POVs we can tell the story.
This film was shot in Paris during the second lockdown, can you talk about how that felt?
Us, actors, we felt like the luckiest. At the time, everyone around us had masks, like now you have a mask and we don’t. This was the opposite of usual. Usually, you have the normal life and us, we are on set and it’s something else. And now the world was completely crazy, not normal at all, and us, we were playing the normal life. We crossed empty Paris to go on set, it was really strange.
It’s crazy we could shoot this movie during this period.
What is your relationship with the crew on a film set like?
I love sharing days with your crew, even behind the mask they had a lot of presence, this is very powerful the crew of a shoot. We had a great crew. They are like a temporary family! And this is always something very helpful for us. In the middle of the circle, me as an actor I feel like an animal sometimes, I can feel if the second assistant had the flu, or if Tomas didn’t have a nice sleep the night before, I feel the presence of the people and the places we cross at the moment. I don’t know where it comes from but I’m sure it helps the acting itself. Acting is not a bubble, you have to find a private space in the middle of everybody.
I heard a great actor I admire say, “as an actor you have to act for the crew also, you want them to be happy.” And when they are happy, they give more back to you.
How important is chemistry, like the one you have with your co-star as well as your director, to the success of a film?
This is something very collective, something we do together and sometimes everything is ready for the magic to come and the magic doesn’t come. This is like a promise. Even to tell a tragedy we have to play and we must have fun. And playing together with Isabelle we had a lot of pleasure.