- April 16, 2021
- Parisian theatre
- Eléonore Duizabo
In the theatre as on screen, France has always been brimming with talented actors. From Omar Sy to Louis de Funès, we give you the low down on 10 French actors whose performances have met with acclaim right the world over. From undisputed household names to newly discovered rising stars, discover the dazzling lives of France’s most famous actors.
When Depardieu’s name is mentioned, the biggest roles in French theatre spring to mind: Cyrano, Jean Valjean, Tartuffe. Let’s take a look back at this famous actor’s incredible life story. Gérard Depardieu was born in Châteauroux. After leaving school at 13, he headed to Paris, where he discovered the great classics of French dramatic literature. He took his first steps on the Parisian stage and was soon spotted by the likes of Michel Audiard and Marguerite Duras. Depardieu first came to public attention in the 1974 film Going Places. French arthouse film directors couldn’t get enough of him! In 1981 Gérard Depardieu won his first César for his performance in François Truffaut’s The Last Metro, starring alongside Catherine Deneuve. The actor then developed a taste for historical roles, appearing on the big screen in Cyrano de Bergerac, Danton, Camille Claudel and 1942: Conquest of Paradise, as well as on television in Les Misérables, Balzac: A Passionate Life and The Count of Monte-Cristo. Depardieu’s career has demonstrated the range of his talent, taking in comic roles such as Obelix in the Asterix & Obelix franchise, dramatic roles such as in When I Was a Singer, and villainous roles such as in 36th Precinct. Depardieu is also known for his political engagement, as well as his notorious love of food and drink. He owns vineyards in Italy and restaurants and hotels all over France. It seems as though nothing can stop the inimitable Gérard Depardieu – not even a series of motorcycle accidents! He continues to perform in the theatre, to sing on albums and to write and shoot films, appearing in Dumas, Saint-Amour and Stalin’s Couch in recent years. With more than 200 films to his name and having worked with the finest directors, Depardieu truly is a giant of the French cinema scene.
Notable films: Cyrano de Bergerac, Les Misérables, The Last Metro, 36th Precinct, Going Places, Knock on Wood and Astérix & Obélix.
You may have seen him most recently as the lead in hit Netflix series Lupin, but this was by no means Omar Sy’s first major role. Omar Sy was born in the town of Trappes in 1978. While studying heating and air conditioning at a suburban vocational college, he began making regular appearances on Jamel Debbouze’s show on Radio Nova. It was there that he met Fred Testot, and they formed the comedy duo Omar and Fred. Their series Service après vente des émissions first aired on Canal + in 2005 and was a fixture for 7 years! In 2006, directors Nakache and Toledano granted Sy his first major screen role in the film Those Happy Days. This marked the beginning of a glittering career, and comic roles in 2 Alone in Paris, Safari and Tellement proches soon followed. His big break came in 2011 with hit film The Intouchables. Nakache and Toledano cast him as Driss, a disillusioned unemployed man who becomes the caregiver for a quadriplegic millionaire. The film was a huge hit, reaching 19 million viewers, and Omar Sy became the first black actor in France to win the César Award for Best Actor. The actor and his family promptly jetted off to Los Angeles, where he made his name in Hollywood starring in the likes of X-Men, Jurassic World and Inferno. True to his roots, Sy continued to play lead roles in French films such as Samba, Chocolat and The Wolf’s Call. In early 2021 Omar Sy made waves on the small screen once again, this time as the titular protagonist in the Netflix series Lupin. With appearances in more than 40 films, 11 animated films and 11 music videos, not to mention seven awards to his name, Omar Sy is one of the greatest French actors of his generation.
Notable performances: The Intouchables, Those Happy Days, Samba, Chocolat, The Wolf’s Call, Lupin.
Alain Delon in the movie Once A Thief in 1965
Alain Delon has said of his acting career that it began entirely by accident. Sure enough, the actor’s life story does seem to have been pulled straight out of a film. Delon completed military service, enlisting in the navy at 17 and serving in French Indochina until the end of the war. When he returned to Paris, his perfect physique and striking good looks opened the door to a career in cinema. He was spotted by the directors Jean-Claude Brialy and Yves Allégret, the latter offering him his first role in Send a Woman When the Devil Fails. In his second film, Be Beautiful But Shut Up, he acted alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo. The two actors formed a close friendship and appeared in several more films together. While shooting the film Christine, Delon fell in love with Romy Schneider and their legions of fans dubbed them “the fiancés of Europe”. Although they separated in 1969, the couple would be reunited three times on screen, most famously in the film The Swimming Pool. The 1960s was a fruitful time for Delon, as he scored back-to-back hits with Purple Noon, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, Is Paris Burning?, The Samurai and The Sicilian Clan. He acted alongside Belmondo again in Borsalino in 1970, played the titular role in Zorro, and appeared in The Red Circle and Mr. Klein. It wasn’t until 1985 that Alain Delon finally won a well-deserved César Award for Best Actor, for his role in Our Story. Throughout his career, Alain Delon made noteworthy appearances at the Théâtre Marigny and Théâtre de Paris, with roles in the plays Variations énigmatiques, Love Letters and Une journée ordinaire. On television, he appeared in films and series such as Cinéma and Frank Riva. In the 2010s, Delon received various awards in recognition of his remarkable career: he was made a member of France’s Légion d’Honneur and received the Palme d’Honneur Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. That was Delon’s cue to retire from his beloved film industry. To this day, Alain Delon continues to be revered by fans all over the world. The incredible filmography he amassed over his 60-year film career speaks for itself.
Notable films: Purple Noon, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, The Samurai, The Swimming Pool, The Sicilian Clan, The Red Circle, Mr. Klein.
Jean Dujardin was born in 1972 in the Yvelines department. After working as a locksmith, he discovered a talent for acting during a stint of military service. He tried his luck in Paris, performing regularly in bars and small theatres. With several other actors he formed the Nous Ç Nous comedy troupe, which went on to win the TV talent show Graine de Stars three times in the Comedy category. From 1999 to 2004 he appeared alongside Alexandra Lamy, his girlfriend at the time, in the comedy series Un gars, une fille. Following the success of this series he began appearing in big screen comedies, earning his first hit with Marriages!. His breakthrough role came in Brice de Nice, which broke box office records to become a pop culture phenomenon. Critics praised his performance as Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath in Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117 films, a parody spy trilogy recalling the Austin Powers franchise. He reprised this role in 2021 for OSS 117’s third foray into espionage. For evidence of his versatility as an actor, we need look no further than his performances as a distressed police officer in 2007’s Counter Investigation and a depressed advertising executive in 99 Francs. He continued to play highly varied roles in Lucky Luke, The Clink of Ice, A View of Love and Little White Lies. But it was his role in The Artist that would transform Dujardin’s fortunes. This silent film directed by Michel Hazanavicius entirely in black and white pays homage to pre-talkies heyday of 1920s Hollywood. For his performance in The Artist, Jean Dujardin won 14 awards and became the very first Frenchman to win the Oscar for Best Actor! Officially accepted into Hollywood’s halls of fame, the Frenchman starred opposite George Clooney in The Monuments Men and appeared in The Wolf of Wall Street. He also launched his own production company, JD Productions. In 2018 and 2019 he portrayed historical figures in Return of the Hero and An Officer and a Spy. Jean Dujardin will return to the big screen once again in 2021, playing former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy in the appropriately named Présidents.
Notable performances: Brice de Nice, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, The Clink of Ice, The Artist, Call My Agent!, An Officer and a Spy.
Jean-Paul Belmondo was born in Neuilly-Sur-Seine in 1933, son of a painter and sculptor. Despite failing several times to get into the Paris Performing Arts Conservatory, Belmondo never abandoned his dream. Even after being accepted, his teachers never had his faith: the aspring actor’s unconventional physique and facial features meant they only ever cast him in supporting comic roles. It was at the Conservatory that he obtained the nickname Bébél: always wearing the same old sweater, he reminded his comrades of the character of Pépél, a tramp played by Jean Gabin in The Lower-Depths. His ambitions undaunted, Belmondo débuted on the Parisian stage in the 1950s, appearing at the Théâtre de l’Atelier, the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Montparnasse and the Théâtre Michel in plays by Molière, Feydeau, Anouilh and Shakespeare. His first film role came in Be Beautiful But Shut Up alongside Alain Delon, who was also making his first big screen appearance. The two would go on to be compared with each other throughout their careers; luckily for them, this only strengthened their friendship and they were bosom buddies not sworn enemies! Belmondo’s talent grabbed the attention of French cinematic titan Jean-Luc Godard, who cast him in the iconic films Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman and Pierrot Le Fou. This collaboration marked the beginning of his involvement in the New Wave movement, and he would go on to work with François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda and Claude Chabrol. In the 1960s Belmondo shot more than 30 films, including A Monkey in Winter with Jean Gabin, That Man From Rio and Up To His Ears. While shooting the latter, he fell in love with his co-star Ursula Andress. His career took a commercial turn that lasted until 1990, as he featured in major productions, crime films and comedies, including The Man from Acapulco, Borsalino, Incorrigible, The Professional and Fear Over the City, for which he did his own stunts. Following the commercial failure of The Loner, he returned to the theatre, first as Kean then Cyrano de Bergerac, and appearing in plays by Georges Feydeau. In 1985 he turned down a César for Best Actor for his performance in Itinerary of a Spoiled Child. In 2001, Belmondo suffered a stroke, which brought the curtain down on his acting career. He was the worthy recipient of a Palme d’Honneur along with a host of international prizes. Jean-Paul Belmondo sadly passed away on September 6, 2021 aged 88. He will forever remain a national treasure and a true legend of French cinema.
Notable films: Breathless, Pierrot Le Fou, A Monkey in Winter, The Man from Acapulco, The Professional, Fear Over the City, Itinerary of a Spoiled Child.
Vincent Cassel was immersed in the world of the arts from a very young age: his father was an actor, his grandfather ran a cinema, and his brothers and sisters are all artists. In 1995 he gave a powerhouse performance as Vinz in La Haine, a film directed by his friend Mathieu Kassovitz that earned him two César nominations. The following year he met his future wife, Monica Bellucci, on the set of The Apartment. All told, they would spend 18 years together and have two now teenage daughters. Throughout the 2000s he was the darling of avant-garde directors like Jan Kounen, Jacques Audiard and Gaspard Noé, while continuing to feature in the big French blockbusters. But Hollywood was calling... So the French actor took off to Los Angeles, appearing in Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, Eastern Promises, Black Swan and Jason Bourne. Then in the 2010s he turned his hand to European cinema again, featuring in the films of Dominik Moll, Danny Boyle and Matteo Garrone. Renowned for his physical commitment to intensely challenging roles, he barely flinched at losing 20 kilos to play Jacques Mesrine in Public Enemy Number One and Killer Instinct in 2008. It’s lucky he didn’t because these performances added various awards to his repertoire. Cassel also appeared in the French films Read My Lips, The Specials, Mon Roi and The Emperor of Paris, and he won an award for his performance in Xavier Dolan’s 2017 film It’s Only the End of the World. Not content to only appear on screen, Cassel is also a film producer. And he leant his ever-distinctive tones to voice roles in the animated films Ice Age, Shrek and The Little Prince. This incredible French actor continues to enthrall audiences the world over.
Notable films: La Haine, The Apartment, Black Swan, Public Enemy Number One, It’s Only the End of the World, The Specials.
When it comes to famous French actors, there’s certainly no shortage of Jeans! Jean Reno is yet another to add to the list. Known worldwide for starring in Léon: The Professional alongside a young Natalie Portman, Jean Reno has had a glittering career that is well worth a closer look. Of Spanish origins and raised in Morocco, he moved to France with his family in 1970 at the age of 22. He made his acting debut at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord and would return to the Parisian stage frequently throughout his career. His first on-screen role came in Costa-Gavras’ film Womanlight, but it was meeting the director Luc Besson that changed the course of his career. He appeared in Subway in 1985, then in The Big Blue, which earned him his first César nomination. It was on to Nikita in 1993, before Léon: The Professional brought him international acclaim. In 1994 Reno played Godefroy de Montmirail in the comedy The Visitors. This became one of the most popular films in French cinema history and he reprised this role in four subsequent films. In Hollywood, Reno has appeared in French Kiss, Mission Impossible opposite Tom Cruise, Godzilla, Ronin alongside Robert De Niro, The Da Vinci Code with Tom Hanks, and even The Pink Panther. Here's a little-known fact: Reno repeatedly turned down roles in The Matrix so that he could take on smaller roles and stay closer to his family. After these American blockbusters, Jean Reno went from dramas such as The Crimson Rivers, to comedies, to French romantic films like Jet Lag. He has dubbed several films, including Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, and he voiced Mufasa in the French version of The Lion King. Reno may have never won a César, but the depth and breadth of his filmography and acting chops are enough to mark him out as one of the finest and most famous French actors alive.
Notable films: The Big Blue, Léon: The Professional, The Visitors, Nikita, Ronin, The Crimson Rivers, Subway, The Round Up.
Fabrice Luchini’s success story is so fantastic, you’ll wonder why it hasn’t already been adapted for the cinema. At age 14 he worked in a hairdressing salon, and it was there that he adopted the name Fabrice – the ever so slightly flamboyant stand-in for his birth name Robert. As a teenager, Robert/Fabrice spent his days reading Balzac, Proust and Céline, and his nights in the discos of Paris. In fact, the dancefloor was where he would be spotted by Philippe Labro, who gave him his first role in Don’t Be Blue. This lucky break inspired Fabrice to take up acting classes, treading the boards for the first time in a Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the celebrated Avignon Theatre Festival. Everything changed when he met iconic director Eric Rohmer: Luchini would star in six films under Rohmer’s direction, earning his first César nomination for Full Moon in Paris. The 1990s were a successful time for him, playing opposite Alain Delon in The Return of Casanova and Depardieu in Colonel Chabert, taking the titular role in Beaumarchais the Scoundrel and appearing in All That...For This?!. He was nominated for César Awards for all four of these films, winning Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the latter. Fabrice Luchini has split his time between stage and screen throughout his career, but he considers the theatre his first love, calling it “the only place where life reveals itself”. His career has been just as prolific in the theatre as in film, and he is well-known for his readings of literary texts, both classic (Lafontaine, Nietzsche, Céline) and modern (Reza, Zeller). His film appearances have always been critically acclaimed, including Paris, Potiche, The Women on the 6th Floor, In the House, Bicycling with Molière and The Emperor of Paris, to name but a few. In 2016 he received a Molière d’Honneur Prize in recognition of his dazzling career, which shows no sign of slowing to this day. Fabrice Luchini is one of France’s greatest actors, both for his performances and for his active role in promoting French culture around the world.
Notable films: In the House, The Women on the 6th Floor, Bicycling with Molière, Courted, Slack Bay, Paris, Gemma Bovery, Jean-Philippe.
Born in 1973, the young Guillaume Canet was a keen horse rider with hopes of becoming professional. Unfortunately for him (but oh so fortunately for us…), his equestrian dreams were cut short after a riding accident. Canet trained at the Cours Florent drama school, making his stage debut at Théâtre Hébertot in 1994. He followed this with roles in adverts and TV films. The late 1990s was a very successful time for him, with appearances in Barracuda and En Plein Cœur, before a role alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Danny Boyle’s The Beach. In 2002 he directed his first film, Whatever You Say, starring his ex-wife Diane Kruger. He then returned to acting with roles in Narco, Hell and Love Me If You Dare, a film that also featured his future wife Marion Cotillard, with whom he has two children. In 2006 he directed Tell No One, for which he won 6 awards. In 2010 he had a huge hit with Little White Lies, his third film as a director. He then returned in front of the camera, acting in A Better Life. For the film Jappeloup, Guillaume Canet fused his two true passions: cinema and horses. He went back into training, and between 2013 and 2017 took part in over 600 show jumping events. Ever the agile athlete, he continued to leap back and forth between acting and directing with the films Blood Ties, In the Name of My Daughter, Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart and Turning Tide. Guillaume Canet proved his endless capacity for self-deprecation in the film Rock’n Roll, in which he plays himself as a has-been actor who refuses to accept his sell-by date. He also appeared in The Program, Sink or Swim and Little White Lies 2, as well as portraying writer Emile Zola in Cézanne and I. He will return to the big screen in 2021 as Asterix in the fifth instalment of the film series, as well as starring in Lui, where he’ll play a composer struggling for inspiration. Guillaume Canet has had a huge influence on French cinema throughout recent years, as an actor, director and occasional cinematic jockey.
Notable films: Sink or Swim, Tell No One, Love Me If You Dare, Rock’n Roll, Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart, Happy Christmas, Jappeloup.
Louis de Funès
Louis de Funès' first contact with the artistic world came at the age of five, when he discovered the piano. After a short-lived period of study and with the Second World War approaching, de Funès took up work as a jazz pianist in a bar during the Occupation. At the age of 28, he decided to become an actor. He made numerous appearances on the boards of the Théâtre Montparnasse and the Théâtre Édouard VII. His film debut rolled round in 1945, with de Funès playing a series of small roles in which he honed the gesture work and mimicking skills that would soon become his trademark. The 1950s were productive years for de Funès: he played in more than 80 films while continuing to appear regularly on the Paris theatre scene. The actor’s genius was finally recognised in the 1960s. He met director Jean Girault who cast him in a total of 12 films that all turned out to be hits: Pouic-Pouic, Le Gendarme de St Tropez, Les Grandes Vacances. His accolades in Gérard Oury's films were what really made this actor’s name, sharing the screen with iconic actor André Bourvil (known affectionately to the French just as Bourvil) in films such as The Sucker and La Grande Vadrouille. The latter, a classic of French cinema, has sold more than 17 million tickets: a record at the time. Still under Oury’s direction, he starred in Delusions of Grandeur and The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob. Success followed de Funès to any and every film he took on: with each new appearance he won the hearts of France afresh. His last appearances on the stage included the play Oscar, where his unpredictable improvisations drew the ire of his fellow cast members. But no one could be angry with the lovable de Funès for long and he went merrily on improvising right the way right through La Valses des Toréadors at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. After suffering two heart attacks in 1975, de Funès slowed his frenzy of filming but still appeared in The Wing or The Thigh, La Zizanie, Molière’s The Miser and La Soupe aux Choux. In 1980, he earned an honorary César celebrating his magnificent career. With that final accolade under his belt, Louis de Funès died in 1983. But his fame didn’t end there… One year after his death, the House of Meilland flower company paid tribute to the actor by naming one of their roses "Louis de Funès". With more than 140 films to his name Louis de Funès was a titan of French cinema! His impact on French culture lives on today and he will continue to inspire budding actors for generations to come.
Notable films: The Wing or The Thigh, Delusions of Grandeur, La Grande Vadrouille, The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez.
At barely 40 years old, actor Tahar Rahim has already established himself as one of the greatest and most famous French actors! Coming from a family of Algerian origin, he grew up and studied in Belfort then in Montpellier. Whilst studying cinema, he played his first role in the documentary film Tahar, Student. In 2007, he played in Leonard Gersche Butterflies are Free in a Parisian theatre. It was in 2010 that Tahar Rahim was brought into the limelight with the film A Prophet by Jacques Audiard. He won six prizes including two Césars for his role of a young delinquent imprisoned and who is confronted with the laws of prison gangs. It was also on the set of A Prophet that Tahar Rahim met his wife Leïla Bekhti. Onwards from this movie, Tahar Rahim was unstoppable: he played Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum in The Eagle, Love and Bruises and Black Gold. From 2013, he swapped supporting roles for main roles of the films The Past with Bérénice Béjo, Grand Central with Léa Seydoux, Samba with Omar Sy and The AnarchistsHeal the Living, The Price of Success and The Kindness of Strangers. In 2021, he was nominated for the Golden Globes for his role in The Mauritanian and will be seen in movie theatres later this year in Serge Bozon's Don Juan. Also on the small screen, his made noticeable appearances in the British and American series The Last PanthersThe Looming Tower and The Eddy. In 2021, Tahar Rahim stars in the Netflix series The Serpent, portraying serial killer Charles Sobhraj. Tahar Rahim's filmography is already big but is just the beginning of the long and successful career awaiting this rising star of cinema.
Notable performances: A Prophet, Samba, The Past, Grand Central, Heal the Living, The Eddy, The Mauritanian, The Serpent.
Translated from the French by Anna Livesey