From writer/director Ben Cookson and adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo (War Horse), the dramatic war thriller Waiting for Anya follows 13-year-old shepherd boy Jo Lalande (Noah Schnapp) during World War II. When Jo discovers that a reclusive widow (Anjelica Huston) is helping hide Jewish children from the Nazis before they can be smuggled into Spain, he makes it his own life mission, knowing that the penalty for discovery would be death.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, French actor Jean Reno talked about what drew him to this story, why he likes to finish reading a script once he starts, why it’s important to talk about such a dark period of European history, what makes this a universal story, working with his teenage co-star Noah Schnapp, and collaborating with writer/director Ben Cookson. He also talked about what’s next for him, his experience working with director Spike Lee on Da 5 Bloods, how he’d like to work with Natalie Portman, his co-star in The Professional, again someday, and the type of role he’d still like to do.
JEAN RENO: Oh, the kids. To protect kids is very important in life.
Were there things about your character that you also found particularly interesting or appealing, or that that made you feel like you could bring something to him?
RENO: Yeah. Those people are like a memory of the past. Being old, you have more important values to defend, and you’re a memory to give to the youth. Doing things is better than talking about doing things.
Did you also read the novel that the film was adapted from?
RENO: No, I didn’t read the novel. I read the script.
Are you someone who typically is always open to receiving scripts? Do you read a lot of scripts, or do you prefer to meet with filmmakers and talk to them about their vision for what they’re doing?
RENO: I like to read the script. The beginning is the story. And then, it’s very important to meet the people. But it’s very important to read the script because, reading the script, you can dream about it and dream about the character. You can see, in your mind, what you can do with the character, and you can see, in your mind, if there’s room for you to express yourself. And then, when you meet people, you get impressions and sensations and feelings. It’s complimentary, the script and the people that you are gonna work with.
I would imagine that you’ve read a lot of scripts, over the course of your career, so you can probably get a pretty good feel, right away. Do you stop reading a script, if it’s not something that interests you, or do you always try to finish the script that you’re reading?
RENO: I try to finish. Sometimes, you start the script and you’re not very interested in it, so you have a tendency to stop, but I force myself. Even if I stop, I will be back again, to finish the story. You have to be honest because having a script is a big chance for you. If you’re still receiving scripts, it is a chance for you.
Do you have a list of things that you’re interested in and things that you’re not interested in, or do you try to read everything that comes your way?
RENO: I like music and philosophy. I like when we talk about mankind. I like when we talk about human nature. It’s the two sides of my personality.
When you’re telling a story that is a Holocaust-themed story, but it’s about young people, it seems like that could be challenging or tricky to sell to audiences. What do you think are the biggest challenges in getting a film like this into theaters and in front of audiences?
RENO: Yeah. Somehow it is a small movie. Somehow it is a little story, but it talks about human reactions and human behavior. Even if you have one person interested in the movie, it will be okay because we have to talk about that very dark period of Europe and about people saving people. We will be doing that, all of our lives. That’s the story of the history of humanity.
What do you feel are the most relevant and universal aspects of this story? It’s set nearly 80 years in the past, in France, but what do you think it is that makes this feel very universal? What do you see as the most important aspects of this story?
RENO: How can you change the thinking of somebody who is a monster? Maybe by showing that kind of movie to kids. I don’t know how you become a monster, and I don’t know how you want to kill people or get put in prison, and we still have that kind of behavior, in humanity, all over the world. So, we have to continue telling the same story, again and again. Don’t kill somebody who looks like you. Don’t be bad. Don’t be a monster.
Did it feel like a very unique and rare opportunity to film this in the place that inspired the story, as opposed to somewhere filling in for that place, or shooting on a soundstage? Does it make it feel very unique, when you actually can be in the locations?
RENO: Yeah. That was the first time I went there, and it is very particular. They have a big respect for the mountains. They have a big respect for the way that they live. It was a real lesson to go there. The food is fantastic. The wine is very good. It is a way of living.
Your co-star for most of this film is Noah Schnapp. How did you find the experience of working with your young scene partner? What did you enjoy about him, as an actor?
RENO: He’s very awake, and he’s also very patient. He’s not impulsive. He’s listening and looking at everybody. I hope he will stay like that, growing up. But today, the moment that we were shooting, he was looking at everybody and was very present on the set.
What was it like to work and collaborate with your writer/director Ben Cookson? As a director who had to handle the telling of such sensitive material, what sort of environment did he create on set?
RENO: He has a point of view. He’s not looking at what you can bring. He has his own idea, and you are happy to work with somebody who has an idea. And then, you can discuss and exchange ideas about acting, and that’s very nice. So, I had a good time with the director. The British have a big history, so they know that what they’re talking about.
With any movie, to know that the person in charge has a vision, has an idea, and knows what they’re doing, must be reassuring, when you’re an actor on a project.
RENO: It’s more interesting, instead of having somebody who is empty and who is waiting for the cast or crew to feed them every word. I’m unique as a human being, but I’m not unique as an actor. So, I need the screw to express you need a team. I don’t think I am unique, as an actor. I’m unique as a human being, but I’m not unique as an actor. I need the crew to express that.
What’s next for you? Are you currently working on something now, or do you know what you’re going to be next?
RENO: I have a movie opening, called The Doorman. And I’m talking with a Spanish producer for a series in Spain.
Do you enjoy working in different countries, or does the approach feel very different?
RENO: Not very different. To me, when you’re making films, each one looks like the next one. It’s a very intense international way of working, and I like that very much.
You also recently worked with Spike Lee, on Da 5 Bloods?
RENO: Yes. I haven’t seen the movie, but we’re going to see the movie soon.
What’s it like to work with a director like that? Is he’s someone who knows exactly what he’s looking for, or does he like to collaborate with his actors?
RENO: Completely. Spike has his own idea, and he’s a real master. He’s the boss on stage. But you can say, “Why don’t we do things differently?,” because maybe I have my own way of doing it, and he will allow you to do that and to express yourself. It is very nice. I had a very good time with him.
What kind of character did you play in that film?
RENO: I played somebody who wants to buy the diamonds.
When you made The Professional years ago, you’d already been working as an actor, for a number of years, but it’s one of those roles that you’ve continued to be very identified with. At the time that you made that film, did it feel like one of the special ones, or has it been surprising that it’s a film that so many people still talk about?
RENO: No, you’re always surprised about the life of a movie, and how the movie will be, in the world. It’s always surprising. You cannot know where a movie can go.
Is that a film that you have fond memories of?
RENO: I always have pieces of movies in my heart. It is a very special moment that you keep. If you’re a singer, you cannot keep just one song. It’s always moments in your life.
That was also the first film role that Natalie Portman had, and she’s gone on to have such an acclaimed career. Is she someone that you would like to, or hope to, work with again someday, in a project?
RENO: I saw her, a few years ago. She came to my place, in the South of France, with her husband and the kids. I was happy to see her. She’s a wonderful person. I would be happy, if one day, we’d have another opportunity. But now, I’m just happy to know that she’s happy and that she’s alive. That’s my way of thinking.
Is there a type of role or character that you’d still love to play, but feel like you haven’t had the opportunity to play yet?
RENO: As I was telling you, I would like to play something close to the music, classical or not. I very much like music. I have an idea that I’m trying to develop with a producer, at the moment.
What is your seemingly deep connection to music all about?
RENO: It’s something that everybody has in their heart. Somebody is listening music, and somebody can communicate to other people through music. I remember periods of my life, through music that I can hear on television or on the radio today. Music has been in my life, all the time, and I think everybody is the same.
Waiting for Anya is in theaters, on-demand and digital.