Maybe because he is fixed in our minds at the time he became world-famous in his mid-40s as a gauche hitman in Léon: The Professional, it is strange thinking of Jean Reno as the age he now is: 72. He already seemed timeless, providing grizzled, existentially marinated cool-for-hire in numerous Hollywood blockbusters. If you’re French, then he’s doubly part of the woodwork: in 1993, he played time-travelling knight Godefroy Amaury de Malfête in Les Visiteurs, a film that is a national institution.
Yet here he is, caught at an extreme Dutch angle on my laptop screen, fuller-faced than back then, but otherwise hale. He has been busy during the pandemic, on a six-month filming stint in Vigo, Galicia on a Spanish-language detective series for Amazon. But it hasn’t stopped the melancholia closing in. “With the virus, everybody is making introspection,” he says, with philosophical Francophone syntax. “Thinking about the past and ageing: What am I going to do? I’m old, I don’t have much time, and if the virus catches me, I’m dead.”
Even at this stage in his career, his name has enough currency to get him through Hollywood’s door. He fills the bad guy slot on The Doorman, a new Die Hard-cribbing martial arts film that sets an art heist within the confines of a New York hotel. It’s serviceable fun, no more, and Reno doesn’t pretend otherwise. “I liked the story, and then to do the villain again – why not? And the girl, what’s her name? I’m very bad with names. Susie? Non. Lucie?”
“Ruby,” I say, referring to his co-star Ruby Rose.
“Ruby! I liked her.” Reno commends her kick-ass capabilities, but barely lifts a finger himself, marshalling a band of mercenaries as they try to recover a cache of old masters. He is an art-lover in real life, but is not, like his character, quite ready to kill for it. “I like art, but only if I can look at it every day – that’s very important,” he says. He has a Yan Pei-Ming and a Pierre Soulages, but his fee for The Doorman didn’t stretch far enough for him to achieve “the dream” – a Magritte.
It’s another notch for him in a run of Eurovillains that includes Rollerball, Alex Cross and, last year, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. But he is relaxed about the reductive Hollywood thinking that often winds up slotting European heavyweights like him into such pantomime. “If you don’t follow the road they prepare for you, they change and take someone else. I understand – they do not have time for sentiment.”
Ironically for someone called on by Hollywood to embody Gallic savoir-faire, Reno isn’t even really French. He was born Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jiménez to Andalucían parents and spent his childhood in Casablanca, Morocco. Aged 17, after the death of his mother, he decided to go to France and, in order to get citizenship, did a year’s military service in Wittlich, Germany.
It was, he says: “Stupid, difficult, hard. No relationship with the officers. We were like sheep in the middle of dragons.” Luckily, he managed to get the ear of a superior in charge of the barracks’ entertainment programme, for whom he worked as a secretary. “At that moment, I could be happy, because no one was looking at me, so I could disappear.”
After leaving the army, he went to Paris with 100 francs in his pocket and enrolled in drama school. Theatre was, he thinks, a means of escape – perhaps from the kind of struggles experienced by his immigrant parents. “I’m not Freud, but maybe I wasn’t happy with what I was. Maybe people would love you being somebody else.” Troupe atmosphere still seems to be crucial for Reno, the basis on which he picks his roles: “If I can see more or less what the ambience is going to be, I’ll take that.” Reno seems to have found what he was looking for on The Doorman; with its producer, Harry Winer, he’s currently cooking up a story about an old singer who takes a young musician girl under his wing.
Which sounds more than reminiscent of a certain hitman flick; in Léon: The Professional, as well as the free-diving fantasia The Big Blue, Reno gave Luc Besson charismatic focus for his Americanised cinéma du look. And the actor had an endearing, lumbering naivety that perhaps allowed the director – particularly with Leon, his international breakthrough – to acceptably package its transgressive side.
However, disquiet over Léon has become a significant element in the #MeToo campaign, after Reno’s co-star Natalie Portman revealed how playing a sexualised 12-year-old character tarnished her adolescence. One of the first pieces of fan mail she received was from a man who fantasised about raping her. In 2018 she told the Los Angeles Women’s March that role made her feel “unsafe” and that “men would feel entitled to discuss and objectify my body”.
Reno says he supports the broad aims of the #MeToo movement, ending the abuse of power within the film industry and beyond, and says that he believed Portman could cope with the situation. “She is very intelligent. She had everything to avoid all the problems you can find when you become known very young. Because she understood: it’s the yin and the yang all the time in life, and you have to find the balance.” Did she ever discuss her emotional difficulties with him? “Maybe. Maybe. Ah, Natalie!” he says wistfully – but will go no further. More than 25 years later, he still has a relationship with Portman – she brought her children to see him at his house in Provence a few years ago. “She is a true artist, and one with some stability. We need them. We need to see a tree solid, not moving with the wind. She is a solid tree.”
He seems to rate a good tree, and a sense of permanence. He produces olive oil in Provence and, cryptically, says the olive tree is a symbol for his father. Working on the Amazon series – set in 1948, the year he was born and in his mother tongue Spanish – has put him in mind of his past and he has been regaling his six children with memories of their long-dead grandfather and his own humble beginnings. The olive gives him a similar feel of roots: “The tree is eternal. It will never die. For me, it’s like: Wow! The continuity. It’s doing something no one else will do.”
• The Doorman is available online and on DVD.