In a career that now stretches some 20 years, French actor Romain Duris has moved capably between comedies and dramas, broad commercial productions and smaller, artier efforts. If he has any American counterparts, it might be actors like Ryan Gosling or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who maintain hip credibility even while also appearing in fare with wider appeal.
Just don't ask Duris what actors he considers himself similar to.
"Similar? No. I'm unique!" he said with a laugh. Concerned perhaps that his humor may not translate, he added with impeccable timing, "I'm joking, of course."
He has appeared in a wide range of movies, such as "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," which brought him wider international attention, as well as "Heartbreaker," "Persecution," "Dans Paris" and "Populaire." Duris has appeared in seven films for director Cedric Klapisch, including a trilogy concluded by the recent "Chinese Puzzle," a hit last year in France before being released in the U.S. earlier this year.
"Mood Indigo" is currently playing in Los Angeles and expanding to more local theaters this weekend as it also begins to roll out across the country. Directed with an expected élan by Michel Gondry, the film pairs Duris with Audrey Tautou in the story of a carefree playboy who finds true love with a young woman who contracts a rare illness. Times film critic Kenneth Turan called it "something out of the ordinary… both giddy and melancholy, engaging and disturbing."
Duris' character shifts throughout the film, from charming and upbeat to mournful and questioning, and he is largely tasked with carrying the audience through the emotional turns as the story takes on darker shades. In a sense, the role pulls together the many strands from his previous work.
"Mood Indigo" is an adaptation of a 1947 novel by Boris Vian, an enduring coming-of-age touchstone in France often compared to "The Catcher In the Rye." For Gondry, perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the book was an acknowledged influence on his idiosyncratic style even before the adaptation came his way.
"It was difficult to find the right tone," Duris said, "because the characters, even in the book, the way they speak is very innocent. If you read the lines, sometimes it was very naïve, like children speaking. It was very difficult to find a way of being so sincere and so naïve and innocent but to believe in it also, to not be stupid. And sometimes it was very close."
His sharp jaw line and slim frame seem to convey a youthful liveliness, even under a manicured stubble, as does his endearing enthusiasm in contrast to the expected layer of French reserve. During a recent interview in Los Angeles, Duris even managed to make a tropical-print shirt look stylishly low-key, albeit paired with a dark Yves Saint Laurent jacket.
"Some actors, they have to carry this macho, very masculine element to them, but it's difficult for me to understand that," Gondry said. "He is very masculine, but he doesn't mind to play the weakness. And this character needed that.
"He has this great actor quality, and he doesn't mind to be weak. Which is hard to find in male actors."
That's something Duris has heard before.
"They often told me you have a feminine side, we can see it when you play," he noted. "I think I don't control that, it's inside me. I like to be fragile. I like that. I try to be close to that energy and sensibility."
The pair of recent films bringing together Duris and Tautou were each distinctive. They shot Gondry's film in France first, then had a month off and reconvened in New York to shoot "Chinese Puzzle."
For pulling off both sets of roles — one in a whimsical world of the fantastic and the other very much in real-world New York City — Tautou credits her co-star.
"I just think it's because he's a great actor," she said. "When somebody gives you a sincere look and seems perfectly right in the part, it's easy. It's simple but it's true, when you work with an actor who is very good, and maybe better than you, it helps you to be better."
The Paris-born Duris, who recently turned 40, was a 19-year-old studying painting when he was cast in Klapisch's 1994 "Le Peril Jeune." The filmmaker could see then that even untrained, Duris had something special. "He was very charismatic in a way that he didn't control, so I just had to put my camera in front of him," Klapisch said. "It's very different to direct him now, he's more an actor."
Now firmly among the biggest and most reliable stars in French cinema, Duris laughs off the idea of whether he is contemplating coming to Hollywood, implying the decision is not entirely his.
"I don't want to do it for a bad reason. I really want to work on a character, to find something different than just me, Romain. I don't want to represent the French guy and to go there just because I have a little success in France."
His schedule is plenty full for the time being. "The New Girlfriend," directed by Francois Ozon, will premiere at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival. Duris said he is also attached to four other projects he could be shooting soon depending on what comes together when, including a biopic of Jacques Cousteau, a WWI drama, another film with "Heartbreaker" director Pascal Chaumeil and a story of Emile Zola and Paul Cezanne.
Regardless of whether he makes a move to Hollywood films or not, just the recent jump between "Chinese Puzzle" to "Mood Indigo" showcases how rare Duris really is, a handsome leading man and a capable character actor with a range from contemporary stories to period projects.
"That's really special, not every actor in France can do that," Klapisch said. "I'm saying that because he can't say that."