It's been four years since "The Artist" changed French actor Jean Dujardin's life.
The former stand-up comic was popular in France and had starred in hits such as director Michel Hazanavicius' spy comedies "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" (2006) and "OSS 117: Lost in Rio" (2009). But it was the filmmaker's "The Artist" that put Dujardin in the international spotlight.
The black-and-white tribute to silent cinema won Dujardin the actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role as a famous movie star who can't make the transition to talkies. "The Artist" became a Cinderella story, culminating in five Academy Awards, including best film, lead actor and director.
"I keep a very good memory of that time period, even if it was intense," Dujardin said by email. "I don't try to analyze it too much. I only know that it was a great honor, a high distinction. But the prize is never the end goal. I stay mostly with the pleasure of acting."
Since winning the Oscar, the 42-year-old actor has appeared as Swiss banker Jean Jacques Saurel in Martin Scorsese's 2013 hit "The Wolf of Wall Street" and as one of "The Monuments Men" in George Clooney's 2014 World War II film. Now he gets to show his dramatic chops — as well as some terrific 1970s-style sideburns — in the French crime thriller "The Connection," which opens Friday.
Co-written and directed by Cedric Jimenez, "The Connection" is sort of the flip side of William Friedkin's 1971 Oscar winner "The French Connection." Dujardin plays Pierre Michel, a real-life Marseille magistrate who in the 1970s was determined to bring down powerful drug kingpin Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) and his massive smuggling operation.
Jimenez, who was born in Marseille, wanted to have "someone very masculine" to play Michel. And Dujardin, he said, was the only actor who could do the part justice.
Dujardin "is charming and funny but very masculine," Jimenez said by phone. "In some ways, Jean has two sides. Most of the time, he's very funny and very fun. But he has a part of him which is dark."
"The Connection" marks the first time Dujardin has played a real-life figure.
"I approached this character with a lot of respect and humility," the actor said. "He had meant a lot in the city of Marseille and still does. He was like Eliot Ness, using questionable methods at times but always for the good of the people."
Dujardin went to Marseille before filming began to meet with lawyers, magistrates and policemen who worked with the judge.
"From there I built my Pierre Michel," Dujardin said. "I like his qualities and faults — his way to cross boundaries to really shake the police establishment at the time in order to get deeper into the investigation. What interested me the most was acting the humanity of the character— the father, the husband — rather than solely his function as a judge."
"Jean is obsessed with what he does, and the judge was obsessed with what he does," Jimenez said. "Jean became very deep in the character. It's a pleasure for him to go so far and be someone else."
The actor recently completed Claude Lelouch's comedy adventure "Un Plus Une" in India and is back in Marseille working on Laurent Tirard's romantic comedy "Up for Love."
He's also eager to work with one of his favorite American actors, Jim Carrey, as well as directors Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg.