He’s Johnny -- and if you are French and have been conscious for any stretch of the past 40 years, further clarification is unnecessary.
But on this side of the Atlantic, Johnny Hallyday -- rock star, seller of 80 million records, national hero in his native France -- is perhaps best known for giving American upstart Jimi Hendrix his first leg up as an opening act in the ‘60s, and for appearing occasionally in oddball flicks.
The Patrice Leconte-directed psychological drama “Man on the Train,” in theaters today, and the entertaining caper “Crime Spree,” arriving stateside in September, are the latest projects starring Hallyday. They’re a welcome opportunity for American audiences to get acquainted with him, but acting is a rather backward introduction to this cool, grizzled cat of French rock.
Hallyday has always fancied himself a total performer in the Elvis mold and doesn’t much mind. “I’m excited about acting in movies,” he says. “It’s interesting to forget who you are and start to become somebody else, speak differently, carry on with a different attitude, you know?”
Une rock & roll attitude has always been Hallyday’s default pose. He is the only rock ‘n’ roller of Gallic vintage to achieve mega-star status in his homeland, where a survey once indicated he could get enough votes to become the first truly rockin’ French president. His public remains faithful; a double record released six months ago has sold 2 million copies in France. In the early years, he crooned Elvis-style, thrashed about like Jerry Lee Lewis and tried for Mick Jagger’s insolent take on the blues; he later went psychedelic, even attempted rock opera.
For the past couple of decades, he has turned introspective and ballad-esque, through it all shouldering the burden of his legend with a vitality that defies his detractors. Who would have guessed back in ’66, when Hallyday, already a star, put out “Cheveux longs, idees courtes” (Long hair, short ideas), a sarcastic little rhythm & blues number, that he would still be around and playing to crowds of 80,000 in the new millennium?
A recent visit to the West Hollywood villa where he’s been staying for the past month while rehearsing with his band for an upcoming European tour, finds Hallyday sitting at a table on his backyard terrace alone, save for a pack of Gitanes -- the cigarette brand he once credited for his powerful croon. Although he’s nearing 60, he still dresses in renegade black -- T-shirt, fitted jeans, leather jacket, his eyes blue and steadfast, his answers clipped though unfailingly polite.
Mixing American-accented English with French, he explains what attracted him to the gangster role in “Man on the Train”: “What pleased me the most was working with Patrice Leconte. He’s a French director I enjoy very much. I thought the story was interesting -- it’s about two men who are completely different and who discover that they wish to swap their destinies. There’s a lot sensibility in these two characters.”
One is a retired literature professor played by French screen veteran Jean Rochefort, the other Hallyday’s exotically named Milan, an aging thief who heads to a provincial backwater to hold up the local bank. The film is an atmospheric, melancholy piece built around an old-fashioned intimacy that blossoms between the two protagonists -- the staple of westerns in which men bonded under prairie skies -- with dialogue playing wittily on Hallyday’s iconic presence. When the professor, who tortures the piano out of boredom, demands from Milan, “Are you a musician too?” he tosses back, “I had a harmonica once.”
Milan is gruff, curt and occasionally flashes a look as if to indicate that though he does not suffer fools, he finds the folly of humanity endearing. It’s pretty much the impression one gets of Hallyday these days, although he maintains he’s only drawn to characters unlike his real self.
“I don’t want to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer on screen, so I play a gangster,” he says.
Except, he is gently reminded, he made a handful of films early in his career in which he did play variations on himself -- a blond, azure-eyed teen idol full of moxie who would break into song at the slightest provocation.
“Let me forget that,” he grumbles. “I don’t like those movies. They were no good.”
A tough choice early
Born Jean-Philippe Smet, of a Belgian father and a French mother, in Paris in 1943, Hallyday was entrusted to the care of an aunt when his parents split. He spent his early childhood performing in vaudeville numbers with his cousins, and by the time he turned 10, he had already toured Europe. His show-biz friends got him parts in movie advertisements, and in 1954 he made his big-screen debut with a walk-on part in Henri Clouzot’s classic thriller “Diabolique.”
As a boy, he was mesmerized by American film noir and worshiped Method actors. His first idols were Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, James Dean; his favorite pictures, “On the Waterfront,” “East of Eden” and “The Wild One.” “I adored all that period in the history of cinema -- everything that spilled forth from the Actors Studio,” he says. “I actually wanted to be an actor before I became a singer. But when I was 12, I discovered rock ‘n’ roll, through Elvis Presley.”
He was torn between his two passions for a while, but fate intervened to sort things out. At age 17, “I was playing a ballroom gig one Sunday to get some money to pay for my acting classes,” Hallyday says, “when a producer heard me and asked me to do a record. I did it, and it all just happened from there. It sold a lot of copies, so I went on the road as a singer.”
With two successful records under his belt, he climbed on stage at Paris’ Palais des Sports in 1961 at Europe’s first rock festival, where his legend took off. No sooner did the 18-year-old singer, freshly rechristened Johnny Hallyday, break into song than he began shimmying about in a most unsettling manner. The audience went berserk, and stunned reporters coined the term “hysterie collective” (collective hysteria) to describe the scene.
“Actually, it was the early times of rock ‘n’ roll in France,” he says modestly. “The kids were not used to seeing a rock ‘n’ roll singer on stage. Plus, at that show, there were a lot of hooligans from rival gangs -- we used to call them ‘black jacket people,’ blousons noirs. They would come to shows and get into fights, break the chairs.... Those were the days!”
Still Hallyday doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. He seems to find the rehashing of past glories a little pathetic; he’d rather focus on the now. With tours and movie projects constantly in the pipeline, that’s easy enough to do. “When I’m not acting, I’m on tour; and when I’m not doing either music or acting,” he says matter-of-factly, “I race cars. Last year I did the Paris-Dakar” rally.
For someone with this kind of effortless grip on cool, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to play chilled toughs on screen. But surely slipping into the skin of a boxer down on his luck, under the direction of New Wave god Jean-Luc Godard, as Hallyday did in 1985 for one of the filmmaker’s trademark noir-ish exercises in anti-narrative called “Detective,” must have been at least a tad more difficult?
“Not more difficult, just different,” Hallyday says with a twinkle in his eye. “Godard -- he’s special, you know? ‘Why keep it simple, when it’s so easy to complicate everything?’ -- that’s Godard for you.”
The rocker is likewise candid (or perchance defiant) about the arc of his acting career. “I did about 26 movies, but the only ones that I really liked were the Godard one, the one directed by Costa-Gavras [1986’s “Conseil de Famille”], ‘Man on the Train’ and ‘Crime Spree.’ ”
Acting is, in a sense, an extension of Hallyday’s stage persona: Many of the 900 songs he’s performed are ballads that set narratives to music. “It may well be that in French, words are more important than in English,” he says. “The French are such thinkers, you know? They’re into stories, they enjoy lyrics in a song. You can’t just go, ‘A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam bam / Tutti frutti, oh rutti’ in French -- it’s impossible.
“Unfortunately,” he adds.
After his umpteenth whirlwind around Europe in late December, Hallyday will head home to Paris for the briefest of respites. In January, he will begin shooting a new film, in which he’ll play a onetime boxer with a mangled face who schemes to pull off a bank robbery with a tough bird, a la Bonnie and Clyde.... Wait a minute -- another boxer role in another gangster movie? Hallyday must love these sleazy outlaw types and their charmed lives.
“No, no ... " he protests, but then bursts into a fit of raspy laughter: “Ah, all right, I do.”