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Eric Godon: back to/in Bruges – an interview
We are very happy to host on our blog Eric Godon, In Bruges‘s Yuri, on ItalishMagazine!
The Martin McDonagh section of ItalishMagazine gets another awesome content.
We were in Bruges last April 18th for a chat with Eric Godon, Yuri in McDonagh’s In Bruges.
We had a very interesting conversation with him about his response to the ‘Irish Invasion’ of Bruges for the film, the Beckettian nature of his character and about being an actor performing in many languages, his own Irish connections, current work and, of course…alcoves!
IM: Eric, first of all, thank you for agreeing to meet ItalishMagazine…
EG: You are welcome.
IM: Here In Bruges.
EG: In the fcking Bruges! In the fcking fairy tale!
IM: In fcking Bruges! In the fcking fairy tale indeed! Thank you for talking with us about you and about ‘In Bruges’: a cult movie, a not-only Irish, non-only Belgian movie (a European one, maybe?); and talking about it from the particular point of view of ItalishMagazine, all about Irish culture and its relationship with other countries. Of course you are not Irish…
EG: Of course I am not Irish, although I was raised on a diet of potatoes.
IM: So you definitely have something in common with the Irish…
IM: Well, you have been sort of invaded by the Irish for ‘In Bruges’: you had Martin McDonagh, Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell here… How did you face that invasion, ending up in a cult movie in the process?
EG: I didn’t feel it as an invasion by the Irish.
First, I wasn’t aware in the beginning of their Irishness. To me it was all about being, for the first time ever, in an English speaking film – a great film – directed and written by a great playwright I knew from his Aran Islands trilogy.
I had seen the plays (The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore) in Brussels.
I was somehow a newcomer in the film industry: I actually started a career as a professional actor beginning of 2003. Four years later, I had the chance to be on the cast of such a movie. So to me it was more about being part of this great adventure with incredible actors.
I realized how Irish it was when I actually saw the movie!
How did I land in this? You know: people tend to think a lot about being an actor, how it works and what kind of life you have… But I just had an audition, like every actor does.
I heard it later that Martin McDonagh’s first choice for Yuri was the Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet.
But Gourmet couldn’t do it; then he went for the French actor Mathieu Amalric, but again he too couldn’t do it. So, Martin organized an audition with the Belgian casting director Patrick Hella and I was lucky enough to nail it.
Of course I’ve had many other interesting parts since then, but In Bruges is probably the most significant English speaking film I’ve ever had a part in.
IM: And so here we are, with you, and Yuri, in Bruges, eleven years after ‘In Bruges’. This conversation actually started with an email exchange, after you reading on ItalishMagazine my essay about the movie.
That essay is all about the importance of language in the movie, and your character, in it, Yuri, is absolutely important in exploring this perspective so, with the movie in mind, and with many hints of “beckettism” in Martin’s work, would you say that your Yuri is a Beckettian character, in his constantly misleading the audience with and about language and languages (alcoves and nooks and crannies; “dum dum” and “dam dam”).
EG: first of all I should mention that I studied Germanic philology in my university years, i.e. German and English literature and linguistics.
So, I have always been very much concerned about language. Language is my cup of tea.
Every script I read I read it through my education. and yes, Yuri is absolutely a Beckettian character, not only for his obsession for the “alcoves”, but also for using the right term: he asks Brendan Gleeson if alcoves is correct, and Brendan replies ” I would rather say nooks and crannies”.
Yuri feels very enthusiastic about nooks and crannies (which is not very common in English, especially for non native speakers) when he is confronted to Ralph Fiennes, and he says “doom dooms” , Ralph corrects him: “dum dums”. Yet, Yuri keeps pronouncing “doom dooms” à la française.
At the end of the day, he sticks to his own pattern. It’s very interesting because he goes beyond the simple characterization needed for narrative function. Every character has a narrative function that contributes to the plot.
In my eyes – and I think Martin did it consciously – the play is written like a Greek tragedy: all the characters meet indeed their destiny, their fate.
It is written from the very beginning: it will end as it started. Nevertheless, Yuri’s character conveys a sense of absurdity that runs through the film like a red line. It makes the whole story more interesting. It’s very important to me as an actor – and also an occasional director and writer – when characters have idiosyncrasies.
They cannot be reduced to a mere narrative function: by “existing more”, they make the whole story much stronger and they open new options for story-writing and analysis. Although, when you watch the movie, you wonder what’s the use of it. What’s the use of Yuri’s speech about the alcoves? There seem to be none.
I believe every layer the director and the writer lay in the audience’s mind, will build the true significance and the power of the film. Americans and Brits do that very well. I often read scripts in which the supporting roles are mere narrative functions. As an actor, you have to find the way to make the character “exist” beyond its narrative function.
There is something else interesting about Yuri: in 2008, I was nominated by the “Rolling R Award” (along with Cate Blanchett, Ben Kingsley and Olek Krupa), for best Russian accent portrayed by a non-Russian actor.
It’s funny because the only “Russian” thing about Yuri is his name: for the rest, I was actually just trying to deliver my best possible English. Martin had never mentioned that Yuri was Russian. It was not part of his characterization. I like the absurdity of it .
And it goes on and on and on: still today when in the US and UK, casting directors often go: “oh, you are the alcoves guy from In Bruges“,
An yes, I remain Yuri, the alcoves guy from In Bruges!
IM: Let’s go in the direction of the relation between the character and the actor, here: Yuri is a “Beckettian” character because his use and misuse of language. But you, Eric, are an actor dealing with, acting in, different languages, with a strong philosophical background in linguistics too. So, if you want, what is – yours – Beckettianism, dealing in different languages. Are you a different actor in different languages, are you different actors in different languages?
EG: actually, although I am always myself, and although characters do not exist until an actor embodies them, giving them flesh, every time you shift to another language, you act in a foreign language, you become a different character, a different “you”.
All languages have a different sensibility, a different resonance, each conveying a different cultural heritage. The Germanic languages are synthetic, whereas Latin languages tend to expand. French for instance, needs to go around the topic to describe it. I am also convinced that language structures our thoughts: this is the core of the so called language philosophy.
We are prisoners of the language.
Language structures our thoughts and our ideas: we have no choice but to follow the course of the language… This assumption lead to Wittgenstein’s aporetic aphorism of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “was man nicht sagen kann, muss man schweigen” (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent).
For instance, I am presently looking for the right word to express how I feel about this, and the only thing I can do is utter other words: so… this is very Beckettian! As a matter of fact I act in six or seven languages: French (my mother tongue), Flemish, English quite obviously, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew and I have good notions of Arabic.
Each time you play in another language, you are immerged in a different culture and, hence, you are bound to become another character. It doesn’t mean you are lost in translation: it’s another you, another yourself, another “Yuri”, another Eric, that is now acting. The reasons are many and it would be interesting to investigate them.
IM: After the Irish invasion here in Bruges, you have more recently worked with another iconic Irish actor: Cillian Murphy. Can you tell us something about Anna, by Luc Besson?
EG: Ouch! Actually I haven’t worked “with” Cillian Murphy, as we are not in the same scenes of Anna.
Speaking of Anna, one thing struck me about Luc Besson: his amazing command of every department of film making.
He knows everything in every department and, what is more, he knows about the actor’s bio-mechanics!
Luc Besson is very precise and demanding, and so is Martin McDonagh: both know exactly what they want. Martin directed me in In Bruges as if he were conducting an orchestra: with an extreme precision and with an acute sense of the symphony he was achieving.
Martin McDonagh and Luc Besson’s attitude command absolute respect. They are masters who can be compared to Hitchcock or Kubrick when it comes to vision and technical mastering.
IM: Do you actually have any other connection with Ireland and Irish people?
EG: Yes. Well, the first connection… as I said, I studied Germanic philology, I read hundreds of books both in German and English.
Once I started to read James Joyce’s Ulysses: I soon realized it was almost mission impossible for a non native speaker, so difficult it proved. Even though I would have a huge dictionary next to me, I gave up.
I later read Dubliners, which is way easier to read. That was my very first experience of Ireland, I had never set foot in Ireland before the age of 40 or 45.
I have this “tenderness” towards Irish people because of their history and also because of a something it has in common with Belgium: we too are a small country, that has been invaded and controlled by much more powerful neighboring countries. And we too eat a lot of potatoes…
A few years ago I, had the chance of being part of a brilliant movie called Pilgrimage
(2017, directed by Brendan Muldowney, with Tom Holland, Richard Armitage and Jon Bernthal).
It was shot in Connemara.
I have never seen anything as beautiful as Connemara.
And as powerful: the weather is so changing that we literally had the 4 seasons on the same day: hail, wind, rain, sun, clouds, thunder…Amazing! Pilgrimage was also the chance to work with great American and Irish actors. Since the film is set in the 13th Century, so I really had the sense to be plunged into the history of Ireland.
IM: Going back to In Bruges: did you have any feeling, any perception, that In Bruges was becoming a cult movie, and “alcoves” a great one – liner?
EG: Well, I didn’t have the sense of it.
I knew it was going to be a great movie – I mean: with that script, these actors… – but I didn’t have that sense. Yes, there was some magic attached to it, but I realized that the movie was going to be a cult movie when I actually saw it. Between reading a script, the feeling you have when acting and actually viewing the film there can be a big difference: it was not until I was confronted to the power of the images that I realized that In Bruges was going to become an acclaimed cult movie.
Upon its release, many a press review mentioned the alcoves lines and I the realized it was going to become an iconic one-liner. In no time I was the shabby alcoves guy, and 12 years after shooting the film, here we are, still talking about the alcoves, here in Bruges, and… yes: it’s great!
Of course, fortunately, I am not limited to that one-liner :-)
More about my career on my website.