The Returned, freshly imported from France’s Canal + this year, was handsome, enthralling, intelligent drama. A stylishly filmed fantasy about the consequences of your dead loved ones turning up on your doorstep years after you’d buried them, it was widely loved by critics and audiences alike, and deservedly so.
On a crackly phone line, we chatted briefly to Pierre Perrier, the actor behind The Returned’s existentially anxious, back-from-the-dead young groom, Simon. Read on to find out what we know about series two (er, not much), whether ‘Victor’ is that scary in real life, Perrier’s regrets about his skin-eating scene, and finally, why it’s not advisable to make glib reference to crap French comedy quiz shows when interviewing cool Gallic zombie pin-ups…
We adored The Returned. In your opinion, what made the series such a success?
Firstly, the writing. It was a long process writing the story, with five or six people working over maybe five or six years just to get it right. The producers also, and great directors.
For me, I think the success is because it represents a new French identity. France hasn’t been able until the last two or three years to make good TV shows that it can export abroad. We make a lot of TV shows but nobody wants to see French TV. I mean, did you ever want to watch French TV before The Returned?
I used to quite like Burger Quiz?
[Hurriedly] But no, absolutely, I see your point.
So I think it’s kind of new for that market of people. We also managed to do something new with something fantastic like the undead, something very realistic about what would really happen… I mean if you opened your door in the morning and you saw your dead father, or your dead mother, or your dead little brother… and to show a realistic reaction to that.
The subject of zombies and undead people are so overused in other movies and TV that now they’re almost a non-serious subject, and I think The Returned takes it somewhere very realistic in a French cinematic way, very ‘auteur’. Voila. I think these elements combined are kind of a new French identity, well, part of the French identity that we can present to the rest of the world.
Let’s talk about your character, Simon, then. His daughter Chloe christens him ‘the angel’, but isn’t he more of a devil?
Well, who is entirely an angel and who is entirely a devil? It’s the same for all characters. It’s almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to be this guy and come back. Can you imagine it? You find your wife with another man and your child already grown-up. It’s just impossible, impossible. There was a lot of ambiguity about the character and I loved that about him. I mean, with Thomas – Adèle’s new husband – Simon’s going to be a devil, and with his child, he’s going to be an angel. It’s just the character.
How was Simon’s character first described to you?
At first, he was like a classically romantic figure, like in the stereotypical way – a little bit sad, a little bit kinky, not thinking a great deal… but at times he could be violent. Fabrice [Gobert The Returned’s writer and director] told me he goes from this classical character to something much more modern. If he actually killed himself, then he was somebody depressed and sad. Maybe he tried to get away on his wedding day because he was crazy, or he was a little bit sick, so he went from being this classical character to being some kind of pervert narcissist, playing with other people’s feelings.
Do you see the other Returned characters in the same way, just as people, neither malevolent or benevolent?
I think every character in the series has their own questions and anger and joy. In the end, there are kind of two groups, the dead and the undead. It’s kind of the same situation we have in society today on every subject, we have the ‘for’ and the ‘against’ and one side sees the other side as evil and themselves as good, but all those poor undeads, they didn’t ask for any of it, they’re just dealing with what’s happening. Of course, there is Serge, who’s a killer, but there’s also a little girl and there’s a young boy, and a bit of everything in them.
Can we talk about the young actor [Swann Nambotin] who plays Victor? England is a little bit obsessed with him.
The little boy, yes, he’s great.
It’s an extraordinary performance. Is he scary on set?
He can be, as you can see, he can be, but he’s an actor and a very good one. Apart from that, he’s a pretty normal boy who does a lot of dumb stuff. He’s a great, normal kid. In fact, in reality, he’s very full of life but he manages to do something pretty scary on screen, you know, like Damien, the son of the devil. I think he is perfect for the part.
Absolutely. One very memorable scene of yours in The Returned was in the police cell when you ate a strip of your own stomach skin. What was that?
[Laughing] What was that? It was edible special effects! I actually wanted to make it even more gross and they refused. I was saying ‘It’s gross already, but I’d like to make it much more gross’ but they said no.
How would you have made it even more gross?
Oh, I would have put a little bit more sticky stuff on it, like glue or something slimy or maybe blood, and I would have had a close-up maybe of Simon’s guts, maybe made it crispy, I don’t know, something very disgusting.
Crispy? That’s truly horrible.
Do you enjoy disgusting people then?
No, I like to shock. We didn’t do it a lot. Again, it was such a great new step for TV to take fantastic stuff and kind of genre, horror, fantasy stuff but make it so real. I liked that.
Your nudity could perhaps be seen as shocking in the series, especially to us uptight English people…
Really? No. You English people are shocked over nothing! I’ve been doing nude scenes since I was sixteen, for me it’s not a big taboo. But I mean, I’m very sorry if you were shocked [laughing].
It’s fine. I’ll get over it I’m sure. Tell us about working with the writer/director Fabrice.
Fabrice is great. He really created a close atmosphere between the writing team and all the actors, which is difficult because there are a lot of actors. He was continually rewriting the script, every day and every night, then in the mornings he’d come and say ‘I have a new idea’, and ‘What do you think of this?’. He was always changing little things during the shoot, so that was really fantastic.
He has great humanity and he managed to keep it all very real. There was a lot of money and a lot of expectation involved, but he managed to keep his own very strong idea of the show intact. He fought a lot to keep some ideas in, and I think it was a great success.
Have you seen the original Robin Campillo film on which the series is loosely based?
Was it a deliberate choice to avoid it?
Yes, because I remember Fabrice told me he hadn’t watched it when he was writing the series, so I thought it was a good idea not to watch it so I could approach it fresh.
Do you think you’ll watch Paul Abbott’s English remake when it arrives?
I think so, yes. It’s interesting. I don’t like remakes because it’s kind of, for me, industry stuff. You know, it’s making money out of something that already exists. This subject of the dead and the undead and all the social stuff that is brought in though, I think it would be interesting to see the English point of view on that, like ‘We’re going to approach it like this’. And I love TV shows, so of course I will watch it.
Which TV shows do you love in particular?
Well, right now, Breaking Bad is ending so I would say I love Breaking Bad, it’s high quality stuff. I’m pretty fond of English TV shows, recently I’ve watched Black Mirror, Luther, Sherlock and many more. I would say English TV is just the right amount of ‘divertissement’ [entertainment], it’s not too mainstream, it’s still a little bit odd, but with a lot of strong points. I think English TV is one of the most promising in the world.
It has its eccentricities.
Yes, but I love it.
Do you find you’re now being offered more English-speaking roles because of the success of The Returned?
At the moment, my English is not as perfect as it would need to be. Like, I could play a French guy but there’s not always a French guy in English-language shows or cinema. So yes, I’m receiving a lot of offers through my agent, but nothing concrete for now. The first step will be for me to speak perfect English with no French accent and then we’ll see.
I’m not committed to any other series, I almost was, in a big one, but… no.
[I’m not sure, but I suspect a PR may have kicked him in the shin at that point as he closed the topic down sharpish].
Back to The Returned then, the series one finale left us in need of answers. Presumably you know tons of the show’s secrets?
No! I’m sorry. I swear I don’t know any secrets because I haven’t read a line of the second series. The producers and the writer have been very secretive – as you can imagine – about what’s going to happen. So I can’t answer anything. I really can’t! I just don’t have the information.
None of the actors know what’s going to happen in series two then?
No. The writers and producers know, but we don’t.
When do you think you’ll find out?
When I get my script. I’m really looking forward to getting my first script. They said I should be able to read it before Christmas.
And the plan is to film series two in February 2014?
That’s the goal. They want to shoot sometime early in 2014, either February or March. The idea is to air at the end of the year, at Christmas 2014. That’s our goal.
Will you stay with The Returned as long as it continues? If there’s a series three or four say?
Yes, of course. If the show goes on, of course. I love this show and it’s been such a great experience for me, so if it continues of course, I’ll be part of it.
I wouldn’t like it to go on like Lost, for eight or nine series, so I hope we won’t go on until nine or ten because that’s too much for me, I think that series went on too far. But I will go on with this show for as long as it goes.
Pierre Perrier, merci beaucoup!
The Returned series one comes to DVD on Monday the 9th of September. Read our spoiler-filled episode reviews and more, here.
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