In the latest James Bond thriller, "Quantum of Solace," opening today, Agent 007 is pitted against a most unusual adversary.
Just don't tell French actor Mathieu Amalric ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") that his character is the bad guy.
"Dominic Greene is a great guy," enthused the 43-year-old Amalric, over the phone from London before the film's premiere. "He has a big concern for environmental issues. He wants to help poor people to find their land again. He doesn't understand why Bond is looking for him!"
It may have something to do with Greene's plan to seize control of vital water supplies. But even "Quantum" director Marc Forster acknowledges that Greene isn't the typical Bond heavy. "I think the villain should blend in," he said. "It's important. Bond is ultimately now an antihero. The bad guy and the good guy are overlapping. Bond is not just good and the villain is not just bad. It's what I think is happening in the world. We are not all good and we are not all bad."
Still, you wouldn't want to make Greene angry; he's as ruthless as they come, and the body count begins to pile up as his mysterious organization, Quantum, looks to destabilize South America, and ultimately the world.
"The Bond films always hint about something of the time in which they are done," said Amalric. "The thing today that is more frightening is that you don't know where the villains are. The thing that's really frightening in 'Quantum of Solace' is that it's true. It's not a big fantasy like in the Bond films of the 1980s, where a madman wants to kill humankind. In 'Quantum,' you have a secret organization. You don't know where they are. They just are everywhere."
To prepare for the role, Amalric created a back story: "Greene wasn't French. He was more Swiss, coming from a very, very rich family. His father is a banker, and he was never loved by his father. Sometimes that's enough to become a villain like in Shakespeare."
He discovered that working on a blockbuster is not much different from doing a small, independent French film.
"It depends on the director," he said. "It is the director who gives the spirit of a shooting. Sometimes when you are on a big-scale movie, you discover the director is like a child. He is completely passionate and having fun and inventing things on the moment. That's what I discovered on 'Munich.' Steven Spielberg has no storyboard, and we would invent something on the moment. And Marc Forster is also like that."
An award-winning actor and director in France, Amalric saw his stock rise in America quite literally in a blink of an eye last year in Julian Schnabel's acclaimed "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Amalric won a Cesar -- France's equivalent of an Oscar -- for his haunting turn as Jean-Dominique Bauby, the high-flying editor-in-chief of Elle magazine who suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed, save for his left eye.
"It was just so fascinating to do it," said Amalric. "I could feel that it was so necessary for Julian to do this film. We shot without rehearsing because Julian doesn't work that way. We tried to avoid emotional scenes and to respect the sense of humor that Jean-Dominique Bauby had in his book, the way of having fun of himself even in that situation and not trying to make this man become a saint."
Amalric is best known in France for the films he's made with director Arnaud Desplechin, including "My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument" (for which he won his first Cesar), "Kings and Queen" (for which he earned his second Cesar) and "A Christmas Tale," which also opens today.
In it, Amalric plays Henri, the black sheep of a dysfunctional family that reunites for Christmas when it is learned that the matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) is dying of leukemia. Though Henri and his mother have never been close, he ends up supplying the bone marrow to save her life.
"Desplechin invented me as an actor," he said. "I never thought I would be an actor. I am more of a director, usually."
The filmmaker happened to see a short film that Amalric directed and appeared in and asked him to read for "My Sex Life . . .," about a man with three wives. "I saw this movie Mathieu had directed and he was overly good and charming," said Desplechin. "So we did the test with him and the three actresses. His way of giving the lines changed each time he was talking with an actress. He was not concerned with his acting; he let each woman influence his acting. That's exactly what I needed."
Despite having worked together on several movies, the two are not close friends. "I think he's obsessed by Ingmar Bergman and the relationships he had with the family of actors he created," Amalric said. "Arnaud likes to work with the same actors again and again. I almost tried to tell him it was maybe not a good idea to do a film again with me, maybe we couldn't invent something different. Then I understood he needed to have his own crew of actors."