gaspard ulliel on the challenges of playing yves saint laurent

in the new film based on the late designer's life

photo by Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

At just 21 years old, Yves Saint Laurent served as head designer for Christian Dior, saving the iconic fashion house from financial disaster with a bold spring collection that catapulted him to international stardom. He would later revolutionize the state of women’s fashion and ready-to-wear outfits, setting the stage for the industry’s shift towards a more brand-oriented marketplace. But Saint Laurent, who eventually founded his own legendary fashion house, was also a notorious socialite who developed a predilection for cocaine and prescription pills that threatened to destroy him. 

Other filmmakers have tried to peel back the many layers of Saint Laurent, but Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent—the universally acclaimed biopic of the late designer—has become the definitive portrait. Playing the tortured designer is French model and actor, Gaspard Ulliel, who effortlessly blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Ulliel dives deep into the artist’s psychology to give us an unflinching performance, which is set to launch the young star into the stratosphere. Here, he tells us how he prepared to play an iconic real-life figure and how the experience affected him. 

You modeled and you still model. What was your relationship with fashion going into the film? 
Well, I wouldn’t say that it actually helped being acquainted to today’s fashion world because we’re talking about a time when it was a totally different story, a totally different industry. 

How would you describe that world?
That’s what I think part of the film is about. It’s about this precise moment in Yves’s career when everything is changing, in the way you experience life and the world, and also changing in the industry. I think it’s about this dialectic between art and commerce and how economical pressure built up as the whole industry was changing and evolving. It’s the launching of branding and how it really effected this entire world. It’s kind of the end of haute couture and the beginning of pret-a-porter. 

How did you go about preparing for the role?
It’s quite unusual to have that amount of time to actually prepare for a role. From the day that Bertrand [Bonello] told me that he wanted to work with me, to the first day of shooting, nearly a year had passed. So my first reflex was to try to do a lot of research and to learn as much as I could on this man and his career and his life. And at some point I felt a bit lost and buried under all those details and that’s when I realized I had to step back from reality and create some space in which I could reinvent him and feel free to make him mine. And when you think about it, that’s what cinema is, seeking and finding truths through lies and artifice. 

What were some things that you learned about yourself while diving deep into this other person’s psychology?
That’s a hard question. I don’t know if I’m actually very conscious about that, although I’m sure it influences my own life, my own vision. It was one of those very deep investments. I would really try to stay focused the entire time, even at home. So it was really intense, and as I said before it’s all about going through your own personal emotions and memories and translating them to create their character. So there’s a lot of yourself involved, but I wouldn’t be able to say what it actually changed in my own perceptions. 

While you were filming, did you realize that you had anything in common with Yves?
Well the obvious thing is our relationship to creation, art, and to celebrity; dealing with the outside world. So most things were striking me straight away and then the character’s behavior, this constant shyness, is something that I can recognize in myself. As a kid I was very shy and also this character is sometimes very isolated. I’m an only child and as a kid I would spend a lot of my time in my own bubble. It’s funny because as an actor when you’re reading the script for the first time, you have those characters that immediately echo and there’s an instant relationship with the character. That’s one of the criteria when I actually choose my projects. 

So that’s what attracted you to the project then? 
On paper it was just one of those rare projects you would just be ready to do anything for. First of all, working with Bertrand was something I was dreaming of because I’m a big fan of his cinema, and then of course incarnating such an amazing and iconic figure and such a complex character was very appealing, too. 

What were some of his biggest demons and how did he overcome them?
Well we’re talking about someone who was depressed. And I think at some point he needed to get dark and dirty in order to reach the light and to create. For me it made it so interesting to work on such a paradoxical character. But maybe that’s what made him great. Many geniuses, I think, have insecurity as a weakness—his doubts and his neurosis made him great. Early on I decided to actually think about all those nights that can feel a bit dark and dirty, full of excess and debauchery, and the moments where he was actually finding light, enjoying life fully, and maybe that’s where he actually was able to seize the essence of life, to actually use it in his art. And the film is also about how art and emotions are actually inextricably linked. 

There is a sense of inspiration, but on screen much of the film plays with this very nihilistic and dark underbelly that exists in the fashion world. How accurate of a depiction is this?
Well, if you read Alicia Drake’s book The Beautiful Fall, you can see that we’re actually very close to reality and sometimes maybe even under what it really was. But then, you know, it’s just a mixture of real facts and fictional facts. Like the dog dying of an OD—that’s something that Bertrand invented—but if you talk about the degree of debauchery and all this addiction to  drugs, this is totally acknowledged. We find those moments in many biographies you can find on Yves Saint Laurent. So we’re not revealing in anything that hadn’t already been told. 

Do you think that a lot of it was indicative solely of the fashion industry?
I think it’s a mixture between the fashion industry and also the period. It’s a very specific time of history where daily life is totally evolving. It’s just after May ’68, sexual liberation, and it’s before the arrival of AIDS. From what I’ve read, in Paris in those specific years it was a totally different life when you were just enjoying life fully, and just not thinking about the next day. 

Why do you think this is a movie people need to see?
Just because it’s great. What I like personally about this movie is that it’s not just a biopic. It’s a film about creation, about art. It’s like an odyssey to the mind of this tortured, creative artist.