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French actor Tomer Sisley is humbly riding the wave of accolades for his lead role in director Frédéric Jardin’s Sleepess Night. From the premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to its well-received run at Fantastic Fest to its showing at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, it’s easy to see why Warner Bros picked up the rights for an American remake: The action thriller is an intense ride, and a certified crowd-pleaser.
Sisley’s performance as Vincent, a cop in a race against time to save his son from a corrupt mob boss after he’s involved in a drug heist gone wrong, is dually emotional and impressively physical. In New York City for Tribeca, Sisley spoke with Spinoff Online about choreographing action, performing all of his own stunts, being a real-life badass and his thoughts on the American remake.
Spinoff: I love this movie. It’s my favorite of the festival so far.
Sisley: It’s your favorite from the festival? [Stands up, walks over and kisses me on the cheek.]
Well, now that I’m all flustered! You’re a total badass in the film. I’m going to go ahead and presume you’re also a badass in real life. I like to imagine you shoulder-rolling through your kitchen to get a cup of coffee.
Yeah! I do all that! [laughs] Not when I go to get coffee, but I do all my stunts!
Yeah, that pretty much qualifies you as a bonafide badass.
I go skydiving, I’m a helicopter pilot.
Oh, really? So you’re an adrenaline junkie!
Yeah, I am! Oh, my God, you just defined me in the best way! I’m sorry, I’m going to steal that from you.
Every time I see you say that in an interview from here on out, I expect that you’ll cite it with my name.
That’s the best definition — that’s exactly it. I’m a helicopter pilot, I do car races, I do motorcycle races, I do paragliding, scuba diving. My job is being an actor, but, escaping from my job, I do all these things.
And it certainly helps when you can tie some of them into your acting job, as with Sleepless Night. Although in this movie, you beat up a girl — pretty violently, in fact. How’d that work out for you?
It was horrible.
That’s what Frédéric said. He told me you were absolutely consumed with guilt while shooting the scene.
It was the most difficult scene for me to do in that movie. No comparison. Every time I think about it, it makes me feel very bad.
Did you guys injure each other? It’s a pretty aggressive, disturbing sequence.
When you’re supposed to grab somebody and throw her against the shelves, you can’t fake that. [gets out of chair, picks it up] If I grab you like that and I’m supposed to go like this [pretends to smash it against the wall lightly], it doesn’t look good on camera. I mean, obviously I did not break her arm, and obviously I didn’t go full strength, but I had to do it at least a bit. And she’s [Lizzie Brocheré] a great actress — I really, really love her, and I felt like I was really hurting her. And after every take I said, “I’m so sorry Lizzie, I don’t want to hurt you!” And every time she said, “No, I’m fine! You’re not hurting me!” But I think she lied to me.
Did you take her out to drinks to make amends after shooting was done?
I did! I really did! And to this day she says I didn’t hurt her. I really think she lies.
I don’t know if it helps you shed any of the guilt, but that scene is amazing. It really stands out, it sticks. As does the scene where you and a guy go at it hand-to-hand in the kitchen. You broke out some interesting moves there, almost like wrestling moves.
Frédéric is a very precise director, and the script was very precise, but the fighting scene in the kitchen? That was two lines: “They fight. In the kitchen.” [laughs] I’m exaggerating, obviously. We choreographed the fighting scene before we had the set. Then once we were on set, we had to change lots of things because of the way the kitchen was built, and, for example, we saw the drawers and I said, “Well, that’s a good idea, why wouldn’t I use the drawers in order to protect myself?” All these things we had to invent on set.
Did you also improvise in another scene that involves your very original use of a toilet seat as a weapon?
Yeah, I did that with the toilet seat, too. [laughs] And the moves [in the kitchen], they’re jujitsu moves and they work very well. If I did it to you now, you’d be in trouble.
I’m going to take your word for it. This movie is just wall-to-wall intensity. As an actor, how did you maintain that? How did you ramp yourself up to that level in between takes, or after lunch, or first thing in the morning?
It’s very easy, because the whole movie is about him being in a situation where he might lose his son. The shooting is not easy. It’s painful, but the shooting took nine weeks and the whole job was to believe every day shooting 10 hours a day that your son might die at any minute.
Is that something you can personally identify with?
You just make yourself believe. You go for the essence of it. As far as I’m concerned, I had a daughter when I shot the movie. So I knew what it is being a father. I didn’t know what it is to be the father of a teenage boy, but it’s the same essence. And the intensity comes just from that.
As a viewer, the intensity also comes from this overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia that Frédéric creates. He told me that he didn’t remove any walls or create any special sets to fit the cameras — all of these spaces were genuine. What was that like, as an actor? Was it more challenging when it came to choreographing action?
It’s always easier, because it’s more real. You know, all the crowd scenes with hundreds of extras where you have to make your way through them — it’s easier because you really have all these extras and we had the music on set. You don’t have to recreate anything, you just do it for real. And it’s the same thing for the action. If it takes place in a real kitchen instead of a set, it’s easier.
So what do you think of the American remake?
If it happens, I’ll be very proud. Even more, I’d be very happy to have even a tiny part in that movie.
I think you should play the lead. Let’s start the campaign!
Nah, they need a name, that’s for sure. But I’ll be very happy to do one of the bad guys, maybe! [laughs]
Sleepless Night is available on VOD, and opens May 11 in select cities.