Gérard Depardieu

Gérard Depardieu’s appetite – for food, wine, work – is all-consuming. He knocks off a film every six weeks, gets through five bottles of red in a day, and moonlights as a restaurateur-cum-winegrower. Nigel Farndale encounters a one-man whirligig

As others long for stillness, so Gérard Depardieu seeks out disturbance. Or so it seems. It is mid-morning and we are sitting in a quiet, shadowy upstairs dining-room at La Fontaine Gaillon, the restaurant he owns near the old Opéra Garnier in Paris, a stone’s throw from the Louvre. The conversation so far has been about food, his favourite subject. He is talking me through the dish I tried there the previous evening – a fine raviolo of sea scallops with truffle sauce – but he seems agitated.

He scrapes back his chair and with a ‘come, come, it will be better in here’, he ushers me through a series of doors into a brightly lit back office. We sit next to a fax machine which bleeps furiously as it dials and redials a number. A telephone rings unanswered. The window is open and the sound of honking horns drifts up from the street. Members of staff march in and out, looking flustered. To complete the cacophony, Depardieu’s mobile phone starts ringing. He ignores it and, now surrounded with noisy activity, a look of serenity passes over that famous face of his.

Though he is France’s most successful film actor by a considerable margin, 56-year-old Depardieu is not blessed with what used to be called matinée idol looks: he has a bulbous nose, small, asymmetrical eyes, and a jawline like the prow of a ship. ‘Like many men,’ he says with a grin, lighting up a cigarette, ‘I’m always a sex symbol in my own mind, but it’s great to be told so now and then, especially when you eat too much and have big love-handles like me.’

But the love-handles are a price he’s happy to pay; for Depardieu is a gourmand. Not only does he love to eat – he’s been known to consume four entire roast chickens at one sitting – but he is also a formidable cook who will produce a whole roast pig for a casual lunch, and has written a book of recipes. (My Cookery will be published by Conran Octopus later this year.) He is at his happiest, he tells me, when discovering local specialities in foreign markets: ‘I research constantly in Italy, Spain and Brittany, hunting down the best hams, sea bass, whatever.’ He sometimes serves the customers in his restaurant himself.

Although he is tallish – 5ft 11in – and broad-chested, he is probably heavier than a doctor would recommend. In 2000, when he weighed in at 18 stone, he was feeling under par and so drove himself on his motorbike to a hospital for a check-up. He had to stay in for an emergency quintuple bypass operation. Did that inspire him to eat and drink more moderately? He puffs out his lips as if to dismiss the question. ‘I have learnt a lot about my body since my heart attack. I diet more. And I don’t drink as much now as before.’

Given that he used to drink four or five bottles of red wine a day, that is not so surprising. But Depardieu is, even now, a man of extremes: he even diets to excess. He is just back from a two-week rest cure, he tells me. ‘Every year I put on and then lose about 30 kilos. You need to rest before diet. I starve for a week. I then eat only soup and fromage blanc the second week.’

Temptations are great, though, not least because he insists on having his own personal catering truck when filming on location. ‘I don’t snack all the time, but I do sometimes drink more than I should… I get very tired when acting and I lose my equilibrium, then there is a danger that I eat for my energy and drink for my energy.’

There is certainly a febrile air about Gérard Depardieu. The man has his own slipstream – an impression bolstered by his flushed face, untucked shirt and his permanent state of animation. He shrugs, he pulls comical faces, he runs his hands through his floppy, shoulder-length, tobacco-blond hair. And he does work hard. Since his screen debut nearly 40 years ago he has clocked up 129 films. John Updike once poetically complained: ‘I think that I shall never view /A French film without Depardieu.’ Last year alone he made nine films (that’s one every six weeks) and appeared in a play, causing controversy when he admitted to taking to the stage with an earpiece relaying his lines because he was too busy to learn his part.

By the actor’s own admission, however, it is a decade since he made a film of any quality. He seems to shun roles that might test the immense talent he revealed in Les Valseuses (1974), Jean de Florette (1986) or Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), for which he received an Oscar nomination. ‘Maybe I’ve become a caricature of myself,’ he says. ‘But I don’t give a stuff about that…’ He is a multimillionaire; why does he still bother? ‘I have so many families! Actually, it’s not just for the money. Sometimes I do it just because it helps a film get backing if my name is attached to the project.’

It’s true about the families. He now lives with Carole Bouquet, a former Chanel model. They acted together in Trop belle pour toi in 1989, and, as it turned out, she wasn’t too beautiful for him. Bouquet is also his business partner in this restaurant, as well as L’Ecaille de la Fontaine, a second one they have just opened across the square. Indeed, she now walks into the office, barks something in rapid French and walks out again. Depardieu rolls his eyes at me and hastens after her.

In the past, Depardieu’s perpetual search for distraction has led him to stray: ‘I’ve had affairs,’ he has said, ‘but I’m not the kind of man who has 10,000 affairs.’ He was married to Elisabeth Guignot, with whom he appeared in Jean de Florette, for 25 years. They had two children together, Guillaume, now 33, and Julie, 31. But it was the appearance of a third child, in 1992, by his then mistress, that prompted their divorce.

His relationship with his son has since been fraught. In 1994 Guillaume was charged with selling heroin. At the trial the defence argued that his father had been absent and emotionally uninvolved in his childhood. He was sentenced to prison for a year. Guillaume published a blistering attack on his father two years ago in which he portrayed him as a drunken, selfish, lecherous man who cared only about money: ‘He couldn’t give a s- what you are feeling,’ he wrote. ‘It is all “me, me, me!” He’s the only person I know who lies to his analyst. He’s an impostor. He’s rotten through and through with the desire to be loved and the need for money.’ (Harsh, though Depardieu’s ‘need for money’ did get him into trouble recently, when it emerged he had accepted cash for friendship – £20,000 to show his face at a football match – from the disgraced Algerian tycoon Rafik Khalifa.)

When Depardieu returns I ask him about his relationship with his son. ‘We do speak. He is a very poetic man. Fragile. But I don’t take his sickness as before. I say, “You know the way because you have stayed off drugs for six months … Now refind it.”‘ Was he a good father? ‘I don’t know. Your children always judge you and say they want to kill you but now they are not children.’ He laughs. ‘Actually, even when they are grown up they are still your children.’

Was his own father a bad role model? ‘No, because he died early. I grew up alone. I left home at 13 and it was simple. A different world. Full of crazy.’

His childhood was not only full of crazy, it was also miserable, born as he was to extreme poverty, the third of six children in the dreary town of Châteauroux, 160 miles south of Paris. His father was an illiterate sheet-metal worker and a drunk. At 13 Gérard ran away from home to live among prostitutes and petty criminals. He became a mugger and sold goods on the black market, eventually spending three weeks in jail, where he developed a stammer. On his release he was sent to a speech therapist who persuaded him to become an actor, and, aged 16, he won a place at the Théâtre National Populaire.

Had he considered the life of a hoodlum glamorous? ‘Oui. When you are in front of other youths you don’t know, you must develop not aggression but charm. You have to be smart, have good instincts about people, learn to use your personality as a weapon. You have to learn to calm people down and try and persuade them that you are not as threatening as you look.’

Depardieu speaks in halting English with a thick French accent. When he has made films in English, most notably Green Card (1990), he has admitted that he didn’t always understand what he was saying. ‘I would wait to see the dubbing in French and say, “Ahh, that was what he said!”‘

Ever since 1991, when Time magazine ran a sensational profile of him in which, due to a mistranslation, he was quoted as saying he had ‘participated’ in a rape at the age of nine, he has always made sure he has an interpreter on hand when conducting interviews in English. ‘It was absurd,’ he tells me. ‘The world went crazy. I think it cost me the Oscar that year. But enough of that. Did you try my wine last night?’

I did, I did. And I see why the great wine critic Robert Parker raves about it. So seriously does Depardieu take wine-making that he describes himself as acteur-vigneron (actor-winemaker) on his passport. He owns more than a dozen vineyards around the world, from the Loire, Bordeaux and Languedoc, to Sicily, Algeria, Morocco and Argentina, and helps with the harvest at several of them. ‘I love being hands on, getting on the tractor. When you make wine you need to know how everything works.’

It is a highly profitable sideline for him – he produces a million bottles a year from his vineyard in Anjou alone – but have his sales been affected by America’s displeasure with ‘the cheese-eating surrender monkeys’?

‘For luxury items like wine, I know they have been boycotting, but it never lasts long. Anyway, I love that challenge.’

Is it true he talks to his wine? ‘I talk to my wine like I talk to my food when I am cooking. I am in communion with it. Totally absorbed.’

At this point Carole Bouquet returns, says something in brisk French and turns on her elegant heels. Depardieu shrugs, stubs his cigarette out and charges after her, leaving a sheet of fax paper floating in his wake.