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.


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.