Sarah Cook: What drew you to the character?
Denis Ménochet: We did a short film first of all in 2014 and the character was already brilliant. He didn’t have much to do, it was kind of similar to how they did Hannibal Lecter where you hear all about him then you finally meet him. I read the feature script Legrand sent a couple of years after that. I couldn’t believe it: it was such a gift. Because you don’t have consequences; if you want to be a complete bastard then you can just go for it but you’re not going to go to jail. You can really have fun with it.
SC: Were there any villainous roles you based your character on such as Marlon Brando’s Stanley in A Street Car Named Desire?
DM: All those actors influenced me in some way. I watched Robert Mitchum’s The Night of the Hunter but I didn’t really want to pick anything; it was just more about how it was written.
SC: Was it tricky to humanise him? Because you do feel a bit of empathy with him as he feels lost and abandoned…
DM: We worked hard on the fact that he was a father and he was in love with her and all those things you can relate to. But he’s crazy because he was a particular pathology and we worked on what it means to be a dad. It was written with him being obsessive and we tried to loosen that up.
Beforehand, I locked myself up to study the character. I read a lot of testimony from abuse victims and the husbands – we call them pervert narcissistic in France – and I studied the patterns and behaviours. When it comes to the family, there’s always a broken past and I kept bugging Xavier to tell me his story, which he came up with the day before shooting. It was really helpful that in that specific family, with his parents, there was a particular drama with the mother gone and Antoine spending too much time with his father. All those silences were filled with a story.
SC: Is it tricky on set to play the antagonist and still have to interact with the cast behind the scenes?
DM: Especially with the kid (Thomas Gioria). I was concerned because this was his first feature and he was just 12 years old. He was working through his summer vacation. You know, he’s just amazing. There’s already a bit of wisdom about him; I was very impressed by him.
After each take, he started playing cards or games. I brought this ball at the beginning to rehearse the lines as we threw it. I could put violence in the game at the beginning but he wasn’t having that. He’d say: “Stop with your Meisner bullshit.”
SC: The most realistic part for your character is that everyone around him still sees him as charming.
DM: Thank you for saying that. It’s something that came about from the fact that those pervert narcissistic guys are super charming. There are testimonies from a wife saying that her husband beat her, and when she’d tell her friends, they’d tell her that she was crazy because he was the nicest person. Even the family was so in love with that guy that nobody would believe her. I like the metaphor here that he was a vampire and it sucked the life from her behind closed doors. It’s pathology.
SC: How did you develop that with Lea Drucker?
DM: I’ve worked with her for a while and I think that helped. I think there is an element of trust between us as actors so we could go for it and she wasn’t afraid to tell me to be violent. Throughout the film, even though we were friends in real life, there was a distance between us that developed naturally.
SC: So what’s next for you?
DM: I just shot two French films: one with Vincent Cassel called The Emperor of Paris which is from the director of Blood Father (Jean-Francois Riche), and another with Francois Ozon (The New Girlfriend). But I’m enjoying my time off and the Custody wave.
SC: Thank you very much.
DM: Thank you!
Custody is in cinemas now. Find your cinema and book tickets