The Artist star talks about how he soaked up the ‘mythical’ atmosphere in Hollywood, where the film was shot

It is the day after the gala screening of The Artist at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as part of the AFI Fest in early November, and the film’s star Jean Dujardin is still aglow with the experience. “To attend a screening of the film at the Chinese Theatre was just wonderful for me, a gift,” says Dujardin.

This best actor contender is no stranger to fame or the red carpet, however. He won the best actor prize at Cannes in May for his performance as silent star George Valentin, falling to one knee as he accepted the award from jury president Robert de Niro.

A well-known face on the big and small screen in his native France, Dujardin was reportedly the highest paid actor in the territory in 2009 according to Le Figaro newspaper. But the 39-year-old actor is not too grand to admit he is in awe of Hollywood and its legends. “The two months we spent shooting The Artist here were a dream come true for me. I’d never been to Los Angeles before then,” says Dujardin of the shoot, which took place mainly at Warner Bros Studios.

“I was as much a tourist as an actor,” he recalls. “At the studios, I was gawping at everything, touching everything, even the walls. Shooting in LA really helped me get into character. I visited the mythical studios and the old theatres downtown and soaked up the atmosphere.”

If Dujardin wins the Academy Award for best actor, he will be the first Frenchman to do so. Dujardin appears to be up for the challenge. He is learning English and has already thrown himself into the awards season fray. “We have been told we have to run a real election campaign. That we have to go to Los Angeles regularly, network and speak to the media. My co-star Bérénice Bejo and I are ready to play the game and devote ourselves fully,” Dujardin told regional French newspaper La Provence over the summer.

His appearance at the Grauman alongside The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius, Bejo (resplendent just weeks after giving birth to her second child with Hazanavicius) and on-screen canine sidekick Uggie, created quite a buzz. It is a long way from the days when Dujardin would organise one-man shows in bars and small theatres around Paris as he was starting out in his mid-twenties.

“I’d perform my sketches on my own, in front of an audience of four or five people, tourists most of the time, but it didn’t matter,” he says. “The pleasure was all mine… I was performing for myself. I wasn’t too sure where I was going but it helped me to work it out.”

From there, Dujardin fell in with a group of actors associated with the Carré Blanc Theatre and set up the Nous C Nous comedy group. The act was invited onto a number of television shows and these appearances in turn led to the comedy series Un Gars, Une Fille, about the life of a young couple, which ran from 1999 to 2003. His co-star Alexandra Lamy is now his wife.

‘We just clicked’

The Artist is the third film Dujardin and Hazanavicius have made together. The pair first met in 2006 when Dujardin and producers Eric and Nicolas Altmayer were looking for a director for spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies (OSS 117: Le Caire, Nid D’Espions).

“I’d worked with the producers of Brice De Nice,” says the actor, referring to his 2005 hit about a wannabe surf bum whose dream is thwarted by the fact he lives on the surfless Mediterranean, “and then they offered me OSS 117. Michel was the second or third director we interviewed and we just clicked.”

‘Shooting a silent movie isn’t that different from shooting a normal film. We were still saying dialogue’

Jean Dujardin

Hazanavicius and Dujardin made two OSS films revolving around Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, a cross between James Bond, Austin Powers and Inspector Clouseau. Dujardin then collaborated with Brice De Nice director James Huth, co-writing and starring in a big-screen adaptation of popular French comic strip Lucky Luke. “I like to recreate characters, get dressed up,” he says. “But George Valentin is very different from OSS or Brice… OSS was pure pastiche, the character of Valentin is more rounded, the film is a true romance… to be honest I was quite surprised when Michel came up with such a character.”

Dujardin admits that although he loved Hazanavicius’ script, he thought it would be difficult to get the film off the ground. “My only fear was it would take us years to get it financed but producer Thomas Langmann came on board and things fell into place pretty quickly.”

The film was co-produced by La Petite Reine, Studio 37, La Classe Americaine, JD Prod, France 3 Cinema, Jouror Productions and uFilm. Wild Bunch handled sales.

In preparation for The Artist, Dujardin says he devoured the classics of the silent era such as FW Murnau’s Sunrise and City Girl. “All I could do was watch silent movies. I took inspiration from the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Max Linder as well as Gene Kelly, for his energy and style,” says Dujardin.

The actor and Bejo spent five months learning to tap dance for the final MGM-style dance sequence at the end of the film. “We sweated but it was a lot of fun… we did a sort of intensive crash course,” says Dujardin.

“Once I was on the set, I worked instinctively,” he continues. “I didn’t intellectualise. There is a different sort of body language and way of moving but it’s something I assumed naturally, subconsciously. But shooting a silent movie isn’t that different from shooting a normal film, we were still saying dialogue.”

Alongside the Oscar campaign, Dujardin is preparing for his next role in Eric Rochant’s thriller Mobius, in which he will play an undercover agent on the trail of a ruthless money launderer. He is also working on post-production of The Players (Les Infideles), a series of short films exploring male infidelity, directed by eight film-makers including himself, Hazanavicius and Jan Kounen. It is a project the actor spearheaded with director Gilles Lellouche.

Does Dujardin have Hollywood ambitions? Compatriot Marion Cotillard has worked as much in the US as in France since her best actress Oscar win in 2008 for La Vie En Rose.

“No, not at all. If I’m learning English it is because I want to be able to communicate with people while I am here,” says Dujardin. “I’m not fantasising about a Hollywood career just yet… let’s see how it all turns out for The Artist first.”