Jean Reno for “The Crimson Rivers”

French star Jean Reno flits effortlessly from Hollywood to French cinema, and this year, moviegoers will see him in both the former (the big-budgeted Rollerball) and the latter (The Crimson Rivers). Often intense on-screen, Reno showed Paul Fischer a more affable side when they met to discuss films, acting, Hollywood, love and even a touch of gastronomy.

After all, he’s French, oui? Jean Reno has played the broody cop so often, you’d be forgiven for thinking you know the guy. In person, however, that dark character with the deep-set, melancholy eyes turns out to be amiable and humorous. At a cool 8 a.m at Sony’s Culver City studios, monsieur Reno takes out a cigarette before realising he’s not in Paris. “Shit, you can’t smoke here, huh?”

Best known to non-French audiences for his roles in Ronin, La Femme Nikita, The Professional and Mission Impossible he turns up as the star of the new French film The Crimson Rivers. A confusingly complex detective thriller about a string of murders, a mysterious child death and a bunch of academics living in a small university town in the Alps, The Crimson Rivers breaks new ground -at least as far as French cinema goes. “They like to think it’s new and perhaps for us it is”.

As Pierre Niemans, Reno plays an experienced detective who must travel to a university town in the Alps to investigate a murder. At the same time, a few hundred kilometres away, a brash young cop called Max (Vincent Cassel) is looking into an odd case in Sarzac, where a child’s grave has been violated. The story flashes back and forth between these two men and these two investigations, slowly bringing the two together. Eventually, in an almost father-son pairing, the detectives discover that something stinks in the town of Guernon, where the university is located. Up there in the Alps, the isolated school is operated like a huge, creepy family.the professors’ children marry each other, succeed their parents in teaching posts, and so forth.

This leads to a strangely confusing subplot. Even Reno has problems with these aspects of the film. “Yeah I don’t think they’ve found the ideal ending as yet”, Reno pensively concedes. “I think they should have shown more to explain stuff, but you know, it’s a thriller; it doesn’t need to make too much sense”. Nor does he care that much, because the film, he says, meant working with some good people. “I just loved being involved in a film with Vincent and Mathieu [Kassovitz, director], and was happy to be making a thriller in France, because they mainly make these kinds of films for television”.

Another subplot involves a serial killer on the loose within the university. Reno’s character is offered clues from the killer, and is carefully led to each body. In one memorable scene, he goes mountain climbing with one of the students (Nadia Fares), looking for clues in ice crevasses. And there’s no stunt double for the veteran actor. “Climbing down that mountain was the easy part. Getting up you had to believe very strongly that the rope is the centre of the universe”. Hollywood glamour this ain’t. “The trick was not to fall in any of the holes in those glaciers, otherwise you don’t know where you’ll end up. That was pretty scary”.

Reno didn’t have to go very far to research his role of the veteran cop. He says he called upon his friends in France’s version of the FBI to give him some clues as to how to play the character. “When a cop has a lot of power, he doesn’t say anything, he hides a lot, and I find that fascinating”.

If Reno is breaking new ground here, it isn’t the first time. He starred in a costume epic/comedy called The Visitors as a 12th- century knight who winds up in the contemporary world. The movie was initially viewed with suspicion in the French film industry, but was a huge box-office success.

“I can be very funny when I have the chance,” says Reno, whose capacity for comedy is known in France. The film was so successful that Hollywood remade it as Just Visiting. “It’s fun playing a knight travelling through time. In France, we did two films which we combined here as one. We shot it in Chicago and it’s a lot of fun”.

Reno, 52, was born in Morocco (in Casablanca) to Spanish parents who moved to North Africa in 1937 to escape the fascism of Franco. His real name is Juan Moreno. He moved to Paris and attended drama school when he was 17 and now lives in Provence, “where I have olive trees, make my own olive oil and nobody talks about the cinema”. He jokingly adds that making Crimson Rivers was handy “because it was close to Provence”.

He also keeps places in Paris and Los Angeles, two cities that symbolise his diverse choices as an actor. “I try to enjoy both” but is happy not to call LA home. “It’s a great place to work but not to stay. The longest I’ve stayed here is six months and it’s difficult for me, because the cinema business is my work; it is not my LIFE. Here, that’s all everyone talks about and I think if that’s how you live, as an actor, you just become dry”. Reno says that he’d rather concentrate on his olive oil, or discuss his artistic interests, music and theatre. “Eventually I see myself moving a bit further away from the cinema business, and concentrate on my music” perhaps writing a kind of musical, “but more of a story about men and women with words and music, mixed”. Ah, love, a favourite topic of the French.

About his own love life, Reno has four children – two are older, in their 20s, and two are little ones, aged five and three. He has been married twice, a situation he calls “stupid”. “It’s stupid to have different wives. I hate divorce,” he says. “But I have a good relationship with my wives”.

Reno, like the good Frenchman he is, also loves to cook. “I’m particularly good at soup”, he explains smilingly. “My potato soup is to die for”. Reno is a huge star in France and is slowly but surely getting to that level in America. “People come up to me and hug me,” he says, laughing. “But I think they hug me more than they recognize me”.

Reno shuns Hollywood fame, and goes out of his way to avoid it. “I didn’t come to be in a golden tower, surrounded by agents and chauffeurs and lawyers. I don’t want to be like that”. But he will still turn up in big Hollywood movies such as Rollerball, a remake of the cult seventies film. “I think it will be good, it was fun playing a real villain, and it was an amazing experience for me”. At the time of this interview, Reno was about to work on Wasabi but was tight-lipped about this new French epic. “It’s better just to show the movie than to talk about it. It’s like when you love somebody, it’s better to MAKE love than to talk about it”. That sounds like the Reno philosophy of life. “Perhaps but I’m not saying,” he concludes with a wink and a smile.