Finding Robert

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Theatre & Performing Arts, ,
img_needlesandopium1Marc Labrèche, star of Needles and Opium, on addiction, Miles Davis, Robert Lepage’s humour, and the problem with Paris.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s devastating death makes Robert Lepage’s poignant Needles and Opium even more salient. His seven-hour The Seven Streams of the River Ota was a transformative, unforgettable immersion. Like The Andersen Project (with KDD’s rap ‘Qui Tu Es?’), the splendiferous production first hooks you with music: sublime, heartwrenching Miles Davis. Lepage playfully blends audiovisual multimedia and technical invention, from gravity-defying harnesses suspended against celestial images to iconic evocations of Paris and Broadway. Whip-sharp wit is anchored by shrewd riffs and considerable heart, from le psy to le boudoir.

In the midst of the play’s New Zealand Festival run, I sat down with Lepage’s genial, generous lead Marc Labrèche at the St James. Unusually, in an era of wham-bam, hit-and-run interviews, he gave me double the time I requested, and eventually I was the one who had to insist we stop talking.[1] Speaking in his second language, the Quebecois actor is an animated interviewee, gesturing liberally. His expressive eyes sparkle, hinting at the mischievousness that saw the former satirical news show host considered Montreal’s Jon Stewart. He’s also currently working on Les bobos, a satire of bohemian bourgeois, after voicing the French version of The Simpsons Krusty the Clown for years.

Playing both Robert and writer/filmmaker Jean Cocteau, Labrèche has some hilarious scenes. Robert battles the funniest French hotel since George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Cocteau whinges when Life magazine asks to take his photo: “As a French poet, that is to say a French worker!” Illustration by Elina Nykänen. Photography by Ambrose Hickman.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: One of Needles and Opium’s qualities is the Lepageian humour. Even though it’s a play about addiction, intense suffering, and loneliness.

MARC LABRÈCHE: Yes, Robert Lepage is a funny man. He loves to laugh and he doesn’t take himself seriously. He’s a joker, in a good way. He’s always searching and going for a laugh. I like Needles and Opium’s scene with a hypnotherapist. Robert’s talking about where he comes from, why he’s there and maybe that through hypnosis he could purge emotions that are haunting him and he starts to give a funny monologue, like a standup [comedian] about Quebec history, about how in Quebec political history we lack self-confidence; we lost all of our battles; we’re a small group of people. In this image we’re in harness in the air: flipping and turning and talking with head upside down. This is funny also. There are some really deep and powerful moments of emotion; it’s also a show about people in the air, talking, switching, upside down.

The Cocteau character is a very brilliant man, but also very funny with a strange voice, an old French kind of voice, talking about himself. There’s a lot of funny or light things in the show. Yes, there are really powerful scenes and sad things, but it’s really well-balanced with a kind of humour that is very, very in Lepage style. He’s really truthful to his persona.

AB: I profiled Steve McQueen recently. He says he doesn’t have heroes, but Miles Davis is the closest.

ML: What can you say? This heroin thing, I feel really sad for him, that he has to go through that, through this pain. I don’t believe that you have to suffer to be a great artist. I don’t believe that, not anymore. Even if the idea is very romantic, some of people who are suffering a lot who have an artistic talent manage to use that suffering to make art which is wonderful. But I don’t think you have to suffer to be creative and interesting. I think you can be a happy person and be creative and sensitive and talk about sad things and existentialism. I’ve been living with Miles Davis since the first version of Needles and Opium and I never stopped listening to his music and I never get bored with it. It’s always great art when it means different things through the ages; it’s evolving in a way. Sometimes same music feels sad, five years later it’s more like nostalgic—romantic thing, and it becomes happy in a way. It’s very poetic.

AB: I was just speaking to the incandescent Neko Case about this festival, she was incensed by the idea that you have to suffer to be a good artist.

ML: I don’t believe that and I think it’s old. If you’re born to suffer because you have personal issues that are difficult and you can use them as an artist—good, that’s great. I know some great artists who don’t go for the suffering thing at all and they don’t want that. They want to, on the contrary, to be as balanced and as serene to be open to things and get rid of their own little suffering as a human being, to be open to talk about other things than themselves and their suffering. But to be capable of that I think you have to be in peace with yourself to a certain point to be open to other people, other people’s stories, and talking about things in your little person. It’s like a really romantic young guy thing, when you’re eighteen, you’re always suffering about something.

img_milesdavis-elinaAB: It is tremendously sad, Miles Davis and the addiction that ultimately killed him.

ML: When you have this talent and this genius, and you make so many people happy and moved by your art and your music and you can’t be happy yourself, it’s dramatic. But it’s his thing, we cannot judge, I cannot try even to understand that. You need to be like, “Ok, I don’t have to go through life tearing and crying, it doesn’t work like that”. I have children and I don’t want them to get them this feeling of going through life with pain. I want them to see their father as a person who’s trying to get things done with good spirit, with a good energy and it could help them to start projects: to have ideas; to feel courageous and brave about life.

AB: What are you hoping people in New Zealand and Australia take away from Needles and Opium?

ML: What is interesting about that show is that it’s very intimate; a very small, fragile, vulnerable, exposition of a human being and his loneliness. And what is peculiar for us is that it sounds so personal that it wouldn’t reach other cultures or other sensitivity in other countries, but on the contrary, people relate to that very easily. The story, the way it’s constructed, the way it’s written and the proposition to have this character alone in a harness suspended in the air, just talking about life and love and it’s working. I feel that people [here in Wellington] are very sensitive and very open-minded.

AB: Which Miles Davis album is resonating with you this week? The Louis Malle movie soundtrack, which he scored, and which scores Needles and Opium?

ML: Yes, I think I would still go for Ascenseur pour L’échafaud. Since the beginning of the first version of that show, twenty-five years ago, I got to know him by that soundtrack. It never left me and it’s so powerful, but in a very intimate way. It’s very moving, apart from his extraordinary versatility and skills. I think he did it at a good moment of his life when he was in love and he had really strong memories and feelings about love and he was still a happy person. He was in a mood where beautiful things could happen.

AB: One of the characters you portray is Robert, it’s an intensely personal piece of theatre for Lepage. But he’s able to let go of that and centre it around you, your craft as an actor?

ML: Yes. Of course it starts from a personal experience, a very intimate and deep experience for him. As soon as it works as a piece of art it’s not longer his thing anymore. He’s like, “Okay, so it starts living of its own.” In this case he started with a very personal, intimate pain, heart pain and love pain but then it became this story about Davis and Cocteau, and addiction to love; to creation; to poetry; to addiction to oneself, and it became something much bigger than his own story. So I think at that point it’s easy for him to let it go and start to change things. He’s very generous in all those ways that he doesn’t hold himself to things that are very intimate. It’s theatre: it’s made for the public; it’s made to share with people. Even his character can be shared by another actor. The goal is to get in contact with people and try to move people.

AB: Talk more about a specific example of his generosity?

ML: He’s very willing to change things to make it more comfortable for you as an actor. He was very aware, very sensitive about how I felt about doing that, because there were new scenes that were added that we improvised in workshops and I saw for the first time through the process that he was concerned about actors. Some people say, “No, he’s not concerned about actors, he’s always in the machinery, he’s always in the technical things and actors are little [importance].” No. He’s sensitive about actors, he loves actors. He wants them to be happy, and be happy in a creative way and for me that’s wonderful. There aren’t a lot of directors that are so concerned about actors.

AB: They can really get caught up in the intensity of their vision, as they see things.

ML: Exactly. Of course he knows what he’s doing and he’s asking things, but then he’s working with you. Sometimes he’d just switch over things and I’d say, “Oh my God, is that because you don’t feel that I can achieve that?” He said, “No, it’s just that while you were trying to do it, I saw other things where you can be more at ease.” He’s a very dedicated and gentlemanly director.

AB: Needles and Opium is also about (and evocatively set) Paris and New York. Do you feel a particular affinity for either of those cities?

ML: I think I would live more in New York than Paris. I love Paris, but Parisian people are very towards Quebec French-speaking people, they are very like [awkward pause]–

AB: Snobs?

ML: Exactly.

AB: You are gracious about my (poorly accented) French, but Parisians don’t care if I try [laughs].

ML: They don’t care. You’re always speaking with bad accent, and they cannot get over it. It’s very difficult to really have a deep and sincere relationship with a Parisian. I tried. I had some friends there but each time, if I don’t get to talk to them for two months, and when I got back, the first thing they talk about is my accent again. I’m like “Come on, you know me for five, six years now, you know I’ve got this accent. You have an accent also.”

AB: New York. Every art form all exciting at the same time: all day, every day. The theatre was terrific.[2] I love New York: the energy, the opportunity, the possibility, the diversity.

ML: Yeah, and you know people they’re used to so much people from everywhere in the world, so they are not afraid about anything. And the cultural field that I know, they are just open, they are willing to know you, they want to get to you, they are proud of themselves, proud of their town. It’s great. Like Cocteau says [in Needles and Opium], everything is an open-wide city, their hearts are open, their faces are open, the doors and windows are open, in Brooklyn kids are in the streets. It’s a very organic and very stimulating city. I would live there anytime. Paris is a beautiful city, but it’s old-school, a bit classical and it’s very hard to get to them and to get to know them. They don’t allow you to be witnesses of their true persona. It’s always, my God! They’re playing games all the time.

AB: They’re stuck fetishising a past romanticised Paris, so they’re not open like other places to thinking about fresh and different ways of speaking, and doing things. They have this idea, which may have existed in the past?

ML: Completely. It was working three hundred years ago. But maybe it’s not working that much anymore… Just change a little bit their thinking and just try to be like: Ok, let’s get down a little bit and be aware of what is around, the real world and not in les salons or in the castle.

AB: That agreed, there are exceptions: I adore the Tunisian-French film Blue is the Warmest Colour.

ML: Yeah I’m longing to see it.

img_needlesandopium2AB: I also saw Ethan Coen’s play Women or Nothing in New York. There was some skepticism about therapy in that play, too.

ML: Yeah. He’s [Lepage] really going through that, and he is still searching. We were talking a couple of months ago about new therapy based on food, the chemistry of the food, and he’s really into that. He’s making himself laugh about that because he’s trying things and he’s very open.

AB: Could you tell me another funny story about Lepage?

RL: Oh, my God. This is difficult. Have you met him?

AB: Not yet.

RL: He has energy; it’s a way of being that is very funny and very charming and he can play a lot of characters. He could make a one-woman show, for instance. He could do that. He could be as funny, as moving or touching in a woman character, for instance. Or he could play a child, or an alien and he could be moving and funny at the same time. I try to recall to myself some funny things but it’s more like [pause]–

AB: A general comic spirit?

ML: Exactly. He’s so organised because of this [busy] working schedule. But otherwise he’s always in movement, and he’s going somewhere and coming back from somewhere. We don’t have time to see apart from one or two dinners. I know he’s playing a lot of video games. I think he’s really crazy about Guitar Hero, and he can wake up at night to play hours of Guitar Hero. It’s his therapy, his private moment. But I don’t know, maybe he has some friends who play with him. I have friends who told me sometimes he would stop a meeting when he knows everything is okay. It should end at five, and but let’s say it’s four, “I can go and have an hour of Guitar Hero that I can do now.”

AB: What else makes him special to work with?

ML: What I like is that there’s so much poetry; and the technical element is so wonderful when it works. So you only have to physically go through the things, go through the images, and the emotion comes from that itself. There’s a part of the acting work that is done by the machine, which is wonderful. It is very inspiring because the machine is always the same and it’s always there with the same heartbeat and the same rhythm so you can rely on it completely.

AB: What would you ask if you met Jean Cocteau, who you portray so well?

ML: I would just sit there and listen to Cocteau. He was one of the very few men of that time to really talk directly to the camera. I saw a thing recently, a letter to the Year 2000. He was talking about what he would see sixty years from the day he’s talking at the camera: “I hope that people would still talk to each other.” It was very interesting. He’s talking about science and planes and poetry and theatre and cinema and technology. He’s a little bit like Lepage—there are a lot of common things that join together, because they’re interested by the same kind of issues.

AB: Do you agree with people who compare Lepage with Cocteau?

ML: In a way I can understand, of course they are very multitalented. Not only as artists, but as human beings. Many things interest them. I joke to Robert Lepage that he’s got those electric connections in the brain. We have trillions of them as normal human beings, but I think that he has another trillion extra. So he’s always ahead of the new. He keeps the information like a sponge. He’s seen so much of the world, he’s reading that much and he’s listening to that much music and he’s always keeping this information and it always comes out in his work. There’s a glimpse of a lot of things, and he can bring them together and make a show out of it or a story out of all this information. Cocteau also wrote about a lot of things and he was always jumping from one thing to another, and he was always at unexpected places.

AB: How about you and Cocteau?

ML: There are a lot of things I like about him. I think I’m always in awe and admiration of those people who have so much, not only talent, but give themselves the liberty to express themselves, as much as people like Robert. They allow themselves to trust their ideas, to trust their feelings that much—it’s very impressive. It takes a lot of courage and at the same time they’re among the most vulnerable people that I know, but they’re doing those huge and wonderful work of art.

AB: Is there a Cocteau film that you find particularly resonant?

ML: I love The Blood of a Poet and Orpheus. You have the theatre thing, you have these images that are peculiar and specific to him and his world, sensibility and his ingenuity and this invention and this technical tour-de-force.[3]

AB: Both Miles Davies and Robert LePage have an intense passion for creativity, for making art?

ML: I think it’s Robert’s life. Friends are also very important to him. But he’s in this for so many years now and he’s like an athlete working his muscles all the time, his creative process, always in movement and he enjoys that. Sometimes he feels tired, sometimes I would take a break, but I’m not so sure that things he believe that, he’s always in this emergency, urgency of doing things, and trying to find a way to making this fit with that. He always has at least five ideas in his head at the same time—one opera, one theatre show, one solo show, one movie. Other things when he’s just helping friends and all his work for his theatre, and technical things and meetings to have his own place in Quebec, where he can create, do his music shows. He’s with Cirque de Soleil, he’s always like “Wow!” He’s fascinating and he’s very inspiring.

I guess that Miles Davis—there’s a scene in Needles where we’re talking about how we did the music for Ascenseur pour L’échafaud, the movie. Louis Malle was saying that he talked about this movie a lot with Miles Davis. But then after that they went into the studio and the image was Miles Davis with his trumpet looking at the film just improvising on the images. And he says from one take to the other it could change radically. It could be another music completely. When he started over he would do two or three takes of the same part of the movie with his music, but it would be completely different music, always new things. Robert is a bit like that. He revisited this show, adding some scenes, skipping other ones, changing places, always this creative process going on and on.

img_needlesandopium4AB: Have you see Lepage’s film Triptyque, which just screened at the Berlinale?

ML: It’s very, very interesting. I like this cool [co-]director that he’s working with, Pedro Pires, who is a wonderful cinematographer. He’s very inventive, so joining their talents together to make a movie is a very special thing. You haven’t seen it?

AB: No, I’m looking forward to it. Do you see any connections with Needles and Opium?

ML: In a way it’s always turning around the same interrogations about the meaning of things, and the meaning of how can we understand from oneself and to get better and more at peace with ourselves. You can ask yourself questions about how the brain is working to learn things about yourself, how maturity, how experience, how can you use your sensitivity to be more. It’s always around the same themes, the research, the quest to find oneself and to be more in peace with yourself—I think that’s always important in his themes, I always comes back to it.

He’s so fascinated by Japanese culture, for instance, because they’re very concerned about this inner energy and this respiration and this discipline, life, philosophies that should learn ourselves to be more peaceful with ourselves and other people. He’s very concerned about that, finding peace in himself.

And he’s always in movement where working, his genius in a way. So he’s always preoccupied. I think he’s longing to find his peace, but maybe he wouldn’t be happy to be in peace because he would miss the creative energy and the emulsion. The Triptyque is very interesting.

AB: What do you think of New Zealand in Montreal?

ML: “My God, it’s like so far and so mysterious and poetic in a way.”

AB: Leonard Cohen is another great Montrealian. Are you into his music?

ML: I really love that man, he’s an icon. At one point I was staying in the same part of the town as he was. I was walking at least twice a day with my dog and I got to meet him. He was always with his hat. He was out of music at the time, he wasn’t doing it anymore.

AB: That was before his extraordinary renaissance.

ML: He looked very private and he was always smiling. I was very impressed each time I said “Hello, Mister Cohen.” He was always kind. I have great admiration for him, as I do for the Wainwright family.

AB: Tell me about that film you did with Rufus Wainwright?

ML: It was directed by Denys Arcand. It was in 2008 or 2007, it was called Days of Darkness, it was his last movie, and I was playing this character who had a lot of fantasies and he has such a boring life and he was working in the government somewhere in Montreal. He got this boring life, with his boring wife, boring family and so he starts to fantasise a lot about what he would have been if he had a bit more of chance, or talents and some things and, at one point, he imagines himself singing like Rufus Wainwright to a beautiful girl.

AB: A better version of Walter Mitty?

ML: Yeah, exactly. So we have this wonderful Diane Kruger, who is a beautiful woman and actress. I was singing to her with the voice of Rufus Wainwright. And sometimes Rufus Wainwright physically would replace me, and it would be back and forth. He was very cool. I was proud when he came to Needles and Opium.

MAIN IMAGE: Marc Labrèche, © Nicola-Frank Vachon. Courtesy of the New Zealand Festival.

ILLUSTRATION OF MILES DAVIS © Elina Nykänen 2014. All Rights Reserved.

ADDITIONAL IMAGES © Ambrose Hickman 2014. All Rights Reserved. More images at

Needles and Opium’ has two final performances on Sunday, February 23 and Monday, February 24 at the Opera House as part of the New Zealand Festival.
This conversation has been edited. Thanks to Ksenia Khor and Alice May Connolly for transcription assistance on this article.

[1] I would have been happy to keep talking, but it’s important not to overdo things.

[2] I saw Singular Park Ave Armory’s Massive Attack v Adam Curtis, an only-in-New York visual and sonic immersion. One unforgettable moment: Massive Attack’s intensely cinematic cover of Kurt Cobain’s ‘Leadbelly’ morphing into the original, powerfully indicting America’s prison industrial complex. I saw New York Theatre Workshop’s Ali, riveting, rousing drama. Potent physical performances, deftly paced, many zingers. The Book of Mormon’s Nikki James show-stoppingly throwing her lovely arms up as the Champ’s wife, Michelle Obama style: “So be the Champ, motherfucker!” I saw Margin Call’s Zachary Quinto, again brilliant in Tennessee Williams’s prescient masterpiece The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. I would have seen Tyler Mac doing Brecht and Stephen Fry doing Twelfth Night if I could have.

[3] ML: My mother is not an actress, but she loves so much Cocteau that she once decided with friends to make one representation of the Eagle with Two Heads. And she rented an old house in Montreal, an old Victorian house, with a big living room and she rented costumes and a DJ. She did it once and it was very awkward and very special, so Cocteau is in my family. My father was an actor, from the French school of theatre of the forties and fifties, so he was very into the Cocteau thing.