American stars who speak French

By Marie Labrecque, Montréal, Quebec

It may not be front page news, but a number of American actors speak French very well. In honour of Independence Day in the United States, Beyond Words features a few of them.

Credit: Georges Biard

Jodie Foster

The French spoken by this brilliant actor and director would make many Francophones green with envy. Watching interviews, you’re struck by her rich vocabulary and almost perfect pronunciation, and how at ease she is with the language. But then, she did attend the Lycée français de Los Angeles. The star of Silence of the Lambs has made a few films in France, including Un long dimanche de fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement), and it’s her voice that we hear in most of the French versions of her American films. A little known fact: as a teenager, she sang a duet on television with Claude François.

William Hurt

Before he could speak French, William Hurt was already getting a feel for the sound of the language. He told La Presse (February 15, 2003, p. C2) that “as a teenager, I enjoyed visiting my school’s language lab. I put on headphones to listen to French. It didn't matter that I couldn't understand it. To me it was music.” He lived in France, where he had a love affair with actress Sandrine Bonnaire, and he also seems to have a special relationship with Quebec, where he made an English-language film with Léa Pool called The Blue Butterfly. He even asked to have a small role written for him in the soap opera Rivière-des-Jérémie, which was broadcast in 2001 on Radio-Canada.

Credit: Angela George

Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen is an American actor of Danish origin who speaks seven languages. In high school he developed a passion for hockey and, in particular, for the Montréal Canadiens. He told La Presse (April 30, 2008, p. ARTS1) that he even started listening to games in French on Radio-Canada. The star of Lord of the Rings is still a Habs fan, and in 2009 he took part in a ceremony at the Bell Centre before the game marking the team’s centennial. Speaking fluent French, he introduced his idol, Guy Lafleur.

Kevin Kline

Kevin Kline learned French as his second language at school and then worked to improve his ability in the language so that he could play a Frenchman alongside Meg Ryan in French Kiss. He even sings Charles Trenet’s La Mer in the film. It was in Joueuse (Queen to Play), however, that he acted for the first time entirely in French, alongside Sandrine Bonnaire. At the end of an interview he gave during a visit to Montréal in 2009 to promote Joueuse, he let out a colourful Québécois expletive.

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep dubbed her own character for the French version of Sophie’s Choice, speaking French with a strong Polish accent. Quite an achievement for an Anglophone! She was awarded a César d’honneur in 2003 and, during the ceremony in Paris, she gave a charming thank-you speech in “halting schoolgirl French.”

John Malkovich

“I have French ancestors—Huguenots—who emigrated to Canada in the 1800s” (La Presse, July 28, 2007, p. C14). Could that be the source of John Malkovich’s love for all things French? Malkovich lived in France for a decade and still owns a house in the Luberon region of Provence. He has won a Molière prize for a play he staged in Paris. While he does speak French well, he panicked when told by the director of Les Misérables, on the first day of filming, that he would be playing his role in the language of Victor Hugo. “I studied the script for 17 hours a day with a coach. I was in a permanent state of panic” (L’Express, November 17, 2010, p. STY52-54). Malkovich even played a Quebec race horse trainer, Lucien Laurin, in Secretariat.

Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman learned French at the University of California, Los Angeles. However, he is said to prefer talking to the French-language media in English. “Otherwise there would be too many silences while I search for the right word,” he explained to Le Matin (January 26, 2006, p. 56).

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Angelina Jolie

According to the U.S. media, Angelina Jolie, along with her children (including the twins born in Nice), has begun studying the language of Molière. After all, her own mother, Marcheline Bertrand, was of French-Canadian descent on her father’s side.

Credit: Angela George

Johnny Depp

What better incentive to learn a language than love? Johnny Depp, husband of singer Vanessa Paradis, has a villa in the south of France. In 2004, he made a brief appearance in the French film Ils se marièrent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants (Happily Ever After).

Sigourney Weaver

Did you know that in 1985, in between the filming of two Alien films, Sigourney Weaver appeared with Gérard Depardieu in a French film, Une femme ou deux (One Woman or Two)? She played an American in the film, but some of the lines she delivered in French reveal her mastery of the language.

Credit: Georges Biard

Jane Fonda

In the 1960s, Jane Fonda pursued her acting career in France, where she married director Roger Vadim. “At that time, I spoke only a little French, which I had learned at school. Where I really learned the language was with Vadim, in bed—the best way to learn!” she told the magazine Télérama (June 26, 2010, p. 18). She has just renewed her ties with French cinema by making the not-yet-released Et si on vivait tous ensemble? (And If We All Lived Together) in which she will appear opposite Pierre Richard.

These are just a few examples of how French maintains its allure as a language. Like these movie stars, many people still recognize the value of learning a second, or even a third or fourth language, as windows to the world.

Related articles published earlier in Beyond Words

Francophones in the land of Uncle Sam

Published on Monday, July 04, 2011

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