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Becoming Saint Laurent

Actor Pierre Niney describes the lengths he went to and the lessons he learned while playing the fashion legend

There’s plenty to say about the life of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent—so much, in fact, that there are two films slated to come out this year based on his lauded designs and infamous social life. The first (and the only film that has the blessing of Saint Laurent’s estate) is director Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, out this week.

The visually stunning French-language film stars Pierre Niney as the titular designer, whose life is tracked from school days through fame, excess and, eventually, his death in 2008.

Here, DuJour speaks to Niney about the process of transforming into this tortured yet genius character for the film.

Pierre Niney

Pierre Niney

Yves Saint Laurent is such a complex character. What made you want to play him?

Jalil, the director, called me one day. He told me he saw some of my movies in France and he wanted to put me on screen in one of the biggest love stories of all time, the story of Yves Laurent; it started like that. We just had a beer together and he told me why he wanted to do that movie. I was interested, of course. When you’re 24 years old and you have a proposition of such a beautiful, strong and complex character, you say yes.

How much did you know about YSL before taking on the role?

I didn’t know that much. I knew the brand and the empire, of course. I knew he was a mysterious character, I knew the silhouette and the glasses, but nothing more. I really needed those five months of preparation with three different coaches.

Three coaches? What were you being coached in?

I had a drawing coach because the director wanted me to draw for real in the movie, and I had to get as close as possible to Saint Laurent’s style of the creations he was working on. I also had a physical trainer to work on the proper evolution of the silhouette and the body throughout the movie. And, finally, I worked a lot with a stylist to understand how a fashion house runs, the process to create a dress and how to touch materials. I wanted to be able to feel really confident on the set about all that.

Has this experience changed the way you interact with clothing? 

Yes, absolutely. Now that I’ve done this, I can say my outfits have changed significantly.

What was the most challenging part of playing Saint Laurent?

 One was playing a sick man—the magnitude of his manic-depression at the age of 22 is not well known. That’s the real big event in his life. So, in performing a sick man, there was a lot of preparation to do in researching hospitals and watching and understanding a real bipolar person. Then, of course, there was the aging. The movie goes through 20 years.

Your body changes noticeably throughout the movie. How did that happen? 

I was supposed to be quite thin and to make an evolution of the silhouette. It was really important for me to work on the fact that Saint Laurent was becoming more a man—he was more like a little boy at the beginning of the movie. The important thing was to get stronger and wider shoulders for the parts in Morocco in the 1970s. We worked with that physical trainer to have a good diet and good training at the right moment of shooting to be able to get the physique we wanted to have.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about him in playing this character?

I was really fascinated and surprised by how far he delved into self-destruction, but, above that, how he managed in those moments of pain to always create something new, something positive and make real masterpieces from that suffering.



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