Frédéric Tellier & Benjamin Lavernhe in the footsteps of Abbé Pierre

There are a thousand lives in the life of Henri Grouès, in turn a priest with fragile health, a Maquis resistance member, a deputy upon liberation. There is above all the legend, that of Abbé Pierre, a name that he chose, that of a man of peace committed body and soul against poor housing. Frédéric Tellier chose the traits of Benjamin Lavernhe to pay tribute to this singular destiny in L’Abbé Pierre – Une vie de combats . Presented Out of Competition at Cannes, the highly anticipated biopic will be released in theaters on November 8. Meanwhile, discover this encounter with the director and his actor.

What made you want to make this film?
Frédéric Tellier: There were a lot of things. First of all, my mother had gone to a lecture and talked to me about it. Then, it’s a subject I brought up with the producers when we were looking for a new subject. There’s also probably my own anger about the world right now. Ultimately, I didn’t really know his life that well, apart from a few key points, like a lot of people my age or younger. It took some time to be convinced that there was enough material for a film.

How did you document yourself?
Frédéric Tellier: It’s something of my speciality, big investigations, even though this one wasn’t that long. There was a lot of material that already existed and that I had access to, because I was very close to the Abbé Pierre Foundation and the Emmaüs movement, so very close to the archives. And as this is a historical reconstruction, for this documentation, I worked with specialist journalists. We had almost 5,000 photos, a lot never seen before, video documents and letters written in his correspondence with his great friend François Garbit.

Is it difficult to embody such a character?
Benjamin Lavernhe: It’s a unique role in one’s life. Portraying Abbé Pierre is all an actor could hope for, since he was a great orator, a great speaker, someone who could touch your heart with his words. He had a great theatrical dimension. He was a man who was stunningly complex. We show his strength as well as his fragility and his doubts. That was put to use for a multi-faceted film, with adventure, history and very engaged.

How did you get there?
Benjamin Lavernhe: This is the first time I’ve played someone so well known and so beloved. There is something very serious in existence. It required a lot of documentary work, meetings with those close to him. It was also by being as close to myself that I was able to serve the character. It wasn’t a question of imitating him or aping him. What counts are the signs. It was at once connecting with his energy, his phrasing and incarnating the way in which he lived.