Brothers acting as brothers: a conversation with Gregory and Mikael Fitoussi

Love is complicated between those who find it difficult to communicate, and it can release a sad song. The deep love that exists between two brothers who can’t get along had remained a mystery in my mind, an undiscovered land. That is, until last December, when Gregory Fitoussi, star of Engrenages (Spiral) and ITV1’s Mr Selfridge, introduced me to director Abraham Belaga’s short film, Alliés Nés (Born Allies).

Gregory and Mikaël Fitoussi

Gregory and Mikaël Fitoussi

Alliés Nés is a simple story. It has a cavernous emotion that’s shown, felt, but never explained. Set in the suburbs, two brothers, Samuel (Gregory Fitoussi) and Micha (Mikael Fitoussi) meet at their family home for Shabbat. They haven’t seen each other for a long time and the tension between them is as unbreakable as their bond. Ludi Boeken, who plays their father, is more impressed by his younger son, Samuel, who has an exciting life travelling the world, than by Micha, who stays at home to look after the family shop. Fanny Ardant plays their mother: radiant and warm, gently longing for her two sons to be good friends.

There are clear allusions to the Cain and Abel story, but Alliés Nés is not a story of Old Testament binaries, or obvious fraternal jealousy. Instead, over the years, the connection between the brothers has developed into something between a crackle and a loud discordant sound. Gregory and Mikael intelligently portray the brothers’ brittle rapport through glances, body language and words that demand the audience read between the lines to find the reason for their sadness and anger.

I was curious to talk to Gregory and Mikael about the fraternal love in Alliés Nés, fighting the temptation to make the judgment that it is a small reflection of their relationship in real life.

We meet on a hot Paris day in the first arrondissement, a day before Gregory was due to dub his English performance as the drug dealer in the US show Amercian Odyssey, with his native French (‘that’s going to be weird,’ he says). Within minutes of our time together it’s evident the brothers share a peaceful solid love, a good friendship and creative energy.

Samuel (Gregory Fitoussi)

Samuel (Gregory Fitoussi)

Throughout lunch, the brothers are confident and charmingly wholesome, a testimony, perhaps, to the strength of their tight-knit family, who first arrived in France following Algerian Independence in the 1960s.

Unafraid to speak honestly about some subjects I thought they might want to avoid, they often finish each other’s sentences, developing the other’s thoughts in directions that sometimes surprises me. Mikael, also a writer, wants to analyse and delve deeper, while Gregory’s directness is disarming, always enthusiastic to get to the point, and be truthful and wise.

HVK: Did Abraham Belaga write Born Allies with the two of you in mind?

Gregory: Both of us are good friends with Abraham and we spent a lot of time together. He’s also an actor and we liked to talk about cinema, what we liked and how we wanted a project that had a ‘good relationship with the bones.’ Something very simple, strong and deep. One day we invited Abraham to our house for dinner at Shabbat with our family. He saw us with our mother, father …

Mikael: … and our grandmother. He was surprised to see us getting along and being happy.

Gregory: So when he saw us being happy I think he was inspired to write this film for us. He saw us and thought, ‘They are both good actors and it would be interesting to see them both on screen because it’s going to work.’ Our relationship touched him.

Mikael: The interesting thing is that when Abraham was at Shabbat with our family, I would like to know, in his mind, if he saw something between us that made him think that things weren’t so good. Maybe he couldn’t believe we were so happy.

Mikael Fitoussi as Micha

Micha (Mikael Fitoussi)

HVK: Did Abraham consult you during the process of writing the script?

Gregory: Abraham talked to us regularly, sending us drafts, asking, ‘What do you think about this?’ We had some ideas, which he listened to. We all felt we were heading in the same direction with the project.

So when we arrived on set we knew exactly what story we wanted to tell. Abraham was using us as brothers, as actors, to say, ‘Look you shouldn’t hate your own brother.’

HVK: Micha appears to be palpably jealous of Samuel, his younger brother, because he is his father’s favourite. Samuel leads an exciting life, while Micha stays at home, working in the family business.

Mikael: For me it wasn’t about jealousy, it was about anger. Samuel has a good life. He escaped his responsibilities and his obligations. All the while I am here, with the family, taking care of everything.

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“When you love someone … and receive nothing in return, the injustice can bring anger and violence.” Gregory

It’s about injustice. It’s like the story of Cain and Abel. I was motivated by a feeling of injustice. I wanted to know why my father preferred my younger brother even though it is me who stays with the family, who is there every week for Shabbat and remain in close contact with my mother and grandmother.

My father is fascinated by my brother. He is free and he travels all around the world. He is the one who impresses my father.

HVK: Micha looks angry. It’s a sad anger.

Gregory: It’s sad when you don’t just put the anger on the table and talk about it in a free way. If you don’t, it just becomes something that we don’t talk about. But the sadness is there. It exists in the eyes of the mother (played by Fanny Ardant). Fanny Ardant is amazing. In her eyes you can see what’s going on between the brothers.

When Fanny asks Micha, ‘We’re going to have a party for you brother, are you going to come?’ I think she’s using her eyes to tell the story. Her eyes are saying, ‘Please come, maybe you can talk to each other. Maybe you can try to go to a different place.’ From my point of view, Samuel can’t understand why he can’t talk to his brother whom he loves so dearly.

HVK: At heart, Born Allies is about communication. Why couldn’t the brothers speak to each other?

Mikael: When you are proud, you can’t ask: ‘Why does my father prefer you to me?’ You are inhibited.

Gregory: It was very interesting for us to make a parallel about those inhibitions. At the very beginning when we began to rehearse together we were shy because it felt weird working together. But it was interesting to use that shyness as something that existed for real between the two of us.

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“You can’t choose your family, but you have to love them.” Mikael

At first we didn’t want to rehearse. We said, ‘Ok, we’re brothers, it’s going to work on screen. We’re going to build this relationship because we’re brothers. There’s no way it’s not going to work’. But Abraham insisted we rehearsed. He said, ‘No we have to break the inhibition you have between the two of you.’

HVK: Despite the two of you being best friends. Did you still find tensions you tapped into to play Samuel and Micha?

Gregory: Even though we have a good relationship, brothers always have tensions. It’s like being in a couple, a love relationship. It was easy to find little things that we could build Micha and Samuel on.

Gregory to Mikael: We didn’t talk about it, did we?

Mikael: No. Maybe there are some small parallels between us and the brothers. It was more about taking one small thing and making it bigger.

Gregory: There are things we don’t talk about you know. There are things we are shy to talk about in every relationship. It’s interesting to keep secrets, too. And sometimes when you are smart there are things that exist that you don’t have to talk about. It’s something obvious that we all know, and it’s just the way it is. It’s the way you approach these things, or leave them, that can be done badly.

I am thinking about jealousy for example. Of course Mikael and I do the same job, of course there is one who is at this moment doing better than the other. Of course there could be jealousy, or envy or bad feelings about it. But we have a choice about how we behave, or respond.

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“If we were to have a fight, I would call him within an hour, and say, ‘let’s talk about it.’ We’re way different to Samuel and Micha.” Gregory

HVK: Born Allies militates against the classical good brother vs. bad brother cliché.

Mikael: We wanted a balanced relationship. It’s not just about my character being jealous or angry. We didn’t want a simple story. Maybe Samuel’s not so great either, and doesn’t see Micha in a good light.

Gregory: It’s not about who’s bad and who’s good; instead it’s about what happened between the two of them. Why there is an issue in their relationship. We all know about the relationship between siblings. Sometimes they can have a fight and for years they won’t call each other.

I could never be like that. If we were to have a fight, I would call him within an hour, and say, ‘let’s talk about it.’ We’re way different to Samuel and Micha.

HVK: The tension builds up in the film to the point where the only conclusion is violence.

Mikael: I needed to wake up my little brother and make him take part in our relationship. I needed him to properly see me for who I was, not just as his older brother.

Gregory: It’s interesting because as soon as brothers hit each other, or there is violence, something is broken, and it will never be the same.

Mikael: The main theme of the film is the communication issue they have. You can’t choose your family, but you have to love them. What I like to think is that there is a real balance between the mistakes they are making. They both make them, and there is no good or bad. The two of them just can’t help each other.

HVK: Born Allies asks many questions, it’s an exploration of fraternal love. However, it provides few answers. I think this is one of the film’s strengths.

Gregory: When you love someone, even if it’s not your brother but perhaps a wife or a father, and you give them some love and receive nothing in return, the injustice can bring anger and violence. This is because you don’t understand why it is so unfair.

HVK: How did you prepare for the roles?

Gregory: Sometimes I don’t like to prepare anything. To trust the moment. Sometimes a project needs this approach. At other times I have to work hard, and prepare very thoroughly, so I know everything about the role. In Born Allies the preparation was special because the story was so close to us. It was like we didn’t have anything to prepare, yet at the same time we still had things to do.

We don’t really talk about the way we prepare. It’s so personal. It’s not about not being willing to explain it, it just because it’s so abstract. The preparation is a long-term process, maturing in your mind. You have to bring back those things that aren’t words, and make them personal, so they can touch your emotions and, finally, use them for the role.

So you end up making choices. It’s a question of deciding to use a certain part of my personality and hide another part. Using anger, and forgetting about my sweetness, for example.

Mikael: … and in this case, playing two brothers, when you are two brothers in real life, is very special. We learned how to use our brotherhood, and take it to a good place. To use it as a base and build on it. It was about accepting who we are, not using it as an obstacle, and playing with it. Incredible.

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“It was about accepting who we are (as brothers), not using it as an obstacle, and playing with it.” Mikael

Gregory: And the funny thing is you can’t lie because you know your brother so well. You know exactly how he reacts and so if the tiniest move of his face is fake, you can see it.

You can’t lie at all. Usually you try not to lie when you act, but sometimes you do.

When Mikael are I were filming we didn’t lie anymore. As I mentioned, during the rehearsal it was very weird. It was like, ‘No, no. You’re not true here.’ We had to break that.

HVK: You had to be truthful with each other. No defenses.

Gregory: It’s funny because I used to act with my girlfriend. By coincidence she played my first girlfriend in the first season of Spiral, back in the days. Sometimes I had this feeling and I could see when she was lying.

Afterwards, I tried to be nice and not say, ‘Oh you were faking here,’ because there’s no point. But it’s interesting to go deep, and be as real as possible. As truthful as possible. It’s a good exercise.

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“It’s sad when you don’t just put the anger on the table and talk about it in a free way.” Gregory

HVK: What was it like working with Fanny Ardant?

Gregory: She’s amazing.

Mikael: Before the shoot Abraham invited us to Shabbat at his own place, with Fanny Ardant and Ludi Boeken. It was a chance for us all to meet, and have a nice dinner. She is very easy to be with. Straightaway, she was our mother.

Gregory: She was very kind to us. She said, ‘Ah they are both beautiful! I am proud to have them as my children.’

Fanny agreed to be in the film because she has a lot of respect for Abraham. He was an actor in the first film she directed a few years ago and they knew each other very well. She doesn’t really do short movies and it’s really hard to get her in a film.

There is a funny story because when she said ‘yes’ to Abraham, she said, ‘I am going to do it but I am going to stop shooting at 2am. I don’t like doing films after 2am!’ In short films you can clock up many extra hours and sometimes you finish at 7am.

Mikael: When you act with Fanny you are directly in the cinema. She is cinema. She says such a lot of things with her look, with her eyes. It’s incredible. She’s very, very beautiful. We were lucky to act with her.

HVK: Has the experience of Born Allies inspired you to seek out other opportunities where you can work together?

Mikael: We had such a wonderful experience making Alliés Nés and so afterwards we wanted to find a new project where we could work together, over a longer period of time. We started to search for stories in order to write a script. I found the Italian book Inseparables by Alessandro Piperono. It’s a very strong story about two brothers, set over twenty-five years.

With David Lanzmann, the director and producer, we proposed a vision to the author of what we wanted to do with his book. He loved the fact that we were two real brothers in real life and he gave us the rights. It’s the beginning of a new adventure for us.

HVK: In the meantime you’re both heading off to the French Alps to shoot?

Gregory: It’s funny we both start shooting on July 1st and we’re going to shoot in the Alps, really close to each other, like 30-20km apart. It’s a big coincidence, because we’ll be very close at the same moment.

Mikael: I’m shooting an episode of Alex Hugo for the channel France 2, called ‘Soleil Noir.’ It’s a thriller, a dark story, and I play the cop. A little girl disappears in the mountains and we have to find her. It’s a TV movie with a great script.

Gregory: And I’m going to shoot one episode of Accusé a TV show, also for France 2. It’s adapted from the English show called Accused. Each episode has different actors and different stories. I’m really excited about it.

I play a sculptor who works with wood. He’s also a volunteer fireman who’s totally in love with his girlfriend. They really want to have a child and soon after I find out I’m sterile, my girlfriend tells me she pregnant. So my character figures out she’s cheated on me. It’s pretty interesting because from that point on everything is with a subtext.

Mikael: I’m also very excited about a film I’ll be working on later in the year called ‘Un Peu de Mon Sang.’ I’m very proud of it. It’s a story about a dying father, his son, and their complicated relationship.

Our conversation ends with talk of living in London, my gentle teasing of their ‘American-English’ and battling tourists in Montmartre. Mikael leaves the restaurant first, after giving a nod to Gregory. This small unspoken interaction is calm and assured: the Fitoussi brothers are born allies.

Unlike Samuel and Micha, they are in synchrony, as friends, brothers and as artists. Image 2If there are subtle complications between them, Gregory and Mikael have chosen, intelligently, to channel them into their creative partnership. Inseparables will take their bond into new territory, and is certainly a film to watch out during the next couple of years.

Paris, June 2015

I am currently organising a direct link to Alliés Nés and will update as soon as possible.