David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli in District 13: Ultimatum
Before David Belle was a movie star, he was a fireman like his father and grandfather. And after that, he was in the Marines, but ever restless, decided that wasn't for him either. After a stint in India, he realized his only real interest was parkour, a gravity-defying practice that he is credited with founding. Parkour, which has its roots in French Army training, is the art of using one's body to use the environment to most easily travel from place to place, no matter the obstacle. After YouTube videos of him easily climbing walls and jumping great distances, rebounding off nearby surfaces with cat-like grace caught on, parkour grew beyond Belle's artful movements and into an actual movement.
The videos also launched his career as a stuntman and, later, an actor in Pierre Morel's District 13 (aka Banlieu 13) as the badass good guy out to save his neighborhood from a corrupt government. Since then, not only has Belle's career grown beyond YouTube, but parkour has influenced fighting scenes like those in Casino Royale and Sherlock Holmes, and even found its way into a Madonna music video.
Tribeca Film talked to Belle from France, with the help of translator Daniel Scher, about revisiting his character, creating the next Rocky series, and how he was this close to being in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man.
Tribeca Film: In some interviews you've said that you sort of became an actor by accident. Did you approach starring in this movie differently than you did originally, or was it like, "Oh, cool, I get to go back and revisit Leïto and his world"?
David Belle: Well, I have to say that I enjoyed acting in the second film even more.
Tribeca Film: Why was that?
DB: You know, the first film, it really was the first time that I had acted in a complete film as the main actor. As a result, I was under a lot of pressure. I was afraid of forgetting my lines; in terms of the action sequences, I was afraid that I might injure myself. And that level of stress lasted for 4 months, and I think it affected my acting. I had to remember what I was going to say, and afterwards I met some directors, and they said, "You know, when you're shooting, you should just take the time to act. Enjoy it. It's your moment." And that's what I did in the second film. I was able to concentrate better, both on the action scenes and on the acting scenes, and that gave me a greater desire to act in other films.
Tribeca Film: What was it like to do the sequel with Luc Besson's screenplay but with a different director?
DB: It's different, because it's something you just feel. It wasn't filmed the same way. You know, when you're working with the director, you don't even have to talk; he knows how you move. But with the new director, we had to explain to him what parkour was; he had to get to know Cyril [Raffaelli]. We had to start all over again, and I have to say that at the beginning, it wasn't easy.
Why do you think that parkour and parkour-influenced fighting have become so popular in action movies, especially in America? There was even parkour in Madonna's video a few years ago.
DB: I think parkour goes very well with action films because if you have someone who takes a risk—you know, the hero of the film is the person who is courageous and takes risks, and if you have that characteristic complimented by parkour action, it only enhances the character of the film's hero. You can say, "James Bond is a man who takes risks and is courageous," and then if you see him jump from one roof to the other, that physical action just sums up the character of the character he's playing. It reinforces the character. What we don't have yet are films that explain what parkour is—films that show the mechanisms which lead people to engage in parkour.
Tribeca Film: It seems that Leïto's character reflects those characteristics or ideals very well—freedom, honesty, family. It's a perfect match.
DB: Yes, it's true. There is a definite correspondence with the character's image.
Tribeca Film: I read in one interview that you're "finished with parkour" and want to learn to do other things. I'm curious what other things that might be? Do you still practice? If you were offered more movie roles that required parkour, would you take them?
DB: Well, yes, I mean it's true that I said that I was interested in something else, but what I meant to say was that I had stopped giving public demonstrations of parkour. I continue to do it personally, and as long as I'm able to move, I'll never, never abandon parkour. You know, as far as movies, I would like to interpret other roles and other characters and if there is parkour in the role, I would [still] do them. I also would like to make a series of films about parkour, sort of like Sylvester Stallone did with the Rocky series, which explained different stages of life through boxing. I would like to make a similar film or series of films using parkour, but in addition to that, I would like to be an actor, and even if I'm limited to action genre films, I still would like to be an actor with a great deal of versatility. Like, take the case of Mel Gibson, who can act in a period piece like Braveheart or in a film like Lethal Weapon. So these are the type of characters that I find attractive.
Tribeca Film: Can you talk about some of the stunts you did for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which actors you were doing them for, anything like that?
DB: Yeah, I was substituting for the main actor—
Tribeca Film: Jake Gyllenhaal?
DB: Actually I must correct this. It wasn't me; it was my assistant who substituted for Jake. They wanted me to do it, but I said, "Look, I'm not the right size and my assistant would be perfect." And they said, you know, they didn't trust my assistant, but I had every bit of confidence in him, and he did a great job, and I was there to help with the choreography. I would, you know, tell them how a certain scene should go, I would go back to the shooting of District 13 [Ultimatum] and then when I would come back two weeks later, they would show me the scene that had already been edited and was on the computer. And I think that's the reason why Mr. Bruckheimer wanted me to be there because he felt that I would give all the movements in the film greater credibility. He said, "If David's there, he'll make the necessary adjustments and movements so that this will remain realistic." And he felt that with me there, the scenes would be coherent and logical. And afterwards, you know, I had a very good experience—I developed a good rapport with Jake. I didn't think we would have of a relationship because I don't speak English, but afterwards, he signed a photo for me and wrote me a note saying that it had been an honor for him to work with me and to me, that was like a sort of diploma. I couldn't ask for anything more. I was glad I was able to work on the film. What Jake told me, to me meant that I hadn't done it for nothing.
Tribeca Film: I read that you had discussed with Sam Raimi playing Spider-Man. Do you regret saying no, now seeing how popular the franchise was? And would you be interested in working on the fourth, now that they've brought in someone new and they're doing something new with it?
DB: To be quite honest with you, definitely.
Tribeca Film: Which part?
DB: You know, I know that in life an opportunity doesn't knock at your door twice, but you know, I had the opportunity to try on a Spider-Man uniform for 10 minutes, and for me, that meant that I had been Spider-Man for 10 minutes. That was like a kid's dream coming true. I had to turn Mr. Raimi down because I had obligations elsewhere, but not because I didn't want to do it. And I was sorry that I couldn't accept. And if the opportunity comes again, I will accept with pleasure.