Salim Kechiouche’s power plays
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Heartthrob, drug lord(s), refugee, Latin lover, mobster, pick-up artist, murder victim, gigolo… The CV of French-Algerian actor Salim Kechiouche reads as an industrious patchwork of experiences. While he has the roguish good looks of a leading man – an intense gaze framed by a heavy brow, softened by an easy grin – he has rarely taken on a romantic lead. Or not one that might warrant a happy ending.
“I want something more challenging each time – I am looking for excitement, emotions and intensity,” he says when we meet in Paris, the actor dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers with his dark hair cropped short. The 44-year-old, who is based in north-west Paris, has just returned from three months in Algeria filming his first Arabic-language film, Comme un Lézard Sur le Mur, by director Mohamed Lakhdar Tati, which tells the story of a film director (Kechiouche) who is introduced to the world of smuggling. It follows on the heels of his appearance as an electrifying drug lord in the Netflix global hit Ganglands, whose second series released in February. This summer sees him in the final part of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s trilogy, Mektoub, My Love, where he plays an uneasy Don Juan. Each time, Kechiouche displays an innate, muscular physicality – a quality confirmed by Antoni Ciufo, who photographed him for HTSI. “There was a lot of discussion around action and movement,” Ciufo says. “Salim was ready for it – patient and playful.”
A degree of escapism has always held appeal for Kechiouche, who grew up in the tough outer suburbs of Lyon; though theatre and cinema were not part of his family culture, box-office hits such as Rocky hit a nerve. “It was so inspiring,” he says, “not just the performance but also this idea that you can come from nowhere and succeed.” His first introduction to image and storytelling was particularly poignant: when he was 14, his mother died; Kechiouche’s father had bought a camcorder so that they might capture family moments on film. Kechiouche was then transferred from the private school his mother had insisted he attend to go to a local public school. He took up boxing, both as a means of release and for self-defence. “I felt I had to learn it out of necessity but then I really loved it: I liked the danger, the adrenaline and the skill.” He would eventually build his film career alongside a stint as a professional boxer, going on to win the title of kickboxing champion in both 1998 and 2002. It didn’t make him famous but, he points out, “there is a performance element to it”.
Kechiouche has also worked with Abdellatif Kechiche several times: first in the Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour, and then in Kechiche’s Mektoub trilogy. Set in the early ’90s in the seaside town of Sète, Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno (released in 2017) captures a languid and heady summer season characterised by romantic conquests between a group of young locals and holidaymakers. The second part, Intermezzo, premiered at Cannes in 2019, but was eventually held from public release when an especially long sex act in the film caused an uproar. This year will finally see the premiere of the third instalment of the film: Canto Due. If the director has sometimes attracted controversy for his methods, Kechiouche has no issues working with him. “He gives actors a lot of freedom,” he says, adding, “I never watch the cut before it is released.”
Kechiouche enjoys being part of Algerian projects – his heritage is important to him. “It’s not that you’re either French or Algerian: you are both. You can’t choose. It’s like saying you choose between your mother and father.” For his next role, he heads to Morocco to film a new Amazon Prime series, Ourika, where his drug dealer has a head-to-head with a police officer during the 2005 Paris riots. But he has also recently realised his own long-held directorial ambitions with his debut feature film, L’enfant du Paradis. Filmed around Place de Clichy, it follows the final day in the life of a self-destructive but promising young actor. Kechiouche plays the lead, loosely inspired by a close friend who died in a scooter accident in 2009.
“We had a lot in common,” he says. “He also came from a poor, working-class background and he also lost his mother.” In the director’s seat, he wove in the very first footage he shot as a young teen during his mother’s final days. They were used to illustrate flashbacks of the protagonist’s own loss. “It is a homage to my friend, and to my mother,” he says of the film. “But it is also about how we successfully change our place in the world – and keep our feet on the ground.”
Talent, Salim Kechiouche at Elite. Hair, Alexander Soltermann at Home. Make-up, Ruben Masoliver at Walter Schupfer. Photographer’s assistant, Vassili Boclé. Digital operator, Sarah Reimann. Stylist’s assistants, Aylin Bayhan and Elsa Durousseau. Production, Jason le Berre at Home