The Odyssey: when Lambert Wilson transformed to embody Commander Cousteau

In 2016, Jérôme Salle took us with Lambert Wilson and Pierre Niney to the seabed for “The Odyssey”, a biographical film on Commander Cousteau. To ensure the role of the famous oceanographic explorer, Lambert Wilson had to submit to a draconian regime, while keeping strength for the diving scenes.

Lambert Wilson, interpreter of legendary figures

It often happens that an actor or actress does not dare to tackle the incarnation of very great contemporary figures. The risk is real: how to honor an existence whose popularity is immense, and already well established in the collective imagination? This is a risk that Lambert Wilson, renowned French actor who in 1989 successfully played Abbé Pierre in Winter 54, Abbé Pierre, in 2020 General de Gaulle in De Gaulle and, a few years before, in 2016, Commander Jacques-Yves Cousteau in The odyssey.

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The odyssey ©Wild Bunch Distribution

In The odyssey, fifth feature film by director Jérôme Salle, he therefore invests himself in the role of the famous Commander Cousteau, a French oceanographic explorer whose fame is worldwide. A very demanding biographical role, which spans several decades and which has a double objective: to tell the odyssey of underwater exploration, but alsoinner odyssey of a man with monstrous ambition, faced with his contradictions by his relatives and particularly his younger son Philippe, played by Pierre Niney. An intimate and universal story, staged with breathtaking images of underwater landscapes and their fauna.

Weight loss necessary for The odyssey

Commander Cousteau is in a red cap and a blue shirt, and above all a slender silhouette, extremely thin. If this is the natural build of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, it is also a physique induced by the assiduous practice of scuba diving. To be an actor is not to imitate, but to find in oneself the same vibration as his model, to recompose with his body, his voice and his expressions a look, a breathing, an identity.

To find “his” Cousteau, Lambert Wilson thus adhered to a strict diet, with the requirement to lose more than ten kilos to approach Cousteau’s morphology. Jérôme Salle, in the film’s press kit, recounted the work accomplished:

I saw him in constant pain during the filming: eating nothing, drinking nothing, or almost nothing, putting himself on a draconian diet and ending up having nothing but skin on his bones … Lambert was constantly hungry. but it was at this price that he became Cousteau. I would add that at the start, he does not have the morphology of his model at all: it is his thinness, this dryness of the body that creates the illusion …

The odyssey
The odyssey ©Wild Bunch Distribution

The challenge: maintain strength

As for the actor himself, he also recounts this essential physical phase of the work of composition for The odyssey, even adding that he would have liked to go further!

I think a Hollywood actor, like Michael Fassbender or Matthew McConaughey, would undoubtedly have pushed the performance a little further! What was difficult with Cousteau was that you had to both be skinny and do very physical things, like diving. The problem is that, below a certain weight, you weaken. Me, I had to go underwater carrying these very heavy oxygen cylinders with 14 hour filming days so I had to keep enough energy. I lost 10 pounds fairly quickly, without regaining anything during the film. Moreover Jérôme operated a permanent surveillance of my plate because he found that I was too strong!

In the end, if Lambert Wilson’s features do not disappear for this role of Commander Cousteau in The odyssey, the resemblance is nevertheless striking, in particular in the speech and the postures, and of course the smoothness of the famous silhouette of the explorer.

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