MEET – Driven by the popularity of Eric Rochant’s soap opera, the Belgian actor caught the eye of the producers of the cult English series. He tells how he found his place among the Crawleys.
From the austerity of the premises of the DGSE to the splendor of the Côte d’Azur cradled by the celebrations of the Great Gatsby at the twilight of the Roaring Twenties. From the discretion of a Sisteron to the immaculate three-piece suit of the dandy Marquis de Montmirail. Met in mid-April in Paris, Jonathan Zaccaï still can’t believe he was one of the recruits for the new film Downton Abbey.
In A new era, he embodies a French nobleman who decides to accompany the last wishes of his parent even if it means bequeathing to the Crawleys the majestic family home overlooking Sanary-sur-Mer. Decades before, Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) had seduced her father there. With Nathalie Baye, who plays his much more reluctant neglected mother, Jonathan Zaccai embodies French good pleasure and takes the Earl and Countess of Grantham, their youngest daughter Edith and their ex-son-in-law Branson into a whirlwind of evening and idleness at the water’s edge.
Spotted by the producers of the cult British series thanks to the international success of the Canal + spy soap opera The Office of Legends, Jonathan Zaccaï had never seen an episode of the saga of Julian Fellowes on the aristocrats of Yorkshire and their servants at the time of his remote hearing – confinement requires the winter of 2021. “It was on my list of shows to watch. As soon as I got the role, I watched all six seasons.” he remembers.
Privileged complicity with Nathalie Baye
Immediately transported by “this dive into a bygone world where the limits, the framework of the protocol is not ours and recalls the rules that the royal family and Elizabeth II still follow today”. “All these rank separations just waiting to be transgressed. Julian Fellowes combines gravity and lightness. As soon as the emotional charge becomes too strong, when self-pity threatens, a well-felt second-degree point is introduced.greets the native of Brussels.
Even if all the scenes of Montmirail take place in the Riviera in the magnificent villa Rocabella in the town of Pradet, Jonathan Zaccaï and Nathalie Baye went to London to prepare: fittings and rehearsal of the dialogues. “Julian Fellowes’ English is particular, not easy to put in the mouth”, entrust to Figaro Jonathan Zaccaï, who had already filmed in the language of Shakespeare for the Robin Hood by Ridley Scott.
In the midst of a pandemic and spring 2021, its preparations assume a week of quarantine with daily testing and a week of pre-production. This English parenthesis was a moment of grace for Jonathan Zaccaï: “I had the fabulous chance to spend a lot of time with Nathalie Baye. She is a fabulous woman, cultured and very funny. One evening, I wanted to take her to a restaurant but I didn’t know where to go. I trained her in Soho, the worst possible place. The streets were crowded with young people sipping their beers. She found the adventure amusing, I was mortified”.
Work on posture
Appropriating the character of Montmirail was the easiest: “Julian Fellowes is not too much into psychology and explanation. Everything was very concrete.” From his amazingly generous alter ego, Jonathan Zaccaï imagines an extravagant and epicurean man who wanted to honor a complex and distant father who dreams through the Crawleys of finding another family. “Lhen Robert fears he is the Marquis’ adulterine son, Montmirail sees hope in it.notes the Belgian.
Getting used to the clothes of the time was another pair of sleeves. “We immediately understand that we are falling into another world. There were so many buttons. I needed someone to deliver me from this armor. Left to my own devices, I should have used scissors”, assures Jonathan Zaccaï, who also had to work on his posture. “I fidget a lot. I had to learn to stay calm, not jump out of my seat. For the Crawleys, this escapade on the Côte d’Azur is a form of relaxation and light slumming. For me, it was already too rigorous as a framework!“.
The 51-year-old actor was charmed by the camaraderie uniting the historical actors of the saga. “More than a troupe, it’s a real family of astonishing humility“. And remembering: “Imelda Staunton had just learned on her last day of filming that she had been chosen to play Elizabeth II in the new seasons of The Crown. By way of farewell, she gave us a little wave like the queen!
The opportunity also for the actor who writes his second novel to tell Brendan Coyle all the admiration he had for him. “We did not have scenes together but I was touched in full by the character of Bates (the valet of the Earl of Grantham, editor’s note) and his fights “. Another regret, never having met the icon Maggie Smith. On the other hand, he will not miss the shapely face he had to wear for Montmirail: “I felt as naked as a plucked chicken,” he concludes in a great burst of laughter.