By Madeleine Finlay-Hudson
Breakthrough actor Djebril Zonga stars in Ladj Ly’s debut feature film, Les Misérables. But it’s not that Les Misérables. This is not a musical — there’s no Hugh Jackman this time around. Yet Ly’s Les Misérables is incredibly reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s classic, exploring the themes of politics, dysfunction and how we address the often blurred lines of law enforcement within local communities.
Zonga himself is a man of many talents, having previously pursued a successful career as a footballer before forging a triumphant career as a model — walking the catwalk for Jean Paul Gautier and developing a name for himself as a sweet and gentle figure in the fashion world. However, with his newest venture, he sheds this, almost like a chameleon, and offers up an incredibly moving performance as a jaded, bitter cop — working the streets of Montfermeil. A neighbourhood only a few miles from where Zonga himself grew up.
And, despite this only being his second role in a feature, the buzz around the film has been nothing short of incredible. Garnering acclaim from all around the globe, from the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2019 to an Academy Award nomination for Best International Feature nomination earlier this year. (Remember those?)
To mark the release of the film, we spoke to Djebril Zonga about his turn as Gwada, his career experiences so far and what he hopes people learn from the film. Djebril Zonga is a name to watch out for — this is merely the beginning.
So firstly, you’re fantastic in the film — what an incredible performance. Now, we heard that you grew up with Ladj Ly, is this true? Were you involved in his filmmaking when you were younger?
DZ: Yes, I knew him from the neighbourhood but I wasn’t involved back then, I had my own career plans. I’ve explored different things throughout my life, I used to play soccer and I used to model. Then, when we reconnected a few years ago, I said to him — “Listen, I’m training to be an actor now so the day you make a movie, let me know.” And he said “okay”.
And then, when he prepared the short film, he didn’t call me. So I grabbed my phone and called him and said “let me do the casting”. And then, that was it. Once we shot the short film, I was called back for the feature.
Haha. Your character has one of the more emotional and nuanced stories in the film, is this something you brought to the character from personal experience or did you collaborate with Ladj Ly?
DZ: Thank you. Yes, of course, I definitely brought personal experiences, I grew up there in the suburbs, in Montfermeil. To play a cop, it was something I didn’t know — it was very far from where I come from, from what I knew about that life. I used to be one of those kids we see in the film and now I’m playing the cop. It’s very different to explore it from the other side, a side I didn’t really understand until playing it, actually experiencing it. I worked with my coach, I spoke to local law enforcement. I took everything, I watched documentaries, I read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables — I wanted to really get my character.
Ly gave us a lot of freedom to explore our characters and we (Damien Bonnard and Alexis Manenti) took this and ran with it. I think it helped me build a role I felt worked the best — all that preparation and build up, it was wall worth it when you step out and perform, when you just let go and become your character. Ly wanted to demonstrate the levels of dysfunction often hidden behind the beauty of a country like France, a city like Paris. And, I wanted Gwada to be a believable representation of this combined with what I know from my own experiences in life.
It sounds like it was really collaborative on set then. Now, having grown up in the French suburbs yourself, what message would you like people to take from the film?
DZ: Maybe, the last sentence — the quote from Victor Hugo. “There are no bad herbs or bad men; there are only bad cultivators.” I think it’s an important message. I guess the thing I want people watching the film to understand is that as an adult, you should take care of your children and protect them, nurture them. It’s really important we look after our young.
Now this is your second major role in a feature film — but you’ve done a lot of different things haven’t you? You were a footballer, then a model and now you’re focusing on acting. If you were to pick What do you feel has suited you the best?
DZ: Definitely not modelling. Modelling was only something easy, sort of like something to pay the bills. Football was my first passion — I still watch it and I still adore it. But now, acting is my main passion, my main goal. I love doing it. It’s so fulfilling. I am honing my craft and I love it.
As you have explored so many things — would you ever try working behind the camera? Do you think you’d like to direct one day?
DZ: I’m not sure yet. It’s a very different approach, I don’t know if I could go behind the camera. But I do love watching actors performing. You know, it’s a maybe — we never know.
Incredibly important question here. Would you rather win the World Cup or an Oscar?
DZ: Ahh this is so hard. Now, these days I’m going to say win an Oscar. But I think the sensation in football when you score a goal in front of millions of people — even if you won an Oscar, it’s never going to be the same. It’s too unbelievable, too incomparable.
Now Les Misérables is out, what’s next for you?
DZ: I’m going to stay in acting for many, many years. I love it. I’m working on my skills and trying to develop something around me and what I know. Acting life is a lot of waiting, but I’m working on doing lots of things. Just wait.
We’ll watch this space then, congratulations on such a wonderful film.
Les Misérables is in UK & Irish cinemas now. Change the story at miserables.film