Thomas Jouannet
photographer : David Koskas
Thomas, tell us about Henry…
I see him both as an idealist and as a proud man. He was clearly influenced by his childhood and by the education provided by his mother - the compassion he feels towards mankind runs deep. I also imagine him as someone who was quite difficult to live with, because of his perpetual inner struggles - moreover, he never committed himself sentimentally. At the same time, there’s something childlike about him, a kind of artlessness.

Without that candor, would he ever have
taken up such a vast cause?
Probably not. However, if he hadn’t been so uncompromising, he would never have achieved his goals. If he had been in the least impressionable, he would not have withstood the considerable political pressures. Without that overinflated ego, that charisma, no man can leave his mark on History in that way. In preparing for the role of Henry, you used episodes of his life that do not appear in the film? Yes. Dunant was ahead of his time, rather than a hero. He was not without cracks. Don’t forget that he spent forty years living as a wreck, a down-and-out, and that he ended up in an asylum. We also know that his pride prevented him from accepting any help from his friends - or from Napoleon III - to save him financially. All this was obviously useful in building up t he character. What also helped enormously was the knowledge that Dominique Othenin-Girard had of Dunant.

How did you build the character up together?
Something quite astonishing happened to me. Whether consciously or not, I’m not sure, I drew my inspiration from Dominique, from his personality, his attitude: In my eyes, he became Dunant. And so we constructed the Dunant of the film together. On the set, Dominique fought with a conviction, an energy, a personal investment and a generosity that reminded me of Dunant. He knows how to instill his will to succeed in the people around him and to take them to where he wants. Together, we went all the way with a kind of challenge. We wanted to say wonderful things to each other; we supported each other when needed. It was with joy in my heart that I walked onto the set every morning.

Did his American work style make a difference?
Above all, I felt how much independence he derives from his international experience. He is a free man who doesn’t pay heed to pressure: he doesn’t care, he just shoots as though it were his last film ever.

The film brings together three distinctly different worlds. What was it like, moving from one to the next?
It was a shift that - done harmoniously - gave a new dynamic to the film, which set out to combine the three facets of one man seamlessly. The greatest shock was when we moved from Austria to Geneva: from war, from the wounded, from the blood, dirt, and smell of death on the battlefield, to civilized Switzerland with its Calvinist rules and prim attitudes. And then, we ended with the beginning of the film, the Algerian period. In Algeria, where we worked in beautiful landscapes under a burning sun, the shoestring atmosphere on the set reminded me of shooting a short film: the team was always united, energetic, resourceful and good-humored, despite the unusual working conditions. Dominique was really in his element, he loves that.

What about your partners? What a cast!
I met a marvelous friend and colleague in Emilie Dequenne, one of those rare actors who burst out of the screen. Noémie Kocher is full of grace. And then there was the wonderful Swiss gang: Samuel Labarthe, Jean-François Balmer, Vincent Winterhalter, Antoine Basler… I also had the pleasure of meeting up again with Michel Galabru, with whom I had worked on Le silence de la mer (The silence of the sea). I really enjoyed the international experience, the blend of languages and cultures among the French, Swiss, Austrian and Algerian actors.

The film will also be distributed internationally - millions of viewers will tune in. How does that inspire you?
We all need the humanist compassionate messages that the film conveys. Above all, I hope it will touch the younger generations who wish for peace. Let’s not forget that Dunant was the first to set up an NGO (non-governmental organization), that he belongs to that all too rare race of men who can change the world with messages of peace. The film about this man is truly beautiful and am proud to have been part of this adventure.