Jean-Marc Barr is back in America, and this time around, he’s hoping to start a revolution with his starring role as Jack Kerouac in Big Sur.
In 1988, the then-28-year-old Barr became a sudden star thanks to his leading role in director Luc Besson’s hit film The Big Blue. Back then, all the acclaim was a shock to the young actor, who grew up in a conservative Catholic military family that spent more time traveling than going to the movies. As a kid, Barr spent time in Vietnam and Paris; he flew on Nixon’s Air Force One (his dad was its head of security); and at 20, inspired by On the Road and Simon and Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song,” he dropped out of UCLA after a year, ditched his future plans to join the Air Force, and instead, fled to Paris to work out his vices, like “sex, and drugs, and all that stuff.”
Barr had only graduated from acting school in London in the mid-’80s, and so, when The Big Blue became the biggest box office hit in French history, he was still uncertain he could act with the top names in Hollywood. More importantly, he was unwilling to dive back into the commercial American culture that he had gone to Europe to escape.
“I found it to be a kind of very enslaving position. All of a sudden, maybe only four or five directors could talk to me because they could pay the fucking salary that my agents were asking,” Barr told BuzzFeed. “I couldn’t have worked with Lars von Trier because he wasn’t paying me what I should have been paid, and I thought, This is stupid. I don’t want to go that way. I need to learn. I just wanted to be able to decide my fate. And when I made those choices, especially when I was very popular, people were saying, ‘What are you fucking doing working with Lars von Trier? You’ll ruin everything you did with this big movie!’”
Reassured by the fact that, should his career not work out, he could always return home to live with his family, who had settled in San Diego, Barr dove headfirst into the European film community, chasing his own notions of art and pure, daring expression. His agents, he recalled with a smile, soon dropped him as a client.
Barr married a woman from Yugoslavia — despite his grandmother’s protests that he was engaged to a communist — and teamed with von Trier and a rotating cast of European actors on projects like Europa (1991), Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Dogville (2003). He grew so close with the Danish director that he became the godfather to his two sons. Barr also directed films of his own, confounding critics with pictures like Sexual Chronicles of a French Family, which came out last year.
“There’s a real discussion to have about entertainment and culture,” he said. “They’re two different things. And you know, for me, the theater or cinema is a church. I mean, I don’t mind sitting down and being diverted, but sometimes, when a film hits you, it can change your life. Breaking the Waves was one of those kind of films, I think. There’s not that many of those kind of films. And when you do have a chance to participate in a film like that, it means everything.”
For Barr, who grew up reading Beat-era novelists, Michael Polish’s Big Sur — an adaptation of Kerouac’s late dispatch on disaffection, despair, and depression — presented that sort of life-changing film opportunity. Now 53, his face is creased and there is a shaved parabola around the rim of his head where hair once grew. Barr jokes that when he read the script, “There was nothing to play; it was me.”
It is a sort of disconcerting thing to hear, given how disheveled, wrecked, and ready for death Kerouac appears throughout Big Sur. But he doesn’t shy away from the self-comparison either, even when an eyebrow is raised at the following statement: “You’ve got to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Today’s a fucking good day to die.’”
Polish, whose film also stars Josh Lucas and Kate Bosworth, says that the role left Barr emotionally exhausted, unable to even re-record voiceover for the many book-derived passages that are overheard throughout the film, set in the redwoods of Northern California.
“He was just spent,” Polish said.
Like Kerouac, Barr has seen the world and lived out of a suitcase. Even now, he calls himself a nomad, following the pull of the work and his heart. It’s that commitment to an immaterial lifestyle that he hopes the film will transmit to the audience, especially in America. Barr left the United States during the Reagan years, and is distraught by the state of the country now that he has finally returned. Economic disparity, government surveillance, polarized government; Barr can rattle off depressing, seemingly intractable problems plaguing the nation like an incensed Mother Jones subscriber.
“When I walk around America, I have the impression that it’s Soviet Russia, because people seem humiliated by everything that’s going on,” he said. “And they’re hanging their heads down. They don’t want to know. It’s too much. And I believe that the artists, in any society or any form, have to wake people up. You have to give them the chance to realize that it’s within themselves to be happy.”
It’s hard to think that a single movie, especially one in limited release and on VOD, can spark that sort of change on a wide scale. But Barr thinks that Big Sur’s story of a man hitting the limits of depression and bounding off into the woods to find something greater than himself can at least launch a conversation. He posits that in today’s America — much like the repressed era in which the source material was written — there is a great need for what his movie sells.
“I think every empire has its time, and we’ve had our time. We’ve had our high time, and now, we’re going to go into our low time. And maybe there’s gonna be a big revolution and something else is gonna come about,” Barr said. “It’s a normal progression, but I think in times of difficulty, we refer to the artists that touch us, and there’s been three or four Kerouac films since 2009, so there’s a real demand for that.”
Barr is a genial guy, quick with a smile and generous with his elongated laugh, but he’s clearly also easy to rile when it comes to the state of American politics. He warns over and over of the coming revolution, and that he can only hope it is peaceful, pledging his own intellectual loyalty to progressive journalists and thinkers like The Nation’s Chris Hedges. There is righteous anger in his voice, frustration bursting when he talks about some “well-known” actress who pulled up in her fancy luxury vehicle next to his used Toyota, the gulf between classes that he says his industry helps perpetuate.
“We can’t even protest in this fucking country anymore,” Barr lamented. “That is absurd. We’ve got to reclaim our rights, because they’re doing everything we can to just shut our eyes and not say anything. For me, that’s intolerable. My father fought three fucking wars so that I could say what I fucking wanted to say, and now, that’s not the case. Fortunately, I don’t own anything so I understand that it means nothing, but for people who own something and have been brought up on those values, I understand their fear.”
Barr is staying home for a while, ready to take on English-language roles in American films, hoping Big Sur can give him “a little calling card that says this guy has something special and maybe can be used.” He’d even star in a big franchise film, if someone was looking for an off-beat choice for their latest blockbuster. But, just as it wasn’t 25 years ago, Barr’s “career” isn’t his main concern.
“I’ve had the chance of falling in love, of knowing life. I could die tomorrow and be completely satisfied,” he said with a smile. “Really.”