Interview: Alexandre Tharaud

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 01.22.13 in Interviews

Soundtrack "Amour"

Alexandre Tharaud

Up until late last year, pianist Alexandre Tharaud’s biography was more or less similar to those of most contemporary classical music phenoms. Attendance at exclusive conservatories? Check. Strong showing in international competitions. Check? A diverse group of composers performed on a major label? Naturally!

But once 2012 was over, Tharaud’s resume looked a bit different — if only because he had managed to find himself associated with two (very) different cultural milestones. First, EL James selected one of Tharaud’s past recordings for the Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album. And then there’s Tharaud’s acting debut, in director Michael Haneke’s Oscar-nominated Amour — a film about an elderly married couple navigating the increasingly difficult challenges of aging together. In Haneke’s script, the wife, played by longtime French film actress Emmanuelle Riva, is a retired piano instructor. Haneke had a bright idea for casting the role of her brightest former pupil: an actual pianist.

The relationship worked out: The film got a great soundtrack (and a key performance), while Tharaud found another way to distinguish himself. Just ahead of Oscar season, eMusic’s Seth Colter Walls chatted with Tharaud (whose English is also great, bien sur) about a busy year, and whether or not he’s got the acting bug for real these days.

This is a quite a first film-acting role.

Yes. And maybe my last role!

Why? You were great in the film, especially since you had to hold your own with some titans of French acting.

You know, my life is music, classical music — and…I thought I’m not a good actor. In this film I play my role — myself. My name is “Alexandre,” and it’s a story not far from the reality of my life! But I think as an actor there are four thousand young actors better than me.

Fair enough. But one doesn’t get cast in a Michael Haneke movie by accident. How did it come about?

At the beginning, Haneke wanted a pianist — a true pianist. Because, you know, in a lot of movies, you can see an actor imitating a pianist. It’s horrible! For me, it’s horrible. So Haneke organized a casting with 20 or 30 pianists, but it was not fine for him. Finally, his assistant called me, and I won the role. But I was not sure to I was such a good choice, because I am not an actor! Finally I said to Michael Haneke: “Ask me what you want and I will try to do it.” So it was…very simple for me. I’m a pianist so I’m used to playing on an instrument — the piano. But this time I was an instrument. It was very exciting!

How was it, working with actors as iconic as Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant?

For me, [Jean-Louis] is a god of the French cinema. And so I asked him and Emanuelle, I asked them, “Can you give me some advice, maybe? I’m not a good actor!” But they say all the time, “You’re perfect. Don’t change, don’t move; it’s perfect.” So they were very, very nice to me.

Did Haneke talk to you much about his selections for the soundtrack? The Schubert pieces have a quite prominent role in the film, and one suspects Haneke was quite set on them from the start.

He wanted this program. But he asked me if I wanted to change [anything]. And I said, “No, I want to be your instrument, so I want to go your way.” So during the recording he was in the studio. Like an artistic director, it was very interesting to work [through] the music with him. Because, maybe you know this, but he plays the piano; he’s a good musician. So it was interesting for me to record this CD with him; it was completely different.

Did he offer interpretive suggestions as you went along?

For example, the first impromptu by Schubert: I used to play this piece faster. And he wanted the tempo slower. And finally I choose his tempo; it was the first time in my life, to choose the tempo of another person! It was very interesting. But I think his tempo is better than mine!

Not to change the subject too drastically, but this was the second “soundtrack” of yours this year. A past Bach recording of yours was selected for the Fifty Shades of…


OK, so you were aware of this.

Yes, I know of it. But I don’t know the book. [Pause] I’m not…the best person to read the book? I know that it’s…in France, a lot of women [read it]. I don’t know the story, but I know it’s a story with sex and allure — and so it was funny to be in the CD. [Laughs again.] Do you like this book?

No, I haven’t read it either.


Are you at all excited to keep going with acting, if you can fit it in your touring and recording schedule?

Well, I don’t know if I’m the best pianist of the world — but I know I am not the best actor…Maybe if Spielberg or another great director called me — why not? But after Haneke, it’s difficult.