Michael Lonsdale. Wikimedia Commons

From Hollywood to God

Behind the well-known face on the big screen hides a man in love with the Gospel. After donning the robes of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, Michael Lonsdale gives us a “preview” of the story of his conversion.
Carlo Dignola

You can find many beautiful things in the Upanishads.There are wonderful Buddhists, Hindus who strike you with their wisdom, and Sufi masters. I found great joy in reading Lao-Tse and Confucius–man never stops seeking. The truest thing that I have read in my life, however, is the Gospel. The most perfect word, that which generates the most life, is the word of Jesus.” Michael Lonsdale is an 83- year-old French actor with an impressive filmography. He has acted in about 150 movies, including major Hollywood productions as varied as Steven Spielberg’s Munich and the James Bond film Moonraker. He has worked with such acclaimed directors as Orson Welles, Truffaut, Malle, Godard, De Oliveira, Ivory, Buñuel, and Olmi (The Cardboard Village, 2011). His most recent blockbuster was Of Gods and Men, the 2010 film that told the true story of the monks who were massacred by the Armed Islamic Group in Tibhirine, Algeria, in 1996. Lonsdale has appeared on television since the 1950s, and has also had a varied stage career: he has performed Sophocles and stories from the Bible, Shakespeare and Proust, Beckett and Camus, Ionesco and Pavese.

His latest work is a brief book about his life, soon to be released in Italian under the title Dare un volto all’amore: La mia fede da Spielberg a Tibhirine [Give Love a Face: My Faith from Spielberg to Tibhirine]. It is not the story of his professional success, but of his relationship with God.His journey to Christianity was a winding one; Jesus drew him in “sweetly” as he tells Traces. “My father was an English Protestant; my mother, a French Catholic; but we didn’t go to church. My parents decided not to baptize me, which was very uncommon at the time. Still, mom loved Jesus very much. She was the first person who taught me about Him.”

When Michael was seven years old, his family moved to Rabat, Morocco. I believe the first religious book that you read was the Qur’an, right? “That’s right. When I was 15 I became friends with a Muslim, an antique dealer in Fes,” he replies. “In the evenings we met in the city’s cafes and he spoke to me about God. I was fascinated, but I never became Muslim.”

He was not converted by books; it was a series of encounters that changed his life. His autobiography is in large part a list of names, places, instants, and faces that had a profound effect on him. “For me, Jesus is a real man, in flesh and blood.” And how did he learn this? “I was looking for something, and I found it in a fantastic Dominican, Father Raymond Régamey. I met him shortly after I returned to Paris. I went to hear him speak because of his passionate way of explaining the relationship between art and faith. I made an appointment with him at Saint-Jacques convent. ‘What are you looking for?’ he asked me. ‘I don’t know. I’m looking for something true, something good, something great...’ ‘Maybe you’re simply looking for God,’ he answered.” The person who really changed his life was not a religious, but a blind woman named Denise Robert. “She was a delightful person: always smiling, joyful, and glowing. We spent entire afternoons together, speaking of anything and everything. I didn’t always understand Father Régamey; sometimes he used words that I didn’t even know. It was Denise who really helped me to become a Christian. She liked walking throughout Paris, and she knew the city well. She often took me to the Miraculous Medal chapel on Rue de Bac. We laughed a lot, and along the way she spoke to me about the Gospel, she taught me all about Jesus.”

A Happy Man
At age 22, Michael decided to get baptized right at Saint Jacques Convent. His sponsor was, of course, Denise. “That day I cried, I kept crying!” he remembers. It was not just any place; in the 1950s and 1960s it was a place of great intellectual influence in France. “I met great theologians and extraordinary priests, like Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar, there.”

Another major step came in the 1980s, when in the span of a few months he lost his mother (“She was very sick for a long time before that, but it was still hard to lose her”), Denise, and other people who were dear to him.What happened to him? “I no longer had the will to live. I didn’t see anyone. I didn’t feel anything anymore.” It was at that time that he met the Charismatic Renewal movement and became close with the Emmanuel Community. Why? “I go regularly to Paray-le-Monial. I like the town and its pretty Romanesque church. To my delight, I met Catholics who were warm, open and welcoming there. I also met Father Dominique Rey, who is now bishop of Toulon. He became a close friend; he helped me a lot.”

Over the last few years, Lonsdale wanted to dedicate his work as an actor “only to works that are in some way spiritual. These days, it’s not a job for me, but the way that I respond to Christ’s call.” He’s ended up in the garb of priests, monks, and cardinals; he has played the Rector of the Great Mosque of Paris and the archangel Gabriel. “But,” he adds, “I have also played bad guys: for example, the devil in The Brothers Karamazov.”

It seems to me that you, for the most part, have brought to life “normal” Catholics, like Bernanos’s country priest, Thérèse of Lisieux or Madeleine Delbrêl. Why is that? “They are all people who have something to say to today’s world, which is waiting for a sign of hope. I also acted out “The Little Flowers” of St. Francis of Assisi, my favorite saint. I’ve met Guy Gilbert, who goes out to find children living in the streets, several times.”

My impression is that you like Christians who are simple and direct, who have a more “affective” than intellectual understanding of faith. Is that true? “Yes,” he says, smiling. “And that’s why I think this new Pope, Francis, is extraordinary.He’s changing things in Rome. His attention to the poor is amazing.”His greatest moment, though, was to put on the habit of Frère Luc for Of Gods and Men. “He is such a simple, true person, so familiar with holiness. For me ,he’s the picture of a happy man: love for your neighbor makes you happy.”

Peguy's Prophecy
Now Lonsdale has found a new Catholic thinker who fascinates him: “Charles Péguy. With another actor, I have been reading his writings from the stage. He’s a man who lived great beauty; I see that people are very interested in him. What’s incredible is that what he said 50 years ago is coming true today; he’s a kind of prophet. I see that the question of hope was crucial for him as well... When we leave Mass on Sunday, you should be able to see faith shining in our faces, but we are often too fearful.”

You write that inside today’s man, “something is broken.” What do you mean by that? “I see what is happening in France, and in Libya, with terrorism. It distresses me. When I was young, I lived surrounded by Muslims in Morocco.I had dear friends; they were in no way fanatics. True Muslims were shocked by ISIS’s January 7 attacks. Nowhere in the Qur’an is it written that you need to go around killing people like that. Terrorists are fanatics. This is a very difficult time.” But evil has always existed... “Yes, of course. But the time has come in which, as Christians, we have to take up our task again.” And what is that task? “To promote humanity.”