Wonderland.

DJEBRIL ZONGA

Meet the ex-footballer, former model and break-out star of this year’s explosive and hotly anticipated Les Misérables.

Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town landscape

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Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town landscape
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Taken from Man About Town, 2020 – Chapter 1. Order your copy here.

Djebril Zonga has had a busy morning. On a grey Paris day in mid- March, restriction of movement is a distant possibility and Zonga has been zipping from meeting to meeting on his scooter.

This is just the tail-end of a media circus the actor has been travelling with since Les Misérables won the Jury Prize at Cannes last June. Set in a Parisian banlieu, Les Misérables has been a runaway success in France, and may be one of those rare French features to break into the English- speaking market. It’s had eleven nominations at the César film awards, represented France in the international film category at the Oscars, and there’s word that President Emmanuel Macron has made it required viewing for his ministers.

Not bad for a second film role. Before Les Misérables, Zonga was better known as a model, appearing on the catwalk for Jean-Paul Gaultier and fronting Aramis’s international campaigns. Success didn’t come easily. Zonga is circumspect about what he describes as the “complicated” situation for black models trying to get work when he started out. Tired of scrabbling for work in France, he took his chances in NewYork. Zonga’s partner, Belgian comedian Nawell Madani, spent her savings on the transatlantic flights. He sweet-talked his way across the threshold of the Ford modelling agency, portfolio in hand, and got himself signed.

Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town red jacket
Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town closeup

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Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town red jacket
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Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town closeup

Things have improved, but he has encountered a similar situation while making the transition into acting. “It’s clear that we have fewer roles than other actors.You only have to look at French films in general and count the number of black people who are in there. You have to create things, to be the driving force behind projects.” Director Ladj Ly thought Zonga was too much of a “pretty boy” to play Gwada, a jaded beat cop in the banlieu of Montfermeil. Zonga had to talk Ly, a childhood friend, into even granting him an audition. He got the part, but went through a significant transformation first. “I put on weight, let my beard grow, tried to bring a more imposing side out.”

Zonga’s on-screen image is an abrupt turn from the boyish charm he projected in his modelling days. Gwada is an imposing presence, apparently comfortable with the violence he and his colleagues casually mete out. But Zonga also brings fragility. One of the film’s most affecting scenes sees Gwada consoled by his mother after a particularly traumatic day at work. Zonga worked hard on the role, studying method acting at Juliette Binoche’s alma mater, the Susan Batson studio in NewYork. He credits Ly with giving he and his co-stars, Alexis Manetti and Damien Bonnard, the freedom to create their characters and improvise. “It’s a question of working as hard as possible and then letting it all go when you start shooting.You’ve got to be in the moment.”

Les Misérables isn’t an easy watch. It’s a deliberately overwhelming and often graphic account of the fault lines between street police and the communities they’re supposed to protect. There’s a visual poetry to Ly’s film, though, which is shot through with sweeping aerial shots and moments of magical realism. It’s a love letter, warts and all, to the director’s hometown of Montfermeil – just a few miles from where Zonga himself was raised.

Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town jacket
Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town further away
Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town sweater

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Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town jacket
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Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town further away
Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town sweater

The film’s opening sequence is the only one to take place outside Montfermeil. Ly takes Les Misérables’ child actors onto a packed Champs-Elysées, following them amongst the real-life celebrations on the day of France’s second World Cup win in 2018. Zonga was a lower league football player before injury pushed him into modelling. But does the actor have fond memories of that day? “Not really. I’d already lived through it in 1998, so this felt less special. For a moment, everyone is united, everyone is French. And that’s great. And then it’s over; everyone goes off to their own corner – and everyone forgets about it.”

There’s always been a whiff of veneer about France’s apparent fraternité. “It’s like a postcard,” says Zonga. “Seen from far off, it looks pretty. But as you get closer, you put your finger on a certain amount of dysfunction in our society.That’s what Ladj wanted to show with this film.” Les Misérables’ unflinching violence has shocked some but won it near universal success amongst the French political class. Macron is said to have been “bowled over” and a special screening was organised at the National Assembly. Zonga is cautious about whether political promises will lead to tangible change. “It’s too soon to say. You can’t just come once a year when the cameras are there and promise to change things without actually knowing what’s going on. The people who can really change things are those who live it on a daily basis, who know what’s going on in the neighbourhood. It needs to be done collectively.”

With its Oscar nomination and the rather obvious comparisons already being made to Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, Les Misérables’ success in the UK appears assured. He’s already a well-known face in France, but Zonga is playing his cards close to his chest. “Only God knows what’s waiting for me.”

LES MISÉRABLES is released in UK & Irish cinemas from 4 September. Visit miserables.film for more information

Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town jacket
Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town black and white

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Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town jacket
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Les Miserables star Djebril Zonga interview with Man About Town black and white
Photography
THOMAS CHÉNÉ
Fashion
ANNA KLEIN
Words
DANIEL EMERY
DJEBRIL ZONGA