Bruno Debrandt is sitting in a cafe in London. He seems quite surprised to be there, his eyes looking around the room as he talks animatedly about his TV movie, Le Repenti. The surprise stems partly from the fact that the two-part film, released this weekend on Walter Presents as Reborn, a four-part mini-series, is something he hasn’t spoken about in years: it was made back in 2009.
The film sees the actor play Alexis, a man left for dead, burned and wounded by his best friend, Victor. After significant reconstructive surgery and a changed identity, he’s unrecognisable – and is snapped up by the police to go undercover in Victor’s criminal organisation. With his ex-wife now married to Victor, the stage is set for things to go dramatically, violently wrong.
Having it suddenly appear in 2017 on All 4’s online platform for foreign TV is a little out of the blue for Bruno. In fact, he only got a call from Walter about it two months ago.
“It’s like the movie Reborn is… reborn!” he chuckles. “So it’s quite a surprise – I’m very happy with that.”
“The first thing is we make a movie and we play it to share with the audience,” he adds. “It’s like music. So my first reaction is ‘great’, because a lot of people can see it.”
But even without Reborn’s UK premiere, Bruno still remembers it well.
“I have a special feeling for this movie,” he explains.
Why? Because it marks a specific point in his career: the first time he did something on TV that he really liked. Until then, the former theatre actor and former sportsman was something of a snob. TV? He wouldn’t look twice at it.
“I used to be very pretentious. I wanted to be a theatre actor, a serious actor, not TV or drama. We speak about cinema, we speak about great things. Shakespeare. Proust. Ken Loach. Everything.”
Since then, though, TV has transformed. We’re in a golden age for the small screen, with prestigious productions forever competing for eyeballs.
“Television has changed over 10 years now, in every country,” he enthuses. And for Bruno, that change began with Reborn.
“When they called me for this movie and I read for the first time the script, I was astonished. A good script for television! I was very happy if you give me the chance for that. Actually, it was very hard to take the role – I worked for five months and a lot of chasing to get it, because I wasn’t known in television. And when they gave me the chance for that, it was my first real big part in French television in a good movie. So it’s special.”
Bruno has transformed too: since then, he’s worked everyday on the small screen. In the UK, of course, he’s mostly known for Spiral. While he insists his memorable role is just a “small part”, he cannot sing the praises of Spiral enough. The people who made the show are the same people with whom he used to do theatre with when younger. They continue to work together now.
“We all swear to god that we would never be part of television!” he recalls, fondly. “But it’s good, because it’s not that we’ve betrayed oursleves: TV has changed. It’s very subtle now. It’s very good writing and so it’s fantastic to be part of that.”
Why does he think Spiral struck such a chord with UK viewers?
“It was politics and cops and legislature and everything,” he says. “Spiral, for you, is that. For us, Engrenages [which translates as “gears” in English], it’s like in a mechanic way…” He mimes cogs crunching together. “This is Engrenages. It’s a photograph of French politics, cops, everything, it’s very interesting, maybe like [the BBC’s] House of Cards is for us in France.”
While the UK has gradually embraced more and more French TV, Bruno has also expanded his own viewing habits.
“I used to see theatre and Pinter and movies and everything, but no TV before these past five or seven years. Now I am part of TV, I am aware of it and I discover the same quality in other countries. I used to watch UK drama, movies of 90 minutes, but not series, because it’s quite a lot of time, it’s too much. But now, I have seen a lot of series, because I have to know what is done everywhere.”
Favourites of his include Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones (“of course”), Extras (“because it’s Ricky Gervais, so it’s crazy [good]”). He also likes Luther and, of the last year, singles out The Night Of as “quite remarkable”.
“And Better Call Saul, because of Breaking Bad,” he adds.
10 years on from Reborn and Bruno’s own rebirth has fully taken place. He talks about TV shows with the passion of every other binge-watching fan around. But there’s a depth to his passion that still retains that slight snobbishness of old: he looks for high-quality work in the same way that his eyes bore into you as he talks – slightly bulging, never resting and always engaging.
Where once he struggled to find the time to commit to something longer than a film, he’s now about to return to film a sixth season of the long-running French drama series, Cain, in which he plays a detective in a wheelchair, with a brutal sense of humour.
“It’s quite a success in France,” he says, although it’s “very intense” and challenging to make.
“It’s very hard. It takes six months of my time,” he says of the filming. His sporting history helps him with the role, he admits, after an injury saw him briefly in a wheelchair.
“The character is very unique and very rare,” he says of Cain. “We were pretty sure we would just have one chance, one season and goodbye, and the DNA of the character, it was quite fancy – it’s a very tough guy in a wheelchair, so not gentle at all, very special in his humour and very rough. This is the surface. In fact, he’s a real good man, but he’s very… it’s not like Dr. House, because Dr. House is very depressed. But between the two characters, there is something about why people treat him like that. They want to question god. They want to be god. But Dr. House is very hard with the people. Cain escaped death, so he knows now the precious of living. He is running after that. He wants the best for you. Even if you are a criminal, do it well!”
It took time for the show to grow into its current form, as they gradually shifted from the genre framework to the themes and subjects they really wanted to tackle.
“It’s not about the police or anything like that, it’s not the life of cops, that’s a pretext and we didn’t know if it would take the place, and it works, so we grew up with the character now,” he continues.
You sense the real challenge, though, is meeting his fierce desire to keep the standard high.
“It has to be good,” he insists, looking us straight in the eye. “I’m very involved with the writer, with the director, with the producer, so I’m involved like that. It takes a lot of time. But it’s a challenge for me because I’m part of challenging French TV. With this show, it’s possible. I’m pretty sure that with this show, we challenge the way people write TV shows. Spiral is great, but Cain pushes the line. I have to take this style.”
From a man who never watched TV to a man helping to transform it, it’s no wonder why Bruno is so surprised to be in London. One day, perhaps he’ll be back again with Cain. “Maybe 10 years!” he laughs. Judging by Reborn, it’ll be worth the wait.
Reborn is available now on Walter Presents.
For more information on the other foreign-language shows available, see our Walter Presents TV guide.