In 1993, Sacha Gervasi was sent on an assignment to interview Hervé Villechaize, but little did he know that the events that transpired after would be the subject of a movie. My Dinner With Hervé, recounts the meeting that Sacha Gervasi had with the legendary star and although some events in the film may have been dramatized, it does deliver a compelling tale behind one of the world’s most recognised actors.
Here, Gervasi reveals his friendship and meeting with Villechaize, and how his interview piece became the subject of a movie with HBO.
I moved to LA in the late 90s to go to film school, but in the mid-90s I was between London and LA all the time on assignment. I always wanted to be a screenwriter, but this was an opportunity to meet people, to write. It was a way to earn money writing.
I was sent to do a short, 500-word, where-are-they-now piece on Hervé, and I had a more important interview to get to that day, which wasn’t actually Gore Vidal, as it is in the film – it was the kids of Beverly Hills 90210, which was the biggest show on TV at the time.
So, Hervé was meant to be a joke. It was meant to be a dinner party story. It was meant to be: talk about the Bond movie, a few stories about Fantasy Island. So I show up at Cafe Moustache on Melrose. And I do the interview, and I ask all the expected questions about the Bond movie, Fantasy Island. I’m packing my stuff away, I’ve got my briefcase on the chair, I’m putting my tape recorder and notebook away, and out of the corner of my eye, I notice there’s a lot of rapid movement. I turn around, Hervé’s standing to my right, two feet from me, with a knife, at my throat, and he said, “Okay, so I’ve told you all the bullshit stories. Now do you want to hear the real one?”
I literally did not know whether to laugh or cry. Of course, it was fascinating. I thought, what does this guy want from me? And he said, “You’ve written the story before you’ve even gotten here.” And he was right! I had.
But when he presented himself as this incredibly mischievous, dangerous, fascinating, incredibly well-educated, articulate character, it just completely blew this whole notion that he was just a punch line out of the water. I thought, my god, this person is really fascinating. What kind of life has he led?
So, we spent three days together over a week and, in the film, those three meetings become one crazy night. I spent three days with him and he poured his heart out to me. He told me the story of his complex upbringing, these experimental medical treatments to try and make him grow. It was really heartbreaking stuff.
Do you think that Hervé was a great actor?
I think Hervé was not a great actor. Hervé was a great personality. Hervé was a great artist, a great painter. Still to this day, I think he’s the youngest ever artist to have a painting in the Museum of Paris. At age 18 he won several art prizes.
He was prodigious and brilliant, but suddenly he came to America.
Suddenly he looked at John Wayne on the TV, and Steve McQueen, and suddenly he was like, “You know, I could be famous.” So, I think in one sense, even though it’s not really about that, if you carefully look at it the story is about a guy who was truly a talented artist, who because of his insecurities, because of his background, because of all the rejection he suffered, reached out for fame in a way to try and soothe himself, to try and make it better.
When Peter and I were working on the script, we sort of hit upon this theme. At a certain point, when Hervé goes back to Fantasy Island, he’s reflecting on his life, and he’s recognizing his own role in his failure. He says, “At the end of the day, I realize I’m not different to anyone else.” The fantasy that something or someone could take away the pain of life – that is what we can all relate to.
Hervé’s story, hopefully—if people feel it, if they connect with it—is really their story, too. Because we all do this stuff.
How did you find, how did you feel when you found out that he’d died so quickly after the interview?
I was shocked, because I’d spent three different days with him over a week. I was at my flat in London. Kathy, who’s played by Mireille Enos in the film, called me up and said Hervé had committed suicide four hours before. And suddenly, it all made sense. I knew that this guy, for some reason, had just grabbed whoever was there, poured his heart out. And I had said, “I promise you I’ll tell your story, one day.”
And it took a quarter of a century. And it took Peter Dinklage, and it took Game of Thrones, but, you know, we did it in the end. I have to say that I feel good about it simply because I dispatched my karmic duty in a way – to someone I didn’t know well but I knew in the last week of his life. He became my friend. And honoured my friend. In all its kind of craziness.
My Dinner With Hervé premieres the same time as the U.S. on Sunday, October 21 at 8am, with a same day encore at 11pm, exclusively on HBO (Astro Ch 411 / 431 HD).