Under the skin: what stirs the artistic soul of actor Joseph Olivennes?

Andy Furniere
© Ivan Put

While up-and-coming French-British actor Joseph Olivennes (31) is generally not keen on giving interviews, he does love telling stories – a passion he might have inherited from his mother, a famous actress whom we shall not name in this introduction, for young Olivennes has more trump cards than just being “the son of”.


Born in Paris in 1991, as son of actress Kristin Scott Thomas and doctor François Olivennes

First studied philosophy, then attended the Brussels film and drama school Insas, after which he stayed in Brussels

Co-organises the summer theatre festival La Grande Hâte in the French countryside

Played one of the lead roles in the successful French indie film Les Magnétiques, released in 2021

Is one of the protagonists in the Belgian-French horror film Deep Fear, to be released on 20 April

Joseph Olivennes played his first major role in the French indie film Les Magnétiques (Magnetic Beats). The film received a prize at Cannes last summer and picked up the French César Award for Best First Feature Film this February. He is also one of the lead actors in the Belgian-French horror film Deep Fear that is now being released. In Deep Fear, set in the 1990s, Olivennes plays one of a small group of youngsters who decide to take a tour of the catacombs of Paris. There, they start finding relics of the Nazi occupation, after which all hell breaks loose. “It's a horror film with a B-movie feel, shot in a short time with a low budget, but we all took it very seriously,” says Olivennes. “We were also often genuinely scared as actors, spending so much time underground in dark corridors.” Deep Fear is the first film of the new French-Belgian film label Black Swan Tales, dedicated to genre films.

Before his role in Les Magnétiques, the young actor had played mostly smaller roles in a variety of films, series and plays. He also writes and directs. “I like keeping busy all the time,” says Olivennes. Throughout the years, he has played the Prince of Belgium in a film and a French musketeer in a series, to name some of the most colourful of his roles.

“But what I enjoy the most is building up projects from the ground up. One of these projects is a theatre play around the figure of Hercules, a reflection on how societies can repair past wrongdoings, which I am currently writing and will play in Les Tanneurs (theatre in the Marolles, ed.) towards the end of the year.” In August, you can see him at work on the stage at a more unusual location, between haystacks at a field in the French countryside of Burgundy. For ten days, he will perform at La Grande Hâte, a theatre festival that he organises with a group of kindred spirits. “A perfect place to experiment and to attract people who generally don't go to the theatre.”

The many opportunities to try out different things are also one of the aspects that Olivennes likes most about Brussels, compared to his home city Paris. “There is an edginess and spiritual youth to Brussels that leaves more space for artists to experiment while in Paris things are more set in stone.” He ended up here after auditioning at the film and drama school Insas, about six years ago. After he got in, he left his life in Paris and has remained in Brussels ever since.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who can change the world around you with words, images and sounds. It’s incredible, this habit of humans of all times to gather and dream together of being somewhere else

Joseph Olivennes

Long before he went to school in Brussels, Olivennes could already gain experience from watching top actors in action on big film sets, because his mother, actress Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Bitter Moon, Gosford Park, Only God Forgives) is a top actress herself. “It was of course very interesting as a kid to see how intensely these adults were invested in their roles, how they were working together in a sort of parallel reality.”

Still, he held off the boat for quite some time and first studied philosophy at Columbia University in New York. It was there that he decided to change course. Olivennes: “After spending much time in the libraries there, I realised that was not what I wanted to do in life.” What he did want to do, was to tell stories, and to find different ways to tell them. “I love drawing people into a story. I've always been fascinated by people who can change the world around you with words, images and sounds. It's incredible, this habit of humans of all times to gather and dream together of being somewhere else, which is perhaps more important than ever today, and I love being amazed by a brilliant idea. So I strive for all that.”

1796 josepholivennes
© Ivan Put

As much as he enjoys to interact with an audience, he generally is very reluctant to talk to journalists. As the son of a celebrity actress, who partly grew up in the public eye, he cares a lot about keeping his private life…private. “Which is tricky of course, since I didn't choose the most discrete of jobs,” he smiles. “I'm trying to relax more about it, to not be so protective, I guess it's all about finding a balance.” He also doesn't mind sharing a little about his relationship with his mother. “We speak a lot, she is very supportive and of course understands a lot about which choices you have to make in this world. While she is active in a different realm of the film industry, she really enjoys more grassroot artisanal projects, like our theatre festival in the French countryside.”

As a final question, I ask Olivennes if he feels lucky that he does not share a name with his mother, allowing him to live and work more anonymously. He reacts with a grin. “In France, Olivennes is actually a famous family name too, so I'm screwed anyhow in that sense.” (Laughs)

Release: 20/4

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