Patrick Rameau: Dialogue with an Actor

The acting bug bit the Haiti-born Patrick Rameau in Africa, of all places. He was living in the Congo (at one point of its history, also called Zaire). His father Adrien Rameau, was among the many Haitians who had been recruited in the 1960s by newly independent African countries to teach in African schools (his mother was Martha Martial). Adrien Rameau taught French. So at the age of 5, the young Rameau was fully into the cowboy and Indians films that were being broadcasted at the movie theaters in the Congo.

The Rameaus moved to New York three years later. “Initially, it was a bit of a culture shock. Especially the cold,” Rameau recalls of the move to the Northeast United States. The snowy days were especially hard on the eight year old. While the adult Rameaus were getting themselves settled in New York, they sent their four kids to a boarding school in Boston. That arrangement didn’t last two long, as the distance between children and parents was painful—to say the least. Rameau’s parents eventually sent for their kids and enrolled them in public schools in Brooklyn. Sometimes, Rameau would get chased by other kids, including violent members of gangs. “It was crazy back in those days. I remember once we were chased by this gang called the Tamahawks. People didn’t like Haitians all that much back then. They used to call us all kinds of strange names. Now we can laugh about it, but it was traumatizing then.”

One of the highlights of his school years, was a teacher of Rameau’s named Mark LaRoach, who encouraged his interest in acting. “He was very instrumental in my high school years. We worked intensely in acting.” Rameau played a member of the Jets in a school adaptation of “The West Side Story”.

Acting as a career was slowly but surely claiming him. The theater scene he had experienced as a child in the Congo, coupled with the productions that he participated in, in high school, drew him to the stage. Before long, he saw no other career for his future than acting.

In the late 1980s, Rameau may not have known it, but he was about to hit a milestone in his career. Rameau had a theater company Colleagues in Art, that he had co-founded with Carol Fox Prescott, his acting teacher, and they were producing a play he had written, inspired by the exodus of Haitians living Haiti by boat. “Back in 1982,” he reminisces, “there were a lot of Haitians that were washing up the shore. Hundreds of them every week. It was a situation. No one really thought much about them. They were just headlines.”

The positive response to the play and Rameau’s social consciousness were to be a precursor to the next phase of his career.

Patrick Rameau (kneeling as Gracieux Sorel) with actor Jean-Michel Martial in a scene from L’homme Sur Les Quais (Man on the Shores). Movie still via

Someone in Rameau’s entourage who knew Raoul Peck told Rameau about a casting that the director was undertaking in New York. Peck, by now, was now reputed for his documentaries about Haiti. Like Rameau, Peck had immigrated to the Congo in the 1960s with his parents, but somehow they had never known each other (Peck was older, and had at one point gone to Germany). Rameau auditioned and earned the lead role for Peck’s first feature Haitian Corner. Rameau was joined by Emile St Lot, Jean-Claude Eugène, Ailo Auguste, Marie-Clothide “Toto” Bissainthe, a slew of actors based in New York and Haiti. The atmosphere on the set was very friendly and joyous. “It remains the highlight of my career,” Rameau recalls.

The character that Rameau was to bring to life was that of Joseph Bossuet, a man who had been imprisoned and tortured in Haiti, and would meet one of his tormentors in exile in New York. “I thought it was a very important film, because it was the first real Haitian film that was ever produced, with professional actors and values,” says Rameau. “For me, it was a great triumph, no matter how I looked at it. It was a great opportunity to do something that had not been done. It was a wonderful moment in my acting life. It was one that needed to be done. To this day, I’m very pleased. It’s something I’m really proud of.”

Rameau had left Haiti as a kid, and didn’t really have any adult perception of what the script had delineated. To act out the torture scenes in the script, Peck had him listen to interrogation tapes. “I was able to analyze emotionally the situation, and I did do a lot of research and depended a lot on my imagination. I’m supposed to be able to create a character that’s three dimensional using my imagination, my experience and go by and emotionally analyze the situation, and give myself up to it.” Rameau read a lot of accounts about the regime, and spoke to people who had lived it.

Rameau traveled to Haiti in the late 1980s, where the film was screened to critical acclaim. “People were really impressed,” he remembers of the screening. It had been some time since an audience in Haiti had seen a professional cast, and a Haitian movie with people speaking in Creole. The film earned many laurels at film festivals around the world.

Rameau and Peck teamed up again to film L’homme Sur Les Quais. Whereas Haitian Corner was set in 1970s and 1980s Haiti, this time around, Rameau was going to play Gracieux Sorel, a man living in Haiti at the height of the François Duvalier regime in the 1960s, whose goddaughter Sara Desrouillières—and the rest of her family—are endlessly persecuted by a military strongman, affiliated with the regime. Peck chose to film the project in the Dominican Republic, as there had been a coup d’etat in Haiti that disrupted the film’s production there. Marie-Clothide “Toto” Bissainthe was once again part of the cast. Michèle Marcelin, Mireille Metellus, François Latour, Ailo Auguste Judith, Jennifer Zubar, Jean-Michel Martial, Albert Dely, Fritner Cedon were also part of the cast.

The character Joseph Bossuet and that of Gracieux Sorel had a lot in common, but the latter role would be more demanding of Rameau, and the scenes even more intense. Rameau says that Peck was very instrumental in helping him mold the character, as well as his (Rameau’s) own dedication. “I decided that I was going to invest a lot of my time in it. I stayed a lot of time in my hotel room and reading, walking around in that limp for 9, 10 hours. I wanted to be a real, living, breathing three-dimensional person who spoke to people on so many levels. I tried to do whatever it took to give it breadth.”

Rameau’s intense preparations paid off, as the results were phenomenal. The role of Gracieux Sorel remains the tour de force of Rameau’s film acting career. Watching him in the film, one cannot help but feel sympathy for the character, a broken, literally tortured soul, who rises beyond all the emotional pain that he’s been inflicted with to have the final word on the destiny of his family. Is one watching a drama, or a horror film one asks oneself, because each scene in which Rameau appears as Gracieux Sorel, there’s this throbbing of the heart, this pounding of the veins—this overall fear of how things will end for the Desrouillières family.

Patrick Rameau in a scene from Haitian Corner.

Michèle Marcelin Voltaire who played Madame Janvier, the wife of the military strongman, has fond memories of Rameau on the set. “I remember him as passionate about his work and easy to work with.” Marcelin Voltaire had worked with Rameau previously on the Françoise Kourilsky production of Simone Schwarz-Bart’s play “Ton Beau Capitaine” [Your Handsome Captain] at the Ubu Theater in New York.

L’Homme Sur Les Quais (Man on the Shore) marked the first time that many Haitians were seeing 1960s Haiti reenacted on film by a Haitian director with Haitian actors. Many who had lived during that time could readily identify with the story’s plot line of paranoia, terror, repression, torture, and “disappearances” that had malignantly marked that era in Haiti’s history. Up until then, that decade in Haiti was mostly addressed in documentaries.

The film was an official entry at the Cannes Film Festival, and exceeded Haitian Corner in critical and audience acclaim.

More than a decade after these triumph-filled moments, film and acting continue to be Rameau’s reason for living, and ultimately his only passion, besides his family. Fluent in French, Creole and Spanish, his career has brought him to TV series sets in France for such shows as “Julie Lescaut”, “Le Grand Patron”, as well as “Aliker”, a TV series written by novelist Patrick Chamoiseau, the Colombian film Maria Full of Grace, as well as roles on U.S. television shows like “Law and Order”.

Q & A

Do you have a dream role?
My dream role is any role that gives me color, variety. I love bad guys. I love angels and demons.

Do you think that you and Raoul Peck will work on a third project together?
I hope to. It would have to be the right project for us. I think the world of him. I think he’s the best we have. I hope that he will continue to do work where he continues to put Haitians in a positive light. He is a very, good good man and I am always happy to work with him.

Does acting life get too taxing sometimes too stressful?
This is the most stressful job there is. Other than being a soldier in the front lines waiting to be shot, it’s the most difficult business there is. If you don’t want to work hard for it, then you can’t do it; that’s just bottom line. I live in two different countries. I’m going to France on Monday. It’s just the nature of the business. You adapt to it. All my life I’ve been on a plane. I came back from Iran in February. I went to Iran to teach acting, of all places. I’m a Haitian-American in Iran. It was an important job. It was important to expose these young people to what acting was all about. I took the risk and went there, and it was great. The students were phenomenal, and very diligent. With the nature of the business, you have to be willing to go. You have to have a lot of energy and train yourself to be flexible, very malleable and not be attached to anything for too long. Changes is the one thing that you can expect in this business. Change is inevitable. It happens all the time. I’ve just accepted that and have gone with it.

If you could play anybody from Haitian history, a historical figure, who would you want to play?
I would want to play Toussaint L’ouverture.

You would want to play him? Why is that?
Because he’s the most—he’s the greatest general that the world had ever seen. To this day, there’s no real, solid story that’s been told about him. There was an awful production that was made in France with Jimmy Jean-Louis. Jimmy was wonderful, but the work, the writing, the cinematography, the other actors were just not up to par. It was really sad To me, that is the greatest story about people of color, and so it’s sad that story still hasn’t been told. Very difficult to get it told properly. It was very difficult for those who had actually done it, that it didn’t succeed.

Do you think it had to be do with the medium too, because it was done as a series. Do you think it would have worked better as a film series?
I don’t know what it has to do with. I don’t know anything about the production. I don’t know the inside story is as to why it wasn’t up to par. I have no idea. I don’t think the choice of medium has anything to do with it. It is a gigantic story. I don’t think the choice of medium has anything to do with it. It could have been wonderful as a mini-series. It is a huge story. If it was taken seriously. It had scope and it’s gotta be big. It was a big historical story. It had to be big. There is precedents for movies that have 13 episodes. I mean there’s a lot of ways of approaching it. I don’t think it should be dissected into tiny stories, Perhaps a writer of more creative can make it happen.

A seasoned actor such as yourself with vast experiences on television and film, on an international and national context must have some advice for up-and-coming actors.
My advice to any young artist starting out is to take this very seriously treat it like a business, because that’s exactly what it is. If you want to make this your life, you have to know this field is unforgiving. It takes enormous amount of time, focus and energy. If you don’t have the passion for it, don’t bother. If you are too spread out with a bunch of things happening in your life—don’t bother. Your priorities have got to be your development as an artist and the business of getting yourself out there by any means available. There certainly are tons I could say on this subject, but the bottom line is that if you are sure that is what you want to do, you must work hard in all aspects of this field and develop as many contacts as possible. There is no single line to approach this field you have to be creative not only as an actor but as a business person.

You started out in theater, and ventured into film. Do you think this gave you an advantage over other actors?
It is an emphatic yes. Working on stage is the best training for any serious actor. There are no second chances when you are on stage; you are either someone with artistry and craft or you are not. There are many types of actors in the world. I would like mainly to address the actors who love the art in themselves and not the ones that love themselves in the art—that makes all the difference in the world. If you are going to this field for the right reason, you are going to want to get the best training available and that would start with stage training.

Last Updated on November 10, 2023 by kreyolicious

Kreyolicious in Memoriam | Patrick Rameau: Dialogue with an Actor

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In loving memory of our dear friend. We are heartbroken and will miss her dearly. She was a shining light in our lives, with a kind and loving spirit that brought joy to all who knew her. Her passion was an inspiration to us all. We take comfort in knowing that her memory will live on through the website, which was a true testament to her talents and dedication. Rest in peace, dear. You will always be remembered and loved.