Director-actor leads triple assault on U.S.

French director-actor Guillaume Canet, who first gained attention in the U.S. with the thriller “Tell No One,” is leading a triple assault on the U.S. market.

His third film as a helmer, “Little White Lies,” co-starring Marion Cotillard, his off-screen partner, world preems Saturday at Toronto.

The 37-year-old Canet stars alongside Keira Knightley, Eva Mendes and Sam Worthington in Massy Tadjedin’s “Last Night,” Toronto’s closing-night film.

Meanwhile, Canet has handed in a first draft of his English-language directorial debut, “Rivals,” a crime thriller co-written with U.S. director James Gray (“We Own the Night”).

Canet’s career has taken some intriguing twists, starting at the age of 10 when he joined a traveling circus at the suggestion of his school.

When he co-starred in the 2000 feature “The Beach,” some producers didn’t even greet him until they realized he got on well with co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, Canet recalls.

But his second directorial outing, “Tell No One,” proved a turning point. Bowing in 2006, the intricate murder-mystery thriller nabbed a director Cesar, E18.5 million ($25.3 million) in France and $6.3 million Stateside, making it 2008′s highest-grossing foreign-language pic at the U.S. box office.

Some of Europe’s most powerful films companies have backed his latest films.

“Little White Lies” is produced by Alain Attal’s Les Prods. du Tresor, his longtime producer, and Luc Besson’s powerhouse EuropaCorp. “Rivals” is set up at StudioCanal.

But Canet’s projects also reflect the increasing two-way traffic between Europe and the U.S.

“Last Night,” for example, was produced by Nick Wechsler and French major Gaumont, with Iranian-American Tadjedin directing.

“Tell No One” adapted a bestseller by American author Harlan Coben to France and into French. “Tell No One” is now being remade by Focus Features.

“Rivals” is loosely inspired by French helmer Jacques Maillot’s 2008 Lyon-underworld drama “Les Liens du sang,” but transferred to ’70s Philadelphia.

Despite its inspiration, however, “The film is not really a remake; it’s a completely different story, set in a completely different environment,” said StudioCanal chairman-CEO Olivier Courson.

Like those of many French filmmakers, Canet’s films are partly made under the spell of Hollywood classics and iconic works. “Tell No One” recalls Hitchcock. Canet calls “Little White Lies” a “generational film a la ‘The Big Chill.’ “

Canet said films like Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill” and John Cassavetes’ “Husbands” have been a source of inspiration not just for their humor but for their characters’ sincerity.

Sporting a three-day beard, sometimes a fedora, Canet comes across as a regular guy with a large sense of humor.

People who have worked with him, like EuropaCorp founder Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, talk of his drive. And since he’s on both sides of the camera, “Canet is above all an actors’ director, attentive to their interests,” said Le Pogam.

In, one example of his attention to the nuances of performances, he took his ensemble on “Little White Lies” to the beach house location three days early not just to rehearse, but so they would appear familiar with the house and each other.

Canet himself admits to becoming “obsessional” when directing, even down to the technical aspects. According to Attal, on “Lies” Canet did much of the second camera work.

“He knew exactly what he wanted as if he already pictured every frame in his head,” Attal said.

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