Coming to America

Foreign talent learns how to make it in the U.S.

Juliette Binoche. Paul Verhoeven. Penelope Cruz. Lasse Hallstrom — all familiar, if not household, names for U.S. moviegoers.

But while these foreign actors and directors have established healthy careers in the States, others — even those with big box office clout in their home country — frequently find the U.S. market a tough nut to crack.

After “Heaven’s Gate” in 1980, Isabelle Huppert embarked on a brilliant European career, returning here only for Hal Hartley’s “Amateur.”

Percy Adlon made a splash with “Baghdad Cafe,” but retreated to Germany after subsequent American flops.

After “Il Postino,” agents tripped over themselves to represent Maria Grazia Cucinotta. Now, it’s “Maria Grazia who?”Today, crossover hopefuls like Gael Garcia Bernal and Julie Du Page face an obstacle course laden with hurdles both logistical and cultural. Others, like Oscar-winning director Florian Gallenberger, wonder if it’s worth the effort (see sidebar).

“I had to fight for an English-speaking career,” says Bernal, star of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu’s “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” Mexico’s largest-grossing home-grown film, which will screen in Venice and Toronto before opening in the States next year.

Bernal, who moved from Mexico to London to pursue English-lingo projects, is currently shooting “Lily and the Secret Planting” for Aussie helmer Hettie MacDonald.

It’s not quite Hollywood, but with an ambitious UTA agent, he seems to be on his way.

For foreign talent looking to orchestrate a U.S. breakthrough, landing the right agent — one with a sense of the artist’s strengths and eventual potential — is de rigeur after compulsory speech lessons to lessen or lose the accent.

Choosing material that’s palatable to American audiences is also key; if the films an artist makes at home don’t cross over and find American distribution, chances are the artist won’t either.

Bob Berney, senior VP of IFC Films, distributor of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” says Bernal broke out of the pack because he chose “striking and breakthrough films.” When “Amores Perros” opened in the States, the film and Bernal’s performance had already generated strong word of mouth among Latino moviegoers in the U.S.

“With all the cross-border culture, there’s lots of awareness in the States of popular Mexican film stars and singers,” Berney tells Variety.

Bernal met his agent, Elyse Scherz, when “Amores Perros” screened at Cannes in 2000.

Even with an agent, though, the offers Bernal has gotten have been disappointing and stereotypical.

“After ‘Amores Perros,’ it’s always the good Latino thing — the nice kid from the nice neighborhood,” he tells Variety in almost unaccented English. “I don’t want to be the Chicano in the big American blockbuster.”

So Bernal played Che Guevara in the Showtime miniseries “Fidel.”

“In America, there are less taboos; you can do daring roles,” Bernal explains. “They would never make a film about Castro in a Spanish-speaking country.”

French dressing

Thesp Julie Du Page always dreamed of living in the U.S.; now the half-Canadian/half-French actress is packing her bags and trading the cobblestones of Paris for the freeways of Los Angeles.

“In the States, the sky’s the limit — anything is possible,” she says. “You can wake up in the morning and during the day something can happen that will totally change your life.”

That’s what happened eight years ago when prominent French agent Dominique Besnehard of Artmedia saw Du Page in rushes from Luc Beraud’s “Monsieur Ripois” and called her at her parents’ Montreal home.

“I was on the next plane to Paris,” she recalls.

Besnehard, who also represents Gallic superstars Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani and Sophie Marceau, signed Du Page. Three months later, the thesp was starring opposite Alain Delon in Jacques Deray’s “L’Ours en peluche.”

After eight years in France, Du Page was ready for America. A connected producer friend helped her land a manager. Then she turned to L.A.-based entertainment-immigration attorney Denis Blouin for help obtaining an 0-1 visa.

This sought-after visa is granted for “extraordinary achievement in motion pictures or television” and eventually allows the recipient to bypass the lengthy labor certification process should he choose to emigrate to the U.S.

Blouin, himself a naturalized citizen, gives seminars all over the world for showbiz people to teach them how to prepare to immigrate to the U.S. via the coveted 0-1.

The attorney offers these tips to those looking to make the trip on such a visa: Be on film festival juries. Join professional associations. Find an agent who will petition for you.

The status can be granted for as long as three years and can help jump-start a Stateside career.

“You need to approach even a showbiz career as a businessman or -woman. Having dual skills, working as an actor-writer or an actor-producer will open more doors,” explains the attorney.

“The ones who make it here are entrepreneurial,” Blouin continues. “You cannot come here and rely on your agent to get you jobs. You have to look for the jobs yourself and approach your career as a combination artist-businessperson.

“And,” he adds, “there’s no point coming here if you don’t speak English.”