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Michael Socha on the modern relevance of Papillon, remembering French penal colonies, and prison reform

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The new Papillon is “not a remake, it’s a retelling”, explains star Michael Socha. In the role of Julot, Socha plays a convict condemned to the infamous penal colony on Devil’s Island, in French Guiana. Julot and Henri ‘Papillon’ Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) meet on the ship from France to the colony, both immediately identifying with the other’s desperation to escape.

Image credit: Signature Entertainment

As a fan of the 1973 original starring Steve McQueen, Socha was “a bit worried at first,” he confesses. “Because I’d read the book years ago and I was a big fan of the book, and I’d seen the movie a few times when I was really young – without any knowledge that I’d ever get a chance to be in it, obviously. My agent called me up and said, ‘They’re doing a remake of Papillon, are you up for it?’ And I said ‘Yeah,’ even though everything was fine as it was! But I couldn’t say no, and I loved the character, I loved the stories, so many individual stories that make up a wonderful film. There was no way I was going to say no.”

Image credit: Signature Entertainment

“Before I started, we had a few calls, a few Skypes [with the director, Michael Noer], and he was saying how raw and truthful he wanted to make it, and I think he’s definitely done that, especially with the hand-held camera. A lot of the time you feel like you’re amongst it, and that’s really dangerous because you’re constantly feeling on edge, always on edge and not trusting what might happen.

“You know it’s not going to be nice, it’s this constant bombardment of abuse. And that’s what’s really interesting, how humans overcome and adapt, not matter what, they just do it. I think that’s very apparent in Papillon. You see the slow rotting of the people there. It’s like when Papi comes out of solitary for the first time, and he’s just completely changed; He’s starved, and he’s tanned, and I just love that slow decay of the people there. Charlie, when he’s in that zone, his weight loss and – he took the role very seriously and went hard with the role, to do it justice… I think Charlie and Rami [Malek] worked fucking hard.”

The creation of Julot’s character was apparently a very collaborative process between Socha, the director and the producers. “There were quite a few things they let me roll with, even though I was quite nervous with the accent. But there was opportunity to play around with it, and Michael [Noer] prodded me into changing the character somewhat.

“Originally, Julot and Papi weren’t meant to get on as well as they did, but that just naturally formed. I think the fact is, we all need somebody, we’re all looking for a familiar face to help get us through a situation, and that’s why Julot ended up closer to Papi than was originally planned. And Papi was affected by Julot’s death, and that’s the first time you see him a little bit broken.”

Image credit: Signature Entertainment

Although Julot has perhaps a limited screen time, he nonetheless holds an important and highly symbolic role in the film, Socha explains. He believes his role to be “more of a representation, an informative character. He does set up the desperation, and the importance of money, and the fact that everybody wants to escape, ultimately. He’s heard a lot of stories about Devil’s Island from the people he’s been a criminal with.”

Though a difficult story to watch unfold, what stands at the core of Papillon is that “people can survive these fucking hardships, and also that people need allies – they need friends, and love,” the actor emphasises. “And ultimately if you’ve got that around you, it can make your life a bit easier no matter what environment you’re in. I think that’s a big thing in Papi, the relationship between Dega and Papi, it slowly forms into something beautiful in the middle of his horrific fucking place.”

Socha adds: “A big theme of it is to adapt and overcome. Even Dega looks as if he’s slowly gaining strength. And that’s how you endure that hardship, if you don’t lose your mind. But sometimes losing your mind might be the best thing that could happen to you, if you’ve run out of awareness, that’d be great. That might make life easier. But in the end, they’re the strongest folk, those who understand what’s happening and still manage to persevere.”

And of course, the film is hardly fictional. Based on two autobiographies, Papillon and Banco, written by the real-life Henri Charrière, it relates the experiences of thousands of French men condemned to live out the rest of their lives in penal colonies. “I’ve seen the old footage, the old grainy black-and-white footage of some of the French prisoners,” Socha tells me. “I watched one clip of a bloke bawling his eyes out as he’s being strapped up at night-time. You know he’s at the end of his tether; no matter what he’s done, it’s still fucking horrific.”

Image credit: Signature Entertainment

“And it was a blag, it was a way of France colonising, and ridding itself of these so-called criminals,” he continues vehemently. “And ‘criminal’ was a loose term back then as well, you’d get sent for four years, never to come back, for stealing a bike or a fucking bag of potatoes, and that was your fate. That was just France’s way of colonising a place that the Europeans couldn’t. People would go over there and fucking die, and lose everything. And it is horrific, and it didn’t work.

“It’s still happening now, in America. I mean these kids are getting locked up for a long time, and then going into these private prisons and making money for fat cats. And that’s happening all over the world; I don’t think the world has changed at all, it’s just covered up in a glossier magazine.

“And you’ve got refugee camps… in terms of like Calais, it’s always been happening. And no one’s doing anything about it, and I don’t know what it’ll take for this sort of shit to end. And I don’t know when that penal system ended in France, but in my research, none of it fucking worked. All the camps, they’re in the jungle and the jungle took them back. Making roads, and making houses, that’s what they’re there for; to fucking build a beautiful place for rich people to enjoy. And it didn’t work.

“I think Julot represents the 80,000 people that were sent to those colonies, and the 80,000 that didn’t have any hope. They didn’t make it out. I watched footage of men who had survived the system, and they were of an old age, and a lot of them are just fucked. Just blank faces and staring out to sea, crying.”

Papillon is out in UK cinemas now, distributed by Signature Entertainment. 

Lead image credit: Signature Entertainment

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