“My mother was very proud,” says Olivier Martinez. “Other times I am in movies I punch the old man for his money, now I speak about love to young ladies.”

The 30-year-old French actor is in town to promote Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s The Horseman on the Roof, an epic romance in which he has the starring role. (As Martinez’s mother undoubtedly noted with satisfaction, it’s the kind of film whose credits include both equestrian and tapestry consultants.) Dressed in black jeans, a slate-blue crew-neck sweater, and clunky motorcycle boots, the strikingly handsome Martinez is slouched over a generous espresso at the Henley Park Hotel. In the background, a bombastic trumpet fanfare issues from the restaurant’s sound system.

He grimaces, “Nice music, no?”

Based on Jean Giorno’s novel of the same name, Horseman is about Angelo Pardi, a character the film’s press kit describes as “an angel-faced officer of the Italian cavalry.” The young man is a member of the Carbonari, the 19th-century secret society that fought to wrest political control of Italy from the Austrian Empire. In hiding in Aix-en-Provence, Angelo flees when he is discovered there by Austrian assassins. His escape leads him into the French countryside, where a cholera epidemic rages. Wandering into a sickness-ravaged town, he is forced to take refuge on its rooftops to escape the fury of a superstitious mob.

“I have not vertigo,” Martinez boasts jokingly. “That’s why Jean-Paul take me for the role.”

Accompanied by a companionable cat, Angelo breaks into an attic seeking shelter. Martinez doesn’t romanticize working with felines. “It’s not easy to work with a cat,” he says. “I have a lot of food in my clothes.”

The attic belongs to intrepid and beautiful Pauline de Theus—played by Martinez’s real-life girlfriend, Juliette Binoche—who offers the intruder a cup of tea and mocks his formal manners. The pair meet again when both are attempting to break through the French army’s quarantine and enter Italy. Angelo offers his assistance to the reluctant Pauline and, despite her protestations, doggedly escorts her into Italy and back again. Martinez is reluctant to speculate about the attraction between the characters. “Love is a mystery,” he declares with Gallic aplomb. “Why somebody fall in love with another person, I don’t know.”

Martinez acknowledges the difficulty of making a film with a protagonist whose primary characteristic is reticence. “It’s not easy to adapt the book to the screen because it’s not very cinematographic,” he says. “It’s about a man who thinks a lot of things inside and don’t want to show what he feels.” The role may not have called for much emoting, but it did require other skills. “The daughter of Giorno said to me, and the wife of Giorno—the wife is still alive, she’s very old—the two woman of Giorno said to me, ‘We’ll know if you’re the horseman when we see you on a horse,’” Martinez recalls. “So my job is not to learn the lines, it’s to learn to ride.”

The actor glances worriedly over his shoulder at his publicist. “That’s the ‘How’s my English?’ look,” she laughs.

Martinez is relatively new to the profession. Never having acted before, he won a scholarship to Paris’ prestigious Conservatoire National Superieur d’Art Dramatique when he was 22. “Everything I do very quick,” he admits. He started out doing theater—Rappeneau spotted him in a production of Desire Under the Elms—and says he learned to act by doing it. “I learn on the stage,” he says. “It’s a good thing I don’t want to be a pilot.” He also did some television work, which he recalls with distaste. “I start to make movies, I stop TV immediately,” he says emphatically.

The actor still relishes his father’s reaction to his first stage role, a bit part in which he was unceremoniously thrown in jail. Martinez père, a professional boxer in his youth, demonstrated afterwards how his son could best escape the jailer’s hold. “I said, ‘Daddy, it’s just a play,’” Martinez remembers.

“I’m very touching by that.”

Though he is a fan of American cinema, Martinez doesn’t think Hollywood offers many opportunities to foreign actors. “It’s better to make a good movie in France than a bad movie in America,” he says matter-of-factly. He resists the temptation to philosophize on the difference between French and American films: “I prefer to go to good movies whatever the nationality is,” he says diplomatically. Yet he does admit to disapproval of the American predilection for remaking French comedies. “Have you seen The Birdcage?” he asks tartly. “It’s not a good idea, I think. It’s better to invent a movie. It’s like we try in France to make a remake of On the Waterfront. Can you imagine?”

Since his exposure in The Horseman on the Roof, Martinez’s major problem is concurrent work offers. “Good projects are all the time the same time,” he sighs. But the actor insists that his career is not his main priority. “I have Mediterranean roots,” he explains. “I just want to eat, sleep…and the rest.”

—Nicole Arthur