Putting Monkey Business Behind Him, Christopher Lambert Got Serious (and Physical) to Play Tarzan in Greystoke

updated 05/21/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1984 01:00AM

Like the ape-man in Greystoke, Christopher Lambert has a talent for landing on his feet. When he auditioned for the Tarzan role in Paris two years ago, he had little professional experience, had just been expelled from an elite acting academy and could speak no English. The bizarre audition hardly inspired confidence: For a half hour director Hugh Hudson just stared at him, watching for a response. "I was doing what apes would do," Hudson explains. Lambert left the room thinking, "My God, what a strange man," but to his delight, he was later invited to London for a screen test. There he demonstrated his ability to behave both like a chimp and an English aristocrat, and that got him the part. "I wanted an innocent," Hudson says, "and, he's got fantastic eyes." As to why he won the role over 300 candidates, Christopher, 27, says only, "When you can't explain something, it's like a smile from the sky."

His luck has rubbed off on his movie. In only eight weeks Greystoke has raked in $35 million at the box office, and Lambert—a Tarzan far removed from the Johnny Weissmuller tradition—has been praised by critics. Christopher trained for the role in England for six months. To build up his strength and agility he spent two to three hours on the rings and parallel bars each morning. In the evening he devoted an hour and a half to English lessons. The most challenging assignment occupied four hours each afternoon when, in the mixed company of other uncostumed actors and real chimpanzees, he learned to chimp—to speak and behave like an ape. "After about three months," he says, "the chimps we were training with accepted us as real chimps, just different looking." They caused no problems during the two-month shoot in Cameroon. "As long as you show them respect, you're fine," Christopher says. "If you face them, they think you're trying to challenge them, and they'll win. If you hug a chimp when he wants to let go, he'll think you're trying to kill him, and he'll kill you first. They can kiss you one second and kill you the next."

Lambert's life has been almost as unpredictable as working with primates. Born in New York City, the youngest of five children of a French expert on underdeveloped countries who was working at the United Nations, Christopher was brought up in Geneva. Performing in a children's play at age 12 addicted him to applause, but to please his father he apprenticed briefly as a stockbroker. Says Lambert, "I told my father I wanted to quit to become an actor, and he said, 'Okay, I give you two years.' He gave me the exact amount to feed myself and have a roof over my head. For the first year and a half I did nothing. In Paris I was out more at night than in the day." At the suggestion of some actor friends he applied to the highly competitive Paris Conservatoire and, to everyone's amazement, was admitted to the three-year program. That got him a renewal of his father's support, but in his third year he was thrown out for cutting classes. Fortunately he was chosen to play Tarzan a month later.

Things are looking up these days for the happy-go-lucky young actor. Uncommitted to any future roles or to a girlfriend—"it's difficult because I'm never in one place, so at the moment I'm on my own"—he is hoping to break into Hollywood. "Provided he develops a full command of English, he could have a great career in America," says Hudson. Lambert's bright blue eyes are fixed on his future. "What you've done is done," he says. "You've got a goal you never reach, and it's always farther away. It keeps you walking. I don't want to sit down."

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