Director Luc Besson’s 1994 crime thriller The Professional (or Léon to our French readers) introduced audiences to a different kind of hitman movie, as well as one of today’s leading actresses. The film about an orphaned adolescent who is taken in by her friendly neighborhood assassin featured standout performances by its three main stars: Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, and Jean Reno. And 20 years later it still holds up with Gary Oldman delivering one of the best psychotic roles — and there have been a lot of them — of his entire career.
To mark the film’s 20th anniversary, I’ve dug up some facts on how the movie came together and where young Natalie Portman drew her inspiration from. (Hint: it involves a fictional Aurora, IL celebrity.)
1. The casting director initially thought Natalie Portman was too young. Natalie was at first turned down after her audition because the casting director thought she was too young for the part. She returned to read again, and impressed casting director Todd Thaler into deciding to give the young actress her first part in a movie.
2. Jean Reno decided to play the part as if Léon was a bit slow. Reno knew that for the audience to accept that this girl had been taken in by a trained killer, he would have to make Léon a bit emotionally repressed and child-like. He decided to play the character as if he was a bit mentally slow and allow Matilda to have emotional control of the scenes, so that the audience would realize that his character wasn’t going to take advantage of the girl.
3. Natalie Portman’s parents had strict guidelines for all the smoking scenes. The biggest concern about the film for Natalie’s parents wasn’t the violence, but the character trait of Matilda being a smoker. Her parents drew out a strict contract with director Luc Besson that there would only be five smoking scenes, that Natalie would never be seen inhaling or exhaling from a cigarette, and that her character would quit the bad habit by the end of the movie.
4. A thief turned himself in to extras dressed as police. A robbery went down in the neighborhood where the film was being shot and upon leaving the scene the thief walked into the film set. When he noticed a group of extras in police uniforms standing around, he turned himself in believing them to be real cops.
5. Natalie Portman had to learn the hard way how to cry on camera. The young actress hadn’t had the experience of crying on command yet and had some difficulty in the scene where Matilda discovers her murdered family. Natalie says producers had a rather uncomfortable solution for the problem that involved blowing menthol in her eyes.
“It was the early weeks of shooting and it was really hard for me to cry there. That was the first time that I ever had menthol blown in my eyes. They did it once and I was like ‘Okay, I can cry’ it was so painful. Every take after that I was able to focus and cry because I didn’t want anymore mint in my eye.”
6. Luc Besson made The Professional as a side project while working on The Fifth Element. According to producer Patrice Ledoux, The Professional was a side project for Luc Besson to work on while production on The Fifth Element came to a halt because of Bruce Willis’ schedule. Rather than lose his creative momentum, the writer/director churned out a script for The Professional in just under a month and the film went into production and wrapped in three months.
7. Gary Oldman’s performance provided an acting lesson for Natalie Portman. Gary Oldman improvised several of his scenes in the film, including the part where he interrogates Matilda’s father and sniffs him. Actor Michael Badalucco had no idea Oldman was going to smell him, hence the look of discomfort on his face. Natalie Portman said that watching Gary Oldman work gave her all the inspiration she needed.
“It was probably the easiest acting experience of my life. I don’t even remember being directed at all, I just sat there and watched him. I don’t think I had to act at all in that scene, I was terrified because he does everything so well. It was pretty amazing to be that close.”
8. Gary Oldman dialed up his “Bring me everyone” line to make the director laugh. Gary Oldman revealed in an interview with Playboy that he had done the “bring me everyone” line several times in a regular tone, but wasn’t getting the reaction he wanted from the director. So he turned his delivery up:
“What’s funny is that the line was a joke and now it’s become iconic. I just did it one take to make the director, Luc Besson, laugh. The previous takes, I’d just gone, “Bring me everyone,” in a regular voice. But then I cued the sound guy to slip off his headphones, and I shouted as loud as I could. That’s the one they kept in the movie. When people approach me on the street, that’s the line they most often say. It’s either that or something from True Romance.”
9. The indoor shots are Paris, the outdoor shots are New York. The movie was shot in Paris and New York City, with all of the indoor apartment scenes being filmed in Paris and the outdoor corridor shots filmed six weeks prior in New York.
10. Matilda’s Marilyn Monroe impression was actually a Mike Meyers impression. The director asked Natalie what characters she could do for Matilda’s charades scene in the film. Natalie chose Madonna because she had grown up watching the singer, Charlie Chapman, and Marilyn Monroe — the Wayne’s’s World version.
“The Marilyn one I got from Mike Myers doing an impersonation of her in like Wayne’s World or something. So I have this memory of copying someone else’s impersonation, because I had never seen any of the original Marilyn tapes.”
11. Test audiences didn’t like Matilda hanging with a killer. Luc Besson’s original version is 25 minutes longer, but was trimmed down because the scenes tested poorly during L.A. screenings. The additional material is found on the Director’s Cut version and features the growing relationship between Matilda and Léon with her accompanying him on several jobs.
12. A sequel to the film was written. Luc Besson supposedly wrote a sequel to the film that picks up years later with Matilda. Just don’t expect the film to get made. Transporter 3 director Olivier Megaton was in talks to direct, but Luc Besson cut his ties Gaumont Film Company to start his own production company. Gaumont Film owns the rights to The Professional and according to Oliver Megaton, they unfortunately won’t budge on moving forward with Luc Besson’s script.