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Reda Kateb Takes an Oath in Hippocrates

06/19/2015 03:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016

French actor Reda Kateb always knew he was a born actor. The son of an Algerian actor father and French mother (and grandnephew of celebrated Algerian writer Kateb Yacine), Reda grew up watching his father perform on stages across Europe. After deciding himself to "enter the family business" as a child, honing his skills reciting his great uncle's texts, Reda stayed busy on the stage as well, making his film debut in the internationally-lauded A Prophet in 2009.

Reda's latest film, Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor, traces the relationship between two young physicians (Kateb and Vincent Lacoste) doing their internships in a Parisian hospital. Reda's work captured him a 2014 César Award as Best Supporting Actor. The film opens in the U.S. today, June 19.

Reda spoke to us by phone from his home in France. Here's what transpired:

How did the project come to you, initially?

I read the script, but didn't get cast until I passed the audition. (Director) Thomas Liti wanted a strong connection between my character and Vincent's character. We established the connection quite quickly.

You and Vincent worked very well together.

Yeah, we found a great work relationship and friendship. He's very mature for his age and brought a lot to the film.

I read in your biography that you're half-Algerian, and your character in the film is Algerian. Is that something that drew you to the part initially?

It wasn't so much about being Algerian for me in this film as much as it was in another film I did recently, called Far From Men. For this one it was more to talk about the situation of doctors coming from other countries and working in French hospitals. I wasn't familiar with the situation prior to doing this movie, so it was something I wanted to address.

I know that Algerians in France haven't been treated well over the years. Growing up in France with your lineage, did you have any difficulty?

Not so much, because I'm from the next generation. It was harder for my father and my family in the past. Since I was born in France, I always identified with being French. Just like if you're born in the States and your lineage is from elsewhere, you're still American. This is something that France has been a bit behind on, I think, and could use America as an example for. This film dealt a lot with France's immigration issues. France has a lot to improve on this subject.

What are some of those things that need improvement?

In this movie you can see that my character is a really good doctor, he's a specialist. He's paid like a student, and this is a big situation in France. In emergency services in France, you have fifty percent of the doctors in this situation. It's a big waste of talent and people who can make our country richer, and we have to recognize that, or people will leave France and go somewhere else.

Let's talk about your background: your father was an actor and your uncle is one of the most famous Algerian writers of his generation.

Yes, I grew up in a creative environment, which was wonderful for a child. I remember being age four or five and going with my father on tour, watching the rehearsals, and I was hooked. (laughs) So it's been thirty years now that I've been an actor.

I read in your bio that you decided to become an actor at the age of twelve. Was there one inciting incident that made you decide that?

Actually, my first play was at age eight, and I told my father that I wanted to do what he did. It was a way to be an adult and a child at the same time.

Reda and Tahar Rahim in A Prophet.

The first film I remember seeing you in was A Prophet. What was that experience like?

Well, it was my first film and quite an amazing introduction to filmmaking and film acting. Jacques Audiard is one of the best directors we have in the world, so I learned a lot from him. I still use many of the methods he taught me today.

A few years later, you did Zero Dark Thirty. How was it working on a high-profile American film with a director like Kathryn Bigelow?

It was very simple, very easy actually. At the beginning I was supposed to play a much smaller part, and when I met with Kathryn, she suggested I play the part I ended up doing. She had a terrific creative process, very straightforward. She knows an actor is good when you basically leave them alone and let them do their job. She's not the kind of director to give you line readings, or something like that. We've stayed very friendly. It was a great experience I remain grateful for.

In Zero Dark Thirty.

How was it working with Ryan Gosling, who directed Lost River?

Also a great experience. It was full of trust because he sent me the script and offered me the part without an audition. I spent a month in Detroit and wasn't familiar with it and that side of the American Dream, which is more like a nightmare.

Reda with Ryan Gosling at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Is it a different experience working with a director who's also an actor?

Well, every director and actor is different, but with Ryan, he understands the acting process so well. He shares the scene with them and you invent it together. Again, it was very simple, easy and exciting at the same time.