Parlaying a modeling career onto the big screen after serving his French homeland in the esteemed Paris Fire Brigade where he witnessed the horrors of AIDS firsthand in its earliest days, actor Gilles Marini redoubles his commitment to the audience he credits for helping to make him a star.
Text & Photos by Sean Black
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]laying it in his latest role as serial killer Sebastien Dussault on Lifetime’s Devious Maids, Gilles Marini, thirty-nine, isn’t too fazed about his character’s uncertain survival. The Hollywood heartthrob has proven his staying power as an actor while his international fanbase anticipates his hopeful return.
After literally going up in flames in the Season Three finale, the smoldering actor is reenergizing at his hilltop home where, upon my arrival, he greets me in cutoff sweats and a sleeveless tee emblazoned with the American flag. Marini became a permanent citizen of the United States back in June of 2012. It is a dream he admits that took him nearly ten years to achieve.
Having just washed and waxed his sixteen-year-old son George’s muscle-car, a Dodge Challenger, he hefts aside the buffing towel and extends a taut arm.
Handshake, bro hug. This guy’s the real deal.
I first met Gilles last summer while crossing the New York Harbor on a motorcylce-laden ferry to Governor’s Island reflecting on the bittersweet skyline views of Lower Manhattan where the iconic Twin Towers of the original World Trade Center once stood tall.
Governor’s Island was the last stop of Kiehl’s Fifth Annual LifeRide, and Gilles had made the twelve-day, 1,600 mile motorcycle trek from Milwaukee to New York City to raise funds and awareness for amfAR. Banding together with the pack of celebrity riders along with dedicated amfAR staffers and press, they were led by crusader and motorcycle enthusiast Chris Salgardo, President of Kiehl’s USA. Kiehl’s, the premium skin and hair care apothecary line heralding “Since 1851” from its New York City East Village origins, has raised over $400,000 from its LifeRide events and specially created products to help fund research to find a cure for AIDS.
Riding up to moving, meticulously hand-crafted panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt that were laid across the sprawling green lawns of the Island’s former 172-acre military base offered a reminder of why these individuals make this draining yet rewarding journey. Staff of The NAMES Project Foundation were also on hand. The NAMES Project Foundation was founded in 1987 and is the non-profit organization charged with taking care of The AIDS Memorial Quilt. The agency’s mission is to preserve, care for and to use the ever-growing AIDS Memorial Quilt to foster healing, heighten awareness and inspire action in the age of AIDS and beyond.
[pull_quote_center]“I love being a part of LifeRide. I learn so much about the disease. It makes me a better man.”[/pull_quote_center]
“I love being a part of LifeRide. I learn so much about the disease,” shares Marini. He also just participated in LifeRide 6.
“It makes me a better man,” he says with pride. “Chris Salgardo says after eight to ten hours of driving it becomes dangerous. The ride can be very hard and Chris has geared it that way to remind us what we are riding for—the ups and downs, the dangers.” His thoughtful analogy references the bumps in the road of life. “Making this LifeRide [which he thinks is beautifully named] a difficult ride reminds each of us, every day, that we are riding for a purpose and that we have to be alert, we need to be conscious, we need to be good to ourselves and to others, and to survive that day. It isn’t a victory until we end this disease. So as long as AIDS exists, LifeRide will exist and Chris will make sure of that,” Marini confidently assures.
Gilles’ humanity and rigorous work ethic stems from his upbringing as the son of humble bakers. His mother Francine is Greek and his late father Georges, for whom Gilles’ son is named, was Italian. Gilles is the middle child of three, with an older sister and a younger brother. He was born in Grasse, a small city on the French Riviera known for perfume manufacturing as well as the birthplace of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the nineteenth-century Rococo genre painter of French aristocracy.
Instilled with a dedication to working long hours, Marini helped in his father’s bakery from the age of eight to his high-school graduation baking up pastries. “I was pretty good at making anything from eclairs, to milles-feuilles, and even strawberry shortcakes,” he shares as he remembers his dear father. “The nicest dude you’d ever want to meet,” he quickly notes.
“People would call my father ‘tonton,’ or uncle, because when kids were thrown out of their homes for right or wrong reasons, [the bakery] was the place they would come. It was warm in the winter and at night and my father was always there. He worked from 10 p.m. to 2 p.m.—you heard me right 10 p.m. to 2 p.m.! He wanted me there with him at the bakery at a very early age because he wanted me to see [his commitment] what he was doing each night. By exposing me to this [dedication] he knew it would help me later on in life and he was absolutely right.”
Upon graduation from high school Marini left his parent’s bakery to join the French army, where he served as a fireman for the famous Paris Fire Brigade (Brigade des Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris), which serves as the primary fire and rescue service for Paris and surrounding sites of national strategic importance. With 8,550 firemen, it is the largest fire brigade in Europe and the third-largest urban fire service in the world, after Tokyo and New York City.
“I had a great physicality,” admits Gilles. “I was very gifted in sports, too, in general.” He still keeps fit by playing soccer regularly and practicing MMA (mixed martial arts). “Back in those days military service was an obligation—I think they should have kept it that way. Youth these days are lazy and have no respect.” He laughs at his brief rant, signature of a caring father.
Rather than merely passing his time in the military, Gilles instead embraced his country’s call. “If I have to do this—then I want to learn a skill,” he thought. “There were a couple of Special Forces and one of them was the Fire Brigade in Paris. I was told I would never get in because I was from the south and it was too difficult but I didn’t listen to anyone and I got in.”
[pull_quote_center]“[AIDS] was very much in the forefront of society’s mind. It affected mainly the gay community and they were looked upon as if they were carrying the Black Plague. It was very difficult for many of them to seek out or ask for help at that time. I cannot even imagine what so many must have experienced and gone through.”[/pull_quote_center]Shortly after enrolling in 1994, death tolls from AIDS were mounting. Pre-antiretrovirals, AIDS was at its peak. “It was very much in the forefront of society’s mind. It affected mainly the gay community and they were looked upon as if they were carrying the Black Plague. It was very difficult for many of them to seek out or ask for help at that time. I cannot even imagine what so many must have experienced and gone through,” he compassionately reflects.
“I heard a number of stories from my fellow firefighters at the time about when they would arrive at an accident with an injured person [with AIDS] and that person would admit to feeling ashamed and worry that the firefighters wouldn’t attend to their injuries. It was absolutely heartbreaking. We knew so little back then.”
Growing up in Grasse, Gilles had already been exposed to seeing people suffering with HIV and dying from AIDS. “My neighborhood was filled with IV drug addicts, as heroin was huge in the late eighties and early nineties, and out of nowhere [it seemed] every single young person who was abusing heroin in the neighborhood came down with AIDS and died.”
Gilles recalls one specific harrowing tale when he was around ten-years-old that left a mark and has stayed with him. “One memory that I have is of this guy, I think his name was Kevin. He came into the bakery and my father gave him some bread because we knew he was a drug addict and he was broke. When he bit and pulled the bread from his mouth most of his teeth fell out onto the ground. I remember my heart went ‘boom’ inside of me and I remember thinking that I would never use drugs in my life, ever. I was in shock without realizing it at that moment.”
The early days of the pandemic filled people with irrational fears that science was trying to right in the media. People were afraid to shake hands or to sit next to a person with HIV or AIDS. “There was so much misinformation out there at the time. It was insane,” he recalls. Finally, people from the medical industry started to know a little bit more about the transmission of the virus and correct information was leaking into the mainstream via newspapers, radio and TV. “One of the leading French actresses in France at that time, Clémentine Célarié, went on television and she kissed a man with HIV on the mouth. French kiss!—tongue!—on national television—you know France is edgier. She made a point that said—‘Stop saying all this bullshit—this is not how you contract HIV’—because a lot of people were getting hurt.”
The event Gilles recounts occurred on April 7, 1994, when major French channels united to broadcast a unique and critical program at the time, which soon became the political action group known as Sidaction. (The French word for “AIDS” is “SIDA.”) During its inception and first nationally televised gathering, Célarié’s bold symbolic gesture showed viewers and the world that HIV is not transmitted through kissing let alone a handshake, contrary to popular belief at the time. The impact of the broadcast was considerable, attracting 23 million viewers and raising 45 million euro. Key allegiances were forming around the globe among health workers, journalists, activists, celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003] and Morgan Fairchild [A&U, December 1997], and researchers like Dr. Mathilde Krim [A&U, December 2001], the founding chairman of amfAR. And, of course, France made a vital contribution to AIDS research when Luc Montagnier and his team at the Pasteur Institute, including Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Jean-Claude Chermann, published findings about their isolating of HIV, a first-ever accomplishment which helped determine HIV as the virus that caused AIDS.
Celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2014, Sidaction continues to be a major public event in raising awareness and funds for HIV/AIDS charities, research institutions, and the medical care for those suffering with HIV/AIDS. Sidaction formed from members of The Association of Artists Against AIDS, ACT UP-Paris, AIDS Federation, Arcat-AIDS, along with a number of other researchers, and activists.
Twenty years later, reminiscing about this high point of television, Clémentine Célarié humorously confirmed in an interview that she is healthy and never seroconverted. “The first thing is that I’m still not HIV-positive,” she shared with the French media.
Latest data from a 2011 report indicates that 160,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in France of today’s 37 million worldwide. France has the second highest number of new diagnoses in Western and Central Europe followed by Italy. Evidence shows increasing rates of HIV transmission in a number of European countries, particularly among men who have sex with men (MSM) as in other regions of the globe.
It’s no surprise then, considering France’s past commitment to the fight against AIDS and his own experiences as a firefighter, that Gilles formed a deep appreciation for the struggles of individuals living with HIV or AIDS, and others made vulnerable by social stigma and discrimination. It’s an appreciation that he imported to the United States, when, thanks to an impressive portfolio of images by Paris-based photographer Fred Goudon, he was able to embark on a modeling career soon after fulfilling his military duties.
Gilles first met Goudon while living and serving in Paris, and was introduced to modeling by the photographer (probably most famous on our shores for his Dieux du Stade rugby-hunk charity calendars). “Fred Goudon, one of my dearest friends, helped me understand what it is to be a gay man in this world and that the love men share is the same without differences in terms of love. In simple words, Fred helped me to understand that we all feel the same way. Perhaps a problem with homophobia is that people don’t understand because they don’t have friends who are gay. There aren’t any good reasons in life for disliking another person without knowing them first.”
Moving to the United States to learn English while finding his footing as a model, Gilles soon found work. One of his first modeling jobs was a television commercial for Bud Light beer. Other commercials quickly followed and in 2005 Marini made his movie-acting debut in the provocatively titled horror flick Screech of the Decapitated.
In addition to his most recent role as Dussault on Devious Maids, Marini is known for playing Angelo Sorrento on ABC Family’s hit series Switched at Birth, Nicolas on CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, Luc Laurent on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters and the steamy neighbor Dante in Sex and the City: The Movie, his breakout cameo au naturel (that’s French for “edgier,” as Gilles might say). He finished second place by less than one percent of the votes on Season Eight Dancing With the Stars and was ushered back for its first ever All-Stars edition after viewers voted him the “Best All-Time DWTS Contestant.”
Gilles lives with his wife Carole, his son Georges and his nine-year-old daughter Juliana. He is especially proud to raise his children in this country. “I want the very best for the United States and look forward to getting more involved in politics and education. We need smart children for a better world with parents who are involved in the lives of their children. Acceptance, compassion, and respect must be instilled in our kids as a part of their way of living. This we must do.”
For more information about Gilles, log on to: www.GillesMarini.com. to find out more about the AIDS-related work of the organizations mentioned in this article, log on to: www.sidaction.org and www.amfar.org/liferide.
Post -production (Digital Styling): Eve Harlowe Art & Photography; www.EveHarlowe.com.
Sean Black, Senior Editor, photographed Dr. Rachael Ross for the October issue.