Johan Leysen (1950-2023), fantastic actor, gifted orator and always looking for adventure

Actor Johan Leysen.Image ID / Fred Debrock

Besides being a fantastic actor, Johan Leysen was also a gifted orator. A teacher almost, who kept his hearing firmly focused. Not only because he spoke wise words, but also because he could express his thoughts so well.

This became clear in September 2019 during the discussion in Amsterdam City Theater after the end of the performance Recovery from NTGent, directed by Milo Rau. That performance was about the (true) murder of a young homosexual Muslim in Liège. Together with his colleague Sara De Bosschere, the Flemish actor spoke eruditely and passionately about the importance of theater as a stage to interpret the zeitgeist. Recovery was Rau’s second performance in which Leysen played, and it showed his penchant for adventure in the profession – he was always looking for new ways.

Legendary roles

Johan Leysen (73) died on Thursday from the consequences of a cardiac arrest. Belgium and the Netherlands have reacted with shock to his sudden death. Leysen was a popular theater maker and colleague because of his dedication and craftsmanship.

Immediately the many legendary roles passed by, which he played in both theater and films. That was in the theater, among other things Wittgenstein Incorporated, a magnificent solo that was reprized twenty years later. He also worked regularly at the Antwerp Toneelhuis directed by Guy Cassiers, such as in Blood & Roses in Wolfersin which he played the role of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito.

After graduating from Studio Herman Teirlinck in Antwerp in 1974, he started his stage career in the Netherlands, because he found the theater more exciting there. He could be seen in productions by De Appel, Baal, Zuidelijk Toneel Globe and Ro Theater – at the time all groups that were looking for innovation.

Thinking author

Characteristics of his acting were especially his voice, in which both strength and softness sounded, and the calmness he always radiated. You could call him a thinking actor, who did not rely on grand gestures, but sought the power of simplicity. His striking head, in which time increasingly nestled itself over the years, helped him in the search for the core of his often idiosyncratic characters.

Because he was asked by Jean-Luc Godard in 1983 for a role in his film I salute you marie he quickly got a taste for filming. Before that he had been seen in Dutch films The girl with the red hair in Broken Mirrors.

The list of film roles is impressive and international: in addition to Flemish, French and Dutch films, he also starred alongside George Clooney The American (2010) by Anton Corbijn. In 1989 he won a Golden Calf for his leading role in Happy…Happy… by Peter Delpeut.

Not quite ready yet

The movie came in 2022 Pink Moon from director Floor van der Meulen. About a 75-year-old man who wants to take his own life before he deteriorates. Johan Leysen had difficulty with that role, because he did not understand his character. He himself embraced life and his profession, and was far from done with that. Until death itself struck mercilessly.

His last theater role was last year Tell the kids we’re no good, Guy Cassiers’ farewell performance, dedicated to the poetry of Leonard Nolens. Leysen’s favorite poem was Nolens Fatigue especially because of the closing lines: When we, the grown-ups, are tired / Of talking, / Of talking, / Of talking to each other, / We go into the garden and hide ourselves / In the cat, in the grass, in the child’.