Cannes Rising Star Adam Bessa Talks ‘Ghost Trail’

Adam Bessa finds himself in the unique position of being both a Cannes Un Certain Regard award winner and a frequent collaborator with Hollywood’s best-known blockbuster brothers, Anthony and Joe Russo — two spheres with marginal overlap. Nonetheless, a decade after Bessa began acting in earnest, he is a regular on the festival circuit and streaming services alike. 

But the French-Tunisian actor began his professional career not in performance but as a law student in Paris. In his free time, Bessa would watch movies, fill out a diary with his favorite films, and keep track of the connections among the collaborations of actors, directors, writers, and cinematographers until he had a personal movie matrix, like a pen-and-paper IMDb. “Then,” he says, “I discovered Joaquin Phoenix, and I was gone.”

When it came to his law career studies, however, there was a bit less enthusiasm. “There were always subjects that interested me — in particular, justice, social rights, politics. I was really into that, but it never clicked.” 

Still, he attacked his new presumed profession with an academic approach that could be expected of a former law student. Bessa read books from the modern greats, such as Stella Adler and Konstantin Stanislavski, as well as biographies on performers like Marlon Brando and James Dean. “I believe in both theoretical and practical [approaches to acting]” says Bessa. 

So, he went to see a few theater schools, but “it didn’t really talk to me. The things they did, it’s really detached from reality.” He eventually attended the Jean Périmony-founded theater school in Paris for a time. “I did maybe one month or two months of classes, and then they fired me because I didn’t understand,” he recalls.

Deciding to learn on the job, Bessa set out on auditions, where roles in short films and independent features eventually netted him Sofia Djama’s Algerian Civil War drama The Blessed, which premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival. He was back on the Lido two years later with his American debut, the Russos-produced Mosul that was later acquired by Netflix. 

Asked when he knew he had made a true career out of acting, Bessa recalls with a laugh, “When my bank card started working, I said, ‘I guess I’m doing OK.’ ”

In the past couple of years, Bessa, 32, has ping-ponged back and forth between French-produced festival fodder (in 2022, he picked up an Un Certain Regard best performance award for Tunisian drama Harka) and roles in high-concept American offerings like Netflix’s flagship action franchise Extraction. It was while filming one of the latter films that his agent sent him the script for Ghost Trail.

The based-on-true-events dramatic thriller, which will screen in the Cannes Critics’ Week lineup, follows a secret group that pursues disappeared Syrian war criminals who have fled to Europe. In the film, from director Jonathan Millet, Bessa plays Hamid, a one-time professor of literature turned prisoner of war, who, after losing both his wife and daughter in the conflict, finds himself as a refugee in France and tracking a man who could be his former torturer.

Bessa was attracted to the quiet heroes at the center of the film’s action, who ask for nothing in return but a chance at justice. “It’s just you and your morals and what you believe in and what you’ve been through,” he says.

To prepare for the role, Millet had Bessa watch documentaries on Syrian state prisons and listen to testimonials of former prisoners. The actor asked Syrian friends about life in Aleppo before the civil war and read Arab poetry, the subject his character taught in college before the conflict. 

After a long career in feature documentary filmmaking that has taken him from Antarctica to the Amazon, Millet is making his feature debut with Ghost Trail. Bessa says the director meticulously planned for the thriller and wanted an ultra-grounded performance.  

“It has to be as good as if it was a documentary and add little things that make it cinema, but it has to be so light that we don’t see it,” says Bessa of the filmmaking process. “I think artistically that’s very interesting for an actor to try to do because that takes off all the ego and all the performance.”

The actor is honest in admitting that the production of the film, which has Bessa in every scene, was not always easy. “It was quite a rock ’n’ roll relationship together,” says Bessa of his working relationship with Millet. “We had some intense moments, some arguments, some really tough discussion about the film itself, the subject [and] the way we work together. We both wanted to do a great film, but we both had different ways of achieving that or thinking how to achieve that. So, we had to find a common way together. I loved it. It was hard, but we did it.”

Despite his continued success, Bessa is still open to a future outside of acting. “Maybe there’s a moment in my life where I won’t do it anymore,” he says. “I’m just doing it because I love it and I’m passionate about it right now.” 


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