Vincent Cassel burst onto the world cinema scene in the mid-1990’s with Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, portraying a troubled youth growing up on the fringes of Paris. In the years since he’s worked with some of the worlds finest filmmakers, both at home and abroad, with everyone from Jacques Audiard to David Cronenberg taking on the intense performer. Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second spent some time with the actor.
You’ve spoken of training for the part of Thomas (Leroy, the head of the New York Ballet in Black Swan), did you train as a dancer, because I know that you do have a background in dancing?
I trained as a dancer when I was much younger for around 6 or 7 years, I trained not to be a ballet dancer, but to compliment my acting. I thought that actors should know how to move, should know how to juggle, should know how to do acrobatics, so I started my career by being involved with a lot of physical things. The core activity was ballet. When you have a consciousness of your body through ballet they say that you can do anything else.
For the film in particular I went back to the studio for a while to stretch, to get to having a sense of that physicality again. But its nothing compared to what Natalie did, who really transformed her body.
Have you ever been manipulated by a director in the way that your character manipulates his cast?
Never would that happen! I mean, if I’m not aware at first, then I might be surprised but I would never let things happen! The only time I’ve been manipulated, been tricked around, I acted very badly and it ended up that I will never work with that person again. And he knows it!
And that is?
Besson of course! We call him the “Darth Vader of French cinema”! The dark side of the force!
How important is a director to your performance in any given movie?
It’s all about the director. Well, I don’t think the director creates the character, that my job, but the best directing that I’ve experienced comes from the way that the director is looking at you. I think about Darren Aronofsky, when I think about David Cronenberg, you know that everything you do he will see. It’s about the precision of the way you’ve been looked at that really drives you. You can feel it, it’s not about words really, most of the time directors tell you that it’s exhausting because it’s mental. Darren doesn’t talk very much, once in a while he’ll come over and say, “why don’t you try it like that”, but otherwise he’s very subtle.
As we’ve seen before you excel at playing very driven, obsessed characters, does that come easily to you, or do you find yourself becoming lost in that type of frame of mind?
I don’t feel like I’m losing myself. Sometimes I lose myself in the moment, while I’m in character, sometimes forgetting what I did, but that’s only for on camera! Its more about letting yourself go and experiencing that moment, but as soon as the curtain comes down I go back to my trailer and that’s that. I don’t keep on walking like the character or anything. I used to, but it seems like you have to when you’re younger, or else you don’t feel like your doing it properly. Once you get older, and I guess, once you get more in touch with your emotions you become less worried with such things. You realise that you can get the same results without being a jerk to everybody around you!
Aside from the language issue, how much of a change is it for you to be working in the American cinema? You seem to portray very specific types of character?
You mean bad guys! I like to play those characters that can switch from one mood to the other, charming scary, I can show a totally opposite aspect from one scene to another, they’re closer to what we see in real life, than so called normal “good guys” in the movies. I can see it myself, literally do things that are totally erratic, we all do things like that, humanity is like that, we’re full of contradictions and paradox’s.
I started with these kind of roles, so it made sense that they continued in America. La Haine was that already, Irreversible was that, everything I did in French cinema was that. I don’t feel like I’m typecast, I feel like I’ve been building my identity as a person, and now its coming back to me!
Do you have a specific approach towards acting?
I think that people have a misinterpration of the method, because method acting is a wonderful thing, but the thing is, if you take it too seriously, like religion you know, you start to think it’s the truth. Its not the truth, its just the way to get somewhere. Its been associated with suffering, and method actors are perceived to be serious who stay in their trailers, or won’t wash themselves, things like that, but that’s not what it is. I’ve read more or less everything written on it, and I trained with people coming from that background, and what it is saying is that you should use your emotion to act, instead of training your emotions you should re-use your emotions. And that’s it.
That said, how much did you immerse yourself into Mesrine, because you really had to become that character, theres so much depth to the role?
I had a lot of fun! Nine months is a long shoot, and the weight and everything is something, but everyday Jean-François Richet and I would talk via MSN after the shoot, and everyday it was like “wasn’t today fucking great”! Being on a set should be like that. You have to be happy to be there, because if you’re not it shows.
How big of a deal was that film to your career?
It was important to me, because its been released everywhere, people reacted well, and it came at the moment in my life when I turned 40. There was a lot of things going on, and it’s a movie that meant a lot to me.
How much did it matter to you to break through into Hollywood?
Well, I’m not sure that I really “broke through”, but a lot of French actors say that they are happy to stay and work in the French film industry for all of their career, but its not true. The best thing is to be able to work everywhere, to be able to pick what you want, and for it not to be a question of language or market anymore. That’s the ideal.
What I think it was that gave me the opportunity to work outside of France, based on the conversations that I’ve had with English language directors is because of the movies I made in France. We were a bunch of angry kids. We didn’t like what there was and we were gonna do something new, that was the attitude that we had, with Mathieu Kassovitz and Gaspar Noé, so we came up with those movies that were not huge box office successes but they travelled well, they played a lot of festivals and I guess the English speaking directors saw them, and I know that that’s why Soderbergh called me, and that’s why Darren called me.
So it wasn’t just a case of doing a film like Oceans 12 for the heck of it?
No, what came out of Oceans 12 is actually great because you do one Oceans movie and its like you did 20 years in the French film industry in terms of world wide recognition! Sad, but that’s how it is.
Do you not feel obligated to maintain a balance between French and mainstream Hollywood cinema though?
Well I did an Oceans film, not a Fast and The Furious, which are very different things. Soderbergh is a very respectable director, who manages to have an incredible amount of freedom in a system that doesn’t allow anybody to be free! He will jump from Solaris to Oceans 12 and 13, so to tell you the truth, I don’t really feel like I have in a sense worked within Hollywood, because Oceans 12 is not a real Hollywood movie, it’s a bunch of guys that know each other, they stick together, they have total control over the final product, so its not really a Hollywood movie. Its Hollywood people having fun, in a very expensive indie movie!
Who else would you like to work with in America?
The truth is I don’t have a list of fantasy filmmakers that I would love to work you know? I don’t think to myself “I would love to work with Martin Scorsese”, that’s why I kept on saying to Mathieu Kassovitz back in the day who used to say “one day you will be able to go to America” and I’d say “Why do you want me to go to America when we can stay here in France and work together and create the same kind of work that people want to see?”. You don’t have to work with known directors to do that, the one project that excites me the most out of the bunch that I have at the moment is with a young director, it’s a movie that I’m producing, so its not going to be the biggest one, but that’s what keeps me “alive”. I think its very important to be excited.
Is it a lot easier for you to walk around Los Angeles or London than back home in France, or do you not get too much hassle?
No, the French are not like that. We’re snobs! We recognise somebody and we ignore them! And that’s great. Obviously if you hang out in the wrong place at the wrong moment it can get a little excited, but I can go out at night by myself and its no problem. France is the perfect middle between Britain and Italy, we’re Latin, but we’re organised!