Vincent Cassel is one smooth operator. Back in October, at the London Film Festival, all the journalists gathered at the roundtable interview we attended were thoroughly charmed by his suave manner and gently frank sense of humour. It’s these positive qualities that resound even in Cassel’s darkest, most complex roles, from the volatile Parisian street punk Vinz in La Haine, to the international criminal Jacques Mesrine.
In Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s psycho-thriller of obsession, madness and ballet, Cassel stars as the manipulative, yet still dashing, director who pushes Natalie Portman’s dancer towards perfection. With this in mind, we asked Cassel about his relationship with directors, his background in dancing and the experience of working in both French and American film industries.
Did you train as a dancer for the part?
I trained as a dancer when I was much younger, for a large amount of time, like 6 or 7 years. Not to be a ballet dancer, actually, but I thought it was a complement for an actor. 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 in a lot of physical things, and the core activity was ballet. Because when you have a consciousness of your body through ballet, they say that you can do anything else. So, I believed it, and that’s why I trained.
Then, for that movie in particular, I went back to the studio for a while to stretch, to have a sense of that physicality again. But it’s nothing compared to Natalie, for example, who really transformed the body, and naturally fitted.
Have you ever been manipulated by a director in the way that your character manipulates Natalie’s?
I would never let that happen! I mean, if I’m not aware at first, then I might be surprised, but if I start to understand what’s going on – I’m too old for that.
The only time I’ve been, not manipulated, but tricked around, I reacted very badly and it ended up that I will never work with that person again, and he knows it. [laughs]
And he was?
Luc Besson, of course. We call him the Darth Vader of French cinema. The dark side of the force.
Is he that bad, then?
I don’t know. No, it’s just an image.
In this film, but also in Mesrine and Eastern Promises, you excel at playing very driven, obsessed characters. Does that come easily to you? Do you find yourself becoming lost in that person?
No, I don’t feel like I’m losing myself. I’m losing myself in the moment. So, it’s more about letting yourself go, and experiencing that moment.
But when it’s cut, and I’m going back to the trailer, I don’t keep on walking like the character. I’m not like that, no. I used to, but it seems like it’s something you do when you’re younger, because you feel like you have to. Otherwise you’re not going to be real.
Then once you get, I guess, a little older, and you get more in touch with your emotions, and less worried about the way you look, or blah blah blah, you know that you can get the same result without being a jerk to everybody else as well.
How much did it matter to you to break through in Hollywood?
First of all, I’m not sure that I’ve really broken through, but how did I manage to have gigs coming from the States?
Was that important to you? Because a lot of French actors quite happily spend their entire career in the French film industry.
And they say they’re glad, but it’s not true. [laughs] Because the best thing is to be able to work everywhere, to be called and then you just pick what you want.
It’s not a question of language or market any more. That’s the ideal. But what I think it is, I’m not sure, but from the conversation I’ve had with the English-speaking directors who’ve called me, it’s because of the movies that I made in France.
I’ve been pretty spoiled, first of all, because I only worked – you know, we were like a bunch of angry kids, in a way. It’s like, fuck la Nouvelle Vague, and we’re going to do something new. That’s the attitude we had with Mathieu Kassovitz, Jan Kounen, Gaspar Noe, all those guys, you know.
And so, we came up with those movies that were not huge box office things, but they’ve been traveling a lot. They went to a lot of festivals and stuff. And I guess the directors saw them, and I know that’s why Soderbergh called me, and that’s why Cronenberg called me, and that’s why Darren called me. So, I guess it’s because of the choices, really.
So, it wasn’t simply doing Ocean’s Twelve and then becoming more noticeable?
No, no, no. What came out of Ocean’s Twelve is actually great, because you do one Ocean’s Twelve and you’re more known around the world than if you did 20 years in the French cinema industry.
Do you feel the need to do a balancing act, between American and French cinema?
Well, I did Ocean’s Twelve. I didn’t do Fast And Furious. You know, it’s not the same at all.
Soderbergh is a very respectable director that manages to have an incredible amount of freedom in a system that doesn’t allow anybody to be free as he is on a set. And he will jump from Solaris to Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen.
So, it’s like, to tell the truth, I don’t really have the sense that I have really worked on a Hollywood movie, because Ocean’s Twelve is not a real Hollywood movie. It’s a bunch of guys that know each other, that stick together; they have total control over the product. So, it’s not really a Hollywood movie. It’s Hollywood people having fun in a very expensive indie movie, let’s say. [laughs]
Who else would you like to work with in America?
There are so many. Oh, man, that’s a complicated, complicated question. Because, you know what? The truth is that I don’t have a fantasy director, somebody I would love to work with. Martin Scorsese, you know. That’s what I kept saying to Mathieu Kassovitz back in the day. He’d say, “You’re going to go to America. You’re going to have a career.” “Why do you want me to go to America? We can work together.”
It’s not about integrating something else. It’s about doing something that people want to see, and you don’t have to work with known directors for that.
For example, a bunch of projects that I have, the one that excites me the most is with a young director and it’s a movie I’m producing. So, it’s not going to be the biggest one, but that’s what keeps me alive. Excited, you know? I think it’s very important to be excited.
What dead filmmaker would you want to work with, then?
Fellini. And Buñuel.
Yeah, you bet it is!
Your character very much pushes Natalie’s to bring her personal experience into her performance. What’s your opinion on Method acting?
I think people have a misinterpretation of Method acting, because Method acting is a wonderful thing. The thing is, if you take it too seriously, it’s like religion. You start to think it’s the truth. But it’s not the truth. It’s just a way to get somewhere.
And plus, it’s been associated to suffering. It’s like Method actors are like serious people who stay in their trailers and they don’t wash and things like that. But it’s not what it is.
What it’s talking about is that you should use your emotion to act, instead of portraying your emotions. But you could be a very happy character and it’s still Method acting.
Did that help when immersing yourself in the character of Mesrine?
But I had a lot of fun. A lot of fun. Every day on it was long. Nine months is a long shoot, honestly. And the weight, blah blah blah. Every day, I’m not kidding. Because I would debrief the day of shooting. On set, you don’t have time to talk, so at night, my director was on MSN. And every day we would talk, and more or less every day it was, “Wasn’t it fucking great, today?”
I don’t know, but that’s the way I live my days of shooting. You have to be happy to be there. It’s important. Because if you’re bored, it really shows.
Monsieur Cassel, thank you for your time!
Black Swan is released this week.
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