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I remember the hype surrounding La Haine at the time of its release in the mid-1990s, and I also remember thinking that much of the adulation offered for Mathieu Kassovitz' feature directorial debut was a little excessive. But what I remember most is its star, an oddly handsome young actor who, perhaps not unlike his character in the film, was in the process of defining himself, and for better or worse left an indelible impression. Fifteen years later, Vincent Cassel has become one of the most acclaimed and successful actors in the world; not only did he go one to become one of France's best-known leading men, he has worked the world over in everything from genre films to harrowing dramas to breezy Hollywood thrill rides. And in his latest, the epic, two part true-crime French film Mesrine, he seems to combine all of those experiences into one epic performance that shows him at his most charming and terrifying, intelligent and animalistic, grandiose and understated, but as always, unforgettable.
Cinematical recently sat down with Cassel at the Los Angeles press day for Mesrine, where the actor waxed poetic about playing the on screen version of one of France's most notorious criminals. In addition to discussing the challenges of tackling a role based on a real-life person, Cassel examined his ongoing process as a performer, and reflected on an eclectic career that continues to grow and expand with each new effort.
Cinematical: When you play someone who's based on a real person, do you still see him as a character or do you try to make your performance as accurate as possible?
Vincent Cassel: It's all about putting a bit of art in your fantasy, and a bit of fantasy in your art. Of course you have to be real, but then it's a movie. This is actually two movies, and it has to work for what it is, so sometimes you need to make shortcuts in terms of scenario, and sometimes you have to do things that maybe the guy wasn't doing, but it's going to look better that way in a movie. You twist the reality a little bit. You know, wanting to be too real [can be a problem]; it's not about reality, it's about embodying an idea and having this idea go through the screen. So I believe one should feel free, you know, on set. You have to know [him] and then you compose with that, I guess.
Cinematical: Was there something about telling this story that you felt was important to participate in or examine?
Cassel: There was a contradiction that I really liked about the whole thing - that this guy is a star in the suburbs of France, and 85 percent of the suburbs is from Arabic descent. This guy starts by killing two Arabs, and I thought the shock that it might provoke between the fan base of the character and the reality, I wanted to be part of it. Because once again, with paradoxes, contradictions, people have to think, people have to talk, and that's what it's all about really. So I wanted to provoke this, but what I've learned is that even though he was a racist, even though he started his career by killing Arabs, the suburbs still love him today. They don't care, and that's even stranger.
Cinematical: When you started developing the character, was there anything you knew you had to get right that was maybe at the heart of playing him effectively or the "right" way?
Cassel: In France people know the guy from the pictures he made by the end of his life, and the guy was beefy. He was actually a little bigger than you, you know, so in the second movie you see that I'm actually 22 kilos [45 pounds] more than what I actually am today, and it really makes a difference. I know I needed to have that, because otherwise, at least for the audience that knew him, they would be disappointed. They would need to recognize what they [imagine], so they weight, for example, I knew I had to get it right. I knew that prosthetics don't work so I decided to go for it, but I knew I couldn't gain weight while we were shooting - because of the stress and all. So we talked and we decided to shoot from the end to the beginning, so when I ended the movie I was 25 years old and it was the best thing ever (laughs).
Cinematical: Mesrine is such an interesting bundle of contradictions. What if anything was the throughline you discovered that sort of tied together this family man who could be so ruthless and self-aggrandizing all at the same time?
Cassel: I really believe that we all have a very specific nature; I compare human beings to animals just to understand them - some people are snakes, some people are goats, you know. I think this guy was kind of a puma and definitely not a goat, and I think he really tried to justify his life choices with things he wasn't really aware [of]. When he got into politics, you can see that he's starting to mix everything to have sort of a believable speech, but you can feel that it's a little bit empty. He doesn't really know what he's talking about; it's just an attitude. But I think he just had a problem with authority, I think that's what it is, and maybe he's seen a little too much of James Cagney's movies on the boulevard in Paris. I think the thing with his father [was important]; a thing I discovered is that a lot of the kids of the losers of the second World War, like French people around his age, when the war in Algeria came, they all wanted to go because they couldn't live with the fact that their parents lost. They were ashamed of the previous generation in a way, so they went to like wash the honor of their parents in a war that had nothing to do with the previous one. It's very strange, but I think he was one of those guys.
Cinematical: The first scene in the first film shows him when he's in the war, and then immediately after that he's reunited with his parents. Do you feel like then the second scene is more formative than the wartime scene? Because the first one shows that he has scruples but is clearly capable of killing.
Cassel: Well, if you're part of the army, I guess you don't really have a choice. It's just that a lot of wrong things happened in Algeria. I don't know if you're aware of the war in Algeria, but it wasn't really clear [what it was]. They actually only called it a war 20 years ago. Before that, it was like people would go there, fight, die, but it's not a war, because the reasons were not really clear, and plus, the French government wasn't right, really, and they knew it. But in the army scene, he uses it as justification [for killing], but what you see in that scene, I mean, what we tried to do, is that yes he kills somebody, but he doesn't kill the right person. He says no, and actually, it [about him being] a guy who's capable of saying "no." I think that's why people like him, really, and that's why eventually you might root for this guy who is definitely not likeable. You root in a very strange way, because he's violent, he's racist, but still, when he robs the bank you're like, "yeah," and you feel like want to be him. And I think it's because we say yes all of the time in real life, because it's easier. We have to go with the flow because otherwise you become like an alien to others, really. So suddenly to see a guy, even if he's a gangster, even if he has all of the defects in the world, who says "no" and he is ready to pay the price, it's inspiring. I think that's why people eventually like this guy, even though he's all of these things.
Cinematical: Do you think that he is sincere when he tries to go straight, or is he just deceiving himself?
Cassel: I think he tried, because he was very much in love with the girl, and at that point she was in love with him and she was ready to follow him anywhere. It's like if you love to smoke and you go, okay, I'm going to stop smoking; you will really try, but eventually you will start again (laughs). I think that he really tried, except he didn't have to be pushed too much [to go back]. Once again I think it was a justification; when the guy says, "you know, [we might have to let someone go]," he goes "no, it's okay, no worries." And then he goes back to the life he enjoys. You know, adrenaline, I think you can be hooked on that.
Cinematical: How much did you immerse yourself in preparation for this role? When they're subjecting your character to harrowing torture in prison, do you just care about it looking authentic, or is it important to go through that to some extent?
Cassel: No no no - I only suffer when I have to (laughs). I mean, I don't want to do things because of the guilt, like I need to suffer; I heard Jim Caviezel say "I need to have a real cross for The Passion of The Christ." How stupid can that be? You've got to be crazy. I mean, whatever, now his back is f*cked and too bad for him. But I think that comes from a problem that people have. No, if you [can't] see properly something, then I will have to do it the way it is, but if there's another way to make it and it looks great, then let's do that. For example, all of the prison scenes look terrible, but it wasn't the worst.
Cinematical: What was the worst?
Cassel: (pauses) I don't know, actually - I really enjoyed making this movie. Well, maybe the length, which was nine months. Maybe working night shifts for a long time because you're tired and it gets harder; you might lose the pleasure [of performing], and I think the pleasure is a very important factor when you're working as an actor. But I can't complain; I really enjoyed shooting this thing from A to Z, and I was even surprised that I enjoyed it so much.
Cinematical: Do you have a regular method of preparation for each role you take on?
Cassel: It really changes from one movie to the other. I need to have something that makes me concerned about what I do, and if I'm concerned, then it starts to get into my subconscious, and I begin to realize that most of the important choices I make about the character actually [come] right before I fall asleep and right before I wake up. You know, that moment where you dream and you're not judgmental at that point; it's like meditation. You're dreaming freely, and those moments are really important because suddenly you can fix things, and those things will stay somewhere, and they will come back while you act.
Cinematical: Do you find that it's hard to maintain that kind of intuitive process, or do you sometimes have to intellectualize details about your characters?
Cassel: I don't intellectualize at all. I mean, I think it's really important to let yourself go and do things, because that's when you do things that might surprise you - and then understand why. But to try to understand before, I think people who try to understand before, I think it's because they're scared to let themselves go. So they imagine the thing, and then, if it's okay, they will let themselves go. That's called protecting yourself, and I think we have many more abilities than we think much of the time, and that's what you're trying to explore as an actor. Every day when I'd go back to my hotel, what I did during the day unfolds, so when you have time to think and re-see what you did, it's really crazy because you did things without thinking. It's a bit like surfing, actually. On the wave, you can't really know how it's going to close and how hollow it's going to get, and so you have to adapt to yourself and not fall, and a wave would be a day of shooting.
Cinematical: You've enjoyed sort of a flirtation with working in Hollywood. But do you feel like there are better opportunities for you working internationally than in Hollywood?
Cassel: Well, it's not like coming to Hollywood is the end of the road. I mean, there are wonderful things shot in Hollywood, obviously, but for example, working with [David] Cronenberg and [Darren] Aronofsky, for me I'm really happy for that already, so it's not like I feel like there's something on top of it. If I could keep a career working here, working in London, and working in, well, Russia, why not, and moving from one thing to the other, that gives me a sense of freedom that has no price, really. And not being here with paparazzi all over the place, and not having to deal with McDonald's to make a movie because my face is on every hamburger box, [that's when] it becomes a job, I guess. You have to make money through the box office or else you disappear, and that's not exactly the reason I'm in this business. I'm doing this because otherwise I'd get bored in life. I mean, I'm pretty happy with how things are going; I travel a lot with very interesting people, I get involved with the ballet and then the Russian mafia and then I'm skydiving for a movie. I really love what I do, really.
Cinematical: Absolutely. A lot of people see Hollywood as the endgame for entertainment, but it seems like you've found more interesting creative opportunities by working in these different places.
Cassel: But I'm not American. I'm French. So from the beginning I had to adapt, or else I would have stayed in France. And I couldn't. But my history with America is actually a long story: my mom came to live here when I was 13, so I went to summer camp in America. I studied in New York, acting classes, I used to take dance classes. And when I was much younger, my friends would see an American in me, because I was wearing Nikes when there were no Nikes in France, and I would go to McDonald's all of the time to eat hamburgers, I would listen to Red Alert tapes from 98.7 KISS, and all of this sh*t. So some of my friends would say, "look at you. You're becoming an American!" I didn't really know how to answer, but I said, "no, you've got to take what's good from where it is, and who cares about the nationality of it?" Then when I came to America and I stayed for a full year, then I realized that in was actually fully French, actually (laughs). But I think it's all about mixing everything, I think.
Cinematical: What are you working on now?
Cassel: I just completed the Cronenberg movie about Freud and Jung, called The Dangerous Method. The Black Swan is going to open the Venice Film Festival. Have you seen the video by M.I.A. with the redheads? That director, he's a young guy called Romain Gavras and he's a guy that I've been following for some time, so I just produced a movie called Our Day Will Come. It's a story about two redheads rebelling against society because they've had enough of being bullied. So it's like a metaphor about minorities and stuff. It's kind of a comedy, and it will be at Toronto too.
Cinematical: Reuniting with Cronenberg for another film, do you find that it's easy to get into a collaborative rhythm with him despite the fact that the subject matter seems very different than Eastern Promises?
Cassel: Oh, it's super easy to work with someone like him. I don't what ideas people have of Cronenberg, but he's a super-smart, funny, elegant person, and he's been working with the same crew for so long that you get on set and he goes bam, bam, bam, bam. It's easy by definition.
Cinematical: Does his approach make it easier for you to tap into what you need to for your character?
Cassel: Oh yeah, because he gives you a lot of freedom. He usually gives you one thing for the scene, and the rest is yours. So it's great because it gives you something to chew on at first, and then, if you stay in character, or if you're on the same page, it gives you a sense of freedom and responsibility. But he watches you in a way that he sees everything that you do - and if he doesn't say anything, don't think it's because he doesn't see it. It's just because he thinks it's okay.
Cinematical: Do you believe in that actorly idea of transformation?
Cassel: From my point of view, I don't become anything but me. But I really like the transformation aspect of the job; some people, they never change and they're still wonderful, but from the start, I really like disguises, changing my face, putting things in my nose and my mouth, I change the color of my eyes, I wear wigs, I gain weight, I get skinny. You know, that's the way I like it. But everybody has got his own style, I guess.