Glass meets one of the most respected and renowned actors of our time, Vincent Cassel

The outsider – Glass meets one of the most respected and renowned actors of our time, Vincent Cassel

On a scorching August morning in Biarritz, France’s surfer paradise south-west coast, the promenade is thronging with holidaymakers as they idle their way to the beach. The Glass shoot team, consisting of a photographer, a groomer and myself, however, wait anxiously in the cool, calm lobby of the Sofitel. We have no intention of tanning today. We have escaped the riots of London and are waiting for the arrival of one of the most respected and renowned actors of our time, Vincent Cassel. Nothing has been left to chance. In our room designer suits are steamed and lined up, make-up is laid out on standby and five cameras, loaded with film, wait quietly, everything poised in anticipation.

We had done our reconnaissance of the area the previous day and our allocated two hours with Cassel had been planned with military precision. Hair and make-up would be a brief affair with interview conducted simultaneously, shooting would commence while the interview was winding down – to get a few animated shots – then we had just an hour on location, during which we would be shooting furiously. However, there were still variables. “Will he come with a publicist?” I don’t know. “Will he be happy with the location?” I think so. “The clothes?” Yes. “The idea?” Definitely. We wait.

Vincent4Vincent Cassel

Barely a minute after the appointed time a taxi pulls up and Cassel jumps out. He walks quickly towards us, casually dressed and ever so slightly dishevelled in jeans and a light grey sweater. He shakes our hands vigorously, “I’d completely forgotten about the shoot, I had to jump out of bed!” he exclaims with a grin. We escort him to our suite where we present him with the clothes, the cameras and the idea; simple black suits, him shot in black and white on a range of old cameras – old to give the images a raw and grainy quality, a nod to early French cinema and his acting roots. “Sounds perfect!” he exclaims, genuinely enthused and already playing with the cameras, “so London is crazy right now, huh?” And immediately we are at ease. Vincent Cassel is a joy. No, this isn’t another gushing homage celebrating an actor’s ability to turn up to a photo shoot on time. He is simply a joy; excitable, remarkably polite – saying thank you to every passerby who moves out of our way – and has the most infectious laugh. Before long we are all positively beaming.

We discuss the topic of the day; the London riots, which leads to a debate about inequality in society and naturally our minds all turn to La Haine, the breakthrough French film which first brought Cassel to the world’s attention (and which has since come to rank in the top 100 best films of world cinema). Cassel played an angry and disposed young immigrant who, frustrated with the failings in urban society, becomes obsessed with earning respect through violence. I ask him what effect that role and perspective had on him as such a young man from a privileged background and why he would choose such a gritty debut role.

Vincent Cassel photographed at the Biarritz Sofitel. Suit, shirt and cummerbund: Prada. Sunglasses: Louis Vuitton. Shoes: Berluti worn throughoutVincent Cassel photographed at the Biarritz Sofitel. Suit, shirt and cummerbund: Prada. Sunglasses: Louis Vuitton. Shoes: Berluti worn throughout

“It was perfect, because that’s exactly what I wanted to do. You know, it was totally different from what I am and where I come from, even though I know that environment very well. It was perfect. It was dark, it gave me a chance to appear to the audience as something that I wasn’t. Things became blurred about who I was from the beginning and that was a good starting point. Then I did the movie called L’Appartement, that was right after, and it was totally the opposite and people didn’t really know or recognise me for years in France, because it wasn’t really clear who I was and I really loved that, because to me that was the essence of being an actor – something that you can lose very easily after a while, because you can have long or short hair, blonde or dark moustache, a beard but after a while whatever you wear people recognise you.

But it took a while with me. But look, La Haine is still relevant, as we can see, very relevant. The movie is talking about something very natural, it’s what we were just saying when we met today, it’s just about kids that want to have something. And I think it is very natural and I totally understand that. Actually, after we finished La Haine I came out of those suburbs where we were shooting and I thought; there has to be revolution at some point, because until now they are still burning their own cars, you know, their own neighbourhoods. But the truth is that if they really want to do something they need to go to the centre of Paris and really take it where it is, you know. From the rich, and it’s always worked like that, especially in France because (Cassel cocks an eyebrow and assumes a comedy mock French accent) let’s not forget, we invented the revolution!”

Vincent Cassel photographed at the Biarritz SofitelVincent Cassel photographed at the Biarritz Sofitel

When you spend so long on a project as a character, and 
particularly for a movie like Mesrine where you metamorphose into that person (Cassel had to gain 40 pounds to star in the biopic of notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine), are you ever at risk of losing yourself in that character?
I never lose myself. I am much too balanced. I mean, I think so. I see it like that, maybe it’s not true (laughs). From my point of view I keep it very light and normal. A lot of actors pretend to lose themselves because it really helps them, you know. They get into this very serious process and eventually lose themselves. I used to. When we shot La Haine like 15, 16, 17 years ago, I don’t remember, I had a fake gun that really looked like a real one. I would carry it with me walking on the streets, I needed that to believe in what I was doing. I don’t any more. I mean, it has been a while now. I try to keep it on a very light note. It’s more like a childish way to play. I just let myself go.

Right now on a set I am very childish, it’s a game really, because I have noticed that the more you get serious you get stuck into something very stiff and when you get stiff you are not malleable any more. But when you let yourself go and you act and you play as though nothing is serious, nothing is important, then you can cry and laugh and be very serious or totally relaxed, one second to the other, and I think it’s better. And the fact that I started to produce movies a few years ago, I have this consciousness of money and how much it costs.

So I think honestly, and from the stories I hear, about a lot of actors around me or director friends that I’ve known, I think I am very easy to work with. Once I am on the set I am happy to be there, first of all, and I give everything I have while we are doing it and when it’s over I am back home; I’ve got kids, I’ve got a wife (Cassel is married to Italian actress Monica Bellucci), 
I have got a lot of things to do, I think I am a normal person. Now, if you talk to my wife, then maybe someday she will talk about me in a different manner (laughs). I know that I have got some dark spots and that sometimes I do things that I don’t really control about my behaviour, but, let’s say, I don’t focus on that. I don’t let myself go in that direction. But I do have that part too.

Vincent Cassel photographed at the Biarritz SofitelVincent Cassel photographed at the Biarritz Sofitel

How important it is for you to keep a balance between French cinema and Hollywood?
What is actually between Hollywood and French cinema is between French cinema and the rest of the world, I would say. I kind of grew up like that, you know, my mother lived in New York. When I was 12 she left and she lived over there so I was back and forth between New York and Paris. Then I got a pretty strong relationship that’s been lasting for 20 years with Brazil, not with somebody in Brazil, with Brazil in general (laughs), with the country.

And I am married to an Italian. I have always travelled a lot so it seems. When I started up in this business I didn’t think I could fit in French cinema because I couldn’t really relate to anything that was happening in those days. So very early I wanted to go to London at first. I wanted to enter one of those wonderful acting schools that you have there. Finally I ended up in New York because my mother was there so it was easier for me, and plus, I was very attached to the beginning of hip hop and the actors’ studio thing and you know all those movies from the ’70s that were happening in New York, so I went there. From there I never really stopped.

What was the change in French cinema that suddenly you found you could relate to it?
I really thought I would be doing something only in the American industry and then I realised that I was much too French for that and that I couldn’t relate to the rules in America, it couldn’t really work with me. So I started to feel homesick and I went back to Paris. And then I started to meet a bunch of guys that were my age and were feeling exactly the same way. So I started to work with those directors and that was the change I guess, for me. But for French cinema in general Jan Kounen, Mathieu Kassovitz, Gaspar Noé, all those guys wanted to come back to, let’s say, a more formal kind of cinema. In opposition to something more like post nouvelle vague syndrome, where everything had to be naturalistic and you take an actor for what he is in real life and he could not come up with any character construction or whatever.

And I am not a naturalistic actor, and everything is fake, but what I do has to look real – which is totally different from my point of view. And strangely enough, those movies started to be released and to travel better around the world, and even today, by making more foreign movies, my idea is to have French movies with a better release around the world, which is not easy. It’s really rough. People have the tendency to think that it’s because of the language but it’s not true, it’s just about money really (laughs).

It seems more acceptable these days to go and see a foreign film, an independent film, and world cinema seems to be getting a much better recognition. (At this point the hair stylist needs to use a blow-dryer. I offer to suspend the interview but Cassel insists it’s no problem, “I can speak really loud” he laughs and snatches up my iPhone on which I’m recording and resumes the conversation, speaking directly into the mouthpiece – very loudly).

It really depends for whom. A lot of people don’t want to read subtitles. And in France, in Italy, in Germany and a bunch of old European countries people are used to seeing dubbed movies. We grew up like that; I think it’s terrible. I’d rather see a Japanese movie with subtitles than dubbed. But this is, let’s say, an intellectual point of view.

Most of the people don’t want to read, because when they read they don’t see the image. Talk to Americans, people don’t know how to do it… some people do, but most of the people are not raised like that so they’re like: ‘What, a foreign movie?’ Or you want to go to any DVD rental place to rent a foreign movie? – C’mon! It’s a joke! (Laughs).

Unfortunately not only in America, a lot of people in England too. People don’t really go see subtitled movies – that’s all. It’s too hard. Because it’s a small market, you know, once again it’s just about money. I think there is a trick going on, suddenly the American studios understood that, years ago now, that if they just produce blockbusters they are going to look cheap after a while.

Because all those transformers, big cars, guns and stuff, they make a lot of money but, let’s say, it’s not really high profile movie making, so they started to create these sub-studio things that are supposed to be independent studios and each big studio has one, but it’s the same thing really. It’s really fake actually, because they are just producing movies for less money because it’s “arty”, you know. And then it goes to the Oscars and everything but I think it’s all a game really because really small movies are not produced by studios most of the time, period.

You’ve worked with a lot of young, less well-known directors as well as the huge names. What attracts you to the directors that might not have their success proven in the box office?
Freshness. The taste of danger, the impulse and the passion they have. When people start a new job, most of the time they need to prove everything, they are so passionate. First movies, most of the time, might have errors, but they have the flame that most of the time people tend to lose with time passing by. And I really like that flame, I think it’s important and, except with some directors, most of the time they start to be very professional and they control much more their art form and then they lose this.

Sometimes the errors can be good.
It’s very touching. When we were releasing Black Swan people tend to talk a lot about perfection and stuff like that, but who cares about perfection really. When somebody dies for example, you don’t remember them for their perfections, you remember their defects. I think it’s much more human to care about those things; those errors, those impulses.

The theme of this issue is power, hence you, what do you think is one of the most powerful movies ever made?
Fellini. I am a huge fan of Federico Fellini, still today. Some of the things he did, he’s talking about things that can’t even really be talked about in real life, you know? He makes them suddenly understandable on many different layers. About the pathetic aspect of human kind and how it can be touching and all those things, it’s movies that I’ve been watching from very early on, every time I see them again, because these are movies that you can still watch and watch again, and you still learn. First of all, you understand new things about them and 
you realise you can see a different layer and you can always learn from them. So that’s why I am a big fan of him.

What do you think constitutes a good movie?
I think there are no rules really. But somehow I think the movie has to be coherent. Different aspects of the movie have to be working together, because sometimes you have a good movie that is really interesting in one aspect like visuals or story line, or how much it costs, but when the rest doesn’t follow, they are not equally balanced, then it doesn’t really work.

With that kind of reflection, I guess anything can be a good movie. From a cartoon, to a comedy, to a drama. It’s not one genre in particular. Amélie I think is one full movie, because it’s almost like a cartoon, but the potential of the movie is not too high, so it works with its lightness for example, you know, and the visual and everything. I am talking about this movie in particular because most of the movies from this director I don’t really like. And suddenly with this movie, it’s balanced it’s coherent and I think it’s a good example of what I think is interesting.

How do you balance the pressure of being a sex symbol and being married to the most beautiful woman in the world?
Honestly, “the sex symbol” thing is something that I don’t really understand, but I guess it is the power of image. And I think it’s a bad guy thing. It’s because it’s danger, it’s the devil, it’s the forbidden fruit. So because I always had those characters, I guess there is something sexual about it. But, I mean, in real life, I am telling you, I am not a sex symbol for anybody! (laughs). And before I started to make movies, I was just a normal guy, you know. And it’s not like I got into a club and I would just sleep with everybody, not at all. I had to fight for it like everybody else (bursts into laughter). And so, you know, it’s just an image that I consciously work and balance.

Glass Magazine for example, this is part of it, because it’s not that I have to release something right now, but to be on a cover of a magazine like Glass keeps this image of the French, dark guy, with blue eyes, but it’s all an act and I am conscious of that. You know, I come from an acting family, so I grew up in this environment. I never woke up thinking, “Ok, now I know I’m a gangster, now I know I’m a womaniser’, I never really believed in what I do, it’s all an act for me. Now, when it comes to my wife it’s a different story. It’s a personal story. But it’s a real story, that’s what it makes it interesting, I guess.

What gives you the feeling of power?
Well, (he turns to face the breaking waves and laughs) let’s talk about this for example. When you’re on the wave, and really riding it properly, that can give you a real sense of power. It’s very brief, but that’s why I’ve got a house here. Lately, I’m trying to put together a movie that I co-wrote with a young guy called Kim Chapiron. And when some financiers call back, because they don’t always do (laughs), and they get the idea, and they understand why the characters are not bad or good, that they are closer to reality. My bad guys are always nice in a way. And if I do play a good guy it’s got to be bad in a way, because that’s what people are and I really try to always balance between good and bad, because it’s closer to what I see.

Behind the politeness and the social behaviour and all those things. And when you write a script like that, present it to people who might give you money to produce it, you must realise that movie making is very formatted – they want a bad guy and they want a good guy, they don’t want a reality. Most of the time, it really depends on the price of the movie, I guess. But if you want to make something with a bit of ambition, then suddenly; “Why is the good guy doing this thing, because it’s pretty dark’, but yeah you know, that’s what we do, we betray, we fight with ourselves, and so, many people, when I sent that last script, they just don’t get it. They say, “So, nobody is sympathetic in the movie?” I say, “No, everybody is, because everybody is beautiful and pathetic, when he’s by himself, in some situations.” So when they get it, it gives me the sense of power, finally! So if I finally put this movie together, that will give me the great sense of power, I guess.

What is your greatest wish?
Right now – to produce this movie (laughs). My greatest wish, if things keep happening like the way they are now, that would be great, for years.

by Nicola Kavanagh

Taken from the Glass archive Issue Seven – Power

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Glass Magazine editor in chief

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