The actor: From his breakthrough feature, La Haine—a bracing, controversial look at unrest in the multi-ethnic Paris suburbs—Vincent Cassel has sought to define himself as a different kind of French star, someone whose sensibilities align with young outsiders in the industry. His career has been marked by a commitment to working with untested filmmakers and provocateurs, most scandalously in Gaspar Noé’s 2002 rape-revenge odyssey Irréversible, which Cassel made with his actress-wife Monica Bellucci. Other efforts include L’Appartement (where he met Bellucci) Brotherhood Of The Wolf, Read My Lips, and the extreme horror movie Sheitan. Meanwhile, Cassel has also appeared in several high-profile English-language films, usually as the villain, including Shrek, Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen, Derailed, and Eastern Promises. As the eponymous character in the new gangster biopic Mesrine—released here in two parts, Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1—Cassel plays Jacques Mesrine, a notorious French outlaw who rose to fame (and infamy) during a crime spree that lasted from the mid-’60s to 1979, when police shot him down. Cassel won the César Award for Best Actor for his fine performance.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (2008)—“Jacques Mesrine”
The A.V. Club: Jacques Mesrine has great notoriety in France, but his exploits aren’t as well known here. Can you give us an idea why he captured the public’s imagination?
Vincent Cassel: I think just because he was a rebel, and he was making fun of the government, and that was really daring. And it’s not something everybody does, because it’s a very dangerous business to do that. He actually died because of that, more than because of what he did. But you can’t make fun of the government in France, or in a bunch of other countries, as we know. So he embodied the counterculture, really.
AVC: But he also did terrible things. How do you get that across while playing him as a charismatic character? Were you concerned about how the character would be perceived by the audience?
VC: Yes, of course. I think the magic trick that he managed to do while he was alive was that even though he was racist at a certain point of his life, even though he was violent to women, and even though he killed people, people still liked him. And for me, the challenge to make these movies was to recreate that magic trick, meaning not to hide anything from his personality and from what he did, and still have the people eventually root for him, in a very strange way. So I really did everything I could not to glamorize him, and I didn’t want to get rid of anything dark about him, but I still wanted to show the bright side of him, meaning he’s a man of honor, he’s very brave, he’s smart in a very instinctive way. All these things. So just to show him and not tell the audience what to think about him. What you eventually think about the character at the end of two movies really represents who you are more than what we told you to think.
AVC: Everyone in France knows Mesrine through the headlines, but what did you have to do to understand him better than that?
VC: I went through everything I could, really, and it took a while to get this film made. From the first time Thomas Langmann, the producer, told me about the movie and asked me to do it, to the moment we released the two movies in France, took seven years. Seven years is a long time. I really had time to read everything he wrote, and things written about him. I had time to meet the journalist who interviewed him, photographers that shot him, people from his family, his kids. I’ve met some of the girls he shared his life with. We read police reports, we talked with the cops who ran after him for a long time, and I even met a guy who was part of the shooting, when [Mesrine] was executed in the street. So all that, in seven years, I’ve had time to literally digest all of this information and make it mine.
AVC: You also underwent a physical transformation for the movie as well, where you put on and took off a lot of weight.
VC: People are more familiar with pictures of Mesrine that had been taken of him at the end of his life, when he was doing a lot of things with the media. So there’s an iconic figure that people know, and I had to eventually get there; otherwise I guess the audience would have been disappointed. My only problem is that I’m a skinny guy, and it’s very hard for me to put on weight. So very early on, we decided with the producer, and Jean-François Richet, the director, to shoot the movie backward. So we started by the death, and ended up with the scene in Algeria. And I just had to lose the weight while we were shooting.
AVC: What did you do to gain the weight?
VC: I ate everything I shouldn’t, drank beer a lot with syrups, and then I used to drink milkshakes with 3,000 calories twice a day. Eventually, I realized after a certain weight, I couldn’t get fatter. So I went to see a doctor—and I’d been followed, of course, the whole shooting by doctors—and they helped me with the insulin, because whether you’re big or not depends on your insulin, and the way you stuck in the fat and the sugar. So they gave me a little pill that helped my insulin to stick all those wrong things in my body. But I have to say, that’s the first time in my life that I’ve had cholesterol, and I was really glad to do it for this movie, but I wouldn’t do it again.
La Haine (1995)—“Vinz”
VC: First of all, it was the story of friendship. I was very close with Mathieu Kassovitz; he was somebody I met in the nights of Paris. And the hip-hop scene and all that… You know, it was very much about doing our own thing, and some of the subject matter was so close to what we knew and the people we were hanging out with. You usually never know what you’re going to do when you’re making a movie, but from the start, I knew we were doing something special and different from what was happening in France in those days. So there was a sense of breaking the rules, and a sense of freedom when we were shooting this. And then the success and the recognition that it had around the world was a real surprise. But I knew we were doing something different from the start.
AVC: Were you nervous about putting it out there?
VC: Yeah. Plus, it was like a dream to me to suddenly get into the market with that kind of movie. It actually created my identity as an actor, that thing. So I was very nervous—it was a lot of attention, plus the character was so far away from what I am in real life that I really had to work to construct him, and the film was not something very common in French cinema. So yes, we were nervous about the subject matter, and I really wanted to be believable. And my best reward would be to be recognized in the projects with that movie, and that happened, actually. So it was wonderful.
The Crimson Rivers—“Max Kerkerian”
AVC: Same director, but a much different movie—a very weird, commercial serial-killer movie.
VC: I think Mathieu Kassovitz at that point wanted to do a mainstream movie, like a big studio movie, or the equivalent of it. And this book was very famous in France. It was a bestseller. They asked him to do it; Jean Reno was attached to it, and in a very natural way, [Kassovitz] came and said “Would you like to do this with me?” and I said, “Why not?” I liked the idea of working with Jean Reno and Mathieu; there was something logical for me. I thought it was a good thing to do. Actually, the movie was a big success, and it was one of the biggest successes I ever had in France.
VC: That was definitely a real experience. I’d met Gaspar a long time ago, and he’s someone I knew from Paris nights, and actually that’s how we got together to make this movie. One night at 5 o’clock in the morning, he asked me if I wanted to do that kind of movie with my wife. You see, we just had like six or seven pages of script, really, so it was all based on improvisation, and we never knew how long those long sequence shots would be. Was it two minutes? Twenty minutes? So you really had to be on top of it, and it was very tiring, even though the movie was very short to shoot, because it was only actually 12 sequences in the whole movie. And we shot it in not even a month, the whole movie. But the fact that it was all improvisation, and so surreal on many levels… by the time we finished making the movie, I was exhausted like I’ve never been. Much more exhausted, actually, than after a movie like Mesrine, which took nine months to shoot.
AVC: It would seem like that lengthy conversation in the subway car, by far the longest exchange in the film, would be really difficult if it had to be improvised.
VC: Everything was improvised. There was not a line written. The whole movie is based on improvisation. And actually, from one take to the other, things were going differently. They were not the same length, and actually using a different take for each sequence would have made a totally different movie. It was very experimental. I know it’s a hard movie to watch, but I do think it’s a very important movie, and eventually will be seen as a classic. I can feel it because everywhere I go around the world, people still are telling me about it, and a lot of directors I’ve worked with are very intrigued by the making of that movie, and ask me questions about how we made it and all that.
AVC: Did you get a sense while shooting it what it was going to look like at the end?
VC: No. I knew it would be something very different and very hard to watch, but I still was surprised by a lot of things when I saw it for the first time. But literally, when we were shooting it, after one sequence, I would turn to Gaspar and say, “Uh huh, here’s 20 people leaving the cinema… here’s 30 people leaving the cinema.” [Laughs.] So we knew. It’s not like we were surprised by the reaction. But strangely enough, some people ask me today if I regret that movie. Of course I don’t. It’s one of the movies I’m most proud of.
Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2006)—“François Touleur”
AVC: Those were probably about as opposite a situation from Irréversible as possible, in terms of production.
VC: Well, Steven Soderbergh really likes Irréversible, that’s about all I can tell you. About the making, well, it was a very particular situation, because those people all know each other, and they’re all big stars. I felt like the little French guy, really. And I was very flattered to be called on that, of course, but I felt like if I didn’t find something to be a little original, different, particular in the movie, I would just disappear. And so I was reading that script when I was in Brazil. And I’d been practicing this martial art, capoeira, for a while, and there was that scene when I was supposed to go out in the middle of the laser field and all that. So I just asked Steven Soderbergh if he knew about capoeira, and he didn’t. So we met in Italy, and I started to show him in the hotel room how it went. And he loved it. So it really gave me a total freedom to choreograph that scene and to make it what it is today in the movie, really. And I think if my character really exists in that movie, it’s because of that scene, because I think it’s pretty original. I have a huge relationship with Brazil; it’s almost a love affair, I would say. And to me, to introduce that specific martial art in Hollywood movies was something important to me.
AVC: You’ve made several films in Hollywood. How interested are you in working more within that system? And how is the production different in Hollywood than it might be in France?
VC: More and more, I have a tendency to think that that stereotype of American movies and Hollywood movies doesn’t exist. Of course you have the studios that have a very hard policy upon their artists, but then I haven’t really been doing any real Hollywood movie yet. Working with David Cronenberg or Darren Aronofsky or even Steven Soderbergh isn’t really like a typical Hollywood movie. These are true artists, and have a certain amount of freedom when they work, and they’re more like independent filmmakers making their way through big studios. I still don’t feel like I’ve been part of the stereotypical Hollywood system.
VC: Kim Chapiron and a bunch of guys were working in a group called Kourtrajmé, and they’re people I met when they were 14 years old and I was 28. They were big fans of La Haine, and they were already shooting short movies with their video cameras. And when I saw what they were doing, even though they were only 14 or 15, I thought they were incredibly talented. And they really embodied an idea of—a lot of people are talking about integration, about immigration and everything in France, and to see that group of people, so young, like, Vietnamese, Africans, Moroccans, Algerians, Greeks, all working together… To me, that’s the answer to all the problems we have in France concerning immigration. That is a fake problem; people can actually work together and do something very interesting out of it. So I’d been following them, and shooting short movies with them, and they grew up, and became 25 and 26, and I ended up producing their movies, Sheitan being the first one. Then Kim Chapiron, the director, finally directed another one called Dog Pound that just won Best New Narrative Filmmaker Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Romain Gavras, the youngest son of Costa-Gavras, just completed a movie called Our Day Will Come, about two redheads rebelling against society, and I’m producing the next Kim Chapiron movie, which will be a romantic comedy shot in Rio during Carnivale. It’s just people I think are very talented, and I met them so young, and I became like a godfather to that group of people.
AVC: That’s been kind of a hallmark of your career, too, hasn’t it? That investment in young, first-time film makers?
VC: Yes. I come from an acting family, my father was an actor, and I had to fight my way and just create my own identity. So for me, the answer to that was always to work with people of my age and my generation. And plus, I didn’t want to be part of that tradition of French cinema that wasn’t really watched by the people of my age. I didn’t really care to be in the last [André] Téchiné or Claude Chabrol movie, even though some of them are really interesting. For me, it was much more important to work with Mathieu Kassovitz or Gaspar Noé. It was for me a question of identity, really.