On set with Eric Cantona in 'Looking for Eric'

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Ken Loach and Eric Cantona’s ‘Looking for Eric’ has its world premiere in Cannes this week. Dave Calhoun travelled to Manchester to watch Loach coax words of wisdom from the philosophising footballer

It’s June 2008, and I’m riding in the back of a people carrier through Manchester with two actors, one called Steve Evets, the other Eric Cantona. They are the double act that heads the cast of Ken Loach’s new film, ‘Looking for Eric’. No doubt you’ll have heard of Cantona, but perhaps not Evets. ‘It’s “Steve” backwards,’ the 49-year-old Mancunian tells me, laughing; some other actor got in there first with his real surname.

Has there ever been a more unlikely pair of co-stars? While Cantona made 45 appearances for the French national side and scored 64 goals for Manchester United, Evets spent much of the last 20 years playing bit parts in shows like ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Life on Mars’, when he wasn’t busking, working on ships or filling in as bass player for The Fall. ‘Just to say I was in one of Ken’s films, I’d have been happy sweeping up in the back-ground,’ Evets says of his career so far.

As we pull away from one of the film’s locations, Evets pulls out two Man United shirts and three DVDs. He asks Cantona, who at 42 is seven years younger than him, to sign the shirts and discs for his nephews. Evets has heard a rumour that this might be Cantona’s last day, even though they’ve still got a week left of filming. Secrecy is key on a Loach film; barely anybody involved knows what’s coming next. Actors receive their lines in bits and pieces, usually a day or two before filming a scene. This time, Cantona’s involvement has made things even more hush-hush. Evets didn’t even know that Cantona was in the film until, in the middle of a scene, he heard a French voice, turned round and saw the footballer standing in front of him. He still hasn’t got over it. ‘My jaw hit the ground. It was unbelievably surreal.’

Cantona signs the DVDs, scribbling one of his gnomic lines from the film: ‘We always have choices.’ The footballer is playing a version of himself in ‘Looking for Eric’: he pops up occasionally as an imagined presence in the life of Eric Bishop, a postman played by Evets. And what better guardian angel for a Reds-supporting Mancunian than the French footballer still worshipped by many?

While Cantona is known on set as ‘Big Eric’, the rest of the cast and crew call Evets ‘wee Eric’, ‘Eric Steve’ or ‘little Eric’. Next to the tall, Zen-like Cantona he is a small, energetic scrap of a man, naturally scruffy and mercurial. In that sense, he’s perfect for the role of a harried single father who lives with two teenage boys in a pigsty of a house. Eric has lost his grip on life and still, quietly, holds a flame for his first wife, from whom he separated years ago. He drives a car the wrong way round a roundabout, can barely work and, lo and behold, Cantona appears in his life while he’s smoking a spliff and admiring a poster of his hero on his bedroom wall. Next thing, they’re out jogging or standing on the balcony of a block of flats, recalling Cantona’s triumphs while the Frenchman plays ‘La Marseillaise’, badly, on the trumpet.

‘We’re calling it magical social realism,’ jokes the film’s producer Rebecca O’Brien. The amazing thing is, though, that it works. Loach’s writing partner Paul Laverty, a 51-year-old Scot who has worked with the director since 1996, has embedded this unusual, fantasy friendship into a modern story full of funny and tender observations, whether on solidarity at work, disharmony at home or the continuing importance of football in working-class lives. ‘That was the challenge, really, that these two elements would sit happily together,’ considers Loach on set. ‘I thought the only way to do it was to play it straight. We decided against any special effects, people leaping through walls, anything like that.’

Earlier in the day, I watch the two actors at work with Loach, shooting an intimate scene in the bedroom of Little Eric’s house. ‘What can I do? I don’t know what to fucking do,’ complains Little Eric to Big Eric. Cantona slips effortlessly into the role of philosopher for which he’s well known – and, needless to say, often mocked. ‘Try something,’ says Cantona sagely. ‘If it doesn’t work, try something else… Your teammates, are they your friends? So trust them.’ Loach brings the scene to a close. ‘Very good, excellent, that’s very good.’ It’s the third time I’ve seen Loach directing. He’s always calm, gentle, firm. It’s impossible to imagine him raising his voice or turning into an ogre when a journalist isn’t around. Today he just shrugs his shoulders in mock exasperation when I say hello, both of us huddled into a house packed with crew and equipment. ‘I don’t know why we do it to ourselves,’ he jokes.

We break for lunch and Cantona, in jeans, smart shoes and a blue polo shirt, wanders out onto the street and lights a cigarette. Passers-by take his photo on their mobiles. ‘So who’s going to win the football then?’ asks one of the drivers as conversation turns to Euro 2008. After a quick lunch at the production base at a local cricket club, where no one seems to bat an eyelid at Cantona’s presence, I sit down with him for a chat.

‘I retired from football 11 years ago and since then I’ve acted in a few films, but it’s the first time I’ve played myself,’ he says. ‘I was a bit worried, I prefer to create a character, and this was strange: I couldn’t hide behind a character. Playing yourself is frightening. It’s different but it’s not easier; it’s a bit schizophrenic.’ He explains that he first approached Loach – who is among his favourite filmmakers – with a synopsis he had written, based on real experience, about a footballer who strikes up a friendship with a fan.

After some discussion, Loach and Laverty agreed to work with Cantona, but they preferred their own story, one in which he would appear as himself. ‘That idea came from Paul, really,’ says Loach. ‘We talked about what the central core of the film should be. First of all Paul wrote the character of Eric Bishop. The big difficulty was always: how does Cantona fit in?’‘He is very bright, with a sharp eye for the follies of others,’ Loach says of Cantona with a chuckle. ‘We thought we had to do justice to that. Paul then wrote the scene in which Eric Bishop smokes one of his son’s joints and Cantona appears and philosophises his way through his problems.’

In turn, Cantona says that having spent a few weeks filming with Loach, he’s doubly impressed with how the director works. ‘I understand more why his films are so real,’ he says, picking out as examples how the director shoots chronologically and drip feeds information to his cast. ‘Only a handful of directors in the world work like that.’

Eleven months later, after seeing the finished film at a preview screening that ends with a round of applause and not a few tears, I call Loach at his home in Bath to catch up. When we speak, the 72 year old is getting ready to travel to Cannes for the world premiere and has already started prepping a new film, which he’ll shoot this year. For now, though, all eyes are on ‘Looking for Eric’, a film which may sound like a departure, but which is undoubtedly a Ken Loach film through and through, from its keen eye on the modern world and its warm humanity to its many laughs – laughs which have never been far from Loach’s work, despite his reputation for focusing on the sadder side of life.

‘At the beginning, whenever we said we were doing this film with Eric Cantona, everybody thought it was a wind-up,’ he recalls. ‘I mean, even we thought it was a wind-up to begin with.’ Did that amuse him? ‘Well, it was all part of the fun of it, really. The fact you enjoy making it doesn’t make it a good film. You can enjoy making a bad film. But it did happen to be quite good fun, yes.’

Author: Dave Calhoun



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