Vincent Cassel: interview

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French actor Vincent Cassel, star of ‘La Haine’ and ‘Eastern Promises’, talks to David Jenkins about his latest role - playing notorious ’60s Parisian criminal Jacques Mesrine

By now, you probably recognise the distinctive mug of actor Vincent Cassel, one of French cinema’s most popular exports. The 42 year old first caught audiences’ attention in his twenties as an angry, gun-toting youth in ‘La Haine’, and went on to star in French movies such as ‘Brotherhood of the Wolf’ and ‘L’Appartement’, as well as American films such as the two ‘Ocean’s 11’ sequels and David Cronenberg’s ‘Eastern Promises’. France has fallen for him all over again as notorious real-life criminal Jacques Mesrine (pronounced ‘May-reen’) in the two-part biopic, ‘Mesrine’. Now it’s our turn.

How familiar were you with Jacques Mesrine before this film?
‘He’s well known in France. I grew up in the 18th District of Paris, and that’s where he died. One evening, my brother, who is three years younger, returned home and told us: “I was coming back from playing football and they asked us to lie on the floor because there was a shoot-out.” That night, we turned on the TV and saw Mesrine’s bloody body. People often refer to him as a counter-cultural icon. Things get a little more complicated when you start to talk about the guy as a hero. For me, he wasn’t a hero. He was a thief.’

He’s a very ambiguous character.
‘What I liked about Mesrine were the paradoxes within him. This is a guy where from one scene to the next you don’t know what to think of him. One minute he’s cool, he’s fun, he could be your uncle. Then in the next he’s about to kill his wife. I wanted the movie to be like that, so that we never judge.’

He comes across like a grown-up version of Vinz from ‘La Haine’.
‘I guess there is a relation between Vinz and Mesrine. First of all, I would guess Vinz is a fan of Jacques Mesrine. He’s the kinda guy that would wear the Mesrine T-shirt. He’s also from the suburbs, is in tune with street culture and is disaffected with the government. I think every time you play a character, you find something new in yourself. They’re there, and you can go back to them.’

It’s taken a long time to get these two films off the ground.
‘Seven years. To raise money for such a big production about an anti-hero was tough, especially as some of the cops and Mesrine’s accomplices are still alive, and some names had to be changed. It gave me time to focus on it, to do something else, read more books, meet people, talk to his family and people who knew him.’

You’ve been in ‘Irréversible’, ‘Sheitan’ and ‘Eastern Promises’. Are you drawn to darker roles?
‘Cinema is entertainment, and people go to the movies because they want to feel good and forget about everything. Don’t get me wrong – Hugh Grant, “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, I love all that. But as an actor, that’s not what is fascinating. I’m more attracted to the bad guys. Why? Because in real life, I don’t know any good guys. I know okay guys. I know polite guys. I know people who can control themselves.’

You’re known for working with younger French directors like Jan Kounen and Gaspar Noé. What about if, say, one of the big guns like Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer or Jean-Luc Godard contacted you?
‘They’re the big guns?’

To some they are.
‘No, that’s not my style at all, and I think that was clear from the beginning of my career. So, these are not people I would dream to work with. To be honest, I built my identity with young directors like Mathieu Kassovitz, and I cherish them more than these so called “big guns”.’

Right. Any ambitions to direct?
‘I don’t think so. I’m producing more, but I think to direct, one has to have a burning desire, and that’s not me. I’d rather do something else.’

That’s a shame…
‘Maybe not.’

‘Mesrine: Killer Instinct’ (part one) opens on Aug 7. ‘Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One’ (part two) opens on Aug 28.

Author: David Jenkins



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