‘I had a lot of movies to do’: bad-boy French actor Vincent Cassel on new releases Beauty and the Beast, Tale of Tales, and Mon Roi
Grounded, unfettered, philosophical and – apparently – endowed with the ability to learn his lines by osmosis, Cassel possesses a love for world cinema and is quick with a wink
Vincent Cassel is not your traditional movie star. He doesn’t arrive armed with personal publicists, stylists or the usual entourage that trail after A-listers.
“That’s very expensive,” he says, adding that he takes it “as a compliment” that he comes across as normal. “Usually when people act like stars, it means they’re assholes. When people need to act like that, it’s just a lack of confidence. It’s a waste of time and energy.”
That’s not to say Cassel hasn’t been around Hollywood players. He was the acrobatic thief in Ocean’s Twelve, opposite George Clooney and Brad Pitt, and played the lascivious ballet teacher in Black Swan. In the summer, he’ll be fighting Matt Damon in Jason Bourne , the return of Robert Ludlum’s memory-addled CIA agent.
But ever since he made his breakthrough as the troubled youngster in 1995’s La Haine, the Parisian-born Cassel is much more inclined towards world cinema. “I work everywhere,” he says with a shrug. “If there is a nice adventure in South Korea, for example, why not? Russia, Brazil, whatever. I’m ready for almost anything.”
Despite living in Rio de Janeiro these past two years, his latest adventures have taken him back to his native France, remaking the classic storybook adventure Beauty and the Beast and starring in the searing relationship drama Mon Roi, and to Italy, where he shot Matteo Garrone’s fabulously twisted Tale of Tales.
The latter is adapted by the Italian director of Gomorrah from the fairy tales by 17th century author Giambattista Basile. It’s a sumptuous visual feast, whether it’s Salma Hayek tucking into the giant boiled heart of a sea monster or Toby Jones petting a giant flea. Cassel is first glimpsed popping up from beneath two female courtiers as they make out.
“What a wonderful introduction,” he says with a wink; and there’s something about it that seems ideally tailored to the unfettered Cassel. He plays a monarch who falls in love with an old crone, having only heard her voice.
“It’s a pretty dark movie and a poetic movie and it’s full of metaphors and symbols, so I couldn’t be a clown in the middle of that,” he says. “You wanted to find a balance between funny and eventually a bit dramatic. From my point of view, the key of that character was that he’s very lonely. He’s desperate. He’s looking for somebody else, other than those women we see at the beginning.”
Talk turns to fairy tales. His favourite? “I guess I have been traumatised by Bluebeard. He kills all these ladies and these wives ... that was a pretty tough one.”
On a gentler note, he’s always loved Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1943 tale of a pilot and a young space traveller. He still remembers his father playing him a 1950s Gerard Philippe recording of the story; it was enough to encourage him to voice a character in the recent animated version.
Likewise, with Beauty and the Beast, playing the “beast” to Lea Seydoux’s “beauty”, Cassel wanted to make something that his children, Deva, 11, and Leonie, six – from his former marriage to actress Monica Bellucci – could watch.
“Well, my problem is I can’t show any of my movies to my daughters. It’s tough. Beauty and the Beast … they liked it. But that’s the only one really. Otherwise they’ve always been dark or violent.”
Cassel, who turns 50 later this year, certainly errs towards the bleaker side in his taste in films. He’s played gangsters in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and the two-part epic Mesrine. He was a vengeful husband in Gaspar Noe’s controversial backwards-told Irréversible, made with Bellucci, and a Satan-worshipping shepherd in Sheitan.
“I like to do those movies because I think they are more in touch with what the world is like,” he says.
Even the more grounded Mon Roi, directed by Maiwenn, is really a “beauty/beast” story. Seen through the eyes of Emmanuelle Bercot’s character, while she’s recuperating from a skiing accident, she reflects on her torturous relationship with Cassel’s “untameable” lover Georgio.
“I think it’s beautiful,” he says. “I really love that movie. It’s very touching. And what it says about love and the impossibility of love. It’s funny and sad.”
Cassel, who split from Bellucci in 2013 after 14 years of marriage, admits his views on romance have changed. “Regular romanticism … no, I’m not [into that] any more,” he says.
“The more you grow up, you have to be a little cynical about that, right? When I’m saying cynical, I still believe that you can meet somebody and be crazy in love. But you have to be a little more realistic. I see it more as a terrible responsibility and usually you don’t know that at the beginning.”
Cassel was just 14 when his parents divorced, though he seems more inspired than traumatised by his elders. While his mother, Sabine Litique, was a journalist, his father, Jean-Pierre Cassel, was a well-respected actor, who starred with Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot and Jean Seberg over the years. He was also a dancer.
“My father danced a lot. He was called ‘the French Fred Astaire’. I guess through him, I had this taste for movement,” says Cassel, who started in circus school when he was 17, even learning ballet. “I kept on doing it for six years, on a daily basis. Not to be a dancer but just as a complement for my acting. I had this idea that actors should know how to do everything.”
He made his screen debut aged 22, in the TV series La Belle Anglaise, but it would take another seven years for the riotous La Haine to arrive. He can still remember taking the film to Cannes. “I didn’t feel comfortable,” he says. “I felt like we didn’t fit.”
It feels like a perfect way to describe Cassel, who admits he enjoys spending more and more time away from France these days. After Beauty and the Beast, he slowed down for 18 months, relocating to Brazil. He even shot a video for Brazilian band Donica.
“Then, at a certain time, I thought, ‘Maybe I should go back on set’. And the minute I wanted to go back, I had a lot of movies to do. I really consider myself lucky. Up to now, if I want to work, there is work for me.”
He’s recently completed Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, which will be unveiled in a Cannes competition slot this month. “It’s me, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Gaspard Ulliel ... it’s going to be great,” he says.
A twinkle in his eye, it’s hard to disagree with an actor this mischievous. He doesn’t even learn his lines, he says. “I just know them. I’m not kidding. Don’t ask me how I do it.” He winks again. “The Holy Spirit.”
Tale of Tales and Beauty and the Beast screen as part of Le French May’s cinema programme from May 10-31; Mon Roi opens on May 19
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