"I am like a butterfly."

A delicate, winged insect is not the first creature that springs to mind when you meet Eric Cantona (he's more of a bear), but, fortunately, he explains his thinking.

"It metamorphoses, it changes. I change every time."

Change is indeed the one thing that has remained constant in Cantona's eclectic career.

The Frenchman, now 48, achieved demigod status as a striker at Manchester United football club. Affectionately nicknamed King Eric by the fans, he was adored for his flamboyant, exhilarating brilliance and his ability to score seemingly impossible goals. His infamous temper and occasional philosophical announcements only enhanced the Gallic legend.

Since hanging up his boots, Cantona has worked as a model, an actor, a photographer, a songwriter and a documentary maker, as well as remaining involved with the footballing world. It's a bewildering variety of occupations and Cantona is often described as an enigma.

In the run up to our meeting, I experienced a few butterflies. He can be prickly; he's sworn at journalists on French television and in the majority of photos on the internet he's either stern-faced or scowling.

We meet at The Space, in Sheung Wan. The multi-purpose art and events venue is playing host to Hautlence, a high-end watch company. Cantona has been its brand ambassador for a year - he's seen as the perfect fit for the firm's "gentleman rebel" image and has designed a watch for the brand. The Invictus Morphos Limited Edition (yours for HK$185,000) is adorned with mother-of-pearl scales that evoke the wings of the bright blue butterfly he feels represents him.

Cantona - sporting a flourishing salt and pepper beard - has filled out since his time on the pitch but he's still in good shape. Casually dressed and physically imposing, he stands out among the sleekly groomed executives from the watch company. He looks every inch the star.

At first he's a little tense and guarded but soon, to my considerable relief, he relaxes. He's talkative and candid and has a dry sense of humour. When we struggle to communicate - because I don't understand his strong accent, or he doesn't know a particular word in English - he takes time to spell things out to me. He's keen to be understood.

So instead of trying to solve the mystery on my own, I admit I'm feeling baffled and ask him to explain his butterfly personality.

"I always try to find ways to express myself. I did it first with sports, and I knew that after football I would try to do it through drawing or painting or writing or photography. It's a need I have. If I don't have the opportunity to express myself, I die."

He's also easily bored, he says. "Every time I start something new, I'm excited. It's why I like to do both art and cinema. If I was only acting I would have lost the passion. What keeps me alive is to change. I like to do something new every three or four months."

And he loves the attention fame brings. "When I go out to a restaurant or somewhere like this, I know how it will be - people will want to speak to me and take my picture. It's wonderful. I really enjoy it. [If I want to avoid that] I can stay at home for days, with my family, on my own, dreaming and watching the ceiling.

"Do people come to you for autographs and pictures," he asks me. I reply that they don't, and I much prefer it that way. Now it's his turn to look baffled. "Play football!" he advises.

In combination, these three desires - for self-expression, new experiences and public recognition - explain a lot about Cantona's unique story.

BORN IN MARSEILLE, in southern France, Cantona spent a significant part of his childhood standing in goal.

"The team I played for were really good. They always won six-nil, seven-nil, so I never touched the ball. Goalkeepers often have a very good vision of the game - they can read everything. So I think it really helped me later."

He worked his way up through the ranks of French clubs before moving to England, in 1991, to play for Leeds United. The following year he transferred to Old Trafford and the legend was born.

His arrival heralded Manchester United's return to glory, after two decades of sub-par performance. During Cantona's five-year reign, the club won four Premier League titles and two League and FA Cup doubles - something it had never achieved before. The terraces resounded to the chant, "Ooh! Aah! Cantona!" King Eric, wearing the No7 shirt with the collar turned up, dazzled the fans and enriched the game.

Then, in 1997, aged just 30 and at the peak of his career, he retired, breaking the hearts of the club's supporters, who, in 2001, would vote him player of the century.

Set against his stellar achievements were an atrocious disciplinary record and a refusal to kowtow to authority. At a disciplinary hearing of the French Football Federation, just before he moved across la Manche, Cantona responded to a suspension by walking up to each member of the panel in turn and calling him an idiot.

The most notorious incident was the kung fu kick of 1995. Cantona - playing in an away match against London club Crystal Palace - had been sent off for kicking an opposition player. As he left the field, a supporter of the rival team ran to the front of the stands and shouted insults at him. Cantona attacked the fan with a ninja manoeuvre that involved leaping sideways above an advertising hoarding and lashing out backwards with his feet.

Cantona was arrested, convicted of assault and given a two-week prison sentence, later reduced to 120 hours community service, and suspended from football for nine months. The case made headlines worldwide and, initially, was universally condemned. Later analysis was more sympathetic. The Crystal Palace supporter had been hurling hate-filled abuse and some argued that Cantona's ferocious reaction was not only understandable but commendable.

At a press conference afterwards, Cantona hit the headlines again by issuing this gnomic statement: "When the seagulls follow the trawler it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."

This provoked consternation, and derision, at the time, but in hindsight it appears to be a brilliantly staged piece of theatre in which he refused to oblige scandal-hungry journalists while neatly side-stepping outright confrontation.

I ask him if he's mellowed with age. He says no. I ask him if, now that he's older, he has more control of himself.

"I've always had perfect control of myself," he says. He has a very intense gaze. I find myself trying not to blink.

During his suspension, Cantona made his debut appearance on the big screen: "I always wanted to do acting - it's a great opportunity to express myself."

His first film to receive critical acclaim was L'outremangeur (2003), in which he plays a man with a monstrous appetite. The role required him to put on 12 kilos and wear a fat suit. He met his wife-to-be, Rachida Brakni, a classically trained French-Algerian actress, on set. The couple, who married in 2007 and have two small children (Cantona also has two older children from a previous marriage), now live in Paris.

Cantona says that in preparing for a role he works on both the psychology and the physicality of the characters.

"The writer tells a story in the life of somebody. I work to imagine what's not written in the script - how this man looks and moves, how he speaks, his emotions, his relationships with different people."

He's not the most animated of actors and, in terms of range and skill, it seems unlikely that his performance on the screen will ever match his performance on the pitch. But his natural intensity lends itself to strong, silent roles and, perhaps surprisingly, given his reputation as someone who takes himself very seriously, some of his best endeavours have involved an element of comedy.

In French Film (2008), a mediocre British rom-com starring Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville, Cantona plays a chain-smoking, espresso-drinking French film director called Thierry Grimandi, who philosophises straight-to-camera on the meaning of love (pronounced "lurve"). It's a pitch-perfect caricature and he's the funniest - and most romantic - member of the cast.

His best known film is Looking for Eric (2009). Directed by Ken Loach, acclaimed for his highly realist, gritty dramas, it was nominated for a Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It's a whimsical tale - by Loach's usual standards - of Eric, a depressed postman, who creates for himself the ultimate imaginary friend in the form of his football hero, Eric Cantona ("played by lui-même", as it says in the credits). Transplanted to the grim housing estates and dingy interiors of urban Manchester, Cantona shines, playing a dramatised version of his maverick self, with a knowing twinkle in his eyes.

Last year, he appeared in two films. The Salvation is a stylish, violent western starring Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. Cantona plays the sidekick and enforcer to a ruthless land baron. He has only two and a half lines in the film but his formidable presence adds to its menacing atmosphere. And he looks good on a horse.

You and the Night is a surreal French ensemble piece in which a group of characters gather for an orgy but end up indulging in mutual psychotherapy instead. Cantona's character is the legendarily well-endowed "Stallion". In one unforgettable scene he crawls around a police cell, wearing only his underwear, being mercilessly whipped by Beatrice Dalle (star of the arthouse classic Betty Blue), wearing a Russian trapper's hat, while the prison guards masturbate. Later in the film he reveals an enormous prosthetic penis - what Dalle calls "the treasure in your trousers".

There's much more spectacle than sex, and it's all quite bonkers. Did he feel that he was taking a risk?

He's uncomprehending. "Why do you ask that?" I say that it's quite exposing, and I think many people would find such a role challenging.

"I love this movie and I'm very proud of it," he says. "You don't know if it's real or if it's dreams. I wouldn't do it with someone whose work I didn't know, but I love the work of this director [Yann Gonzalez] and I knew how beautiful it would be."

Cantona has also trodden the boards. He made his stage debut in Face au Paradis, a French play directed by his wife in 2010. Theatrically, he was jumping in at the deep end - his role as a man dying under a collapsed supermarket required him to remain on stage, engaged in intense dialogue, for the full 90 minutes.

"[Acting on stage is] more similar to sport than cinema because you're in front of the audience and have the connection with them. Every night it's different, it's not the same energy. It's very exciting."

Cantona has brought his collection of street art to Hong Kong and it's displayed on the walls of The Space. His favourite street artist is Banksy, whose work Flying Copper (2003) is part of the display. He was full of admiration when the British artist travelled to the Palestinian territories and painted scenes on the West Bank Wall.

"I think street art is very political and what I like is when artists are brave - they take a risk and they tell strong things."

Cantona himself is no stranger to political agitation. In 2010, the French government was facing mass protests against pension reforms. In a filmed interview for a French newspaper, he proposed a bloodless revolution: "The system is built on the power of banks. So it can be destroyed through the banks … if 10-20 million people withdraw their savings at the same time, the system collapses. It's not complicated."

It wasn't a rallying speech - Cantona was simply exploring ideas - but it created a buzz on social media and a pair of activists launched an online campaign calling for a run on the banks.

Politicians and business leaders criticised Cantona for being irresponsible and misguided. Christine Lagarde - now head of the International Monetary Fund but then the French finance minister - was caustic: "There are those who play football magnificently, whereas I wouldn't dare try. I think that people should stick to their speciality."

Cantona is unabashed. "When I said it, the politicians were waiting for the protestors to go home. They didn't care. Nowadays, if you want to be heard by politicians, you have to do something special.

"If everyone is in solidarity, even those without much money, you have strong power. I think all the politicians understood that and were afraid of it."

The campaign didn't gain traction and fizzled out without causing economic disruption, although that was not a cause for disappointment.

"It's not a good thing to do it," says Cantona. "But it's good to have une arme de dissuasion [a deterrent] - like an atomic bomb. A weapon you don't want to use, but they know you have it. It's a very powerful thing."

Two years later, he was in the news again when he wrote a letter to left-leaning French newspaper Libération that stated his intention to gather the signatures of 500 mayors, a necessary preliminary for anyone wanting to launch a presidential campaign. Unsurprisingly, this triggered a flurry of excitement and lots of hilarious commentary on Twitter.

It turned out to be a stunt, however, cooked up by Cantona and the newspaper's editors. The letter was deliberately vague and was, in fact, a call for 500 mayors to sign a pledge to solve France's housing crisis.

"The next day, when the politicians saw the front cover of Libération, they felt like s**t. They felt stupid. Me, I loved it. And it was a great thing for the [housing charity] Abbé Pierre Foundation, because everybody was talking about it and they got the signatures they needed."

Before Abbé Pierre - a Catholic priest and much-loved public figure in France - died, in 2007, he selected 20 well-known people to help carry on his work.

"He chose me," says Cantona, "and I have been very involved for seven years. I take it seriously because it's important. The housing situation in France is very bad." He says that in Paris, where rents are sky-high, there are people with full-time jobs who cannot afford an apartment and are forced to sleep in their cars.

"The house is the foundation of everything in life. For the family, the children, for everybody. How can you study if you sleep outside? How can you work? How can you be happy? How can you love?"

Cantona produced Elle, Lui et les Autres, a book of his own photographs of people in substandard housing and the homeless, in aid of the foundation, in 2009.

He shows me another painting on the wall of The Space, a vividly coloured picture by JonOne, a well-known American graffiti artist. In 2013, Cantona commissioned JonOne to spraypaint his 1984 convertible Rolls Royce Corniche II. It sold for €125,000 (HK$1.2 million) at auction, all of which he donated to the foundation. The car is now the centrepiece of the lobby of a new hotel, the Piscine Molitor. Once the most fashionable place in Paris, this art deco swimming pool complex had fallen into disrepair by the late 1980s. Occupied by squatters and used for rave parties, its walls were covered with the tags of graffiti artists. The Rolls Royce links the building's history as a haven for subculture with its present incarnation as a temple of luxury.

Cantona is particularly interested in the point where politics inter-sects with football. He has teamed up with his brothers - Jean-Marie and Joel - to produce a string of documentaries through their company, Canto Bros Productions.

In the "Looking for …" series, which he presents, he explores cities including Rio de Janeiro, Manchester, Barcelona, Istanbul and Buenos Aires through the prism of football.

"Football is always used by politicians because it's so popular and so powerful. [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco used Real Madrid to boost his power - when they were winning, he was winning. When Argentina won the World Cup in 1978, in the Estadio Monumental, their dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla, took the glory. Just 500 metres away was a place where people were tortured and killed. The prisoners could hear the football, they could hear 8,000 people celebrating the victory of Argentina and Videla."

"At home," says Cantona, he and his brothers "eat together, we talk, and our ideas come from those conversations. The three of us are very different so we complement each other."

He says he never looks back: "I don't have pictures of myself at home from when I was playing football, or in movies. I don't want to be a prisoner of my past. I always look in front."

This year, he'll be starring in a new movie, acting in a play in Paris and designing a second watch for Hautlence. To relax, he says, he loves to paint, but only privately.

"I'm like Jack Kerouac - he wrote and listened to jazz. I listen to jazz and I paint to the rhythm. And I feel free."

"Am I helping?" he asks. "Do you understand me better now?"

I believe I do.