French cinema stalwart Vincent Cassel tells Siobhan Synnot why he’s so excited to be in Danny Boyle’s new film – on his way to a new life in Rio
‘EVERY time I make a movie,” jokes Vincent Cassel, rubbing his close-cropped salt and pepper head, “my hair gets a little whiter”. Maybe that’s one reason why he turns down 95 per cent of the work he is offered, but Cassel says there are other factors. Boredom for one, and being away from his family for another.
“I don’t want to spend my time on sets, you know? So I just do films when I have to. I always say no at first. If I say yes to a film, it is because I can’t say no anymore.”
He couldn’t always afford to be this choosy. As the son of the dancer and comedian Jean-Pierre Cassel, Vincent may have been born into a Parisian acting dynasty, but in his twenties he struggled to find work even after his breakout role as a disaffected street thug in La Haine in 1995. For a while, he took whatever gigs came his way, including Nicole’s boyfriend in the “Papa and Nicole” car adverts and dubbing Hugh Grant’s voice for the French version of Four Weddings And A Funeral.
He remembers two things about Four Weddings. “It was “putain, putain, putain” he says, recalling the Gallic equivalent of Grant’s favourite frustrated expostulation. “Also, I was sick that day. Recently Four Weddings was on French television and it was really terrible. All I could hear was the cold in my nose.”
Along with his distinctive wide-set blue eyes, that nose is one of Cassel’s most distinctive features, a slightly broken beak that he once stuffed with toilet paper to give his character both a Gérard Depardieu profile and a thicker voice in the film Read My Lips. French-fry slim, he bounces around the hotel room, pulling windows shut to kill the noise of Soho traffic, while talking rapidly in fluent colloquial English. He confesses that he’s slightly relieved that my accent isn’t as strong as his co-star, James McAvoy; although months of working together on Trance, “means I understand Scottish accents a bit better now.”
In Danny Boyle’s first film release since he directed his triumphant Olympic curtain-raiser, McAvoy plays a fine art auctioneer who steals a picture for Cassel, then can’t remember where he put it. Cassel tries to refresh his memory through coercion, but when even a pair of pliers fails to get results, he reluctantly turns to Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist, who roots around McAvoy’s subconscious instead. While researching the film, both Cassel and McAvoy tried hypnotherapy themselves, but neither of them managed to go under successfully.
“I tried,” he says pensively, “but maybe if you try too hard, it’s already too much.” He’s also tried psychotherapy, he adds, but felt that eliminating sources of pain was counterproductive for an actor. Especially an actor who made his name in French and English-language films by playing a vivid range of tormented villains? “I can’t play somebody totally good,” he agrees. “People act nice, but nobody really is nice. We all have to fight demons, and we all have these things pulling us in every direction.”
Cassel shot Trance in 2011, but the film had been on Danny Boyle’s mind for much longer. First it was set in New York, then Barcelona, before London became the most convenient option for a man spending his evenings in Olympic discussions. There were also cast changes: Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson were in talks at one point, and Cassel says he only came on board when Michael Fassbender dropped out. “My agent said: ‘There’s this film, and I’ve already said yes, because I know you’re going to like it – but if you don’t, I’ll get you out’. When I read the script, I really liked that it was surprising, and profound. It’s about trust and betrayal, and jealousy – and Danny Boyle was very exciting to me. He’s a great director, so everyone wants to see what he does next. So I couldn’t say no. And actually, I saw Michael yesterday and said ‘thank you very much’ because the movie’s really good.”
Cassel relishes the film’s potential to generate discussion, although he’s become a focus of a different kind of chatter since he married Italian star Monica Bellucci in 1999 after filming L’Appartement together. Seven films and two daughters later, Europe still regards the couple as their finer-boned answer to Brangelina.
Lately, however, it’s been Cassel’s wealth that has been the subject of debate across the French media. To envious UK filmmakers, French cinema appears to enjoy a privileged level of state support, but at the very end of 2012, film producer and distributor Vincent Maraval accused the star system of inflating local film production costs. “French actors are rich on public money and a system that is supposed to protect our cultural difference,” complained Maravel in Le Monde.
Maraval, whose credits over the years include The Artist, Pan’s Labyrinth and March Of The Penguins, has argued for a re-evaluation of the country’s film subsidies and for a cap on actor’s wages. Citing talents such as Cassel, Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou, Maraval queried why star salaries for French films ranged from ¤500,000 to ¤2 million (£420,000 to £1.7m), yet “when they shoot an American film, aimed at the international market, they’re happy with ¤50,000 to ¤200,000.”
“This is bullshit,” counters Cassel. “I called Maraval the next day and said: ‘What the f*** are you doing? Do you want to get in trouble with everyone? Why are you saying this? Because you lost ¤15m this year because you just did this bullshit and now you’re crying and saying it’s other people’s fault?’ Literally, that’s what I think is going on.”
Cassel might also have added that lower fees for playing Natalie Portman’s bullying dance teacher in Black Swan, or the cat burglar in Ocean’s Twelve, might reflect the size of those supporting roles – unlike say, his French biopic Mesrine, where he shot two movies back to back over nine months, gaining three stone in four months so he could swing a convincing paunch when playing the latter years of France’s most notorious modern gangster.
However, Cassel also reads the indignation over star salaries as part of a wider mood of resentment in his homeland. “Right now, because of the crisis and the new government we have in France, people are totally lost and unsettled. We’re in a moment where the very bad side of French people is coming out, and it’s all about what the guy next door has. If you have any sort of success, it means you’re a bastard.”
There was also speculation that Cassel’s recent decision to relocate to Brazil made him part of an exodus of high-earning French, alarmed by François Hollande’s planned top income tax rate of 75 per cent. The wealth tax was overturned by the Constitutional Council a few months ago, but Cassel has still moved his family to Rio. “I don’t think I’d move from one country to another just because of taxes,” he says. “It would be really sad if my life was based on that. I moved from France because of that angry feeling, that weight of the past that we have to carry.”
He’s now set to produce and star in a self-penned “Samba drama” there, to be directed by his friend Kim Chapiron. Throughout this interview he has been pretty laid back but talk of his new move and new movie gets him fired up. “Brazil is new, Brazil is now, Brazil is tomorrow. It is fresh,” he declares. “It has a lot of problems, but I’ve been wanting to live there since… forever.”
It might even be worth another white hair. «
» Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot
• Trance is on general release from Wednesday. See Page 14 for review