Actor Vincent Cassel: A Good Guy Who Plays Villains French actor Vincent Cassel plays a ballet-company boss who pushes a fragile Natalie Portman in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. The character is a hard guy -- though not quite the ruthless gangster Cassel played in the thriller Mesrine.
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Actor Vincent Cassel: A Good Guy Who Plays Villains

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Actor Vincent Cassel: A Good Guy Who Plays Villains

Actor Vincent Cassel: A Good Guy Who Plays Villains

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, the French actor Vincent Cassel, plays the demanding artistic director of a ballet company in the new film "Black Swan." Earlier this year, his film "Mesrine" was released in the U.S., in which he portrayed the famous French gangster Jacques Mesrine.

Reviewing it in The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote: Cassel's monumental performance fuses the cobra-like menace of the young Robert Mitchum with the shape-shifting volatility of the classic Robert De Niro.

Cassel played the son of a Russian gangster in David Cronenberg's film "Eastern Promises," and just finished shooting a new Cronenberg film. He played a master thief in "Ocean's Twelve." His father, the late actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, worked with several French new wave directors.

Here's Vincent Cassel in a scene from "Black Swan." He's working with the talented but inhibited dancer played by Natalie Portman, who he's chosen to star in "Swan Lake." He's trying to convince her to let go.

(Soundbite of movie, "Black Swan")

Mr. VINCENT CASSEL (Actor): (as Thomas Leroy) In four years, every time you dance, I see you obsess, getting each and every move perfectly right, but I never see you lose yourself. Ever. All the discipline for what?

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actor): (as Nina Sayers) I just want to be perfect.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Thomas Leroy) You what?

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) I want to be perfect.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Thomas Leroy) Perfection is not just about control. It's also about letting go. Surprise yourself, so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence. And very few have it in them.

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) I think I do have it in me.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Thomas Leroy) Ah! You bit me? I can't - I can't believe you - you bit me.

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) I'm sorry.

GROSS: Vincent Cassel, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what we just heard was Natalie Portman biting you after you've kissed her. Was that in the script? Were you expecting that to happen?

Mr. CASSEL: No, it was - of course, it was written. We did it many times, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, that must have felt good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: Well, she didn't really bit me. I think she did it the first time, and then it wasn't really needed anymore. So, you know, it's just acting, let's say.

GROSS: Right. Well, that's the thing. You say it's just acting. But for her, like, she had to go through this, like, grueling regimen of ballet training, which you were probably spared from for the film, right?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, you see, I think in a career, once in a while you get, you know, a part like that where you really have to get involved physically. It doesn't really have to do with, you know, the situation or the acting itself, but it's just like, let's say, a technical aspect that you need to go through. You know, for this time, I mean, with her, it was about dancing. Sometimes, you know, it's - I mean, not so long ago, I had to gain a lot of weight. You know, it's things that you have to do. It's physically very demanding, but, you know, when it's such a wonderful part, I guess you just do it with a smile, you know. And that's what she did. She went for it smiling.

GROSS: Did you have to learn about dance for your part as the ballet master?

Mr. CASSEL: Actually, I've danced for a long time. I started my career as a dancer. My father was a dancer, so I literally grew up on sets, backstage, on stage, you know, and, you know, so I really grew up in that environment. And I've danced - I took ballet classes for seven years in Paris and in New York, so I really knew what it was about. I remember the smell of the studio in the morning, and I still have my tights and all my, you know, my things. So, you know, I went back to the classes a little bit for that movie, because I wanted to carry myself in a proper way. And it still hurt a lot, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. So what kind of dance did your father do, and what kind of dance did you do besides ballet?

Mr. CASSEL: My father was a tap dancer, really, you know. He actually, he was part of "Chorus Line," in the London production. He was doing the part of Zach, who was actually more or less the same kind of character that I'm portraying in "Black Swan." You know, he's a demanding director, let's say. And for myself, I did ballet and I did jazz, I did tap, and then Capoeira, which is kind of a martial art, but it's still a dance. You know, nothing really well, but a little bit of everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think one of the American films that you're best known for is "Ocean's Twelve" just because that series is so popular.

Mr. CASSEL: Mm.

GROSS: So I thought I'd play a scene from that, so people can hear you in action. Because playing the French movies wouldn't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: Nobody will get it.

GROSS: ...wouldn't quite work. Yes. So you play a master thief.

Mr. CASSEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you see yourself as in competition with Danny Ocean, the George Clooney character...

Mr. CASSEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...for who's the best thief. So let's hear a scene. You've invited Danny Ocean, George Clooney, to visit you at your mansion, where you end up making him a proposition.

(Soundbite of movie, "Ocean's Twelve")

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) Mr. Ocean.

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (as Danny Ocean) You broke rule number one, and that has consequences.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) Oh. You must be talking about the paintings. Don't worry. You'll be dead in five days, and I'll get my paintings back.

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Danny Ocean) Unless you have an accident first.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) I don't think so, Daniel. Perhaps I should explain to you why I'm tormenting you like this.

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Danny Ocean) I'd like that.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) Mm-hmm. Well, you see, last month, I was in Portugal to see my mentor.

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Danny Ocean) LeMarque.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) Indeed. A very loud and annoying American businessman was there the same day. He worked for a big insurance company. He's the one who suggested Benedict to you as a potential mark. You know the man?

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Danny Ocean) What about him?

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) Well, he said it was the most beautiful job he'd ever seen, and he went on and on about this job. And then he said...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) ...it showed you were the greatest thief in the world. But the worst part is that LeMarque never corrected him. I told LeMarque that you can't be better than me. And he answered that it was impossible to know for sure. So I thought about that for, like, three weeks in a row, day and night. And then suddenly, I realized that he was actually right. It is impossible to compare one theft to the other, huh? So, I guess the only way to know who's the best of us for sure is to go after the same object. Do the same job, don't you think? That would be fun.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) You're being awfully cavalier with a lot of people's lives so you can play out a game. You're going to regret it.

GROSS: That's George Clooney and my guest Vincent Cassel in a scene from "Ocean's Twelve."

Did this movie strike you as, like, a very American movie? Because there's big American stars. It's a sequel to a film that was a remake of a Frank Sinatra film. The whole movie is tongue-in-cheek. So did it strike you as this, like, very American film?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, you know, not really, because when you look at it -okay, so you have a lot of big stars in it. But most of them are friends, you know. And Steven Soderbergh, the director, is definitely a very particular director in the American industry, I guess, you know, because he really managed to make those big movies, you know, like the "Ocean's" movies. And then on the other hand, he gets involved with subject matter like "Solaris" or, you know, really, really artsy stuff. So it was a big movie, but it felt very homemade on sets - you know, very homey, very warm, a bunch of guys who know each other for a while. And he had total control in it.

GROSS: So the "Ocean's" films are, you know, very suave and they're about, you know, they're about, like, style and charisma and everything. You played a genuine gangster in - I'm used to saying "Mesrine" or "Mesrine"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But that's not - you say it right for me.

Mr. CASSEL: It's - actually, there's an S in the word, but I mean...

GROSS: He doesn't like - the gangster doesn't like to say it.

Mr. CASSEL: No.

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: But the real way to say it is Mesrine.

GROSS: Mesrine.

Mr. CASSEL: Mesrine. Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. So you play - this is based on a real gangster who lived in France.

Mr. CASSEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Jacques Mesrine.

Mr. CASSEL: Jacques Mesrine, in the '70s.

GROSS: In the '70s. Yes. So - and he's not - he was not very famous here. So tell us a little bit about the real gangster that your character is based on.

Mr. CASSEL: Well, the guy was - well, he was very different from the rest of the gangsters we had in France because he was the first one to use the media, really. You know, that's what really made the difference for him. He used the media for his own sake. He started to - when he -actually, what really happened is that he's been used as an icon of the counter-power by a left wing press in those days. And I guess he really enjoyed it, and he really liked to be - yeah. He had a huge ego, so he started to enjoy being in the papers and on TV and everything. So he started to, you know, call the journalists himself and eventually managed to be on the front page of things like Paris Match, which is the equivalent, more or less, of Life - Time/Life magazine, you know.

And so it's really his relation to the media that made him different, and actually, I think that's why he died, you know. He became much too noisy for the government at the time, and they just decided to get rid of him.

GROSS: The movie is in two parts.

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

GROSS: And the second part, you're older and you're heavier...

Mr. CASSEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...about 50 pounds heavier.

Mr. CASSEL: Beyond that.

GROSS: And you have like a big pot belly. You know, actors often like to get into character by putting on the character's clothes, putting on their hairdo or their hairpiece, or whatever. But for this, it's like you're living in somebody else's body, and you're going to sleep in that body. You're going home in that body. It just must be so odd to totally transfigure yourself like that in a way that you can't take off when you go home at night.

Mr. CASSEL: Yes, it is very hard. It is very hard, and it's not something one should do too often, to be honest, because not good for you, obviously. But there's something really great about it. You know, just as we were saying for Natalie in "Black Swan," you know, it's that when you get so physically involved with something, you don't have to do much after that, you know. I mean, I was breathing differently. You know, my walk was different, you know. So I felt so different already that it was kind of easy to imagine myself as somebody else, you know. And so that really helps.

I think all these things you were just saying, you know, about, you know, hairdo and, you know, all the clothes and everything are not something superficial. I think they're really important. If you let yourself go to the feeling that, you know, that you have wearing something that is not yours, you can go really far, actually.

GROSS: Were you afraid that you would never be yourself again physically?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, I have a tendency to think that you always change, really. So you never really are the one you were yesterday. And every movie, especially when you're - when you get involved with a movie, it takes something out of you. You know, you learn something, but you give something to the movie and you - after a movie, if the experience has been intense and a true experience, you're little different afterwards, you know, physically. You know, I've noticed that the first important movie that I did, I shaved my head for the movie. When the hair grew back, you know, I had white hair...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: ...for the first time in my life. So it's, you know, I have a tendency to play it cool and to say that it's, you know, easy and normal and it's no big deal. But I know it really takes something away from you when you get involved with something deeply.

GROSS: What's another example of a role that changed you in some way that you had not expected it would?

Mr. CASSEL: It seems like, you know, when you do a character, especially when it's something that is a little far away from you, it's like a door that you open. And when you're done with the movie, you open that door, and it's there. You know, it's like I don't know, it's kind of weird but, you know, I played like a bunch of characters, and then I realized that I would go back to my normal me, you know. But in a way, there was something that added to my personality, you know?

For example, with Mesrine, you know, I realize that I feel heavier sometime in the way I laugh, you know. Yeah, the laughs can really change, you know, with a character. You laugh in a certain way, and it's the way of the character, let's say. And then, you know, afterwards, you realize that sometime in your laugh, there's something left from that character.

GROSS: My guest is Vincent Cassel. He plays the artistic director of a ballet company in the new film "Black Swan."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Vincent Cassel. He co-stars in the new film "Black Swan." He starred in the French gangster film "Mesrine," and played a master thief in "Ocean's Twelve."

Now, your grandfather owned a movie theater...

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...which was converted from a real theater, like a stage theater.

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you describe the theater?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: Okay. You see that big castle at the beginning of the Walt Disney movies?

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. CASSEL: Something like that.

GROSS: No.

Mr. CASSEL: It's actually...

GROSS: Really?

Mr. CASSEL: I swear. Yeah. Yeah. It's actually - it was a casino. That's, well, it was a castle that Napoleon built back in the days for one of his lovers. And she never made it there, you know, she stopped because of the rain in Bordeaux, I think she stopped. And that thing became a casino with a theater, two nightclubs...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: ...and things like that. So, you know, I was literally with my brother and my cousins and all that. We were living in the dressing rooms of the theater, you know. So everybody had, like, a little room with a bed and a mirror with lights around, you know, and the bathroom...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: ...yeah, it was incredible. And so - and the bathroom were actually the bathroom of the theater. So we just opened the door and be in the theater. So, you know, it was like a home cinema before the -before they even existed, you know. And that's where I really discovered a lot of movies, you know, really good ones, very bad ones, horror films, cartoons - porn, anything, you know.

GROSS: Porn? Did he show porn?

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah, at midnight on Saturdays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh. So did you're...

Mr. CASSEL: So imagine, yeah, we were...

GROSS: ...your parents try to prevent you from seeing it? Or...

Mr. CASSEL: Well, my parents weren't really there, you know. It was more my grandparents. They were really busy. And anyway, you know, I knew the theater more better than anybody else, so there was always a way to sneak in.

GROSS: Were you surprised by pornography, or did you already know how it was done?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: No. No. I knew and, I mean, you know, I mean - and imagine, I mean I was 13. I was, you know, I loved it.

GROSS: Now you spent some time in a circus school.

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah. Quite a while, actually.

GROSS: How much?

Mr. CASSEL: Like, five years.

GROSS: How come?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, my father didn't really want me to be an actor because he thought it was - and he was right, actually. He kind of protected me from, you know, going in the same direction than him, you know, because, you know, being an actor is wonderful when you've got work. But when you don't, it's terrible. It's the end of the world if you don't do anything.

So I guess he just, you know, if I wanted to do it, it had to be very personal. And that's what it became, you know, very personal. But before I could go on stage and take acting class and stuff, you know, he didn't want me to get involved with that, so my way in was the circus, really, you know, because it was kind of like a stage. And I thought that actors should be able to do everything, you know.

So at the circus, you learn how to play with things. You know, you juggle. You need to work on your balance. You kind of work with your body, you know. And I don't know, I thought that was a plus for me. You know, so I got involved. And I've learned quite a lot of things, and especially to move, because, you know, I realized that a lot of actors don't know how to move their body. You know, they're stiff. At least in France. And so I've learned how to control my tool, really. And then, you know, I realized that it was all about the emotions, so I've learned how to control my emotions. But it started by the body.

GROSS: So with the body, when you were in circus school, you learned how to juggle. What other, like, technical things did you learn?

Mr. CASSEL: Acrobatics. My specialty was acrobatics, so acrobatics, working on the wire. You know...

GROSS: Wow. You did that?

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah. Well, you kind of learn everything, you know, at first, and then you specialize in something - so, trapeze, you know, acrobatics on a horse and ballet. Because when you are at the circus school, you have to take ballet classes every day as a base, you know.

GROSS: So when you were doing trapeze work, what was it like when you'd fall?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, there's a net.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know there's a net, but still, you're falling.

Mr. CASSEL: Well, it's actually - that's the first thing you learn, how to fall, you see, how to fall flat, because if you don't fall flat, you might hurt yourself. It's scary, you know. It's scary. It's exciting. It's - you have to abandon yourself, you know, and to abandon yourself is very useful when you act, too, because you have to trust your choices. You have to trust, let's say, you have to trust yourself, really, you know. It's - and even though you're not always know where -how it's going to end, let's say.

You know what? Now that I'm talking about that with you, I realized that when I was much younger, I read a book by Stanislavsky called...

GROSS: "The Actor Prepares"?

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah. And he's talking about acrobatics. And that's - I think that's one of the reasons why I wanted to get involved with the circus school, too. And he was saying that when you start an acrobatic sequence, once you start it, you have to do it until the end because if you stop in the middle you fall and you hurt yourself. And that's how you should start a scene, too, you know. You have choices and you go for it. You don't know if you're going to, you know, you're going to fall or not, but you have to go with your choices until the end.

You know, that idea of danger, you know, I think it's a good parallel between acting and acrobatics, you know. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to get involved with that, you know, because when you act sometime, you need to dare things, you know. You need to not be scared even though you're not - you don't know what's going to happen.

GROSS: My guest is Vincent Cassel. He plays the artistic director of a ballet company in the new film "Black Swan."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Vincent Cassel. He costars in the new film "Black Swan." He starred in the French gangster film "Mesrine" and played a master thief in "Ocean's Twelve."

So here's something I've been waiting to ask you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know your parents divorced when you were 13.

Mr. CASSEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Your mother moved to America, and then you spent some time in America.

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

GROSS: And one of the things you did in America was go to summer camp.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm dying to hear about that experience.

Mr. CASSEL: I've been twice to summer camps. I've been to Camp Redwood, Upstate New York, and I've been to the camp called Blueberry Cove in Maine. That was a real culture shock for me.

GROSS: I'm thinking it might be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: You know, because, you know, I mean, kids are not raised the same way in America and in France. There's a real difference, you know? And so it was pretty hard for me to get into the - to get into it, you know? First of all, you have to do a lot of things when you're in camp. You have to play football. You have to play basketball. You have to eat now. You know, it's like a lot of things, and I couldn't, you know, relate to that thing where you had to do things. I grew up, I didn't have to do anything. You know, I felt like a - very free as a kid, you know. And suddenly, like to have so many rules was kind of a tough thing. Actually, I ran away twice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: From camp? Really? How did...

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

Mr. CASSEL: Did you have to run through the woods or something?

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah. I, you know, I just, you know, man away - literally ran. I was, you know, and they catch me on the road running.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, just getting back for a second to the movie theater that you partially grew up in.

GROSS: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, what's one or two of the really good or really bad movies that you saw there that you think you may never have gotten to see had you not basically been living in a movie theater?

Mr. CASSEL: A lot of, you know, B series from, you know, like the "Insects of Fire," you know, for example. It was, like, roaches, you know, burning roaches that would, like, come off the phone and they would burn everything around. You know, they're really bad movies. But, you know, there were - no, but they were very scary at the time for me. And, you know, the B series, I've seen a lot of those and all those like - it was, like, a trend in the '70s. They had, like, those kind of not -it was like sexy movies, you know, from Italy with that actress called Edwige Fenech, who was, like, a sex symbol. And so in one movie, she was a nurse or she was a schoolteacher, you know. And those were really, really bad, really bad movies. And - but I loved them because she was she was gorgeous, that actress.

GROSS: So you loved acting when you were young, and you love it now. Do you love it in a different way? Are there things about acting you love now that are really different from what you loved when you were young?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, you see, when I was really young, the problem is that I was acting, but in life, you know. I wouldn't call it lies, but let's say, you know, I don't know. I was - I would create things. I would make people believe in things that wouldn't exist, you know, and, you know, I would like transform myself, you know, wearing disguise in the streets in my neighborhood to see if people would recognize me or not, you know. So it's not very healthy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: ...after a certain point, because, you start to mix everything up. And - but the interesting thing about it is that if you can make people believe things in life than it's easy to make, you know, to make it in a movie, because it's harder, you know, to do that trick in life than on a set, you know.

So when I started to work and get some job, you know, I started to express that on movies, in movies, and that was a relief, really, because I didn't have to do it in life anymore.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. CASSEL: Thank you. You took me so far away. I can't believe it.

GROSS: Vincent Cassel plays the artistic director of a ballet company in the new film "Black Swan."

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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