Vincent Cassel on Mesrine, Black Swan, and Acting: 'You Need a Hard-On, Perpetually'

vincent-black-swan.jpgDon't hate Vincent Cassel for having it all: If it wasn't enough that he's one of the biggest matinee idols in France, he's also married to Monica Bellucci. It's fitting then, that someone of his stature would play a criminal like Jacques Mesrine in the new filmic diptych Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 -- though the murderous Mesrine did a lot of bad things in 1970s France, he somehow became one of the country's most popular celebrities.

The charming and candid Cassel sat down with Movieline this month to discuss his interpretation of Mesrine, his own love of celebrity, and the pair of English-language films he has on the way: Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method.

Making this movie, did you feel like you might contribute to the perception of Mesrine as a glamorous outlaw?

That's an interesting way to put it. We definitely didn't try to glorify him, and on a personal level, I can tell you that I actually fought for that. My take on that is yes, he was a racist, yes, he killed Arabs during the war and away from the army, but still, after he died, people had this pretty positive image of him. It was like he was Robin Hood, except that he would never give anything back to anybody. To me, it's a big trick! He really tricked everybody, and we had to recreate the same trick, meaning that we wouldn't hide anything that he did. Yes, he's violent with women, yes, he's racist, all these things, but at the end of the movie, I think people root for him in a very weird and not-healthy way [Laughs]. I wanted to achieve that thing -- that was the challenge, really.

Why did you want that?

Because that's the point of making a movie about him. We have some kind of responsibility, really -- some people died because of this guy, and what [are their families] going to do when they see this movie? Shall I tell the young guys that, "Yes, it's cool to be a gangster. You should say no to authority, f**k everybody, take a gun, go get it"? I mean, I can't. Plus, I'm not a fan of the guy. I actually think he really tried to justify his choices of living through political matters that he wasn't really aware of.

So he just plucked any excuse he could think of from thin air?

Yeah, and a lot of people are like that, when you think about it. Rebel without a cause! You feel angry...I feel like that sometimes. I started to make very violent movies so I could rebel against something, and I wasn't really aware of what it was. Still, it was something I had to do. I think maybe Che Guevara was like that, too. They need to fight, so they find a reason to fight.

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You may not have liked him, but you shot these two films over nine months. Did you worry about getting lost in this character?

Actually, my main concern was that I was scared of losing my concentration and energy while we were shooting, because it was such a long shoot. That's one thing I learned with this movie, is that I can work for a long time and still be passionate about it. When we stopped the movie after nine months, I could have gone for two or three more months.

Why not make it a solid year?

Yeah! Because I had so much fun, really. I'm not passionate about the guy but I'm really passionate about what I do, and when you have the opportunity to make a dense but still-entertaining film with that budget, you shouldn't let it pass.

Aside from getting lot in the character, did you worry about your performance getting lost? It spans such a length of time and it took so long to shoot, I wonder if you feared it would cut together coherently in the end.

I'm really close with the director, producer, and writer, so it's like we were all in the same boat, really. I felt comfortable and confident with the people I was working with, and we'd carried it around for seven years before we made the movie. I knew every aspect of it, I'd seen everything, I actually decided to get rid of one director and writer to have the right team...when you're that involved, you can't worry, really. It's too late for that.

But once, I did have a panic moment. Once we start, you don't have time to scared -- you don't have time to think, really. Every day, you're fighting with the scenes and sets and lines and new actors. You're in the state of mind when you go back home and night and the day-to-day of shooting unfolds and you realize what you did, but during the day, you don't have time for that. That's the great thing about moviemaking, I think: You do instinctive things and you learn about who you are you and discover how this microcosm works. It's a lot of tensions, personalities, egos, and you have to serve the whole thing.

But then we stopped for a few days in the middle because I had to go to Toronto to present Eastern Promises. So suddenly, I had to talk about the Russian mafia, and it was great and the movie was well-received and I was schmoozing, blah blah blah, and then I went back to Quebec where we were shooting [Mesrine], and I freaked out. I mean, totally. Something went wrong, and suddenly I was like, "What have I been doing since the beginning [of the shoot]? We were all wrong!"

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