Somewhere in the magnificent, violent, bulging city of Rio de Janeiro, Vincent Cassel sits in a smoking chair by the window of his 23rd floor suite, looking beyond the reflected glare of the megacity’s bright vista into the unknown. The 42-year-old Parisian actor is over 5,000 miles away from his country of origin, over twenty years into an esteemed acting career that spans continents, languages, customs, and attitudes. Son of French cinema royalty (Cassel’s father, actor and dancer Jean-Pierre Cassel, is considered a national treasure), and brother to French rap icon Rockin’ Squat, he is the shining light of French films’ leading men. In the States, however, he is hardly a household name, often merely referenced as the husband of beautiful Italian actress Monica Belluci. And while this makes him an incredibly enviable man amongst Americans (and men the world over), it doesn’t exactly make him famous. But fame operates differently in Paris than it does in Hollywood .
“Things are very different in France,” muses Cassel, “in Hollywood there’s politics, young actors have to do big, stupid movies to eventually be a box office figure and have access to great directors, stuff like that. But in France the market is a little different. In a minute, you know everybody, so you stick to what you like because, otherwise, you won’t be able to come back to it.”
What Cassel seems to like—and has made a career out of—is creating nuanced, disturbing, frequently sociopathic, but always-memorable characters. His break-out performance as a skinhead in the suburbs of Paris in La Haine (1995) cemented his status in France as an important young actor on the rise, but it’s his roles in the films L’Appartement, Read My Lips, and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible that made him a bona fide French star. Small but important parts in Elizabeth, Brotherhood of the Wolf (a French film that received Stateside distribution), and Ocean’s Eleven successfully introduced his talents to a broader English speaking audience. But it’s as Kirill, son of a Russian mob leader in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, that he makes an indelible impression. Raging, egoistic, and vulnerable, Cassel’s portrayal of the manic depressive mafia thug is matched only by the solemn clarity and awesome physicality of the masterful Viggo Mortensen.
Like Mortensen, Cassel’s capacity to believably emote on-screen depends crucially on his physical expression of the character. For his next film to hit the States, Cassel gained over forty pounds to better resemble and move like infamous French criminal, Jaques Mesrine, in the two-part film, Public Enemy Number One. Mesrine, a bank robber, kidnapper, and killer of mythic pop stature, “is so well known in France that we really had to take responsibility for what we were saying about him,” says Cassel, “but at the same time, we always kept in mind that the movie is going to be shown to people that never knew anything about him. So, it had to be both a precise character study and it also had to work as a genre film.”
Directed by Jean-Francois Richet and based on Mesrine’s jailhouse autobiography L’instinct de mort (which is considered full of hyperbole and lies), Public enemy Number One was released in France in 2008 to wide acclaim, earning the film 10 Cesar Award nominations, including the category for Best Actor, which Vincent Cassel won. Well-earned kudos for a film which, despite seven years of preparation, almost didn’t happen. “We never wanted to make a hero out of him,” explains Cassel. “I dropped out of the movie at first because the script at the time tried making a hero out of him, and I wasn’t going to spend nine months shooting to make a hero out of this guy. I really wanted to show the dark side of him, the racism, his violence towards women.” Cassel came back after Richet joined the project and demanded a fresh rewrite, and the rest, needless to say, is history.
Now Public Enemy Number One is looking at an early 2010 release in the United States, and with it, Cassel will get the chance to earn leading man status amongst an American audience, but in a French-made film about a legendary French criminal. If that’s not a thorough thumbing of the nose at the aforementioned process by which artists bend over backwards for American film studio bureaucrats, than what is?
But again, fame is worthless to someone who doesn’t heeds it. Unlike his costars in Ocean’s 12 and 13, Cassel is not interested in becoming a mere Rat Pack facsimile. He continues making the movies he wants to make, imbuing his thieves, rapists, gangsters, and racists with just enough recognizable humanity to satisfy our desire to believe everyone is capable of repair or redemption. “From my experience,” says Cassel, leaning into the elbow of his chair, “people do things that are very contradictory. We don’t live in a straight line, we do things that we regret and then we try to forgive ourselves.”
He peers out the window again. “At the end of the day, no one is really just good or just bad. I always want to play characters with lots of shades of gray. I think that this kind of complexity gives a truer sense of life, really.”