The gangster movie genre basically became part of the cinematic landscape in 1931 when Edward G. Robinson starred as Rico in “Little Caesar.” Since then, scores of tough guy films have been made, some based on real criminals, while others were based on fictional characters. Such films include James Cagney in “The Public Enemy,” Al Pacino in “Scarface,” Denzel Washington in “American Gangster,” Robert De Niro in “Casino,” Armand Assante in “Gotti,” Robert De Niro in “Once Upon A Time In America,” Marlon Brando in “The Godfather,” Al Pacino in “The Godfather II,” Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas,” and Robert De Niro in “The Untouchables” as well as “Pulp Fiction,” “Bonnie & Clyde,” “White Heat,” and “Scarface: The Shame of a Nation,” to name just a few.
Vincent Cassel should clearly be added to the list of actors playing bad guys, especially for his portrayal of the famous French gangster Jacques Mesrine, in the two-parter "Mesrine: Killer Instinct” and “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, for which he received the 2009 Cesar award for Best Actor. He also co-starred with Natalie Portman in the “Black Swan” which won multiple awards including the coveted Oscar for Best Picture.
His latest bad guy film is Danny Boyle’s crime thriller “Trance” in which he plays a criminal who will go to any ends to retrieve a stolen Goya painting. Co-starring James McAvoy (Simon) and Rosario Dawson, (Elizabeth) the story has multiple plot twists and intrigues with a focus on Simon who has suffered severe memory loss and can’t remember where he hid the stolen painting. A hypnotist played by Dawson is hired to delve into Simon’s subconscious to retrieve the information that results in shocking revelations.
Cassel recently sat down with a select group of journalists and the following has been edited for content and continuity for print purposes.
What was your first reaction when you read this complicated script?
Cassel: I thought wow! Danny Boyle is calling me. I thought of the script what I think of the movie today. It’s smart, surprising, and at last a female part that is really interesting where the actress can be beautiful and smart.
What is the most important thing to you before accepting a project?
Cassel: Honestly, for me, the main thing is the director. I still believe you can make a great movie without a good script but with a good director, but with a great script and not a good director you will end up doing something that is not interesting.
This is a very complicated story line. How many times do you think a person could watch this movie and get something new?
Cassel: Well, it’s full of little details and yes I think a second viewing could be interesting because then you can really appreciate what the actors are doing. For example, how they lie so well which doesn’t really apply to my character because I’m one of the only characters who doesn’t need to lie. I’m pretty straight forward, but Rosario and James really have things that they have to hide or don’t remember. So, I think a second viewing is definitely worth it.
So you figured it how before you started filming?
Cassel: The funny thing is that we shot the movie a year-and-a-half ago because Danny Boyle had to stop to direct the Olympics. So it’s been a while and when I saw the finished movie for the first time a month ago, I got totally caught up by the plot. I forgot the details of the story so it really got to me, which is a good sign I think.
What is your process for staying in the moment even though you know what’s going to happen next?
Cassel: First of all, I don’t think actors should think too much while you’re doing it. When you act, it has nothing to do with the intellect. It has to do with your emotions and your capacity to let yourself go and not judge yourself or be afraid of being ridiculous and then you just have to be in the moment. When you are in the hands of a good director, this is much easier because if you’re working with someone you’re not so sure of, then you have to think because you never know if it’s going to be good so you have to take care of things that usually actors don’t have to take care of. But if you work with someone like Danny, or other directors who are real directors, you just focus on the moment and everybody does his own job – actors act.
What’s Danny’s golden touch?
Cassel: I think he really loves actors because he comes from a theatre world and something I’ve noticed working with him is he’s a real gentleman.
I really believe that directors are the bosses on the set and they have to decide and take responsibility for everything but he never exaggerates that position. He’s gentle. For example on the set it’s always like “do you mind if we do another take?” “Would it be okay?” He always asks in such a gentle way that you are always ready to do what he wants.
Is his behavior on set unusual?
Cassel: Well, some people can be a little more rude if you give them the space to be. Some people in this business have the tendency to think that what they are doing is very important and because of that they can raise their voice and they can play some games with people but they are polite and attentive to others and don’t like that. I have to say that I’ve been very lucky since the beginning and have had very few bad experiences.
How much character direction did you receive?
Cassel: Not much. But you know character direction is a legend. The most important direction is the casting. If you cast the right person then you don’t have much to say on the set. When people tend to talk too much, it’s because something is wrong; otherwise you have to go with the flow. It’s having fun with the moment. I worked with Jacques Audiard (“Rust & Bone”) on a movie a few years ago called “Read My Lips.” On the second day of shooting he came to me and started to talk, talk, talk. I mean he’s a very smart person but I told him he had to stop talking to me like this; please instead of using twenty words, use three. Just give me the idea of what you want; otherwise I lose my energy. And, from that day, he didn’t talk to me any more. (Laughter)
The idea of sex and violence is explored in this film. What are your thoughts on that?
Cassel: I think seduction, sex, and violence somehow have a connection. When something gets very peaceful usually sex disappears.
So how are things at home?
Cassel: It’s ok. (Laughter)
Why do you enjoy playing bad guys?
Cassel: I think heroes are boring most of the time and plus they don’t represent anything I see on a daily basis. I don’t see much heroes. I see people who are struggling with their own lives and most of the time people who are the baddies or intense, or whatever you want to call them, look more real to me than people that are bright and righteous.
Based on the characters you choose, would you say you are the toughest Parisian, toughest Frenchman or just the toughest man on earth.
Cassel: I’m not tough at all. (Laughter)
Is that why you’re drawn to these characters?
Cassel: Maybe. This question comes along a lot. But in the way I portray them, I’m not trying to make them tough because most of the time when you get violent, it’s like saying I’m very weak because it shows that you’re not confident so I never try to be like the tough guy because the characters I play are suffering.
How would you define your character?
Cassel: It’s the story of a gangster who falls in love and gangsters shouldn’t fall in love because the minute you fall in love for real, you get very vulnerable and it’s not good for the business. It’s dangerous. That’s why gangsters most of the time go out with whores and prostitutes.
Did you know Rosario Dawson before and why did you want to work with her?
Cassel: I didn’t know her personally but years ago a director asked me who I would like to work with and I said Rosario Dawson and two others. I think she is beautiful, sexy and has this New York thing that I really like. She’s really cute in a genuine way, not in a movie star way because when you look at some actresses in real life, they’re very normal which is not a bad thing.
Were you nervous meeting her for the first time?
Cassel: No no. I was very excited actually and it went very well. She likes to talk and travels a lot and use to have a French boyfriend so she must be nice. (Laughter) It might sound strange, but my work has to be fun for me.
Who are the other two actresses you would like to work with?
Cassel: I’ll tell you when I work with them. (Laughter)
Did anything surprise you during the shoot?
Cassel: Yes; the kindness of Danny Boyle on the set. Sometimes it was too much. (Laughter) I even wondered at some point if it was a trick. (Laughter) He was too nice.
Do you see a difference in the scripts you get from Hollywood vs. from Europe?
Cassel: I’ve never actually worked on a Hollywood movie. I’ve always managed to work with directors that do what they wanted to do so I don’t feel like I part of the Hollywood thing. Hollywood to me is like the big blockbuster where the producer decides everything. “Trance” is an English movie.
Do you get offers from Hollywood?
Cassel: I do, but I turn them down because life is short and I don’t want to waste time doing things I don’t enjoy.
What made you decide to become an actor?
Cassel: My father was an actor so I grew up in that environment and it was very easy for me to project myself in this. Being an actor in movies is very complicated because you have to audition and be accepted; otherwise you can just do things on stage in the street and actually that’s how I started - doing things in the street. I was in circus school at that time learning clowning which was acting for me. We would just do it and it was the easiest way for me to express myself to realize my dreams and to make money.
You’re the first actor I’ve come across who started out as a clown. Why do you think being a clown is a natural next step to acting?
Cassel: It’s a very noble thing to be a clown. It’s portraying things around you and you have to make fun of it so I think it’s a good exercise. A clown doesn’t have to have a red nose. It’s like improvising on situations. The clowns in circuses are the most complete artists – they have to know how to do everything, like actors.
Do you miss interacting with an audience when filming?
Cassel: No because you have this interaction with the camera actually and strangely enough if you don’t feel the person behind camera, it doesn’t work and I can’t act. I worked with a cameraman who didn’t understand what was going on and I got mad because after ten takes he couldn’t get it and I was really bad. So it’s always a question of somebody looking at you because to act by yourself is not interesting. Everyone can be an actor in his own bathroom but it’s the power of someone looking at you and you having to pretend to be normal. When this thing is going on, it’s like a magnet but if one of the magnets is weak, it doesn’t happen. That’s why it’s important to work with interesting directors and that’s why good directors don’t have to talk to you. They just have to look at you and that makes the whole difference.
You are a famous international movie star. How do you balance that with being a husband and father?
Cassel: I don’t work a lot. I do one or two films a year because otherwise, to be totally honest, I get bored with promotions and all that. If you do it just once in a while that’s great, but if you do it all the time, it’s insane. I say no, no, no and only say yes when I can’t say no.
How do you navigate living in Paris, London, Rome, and Rio?
Cassel: Actually I found a solution a few months ago and now I just live in Rio. (Laughter)
Why Rio? The weather?
Cassel: I’ve been going there for twenty-five years and I really like it. It was dangerous for a long time, but it’s getting better. The gangsters are further out and the economy is getting better and it’s a nice place to live, with a nice quality of life and yes the weather and the culture, and the food. When you love something, there isn’t always a reason, and my Portuguese is getting better.
Hypnosis is the thru-line of the story. Does it work?
Cassel: I have no idea. They tried it on me and it didn’t work. (Laughter)