Interview: Vincent Cassel on BLACK SWAN, Darren Aronofsky, EASTERN PROMISES 2!

During the London Film Festival last year, Obsessed with Film was invited to interview Vincent Cassel about his role as Thomas Leroy, an obsessive and demanding ballet director, in Darren Aronofsky€™s probable Oscar contender Black Swan. The interview was conducted at a round-table with other journalists and below is the majority of the transcript taken from that twenty minute session with the mercurial French actor, famous for roles in such films as Eastern Promises, La Haine and Mesrine. Q: Any feedback from people in ballet on your character?
VC: Up to now especially from Benjamin Millepied who is the choreographer of the movie and part of that was like really becoming a star of the ballet world. What Benjamin manages to do is be a dancer for the NYC Ballet and for the opera in Paris, which is not usually possible, and plus he directs plays in both of those places so his take on it was very important. And when he saw the movie he said €œno problem, you€™re very believable€ and I said €œI copied you€.
Q: Have you wanted to work with Darren Aronofsky for some time and how did you find working with him?
I never think in that sense that €œI€™ve got to work with Darren Aronofsky€, but what I can tell you is that the first time I saw him I was very interested because I thought he was very European first of all and even though I didn€™t understand the story I loved it. It€™s true! I can€™t tell you what it€™s about really. I kind of forgot. But I remember that there was this grainy thing about it that was kind of lost with €˜Requiem for a Dream€™ but it came back with €˜The Wrestler€™ and it€™s present again in this one. He has a style visually and in terms of what he likes to talk about: the perversion; the control€ all these things. I never thought €œoh I€™ve got to work with him€ but when he called I was very happy. Then about his technical work, he€™s actually pretty simple to work with. He€™s pretty demanding in the sense that he does a lot of takes, but usually when he comes and talks to you he doesn€™t€ you know because some directors when the come over and talk you just are waiting for them to stop because it€™s very mental what they come up with and it doesn€™t really help. When he comes up it€™s always with something short and pretty clear. He€™s asking for pretty understandable things. €œWhy don€™t you try to do it like he€™s a gangster?€ or, you know? And he€™s the kind of director that will eventually call you on a Sunday and say €œwe€™re doing a production meeting for the set and we€™re going to talk about your apartment. Can you stop by the production office so we can choose your furniture?!€
Q: Is he an obsessive?
He€™s very precise. He gives you a great sense of freedom where you can really come up with stuff, but then you can see that it€™s not like he takes ideas because they look good . If he likes something he will see how it can fit and eventually let you go with it, but it seems like it€™s not just instinctive.
Q: Did you base Thomas on anybody?
It€™s not one person but it€™s a bunch of people that I€™ve met or read about. I would say Michael Bennett who is a director€ a huge Broadway director and choreographer. He died and he was my step-father actually, so I really had a chance to see him work and watch rehearsals with the dancers. Then Benjamin was a good example for me to observe. Then Balanchine because that€™s more or less the only name that Darren told me about, that he would be a modern kind of Balanchine. So I went and tried to understand why and I did understand: he was known for having affairs with the dancers all the time and he was one of the only straight choreographers in the ballet world in those times.
Q: Was the ballet world something you were familiar with beforehand?
Yes, my father was dancing a lot, he has been part of shows as an actor and a dancer. Then my stepfather, as I was telling you, so I ended up dancing too for like seven years on a daily basis in a very serious way. Not to be a dancer, I never dreamed of being a ballet dancer, but I would take Ballet as a compliment because I thought actors should know how to move€ actually I thought actors should know how to do everything! So I started by trying to learn everything and physical stuff was something I was attracted to because I felt comfortable with it, because I grew up in that environment I guess.
Q: Was it inevitable that you would become an actor?
I don€™t remember wanting to do anything else really so yeah, I guess it was. But my brother is a rapper, so I could€™ve done that! Because I dance, because my brother is a rapper, because I hang out with musicians €“ I am very attracted by music actually €“ so all together I€™m going to end up doing a musical I guess!
Q: What about the darker side of Thomas€™ personality?
The darker side?
Q: Well you could call it darker or slightly more complicated€
Q: € that he has these relationships with ballerinas. Did you see that as him just seducing these women for the sake of the art?
I don€™t think it€™s about getting laid, honestly. Let€™s put it this way: this guy is my age, more or less I guess. He lives in that huge apartment, which he seems to be living in by himself. He has no kids, so I guess by the end of the day the only thing he has really is his art form, which I guess is why he is so demanding with it. I€™m sure he dies to fall in love and have a real story with somebody, but I don€™t think he€™s capable of falling in love with somebody he doesn€™t admire or somebody that doesn€™t fascinate him, so guess it€™s something to do with the process. It€™s not really a dark side. I€™ve met people like that, it€™s like when they are so dedicated to what they do because it€™s the only thing they have they think it€™s normal to be a jerk €“ that they have a right to be rough on the others.
Q: Have you worked with people like that?
I did.
Q: Writers, actors, directors?
A few directors. Very few because now I can feel it and I run the other way!
Q: How do you work with someone like that?
Nowadays I wouldn€™t anymore because I€™m a grown-up. Once you know that you can get to the same point without the suffering: why get involved? I worked with Gérard Depardieu €“ I love Gérard Depardieu, I have a great deal of admiration for this man €“ but at the same time he is an animal. He is instinctive. If he feels he can do it he will, whatever it is. Because he€™s like a kid too, so if he feels he can pick on you then he€™s going to end up sitting on your head. So what do you do in front of somebody like this? You€™ve got to put up a wall and create a distance, but the same time I wanted to be friends and so it€™s all about how you play around. If you had a scene with a panther, you€™d have to work your way so it works and appears as it should on camera, but try not to be eaten by the end of the day€ so that€™s a day of shooting I guess!
Q: €˜Black Swan€™ is pretty solidly intense. When Aronofsky shouted €œcut€ at the end of a scene was it still an intense set, or could you easily slip out of character and chat with the other actors?
What Natalie had to do in this movie was very demanding, because I think she took a year of intense training in ballet €“ and she danced years ago so to get back to it is very hard €“ and then between the takes she was going back to the bar and stretching again, keeping warm (because otherwise you hurt yourself). So day after day I couldn€™t really interfere. She was so focussed I didn€™t want to €“ I knew she had things to do. But then with Mila , who is like the cool girl of the movie, there are no problems getting out of character. It€™s not something you carry. I think what Natalie must have carried away every night was the pain.
Q: But you didn€™t have to carry that yourself? Are you quite easily able to slip out of character?
I always do. I€™m a non-suffering actor!
Q: Even when you did €˜Mesrine€™ which was quite physically demanding?
I would throw up in the morning, because I was eating too much and it was wrong and it was going against nature. I shouldn€™t say this, but for me to be on the set is like a party really. I€™m happy to be there.
Q: You€™ve been in a lot of American films and European films. Do you find it easy to negotiate between Hollywood and your European film career?
Well it€™s not something I really negotiate. I do what comes up and what is interesting. But it€™s not something I really plan. It happens because of the choices you make and you try to keep up a certain level of quality €“ which doesn€™t always go with box office €“ but since the beginning I have tried to be very careful not to do something very stupid. To always try to find things that makes sense to my €“ if not career €“ than path, you know? So it looks like I like edgy, dark things!
Q: Is €˜A Dangerous Method€™ the next thing we€™ll see you in?
I don€™t know if it€™s the next because I have a bunch of other stuff that might come out here in England too. I have one called €˜Our Day Will Come€™ by a young director€ and I know it€™s been bought by an English distributor so that might come out. Then I have one that has something to do with England, it€™s called €˜The Monk€™, you know the Gothic novel from Lewis? We shot that in Spain and it€™s going to be in French€ sorry guys! But I think the essence of the book is in it still. Then I guess €˜A Dangerous Method€™.
Q: That seems like a similarly intense film as well.
I think it€™s going to be fun too. You see, the movie is about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and their relationship when they were pioneers of psychotherapy€ and they were crazy. They were on drugs. They were experiencing what they were talking about with sex sometimes, or with a relationship with a patient. It€™s really serious but it€™s pretty wild too.
Q: What was it like working with David Cronenberg again?
It was very nice again! I was very touched and flattered when he called me the first time, but the second time, it€™s like I really though I was there.
Q: Is €˜Eastern Promises 2€™ happening?
Hopefully. It doesn€™t really depend on me actually. If it€™s happening then I€™m dying to do it because of David and because of Viggo , we really got along very well. The script is very good, but you never know what€™s going to happen. I know that David wants to do something else before, so if it happens it€™ll be in a year or two.
Q: What€™s it like working with Viggo Mortensen? Is there any competition about how far you can push each other?
Let me tell you something: it€™s impossible to have a competition with Viggo Mortensen because he€™s not on that vibe, you know? And neither am I. No, no, when you work with Viggo it€™s very warm. You get presents all the time and there is no competition on the set. It€™s not like €˜Black Swan€™.
Q: How does David compare to Darren?
Strangely I think they have things in common. I don€™t quite know what it is. A fascination for the body horror material and maybe he likes the same subject matter once and a while. And David is not actually American at all, he€™s Canadian. And Darren is not really American, he€™s from Brooklyn! And they both have a European quality to what they do. A dark European quality.
Q: Your character is so absorbed in the ballet world, but how do you sit within the acting world? Are most of your friends actors and directors?
No, but some are. What is the question exactly?
Q: Do you take an interest in the world outside of acting and film in general€
Well I have more interest in the world outside of films than films. I don€™t watch a lot of movies anymore actually. I wish I could but I don€™t. You have kids, you have life, there are so many things. I€™d rather watch documentaries or the news than movies after a certain point because once you become what you do you are dead. So if you keep on shooting movies and then in your free time watch movies you€™ll think that€™s what it€™s all about. And I know it€™s not. I still know it€™s not all about movies. So yes: I€™m interested in the world.
You can see Vincent Cassel alongside Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder in €˜Black Swan€™ from Friday. I caught the movie in Venice and you can read my review, HERE. Check back later this week for further interviews with Mila Kunis and director Darren Aronofsky.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.