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As an actor, I think you should always disappear a little,’ Vincent Cassel says. 'I act in order to lose myself.’ Over the past 20 years, Cassel, the most charismatic French star of his generation, has perfected the art of the vanishing act. In person he seems giant, unmistakable: he talks in great gushes, gesticulating wildly; he walks with a lolloping swagger. Yet on screen so radically does this tall, wiry, 42-year-old Parisian transform himself from one film to the next that it can be hard to identify him as the same man. His latest role is as Jacques Mesrine, one of the most notorious gangsters in French history: a master of disguise once dubbed 'the man of a thousand faces’. It is a part that demands a titanic, transformative performance – and that is exactly what Cassel delivers.
As the son of the late Jean-Pierre Cassel – a popular actor, and a national treasure for the French – fame has always beckoned. His marriage in 1999, to the Italian actress Monica Bellucci, whom he met while shooting L’Appartement, sealed his fate. The couple became an instant obsession of the French popular press, and Cassel’s reputation soared. If he has maintained a slightly lower profile abroad, it is perhaps because he has frequently chosen to work with unknown young directors rather than the establishment greats for whom his father once starred – 'Claude Chabrol?’ he says, curling his lip dismissively, 'Pah!’ – and refused to abandon his homeland for the golden promises of Hollywood.
He says his great ambition is to secure international acclaim not in an American blockbuster but in a film made in France. This summer he might just pull it off. As the eponymous lead in Mesrine, a rollicking two-part gangster epic, Cassel gives a performance combining brute muscle with devastating charm. The film has already been a hit in France, where it scooped three awards at the Césars (the French equivalent of the Baftas), including a best actor gong for Cassel.
Jacques Mesrine was an architecture student from a middle-class family who went off to fight in the Algerian War while a teenager, and returned in 1959 with a lust for violence that only a criminal lifestyle could satisfy. In the early 1960s he re-invented himself as a flamboyant villain, the kind of man who would hold up a bank on one side of the street and then, with the police sirens hee-hawing ever closer, stroll across the road to rob another. It was a cop-baiting coup he pulled off on numerous occasions on his way to being declared by the French authorities as public enemy number one, a title he bore with undisguised delight.
Mesrine was also, as one police detective put it at the time, 'a gangster with marketing savvy’. Even while in hiding from the police after his dramatic 1978 escape from La Santé maximum security prison in Paris, he would invite journalists over and feed them home-cooked dinners, fine claret and self-aggrandising stories. He became something of a cause célèbre, first for left-wing intellectuals – Jean-Paul Sartre endorsed Mesrine’s campaign for prison reform, which eventually led to the abolition of solitary confinement in France – and later for disaffected youth, who still today incorporate his name into rap lyrics.
But it was the controversial nature of his death that ultimately secured Mesrine’s status as an icon of the counter culture. On November 2 1979, while driving through the Porte de Clignancourt neighbourhood of Paris, he was ambushed by police marksmen who emerged from the truck in front and opened fire. His corpse, riddled with bullets, was left uncovered in his BMW for an hour. Police officers, given the runaround by Mesrine for years, lingered at the scene to gloat; the public stared agog at the sight of so much blood; and the paparazzi swarmed like flies around roadkill.
Cassel, who was 12 years old at the time, and living with his family around the corner, remembers that day; the moment his brother burst through the front door, wide-eyed at the drama he had seen on the way home from football practice. 'I didn’t really know who Jacques Mesrine was, but we immediately turned on the television and I heard the whole story,’ he says. 'It was so spectacular and shocking. They showed this guy dead on live TV.’
Initially, he doubted the wisdom of devoting a $60 million double bill to a man who, despite the aura of glamour that clings to his memory, was nevertheless a thief and a killer. 'People look up to Jacques Mesrine as if he were a Robin Hood, stealing from the rich,’ Cassel says, 'but he never gave anything back to anybody. He was a jerk, an asshole, a violent man. The idea of making a hero out of him was a real problem for me, to the extent that, at one point, I dropped out of the film.’
That was in 2004. The original director, Barbet Schroeder, followed suit shortly after and for a while it seemed as if the film, already seven years in the planning, might never get made. Cassel was tempted back only the following year when the producer Thomas Langmann hired a young director, Jean-François Richet (who had recently had an international hit with his remake of Assault on Precinct 13), and commissioned a new screenplay from the rising star Abdel Raouf Dafri. 'I read his script and the story wasn’t just black and white any more,’ Cassel says. 'From one scene to the next, you didn’t know what to think about the character, and that is exactly what I had wanted.’
Once again, Cassel reinvented himself for the role. He grew a shaggy beard and took to drinking two 1,500-calorie milkshakes a day. He gained more than three stones in four months, adding a paunch to his slender 6ft 2in frame. 'It was the first time in my life I had ever been that big – and hopefully the last,’ says Cassel, who now looks french-fry thin again, swamped by his baggy trenchcoat. 'People don’t mess with you when you are that big. If you bump into somebody in the street, he moves, you don’t. But it didn’t feel natural. I had to eat so much that I would wake up vomiting. My body was screaming to get back to its natural skinniness.’
The film, which spans two decades of Mesrine’s life, was shot backwards over nine months so that Cassel could shed the excess weight and end up looking lithe enough to convince as a young upstart half his age. He appears in almost every frame, utterly dominating and outshining a starry cast including Gérard Depardieu, Mathieu Amalric, Cécile de France and Ludivine Sagnier.
If Cassel was troubled by the responsibility of carrying this project on his shoulders, it doesn’t show – perhaps because, when it comes to dealing with the pressures of fame, he is an old hand.
'I always had the sense of being in the spotlight, being on stage, being looked at,’ he says. Between the ages of five and 13 he spent a lot of time in his grandfather’s theatre-cum-cinema in Arcachon, south-west France. 'We lived in the dressing-rooms at the side of the auditorium for a while,’ he says. 'My room had a bed and a mirror with lights around the edge. Every time I needed the toilet, I had to go to the cinema bathroom, so of course I saw most of the films that were showing. It was like having the biggest home cinema in the world.’
When he was 13 his parents divorced. His mother, Sabine Litique, a journalist, moved to New York and Cassel spent the next few years shuttling from one French boarding school to the next. At 16, he was sent to a particularly liberal place, with exceptionally lax views on discipline – and got expelled. What happened? 'Well, err, pffff,’ he mumbles, fidgeting with a cushion in a way that is not quite diverting enough to distract from the embarrassment flooding his cheeks. 'Well, you know, they were trying to create a new standard of board-ing school, but it was too free. Too many girls, too many drugs. I don’t remember how many overdoses there were that year, how many abortions. It was a mess, that place.’ He pauses, averts his blue eyes, then breaks out a charmingly goofy grin. 'It was great. International, too. Wonderful.’
His father threatened him with a rehabilitative stint in a strict Parisian school, but Cassel persuaded him to let him join a circus academy instead. There he learnt acrobatics and juggling, skills that would serve him well in the following years, when he worked first as a street performer and later as an actor, dubbing Hugh Grant’s performances into French and cropping up in tele-vision ads (he came between Papa and Nicole in the famous Renault car campaign). 'When eventually I started to act a bit more,’ he says, 'I realised that circus school had taught me something that a lot of actors my age didn’t have: physicality. They didn’t know how to move. Acting is not all about talking. There is something animalistic about it.’
Cassel’s performances are always rooted in the physical: his characters betray themselves with their actions rather than their words; in the way they light a cigarette or run a comb through their hair. For the director Steven Soderbergh, in Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, he put on a leatherette body suit and an air of self-satisfaction to play a Eurotrash cat burglar. For David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, he picked up a Russian accent and a ludicrous haircut to become a petulant Soviet thug. He filmed the acclaimed French thriller Read My Lips with lavatory paper stuffed up his nose to give his seedy character a hooter worthy of Gérard Depardieu. And back in 1995, in La Haine, he took the role of Vinz, a volatile young skinhead so far removed from his own comfortable background that before filming began even his friends felt compelled to approach the director, Mathieu Kassovitz, to say they thought he had cast the wrong guy.
Cassel proved them spectacularly wrong. The first film to focus on the social malaise festering in the Parisian suburbs, La Haine was an international sensation, and gave an irresistible momentum to Cassel’s career. 'To break through playing a part that was so different from who I am was a blessing,’ he says now. 'After that, people felt less sure that they knew what my limits were.’
Rarely have those limits been more severely tested than in Irreversible, Gaspar Noé’s disturbingly violent 2002 film in which Monica Bellucci plays a woman who is raped and beaten in an underpass, and Cassel (who also co-produced the movie) plays her boyfriend; devastated, blinded by fury, and hell-bent on revenge. If the rape scene – a single, excruciating, nine-minute shot – has gone down as one of the most shocking in cinema history, then the film’s penultimate sequence is its antidote: a deeply romantic, intimate moment in which the couple pad playfully around their apartment in unguarded, post-coital bliss. 'With Monica, I can do things in front of the camera that I wouldn’t do with any other actress,’ Cassel says. 'In one take of that scene, I spat on her face. That’s the kind of thing you can only do with your wife.’
Cassel and Bellucci have made a further seven films together and intend to do more. 'Many times I have heard people saying that they don’t like to work with their wife or husband, but to me it is a plus,’ he says. 'To work with somebody you love makes filming faster, more fun. I have always been attracted to the stories of great cinema partnerships – Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina; Scorsese and De Niro; Laurel and Hardy – and I want us to be like that. Since I was a child, I have had this feeling that the most important work I’d do would be with my family.’
It is perhaps surprising, then, that he chose to work so little alongside his father. Indeed, in many ways, his whole career has been a flight from his shadow. 'I did everything I could to not look like him,’ he says. Cassel Sr was known as the French Fred Astaire for his light touch and nimble footwork. Vincent has made his name taking the darkest roles he could find: thugs, heavies, maniacs. His brother, Mathias, effected a similar rebellion, and is now a successful rap MC who goes under the alias Rockin’ Squat. 'My dad and I had a lot of conflicts,’ Cassel says. 'I wanted to move things, I wanted to change things. I couldn’t relate to the kinds of films he was making. I needed to be part of fresher things, with different ways of telling stories, different visuals, a different spirit.
'He once said to me, “I’m sure it’s nice to work with the youngsters, but at a certain point you are going to have to work dans la cour des grands [literally, 'in the court of the greats’].” That was one of the first times I got cross with him. I said, “You don’t understand; the court stays, people pass. The directors I am working with may only be in their twenties, but in a few years you’ll be dying to work with them.” That was my bet from the beginning.’
He continues to back that horse – after winning the César, Cassel could have taken his pick of Europe’s top directors. Instead he chose to star in, and produce, a low-budget road movie made by his friend and first-time feature director Romain (son of Costa) Gavras. Shooting has only recently finished when we meet and Cassel’s hair, eyebrows and lashes, drastically shorn for the film’s denouement, have not yet grown back.
In more recent years, his relationship with his father had begun to mellow, all the more so since Vincent became a father himself: he and Bellucci have a four-year-old daughter, named Deva. Indeed, Jean-Pierre was originally signed up to play Vincent’s aged father in Mesrine. 'Finally we had this opportunity to work together but he was sick,’ Cassel says. 'It was April 2007, he was in hospital with cancer and it was pretty obvious that he was dying. I asked him, “Are you sure that, when you get out of the hospital, you want to play a character who is in a hospital dying of cancer?” He looked up at me and said, “Well, Vincent, I suspect I would be rather good at that.” He died a few days later.’
Talk of his father’s death seems to slow Cassel. 'Funnily enough, for Mesrine I thought I’d made myself look really different,’ he says at last. 'I gained weight, wore wigs, grew a beard. But when I watch it now I realise that I have never looked as much like my father as in this movie. The more I try to be different, the closer I get to him.
'I’m actually beginning to believe that there is something in common among all of my characters,’ he adds, smiling once more. 'I’m not sure what it is exactly. But I guess that something is me.’