Vincent Cassel: Original French Gangsta
As Seen In VMAN #16 From 2009, The Actor Prepared For His Most Unlikely Role Of All—That Of A Superstar.
Vincent Cassel bounds into the lobby of Paris’s Hôtel Costes jiggling his car keys in one hand. Over the past year, the French actor has transcended his status as Monica Bellucci’s risk-taking other half to that of star and icon. The mantle suits him. Cassel is in top form, dressed in chinos and a sweater, his hair as wiry as his frame. Cassel is known for working outside the box. After exploding onto the screen as a De Niro-loving vandal in Hate (1995), he’s appeared in foreign films and controversial projects such as Gaspard Noé’s ultraviolent Irréversible (2002), in which his wife, Bellucci, endured a lengthy rape scene. U.S. audiences might remember Cassel as virtuoso “voleur” François Toulour in Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, or as a Russian thug in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. But his turn in the biopic Mesrine could elevate him to superstar status stateside à la La Vie en Rose’s Marion Cotillard.
Jacques Mesrine was France’s public enemy number one for most of the ’70s, a charismatic criminal loved by popular France and hated by the establishment (an estimated thirty people died by his hand). Mesrine is a leviathan of a role. Cassel plays the renegade over a period of twenty years, from his military service in Algeria to his death at the hands of the police in 1979. He gained 20 kg for the part and dons an arsenal of wigs, falsies, and hats during Mesrine’s numerous runs from the law. The two-part opus will make its U.S. debut this winter. Cassel is still enthusiastic to talk about the film he made three years ago. “It’s a good movie, and you have to be prepared to defend those for as long as it takes,” says the 43-year-old actor. Jacques Mesrine continues to enthral France. He is a role model of sorts to the disenchanted youth from the banlieues. Mesrine was violent, but also a kind of Robin Hood, and thought nothing of returning to jail days after an impressive escape to try to free his friends. “He is part of the French conscience,” agrees Cassel. But how will the U.S. react to a based-on-a-true-story film about someone they haven’t heard about in the first place? “I’ve seen biopics where I knew nothing about the person depicted,” Cassel says. “Hurricane Carter, Jake LaMotta. What matters is your reaction to the movie. I think foreign audiences approach Mesrine with a much freer attitude—they don’t have all these preconceived ideas about who Jacques Mesrine was.”
Cassel is electrifying. He is by turns boyishly charming, mesmerizing, and downright scary. “You can’t play a part like that and not be changed by it,” the actor muses. “It opened certain doors within me. I also reached adulthood during the project, for various reasons.” His father, the celebrated French actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, was due to play his on-screen father, the first time that the pair would have worked together, but he succumbed to cancer shortly before filming. Vincent paid a moving homage to Jean-Pierre, one of French cinema’s finest gentlemen, when he won his César in February. Cassel’s younger half-sister, Cécile, is also an actor. His brother, on the other hand, is a rapper known as Rockin’ Squat. Mesrine’s success in France coincided with Vincent’s nomination as the face of the Yves Saint Laurent fragrance La Nuit de l’Homme. Cassel has reconciled with his physique, but not due to seeing himself on endless billboards. “It took me a long time to accept myself physically,” Cassel says. “When I was young, a lot of my friends modeled, but oddly enough I never got cast! I still don’t understand people who have plastic surgery–fair enough if you have a trunk and one ear coming out of your forehead, but the important thing is working to accept what you are and not to change yourself.” Odd words coming from the man who is one of France’s major heartthrobs—mention you’re meeting Cassel and women literally melt. He sees the YSL gig as just another role: “Of course I’m not myself, I’m playing a part! I’m sur- rounded by all these girls, for god’s sake! I initially said yes because of my bank balance, and also because I liked the fact that Saint Laurent was the first designer to use black models. I used to see them all out at Le Palace in the early’80s—Saint Laurent, Mondino, Jean-Paul Goude, Grace Jones, all wasted of course!” Cassel spends his time between Paris, London, Rome, and Brazil, a happy situation that he has worked hard to bring about. He is also happy to have a break from his late- in-life modeling gig to return to acting. “I used to choose parts that would piss people off,” he says, “and for that reason I was always cast out of the establishment. Not that I cared. Now I feel like I’ve been welcomed in, but perhaps not for long. They’re going to get the guns back out when they see my latest project. I think it will touch a nerve!” Cassel shaved off all his body hair to play the as-yet unrevealed lead in the top-secret film from director Costa Gavras’s son Romain.
Whether he returns to his niche in risqué foreign language films or becomes a Hollywood heavyweight, Vincent Cassel will always remain one thing. “What can you do? I’m so fuckin’ French!” he says in perfect English.