Vincent Cassel cuts a menacing yet charismatic figure as the notorious Jacques Mesrine and proves once again he knows how to play a tough guy like no other. His bold choice of roles throughout his career and the fearless way in which he inhabits his characters made him the perfect choice. The award winning European actor’s latest performance in Jean-Francois Richet’s two-part thriller biopic, Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, is one of his best. Shot on location in France, Spain, Algeria, Canada and the U.S., the films’ visual style and dark vibe take their inspiration from iconic 1970s action and gangster films. Adapted by Abdel Raouf Dafri from Mesrine’s autobiography, the exciting double bill splits the story into two parts to explore the man behind the icon and chart the outlaw odyssey of the legendary French gangster of the 1960s and 1970s who came to be known as French Public Enemy No. 1 and The Man of a Thousand Faces.
We sat down with Vincent Cassel to ask him what it was like to portray one of history’s most infamous gangsters. The actor who garnered international acclaim as a Russian thug in Eastern Promises told us what he did to prepare for the physically demanding role, how it took seven years to get the film made, and why he considers Mesrine a wannabe who became what he wanted to be. He also updated us on his upcoming projects including the Darren Aronofsky psychological thriller Black Swan, Romain Gavras’s Our Day Will Come, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, The Monk and Fantomas.
Q: What was it like playing such an iconic, larger than life character and what attracted you to the role?
VC: Well that was what attracted me at first, I have to say. First of all, you have to know that in France this guy is known even by people who don’t know him. It’s like everybody has heard his name and people around my age remember very well the day he died. At the time, they literally exposed his bloody body on primetime TV at 8 o’clock. I mean, even people who didn’t know who he was that day understood who he was and what it was about. I was around 12 or 13. It was in 1979. He actually got shot in my neighborhood at the 18th arrondissement in Montmartre and Porte de Clignancourt is actually there within walking distance. I wasn’t a fan of the character like a lot of people are in France. People literally walk around wearing a T-shirt with his face. He’s like a Che Guevara kind of figure except that he’s not Che Guevara at all. He’s not even Robin Hood. He never gave anything back to anybody and that’s what attracted me really. It’s how can people be so crazy about a guy who never did anything right really for anybody? I started in this business with a movie called Hate (La Haine) that has a lot to do with the suburbs, so I always had this relationship with my fanbase which is the suburbs. It’s very mixed with a lot of second generation Algerians and they are the biggest fanbase of Mesrine. This guy started his career by killing. The first man was an Arab and then the second was an Arab. He didn’t have to kill the second one. It was just to prove to himself that he was a real gangster. I really liked the idea of shocking those people with the need to tell them that their hero is not that clean after all. But funny enough, now that the movie has been out for awhile and it’s been on TV and on DVD, people still love him the same way today — and that, I don’t understand. You know, it’s one of the paradoxes. But I was attracted by that at first.
Q: What about his personality and his traits did you find interesting when you were reading the script?
VC: I always compare human beings to animals. It’s a nice way to figure out who they are. He was definitely not a goat. I think he had that kind of violence in him from the start, and even though he tried to find different kinds of justification for his choice of life throughout his career, I think none of them was right for him. He was just dreaming of being a gangster like the movies he was watching on the Boulevard in Paris when he was a kid. In a way, I can say he was a fake. He was like we say “a river without a coast.”
Q: Like a wannabe?
VC: Except that he became what he wanted to be. One thing that I have to say about him is that he was ready to pay the price for it. A lot of wannabes want to be, but then when it gets hectic, they escape. If there’s one reason why people admire him so much, and especially in that part of society which is mostly poor, it’s because he was against the system and he was ready to pay the price for it. I have to say that he was very brave in that sense because he knew exactly what he was doing. Sometimes he can sound a little stupid, a bit thick in his way of thinking, but that message he tapes right before his death – I’ve listened to that tape many times, of course, as you can imagine. He was much smarter that what people think. He knew exactly what was going to happen. The trial that went on for 20 years after his death – Did they kill him? Was it an execution or was it really self-defense on the part of the police? I mean, he solved the case before he died. If you listen to that tape one day, he says “If you’re listening to this tape, it’s because I’m dead.” That’s how it starts. And then he says, “And if I’m dead, trust me, it’s because I didn’t have time to use my weapon.” And so, he really tells everything that happened from his death until they solved the crime two days before he died. That’s pretty visionary and it tells us a lot about who he was really. He was a flamboyant kind of person but he was pretty lucid about it. There was one very important thing that he says, and in a way that’s the best legacy that he left. There are no heroes in criminality. He said it. Even though now people want to do exactly what he did and they want to be a rebel, they want to be a gangster, because they think it’s tough, they think it’s cool. But he didn’t think it was cool. I think he realized that he really messed up his life. He couldn’t take care of his kids. I’ve met his kids. Honestly, except for the first one, the girl, she’s fine, but the two boys are a mess. They had no father.
Q: When I was watching the film, I began to really dislike the character. Yet, at the same time, I wondered what he was going to do next and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Even though he’s contemptible, he’s very creative. Do you think that’s true?
VC: Yeah, I think you’re right. There is a little magic going on with this character. Honestly, from the start, I wanted to keep things clear about what he did. The first director we had in mind wanted to get rid of the racism and the violence against women in the first draft of the screenplay, but I said there’s no point in making a movie about this guy if you take away all the dirt. I mean, the magic that happened in his lifetime was that even though he was like that, people still liked him, and that’s the kind of magic that we had to recreate throughout the movie. I never did anything, I swear to God, to save the character even when we were shooting the scene with the journalist or the scene with his wife. I turned to the director and said “We might lose the audience. Do you realize that?” He said, “Yeah, but this guy is an extreme right journalist so in a way it’s right.” “Okay, but you agree that we can’t do things like this.” And in the end it worked. The feedback that I’ve had throughout the different countries in which the movie has been released is that everybody agreed that he is terrible and he’s not a respectable person, but in a way you like him. I don’t know why I’m still surprised by that but maybe it’s just because it’s against the system. Most of us are dreaming of being free of all that, but we don’t have the opportunity, we don’t have the guts, we don’t have the possibility of doing this. We don’t want to die shot by the policemen in the middle of the street, I guess.
Q: He has that streak of honor to his character which for me, at least, is what made me like him even though I didn’t agree with his line.
VC: I know. That’s something we have to respect. It’s like when he says something, he goes for it. And that’s why he gets so mad when the journalists tend to put that in jeopardy.
Q: What was it like working with such an intense character over the course of a 9-month shoot?
VC: I was very scared about the time and the length of the shoot before we started. I was ready to say “No. Okay, forget it. I’m not doing it. It’s okay.” I was ready to escape from the whole thing. But once we started, the nine months went like “pfffft” and I hadn’t seen anything, and when the movie was over, I couldn’t believe that it was already finished. I thought I would be tired after two months, but the truth is that after 9 months, I felt like I could have gone for 2 or 3 more months.
Q: I watched the films back to back. I just lost track of time. It was great.
VC: Which is a good sign. It’s very fast paced. Plus, the movie is not really psychological on a certain level, but at the same time there were so many things to say about this guy. We didn’t say half of it.
Q: In 1984, there was a critical box office bomb that was made about his life directed by Andre Genovese. It was also called Mesrine.
VC: It’s a classic for everybody even though it’s a very bad movie. It’s a terrible film.
Q: I know that the director, Jean-Francois Richet, was very much a fan of the 70s action films and gangster films. Was that movie any inspiration at all?
VC: First of all, you have to know that this movie was a classic. It’s like kids would have the DVD or the VHS and watch it over and over and over again.
Q: Like The Godfather?
VC: Yes, except unlike The Godfather, it was very, very bad. The acting is bad, the directing is terrible. Plus they couldn’t tell the truth at the time because it was too fresh. So they had to change the names. Some of the things we actually portray in the movie are not portrayed in the earlier movie because otherwise they would have been in trouble. Some people were still on trial. The movie is all wrong really. I saw it when I was younger. I didn’t even remember, to be honest. But then, we were shooting, and during those 9 months, because there was such a fuss in France about the fact that we were shooting it, they released the DVD again, and one day I was at the airport and I said “Oh I’m going to watch it again.” It was so depressing because it was the same wigs, the same places, and the same scenes. It was almost the same dialogue for some of them, and the same characters. It looked like a very, very cheap version of what we were doing and it got me depressed for two days. I said, “Is it really important what we are doing?” Sometimes it felt like I was watching very bad dailies of what we were doing. But that was the only thing people had to watch about this guy for a long time. It became [a] cult [classic].
Q: There’s a wonderful feeling of that 70s period, especially of 70s American cinema. How did you and Richet collaborate? Did he ask you to do any homework?
VC: It’s a long story, the beginning of all that for this production, because the story of Jacques Mesrine has a long history in the past with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Godard. They tried to make that movie many times and they couldn’t, and he wasn’t dead yet anyway so it wasn’t really interesting in a way. But, what happened is that Thomas Langmann, the producer, read the book when he was 17 and said “One day I will be a producer and I will make two movies about the life of this guy.” And then, he came to see me 9 years ago and said “I want you to play Mesrine.” I said, “Yeah, I think I know who he is.” I said yes because I felt there was something interesting about it, but I didn’t really get into it. And so then, we had the director but it took seven years to make the movie. I was involved on every level from choosing the director to the writer. I fought for a long time to make only one movie and then they got me [to agree to do two movies]. (Laughs) I was there all the time. Jean-Francois never asked me to do any homework because I was up to there already. I read everything. I met everybody I could. And then Jean-Francois went and dug into the police reports and the ballistic reports to understand if it was possible, if it really happened that way. Did he kill that guy in the forest? Was he the first one to shoot? We had to figure all these things out. We talked with people who said things to us they couldn’t say before. So I was involved in a way that very rarely you get involved in to that extent in a movie because you don’t have time for it really. For 7 years, I had time to work on it, to forget about it, come back to it, and forget about it again. By the time we started, I felt like I didn’t have anything to do because I was full of it already. I just had to gain some weight and find the physicality of it, but the homework had been done years ago.
Q: Was it always the intention to break it up into two movies instead of one long movie?
VC: I tried. Honestly, I really tried. The first script was going in a direction that I really didn’t like because, as I was saying, they wanted to make a hero out of him. I didn’t find that interesting. So I literally dropped out of the movie and when I came back, I said “Okay, I can make one okay movie, but not two.” We tried and it didn’t work. The director went away. The writer went away. The first writer was the guy who wrote Amelie Poulain. Why did they choose that guy to write a gangster movie? It just doesn’t work. And then, we had this guy called Abdel Raouf Dafri who wrote the first draft of A Prophet and the guy is, as his name says, from Algeria. I mean French, but from Algeria. He said to me “I won’t write a script about this guy because this guy is a jerk and what he did during the war is impossible.” And I said, “But that’s exactly why you should write it, because you’re against it, and we need to be against the character to treat him in a proper way.” He said, “Okay. I’m going to study it a bit.” And then, when he got involved in it, he found the interest in doing it and he started to like the character, because this guy was a racist at first, but then he wasn’t a racist at all. It’s almost like in French history, let’s say in the 60s during the war with Algeria, telling jokes about Arabs wasn’t racist. It was normal. It’s a bit like telling jokes about Germans today in France. It seems normal, but it’s racist.
Q: How do you think an American audience will relate to the fact that it’s a very French story that’s been made into two movies? Is that a problem?
VC: Two movies is a hard sell because people are not used to that. The good thing about it is, if they like the first one, eventually they will pay and go see the second one. So it can be economically interesting. It’s been interesting in France and England and in quite a few countries actually. I think American audiences like gangster movies. You know, it’s part of the culture. The plus with this, I think, is that it’s pretty exotic in a way. If they liked Amelie Poulain, they might like Mesrine because it’s very French. It’s very Paris. It’s like Babesque, Pigalle, all those places, and the way they dress, the way they act. It’s very, very French. So maybe people will like it because of that. There are two different factors that might seduce an American audience: it’s violent and French.
Q: What do you have coming up next?
VC: Quite a lot of things actually. The first thing is Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder. It’s opening the Venice Film Festival. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the bits and pieces I’ve seen of it and the buzz around it is wonderful. I really believe it’s going to be a very interesting piece of work. I play a Balanchine of our time. I’m a control freak. I’m a very hard person to work with. I use sexuality to produce results with my dancers and with my ballerinas. I’m not gay, like Balanchine and like very few choreographers of ballet. It’s paranormal a bit. It’s about craziness. It’s pretty dark. I think it’s very entertaining, too, from the script. That’s the first thing. Then I have another movie that I’m producing called Notre Jour Viendra (Our Day Will Come) with director Romain Gavras, who’s the son of Costa Gravas. He directed two very violent music videos, one for M.I.A. (Born Free) with the Redheads and the other one for Justice with the black kids breaking everything in Paris. They were really beautiful pieces of work and very interesting movie making. That’s why I signed him. It’s about two Redheads rebelling against society because they don’t want to be bullied anymore. It’s a metaphor about minorities obviously. And then, I just completed a movie with David Cronenberg called A Dangerous Method about the relationship between Freud and Jung. That’s with Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbinder, Keira Knightley and myself. And then, I have another one that I completed called The Monk from the famous Gothic novel from the 17th century written by (Matthew Gregory) Lewis. It’s about a monk who was the best monk of his time and suddenly he realized that above religion, there is life and the moment, so he discovers love, sex and he becomes totally crazy. There’s Fantomas too, but I haven’t shot that one. I’m just talking about the ones I already have in store. Then I have a bunch of them coming such as Fantomas and a romantic comedy in Brazil.
Q: I’m a huge fan of your fathers and I know that he was scheduled to appear in the movie with you…
VC: He was supposed to play my father.
Q: My condolences. I know he died shortly after the movie started.
VC: Thank you.
Q: In terms of your father’s career, there were comedies and films like Army of Shadows and working with Bunuel, but mostly it was lighter fare. Your career, on the other hand, has taken a completely different path and your films have been mostly dark, at least the ones we’ve seen here in the United States.
VC: That’s what I do. That’s my trademark. (Laughs)
VC: That was supposed to be a comedy. I think it’s very funny but people thought it was terrible.
Q: Was that a conscious desire to try a different approach or do you think it’s the fact that these are the kind of movies that are being made today? Did your dad have any influences on your choices?
VC: Choices? No, but for the rest, definitely, of course. I really needed to find my own identity. I couldn’t have done the kind of movies he did. I was almost against those. I’m not talking about Bunuel because Bunuel is Bunuel. But all the Philippe de Broca and all those things, they were really light and very bourgeois. And, even though now I can appreciate them much more, as a kid I didn’t understand. It was like it’s too close to who you are. I wanted to transform myself. I wanted to be something else. And so, I started with La Haine which was definitely a character that was very far away from what I am in real life. That was a blessing really because from the start people didn’t understand who I was. Then I kept it very imprecise for the audience. For years, people didn’t know who I was and now I’m fucked. (Laughs) So yes, it was choices plus I think the kind of movies I’m making myself are more appropriate with the times today. I really like romantic comedies and light movies and everything but I think – I don’t know where it comes from – but when you’re doing violent movies today, you’re closer to reality. I mean, Irreversible for me is a very real movie and it’s the ultimate horror movie too.
Q: Are you pleased with how your Mesrine turned out compared to the bad 1984 version?
VC: Oh yes, I really like the movie. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here three years after I shot it. (Laughs)
Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Part 1) opens in Los Angeles on August 27th. Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (Part 2) opens on September 3rd.