With a handsomely commanding if somewhat wiry presence, Vincent Cassel has been the go-to guy when it comes to finding that continental touch of villainy. Truly making a splash as one of the French punks in 1995’s la haine (Hate), Cassel has gone on to play the criminal mastermind of Dobermann, the supernaturally psychotic aristocrat of Brotherhood of the Wolf, the pimp who ruins Clive Owens’s life in Derailed, as well as a limber cat burglar who twisted through the last two Oceans movies. And that’s just the tip of the twisted iceberg that Cassel plays like few actors anywhere in the business.
Much of the same can be said for the real-life super villain Jacques Mesrine, a master escape artist, robber, and likely killer. Yet his panache made the thousands of people he’d likely victimize into his number-one fans. Now the stranger-than-fiction escapades of Mesrine provide Vincent Cassel with his ultimate bad-guy role. Over the course of two riveting films, Cassel gets to indulge in alternately humorous and horrifying acts that make our Scarface seem like a piker as Mesrine rises to public enemy number one. It’s a cavalcade of kidnappings, beatings, awful prison stints, and animal attraction that Cassel gets to make mincemeat of. But make no mistake that his performance resembles any cartoon crime lord. In Cassel’s capable hands, Jacques Mesrine is very much human, alternately likable and terrifying in his rush to become France’s answer to John Dillinger — an amazing performance that truly puts Vincent Cassel at the top of the criminal world.
Daniel Schweiger: They say that an actor has to truly empathize with the characters they play. Given the number of villainous people you portray so well, how much do you love Jacques Mesrine, and how much do you hate him?
Vincent Cassel: While I always need to understand my character, I’m not the kind of character who needs to like him or hate him, so there’s no passion from me toward Mesrine, but I am very interested in the contradictions he provokes. Many times, when we were shooting, I would turn back to the director and say, “We’re going to lose the audience because what this guy is doing right now is awful.” But the deal was to recreate the magic that happened in Mesrine’s lifetime, and even though this guy did all those terrible things, people still like him. So the deal from the start was not to hide anything. Yes, we’re going to keep Mesrine a racist. Yes, we’re going to keep him violent with women. Yes, we’re going to keep him killing people. But eventually, people might still root for him. And that’s Mesrine’s “magic.”
DS: Mesrine starts out like Scarface’s Tony Montana, in a way — a criminal with a moral code about whom he maims or kills, but that line gets crossed with the audience very quickly, which makes it even more troubling when we end up rooting for Mesrine to escape the cops. What was it that shocked you the most about Mesrine’s actions?
VC: It’s in the second film, when he tortures a journalist. The guy was a real extreme right-winger. He was terrible. A scumbag. But he didn’t deserve what Mesrine did to him. Mesrine’s accomplice even took us to the cave where it happened and gave us all the details. But somehow the reporter lived through it all, and when they accused Mesrine of trying to kill him, he said, “No I didn’t try to kill him or he’d be dead.” He probably survived because Mesrine couldn’t aim properly. His friend said, “I had to keep the reporter down with my foot with each and every bullet because he moved so much!” That’s the truth, and it was scary to hear that. I just wanted to get rid of that scene and move on.
DS: What do you think are the biggest tonal differences between part 1 and part 2 of Mesrine?
VC: The storytelling is different. Public Enemy #1 is a little more classical. Killer Instinct is more about getting into the ego of the guy, where everything becomes too much. There are a lot of jump cuts from one thing to another because it’s more about the craziness of it all. So in that way, I think the second movie is more complex. I think it’s also more depressing because the first one is the rise of the guy, which is pretty inspiring in terms of energy. Then, in the second one, the guy goes crazy so he goes down, down, down until his death. That makes it a little pathetic, a little sadder.
DS: Do you think there’s something specifically “French” about Mesrine? Or do you think there’s kind of a universal “language” that master criminals like him, John Dillinger, and Pablo Escobar speak?
VC: Having played bad guys on a regular basis, I’m approached by people who are like them in real life — big dealers — and I realize that they love to be portrayed in cinema. I’ve talked to bank robbers who identify with Scarface. He might not exist, but they want to be him. It’s like they recognize themselves in him.
DS: When we meet Mesrine in Algeria, he’s already doing some horrendous stuff under order of the French army. In that way, do you think Mesrine is a government-made killer who really isn’t to be blamed for what he was shaped into?
VC: I think it maybe was justification that he found for his actions. Jacques Mesrine had a problem with authority. Doing these movies, I’ve discovered that people like my father, who came from the same generation as Mesrine, were ashamed of their parents because they lost the second World War. So when the war in Algeria happened, they were all willing to go there to wash the honor of the previous generation. It’s a very strange psychological mechanism.
DS: Do you think criminals like Mesrine want to be movie stars when it all comes down to it?
VC: I think that when you’re a real tough guy, you’re not making movies. You have something else to do, yet I think they would still like to have the recognition and all the glam of so-called celebrity. But you don’t get the same adrenaline because there’s no real danger in acting. Yeah, you can fuck up your career eventually, but that’s the worst thing that can happen to you. When researching my characters, these robbers would tell me crazy things for advise, like what happens when you go for a heist. Your heart’s pumping because you have no time. You have to hit the guy, and he has to feel you all the time until you’re out of the bank. “Gun in the face! Gun in the face! Don’t let him think for one second.”
DS: They had actually made a Mesrine film back in 1984.
VC: Yeah, but it was really bad. I think you can see bits and pieces of it on YouTube. It was made for no money. It was very stiff. Plus, it was too fresh. There were a lot of things that are portrayed in that movie that people couldn’t really tell the truth about at the time. The trial concerning Mesrine’s death ended like a month before we started shooting — 30 years later!
DS: What do you think really happened?
VC: I think the guy got too loud. The government felt like fools at the time. They just decided to terminate Mesrine, even though they never called it that. In ’78, one year before he died, Mesrine was the favorite celebrity of the French people. Everybody was looking for him, and he still managed to give an interview threatening the government. It was a cover story which showed Mesrine with a machine gun and hand grenades. At that point, the government just said, “Enough. Stop everything you’re doing right now and concentrate on finding him. We want to get rid of this guy.” So Mesrine died because he was too loud. Even today, there hasn’t been one murder that Mesrine has been accused of committing where he’s been proven to have been the actual killer. So we don’t even know that Mesrine truly killed anyone.
DS: One of the best scenes in the two Mesrine films is in part one, where he goes mad in ultra-solitary confinement. I can imagine it’s one thing to psych yourself up to play the tough guy, but it’s another to be absolutely convincing as someone who’s gone mad because of prison torture. What was it like shooting those scenes for you?
VC: A lot of people are telling me about how harsh that scene is, but it wasn’t the roughest thing to play because it’s all fake, really. The water was kind of warm, and the things they were hitting me with were soft, so it’s all about the choreography and the acting really. I didn’t suffer that day.
DS: You certainly made me believe it.
VC: It works. That’s what it’s all about. It wasn’t the roughest thing really. Actually, I think the roughest thing in Mesrine for me to play was when I had to torture that reporter. It was a very strange day because I felt like Mesrine’s accomplice was truly excited by what he was showing us. He was excited by the revival of that moment. I just wanted to shoot that scene and go.
DS: One of the first movies I truly noticed your criminal talents in was 1997’s Dobermann. It’s an incredible, ultra-violent crime film that has yet to be released in this country.
VC: I know. Miramax bought it and kept it in a locker room forever. Dobermann was pretty new for the French cinema at the time. We were killed by the press. They called us fascists. They called our director, Jan Kounen, a “Mussolini-an” director, whatever that means, but I guess when people get crazy about a movie, they start to use that terminology. But it also means that they’ve been touched by it, one way or another. If there’s a movie I’ve done that Mesrine also reminds me of, it’s Read My Lips. I think Mesrine is a mix of Dobermann and Read My Lips a bit because it has the craziness and graphic violence of Dobermann but in a less cartoonish way, and Mesrine also has the texture and truthfulness that Read My Lips had.
DS: For me, your true talent at playing so many great bad guys is how you invest even the worst of them with a real humanity, especially as Kirill in Eastern Promises, even when he’s about to drown a baby.
VC: If I’ve got a good guy to play, I’ll find the dirt in him. And if it’s a bad guy, I need to find the bright side to him. I think it’s that “bright” side that makes the villains more “real” on screen than the good guys. The truth is that we all do terrible things. Maybe not to that level, of course, because most of us don’t kill or rob banks, yet we all have skeletons in our closets. We cheat, we lie, and we can be cowards. But if you want to play a hero, you can’t really use those things. When you play a bad guy, you have to use those things. So all together, I think bad guys are closer to reality. They’re more human to me, most of the time.
DS: I read that they’re going to be doing a sequel to Eastern Promises. Would Kirill be back for it?
DS: What’s happened to him since?
VC: I’m not going to tell you, but the idea is to make a sequel that would be shot in Russia using the same crew. I’m dying to do it because I really like the character — the complexity of him being a hidden gay person. Hopefully the film is going to go. It’s not quite sure yet, but I know David Cronenberg wants to do it, and I think Viggo Mortensen is interested, so hopefully it’s going to happen.
DS: Another one of my favorite villain parts you’ve done is playing Jean-Francois in Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf. Now you’re set to be in his Fantomas, who is a famed French super-villain.
VC: Fantomas is going to be a huge movie in terms of budget. It’s going to be around 60 million Euros, if not more, and we’re going to shoot it in 3D. It’s a superhero movie, except that they are all super-villains and their battlefield is the world. So that’s the idea of it.
DS: Like Despicable Me?
VC: Kind of, except it’s not a cartoon, but it will involve a lot of high technology and CGI. Fantomas was the master of disguise, but because this is more futuristic, we’ll use some kind of holograms and I will use other actors’ personas. I will be dressed with CGI and I will look like other actors, but it will always be “me.”
DS: You and your wife, Monica Bellucci, are essentially the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of France. In a way, do you think it’s easier to be that kind of superstar couple in France than in Hollywood?
VC: Definitely, but we’re not as known as them so it’s a different scale and it’s a little more normal, I guess. Here, that kind of celebrity culture comes to an extent that is really insane. People started to think it’s normal, and that’s the worst part of it, I guess. In Italy, they can also be stupid like that. But in France, I think we still have some kind of dignity about it. You can still sue people if they take pictures of you.
DS: What does it take to be the go-to Euro villain of Hollywood?
VC: First of all, I don’t really feel like that, but I don’t mind. I started with la haine, where I wasn’t a good guy. Then came Dobermann and Irreversible, so it’s not like I have to make an effort to play bad guys. It’s something I like. I say “bad guys” so people understand me, but to me, they are not bad. They’re just complex.
Music Box Films' 'Mesrine: Public Enemy #1' is released on September 3, 2010.