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Vincent Cassel: A Q&A With the Black Swan Star

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From his angry young man in La Haine (1995), to his Capoeira-loving Ocean's 12 sidekick and his Cesar-award winning Mesrine, Vincent Cassel, 44, gives his all: head, heart and muscle. We sat down at Manhattan's Mercer Hotel to discuss his domineering ballet master in Black Swan. I found him intense, playful and every bit the French gentleman (no talking with his mouth full despite the steak on the plate before him!).

TA: Is there a difference between making films in France and in America?
VC: I don't think it has any thing to do with the nationality. It's just that it changes from one director to the other. You can't compare a Darren Aronofsky to Oliver Stone. There is this idea that it's very different from the French point of view to work in America blah, blah, blah. But I think it's different from one person to the other, not from one country to the other
TA: What was it like with Aronofsky?
VC: Easy. We're the same age, the same sensibility. I like him, first of all. I've been watching him not because I felt that one day I would work with him but because I was interested in his path, his choices. While he was shooting The Fountain we were shooting Renegade. It was a shamanic western. It had a lot to do with The Fountain. There was some thing else in common: It was a flop.
TA: And now you share a hit. What was it like creating Thomas Leroy in Black Swan?
VC: It was a coming back home. I grew up in the very environment, in studios and backstage and onstage because my father was dancing.
TA: Gene Kelly discovered your father, Jean-Pierre Cassel, tap dancing on stage, right?
VC: He was a dancer and an actor. We had a pretty close relationship with Michael Bennett, director of A Chorus Line. My father portrayed Zach, the director. So he was doing more or less the part I'm playing in Black Swan: very demanding, sadistic, tough on the dancers. When I read the script I felt like, oh, I know that world.
TA: In this film, there's the dance world but it's also an All About Eve story
VC: The backstage is the most interesting thing as a story to be told because the ballet, everybody knows the story, and of course it's very stylish and not very, let's say, new? Dusty.
TA: I love the way it captures the physicality of ballet.
VC: it's one of the hardest things in the world, you suffer on a daily basis. It's like being a boxer, or a monk. You do it because there's no other way.
TA: In that way it's thematically tied to The Wrestler.
VC: It's actually the same idea. For Darren Aronofsky, it's the same movie.
TA: Though this one takes a metaphysical leap the other didn't. Once Natalie Portman's Nina starts growing feathers, this one has the intensity where it starts to spiral. You don't know what you're seeing, what's real, what's not, whereas The Wrestler was all what you see is what is.
VC: It goes a little further out there, this one. Strangely enough, I think that's what makes it accessible to a larger audience. At first, it doesn't appear like a psychological thriller in the vein of say the early Polanski, and then when I saw the movie for the first time, I realized it was actually much more graphic, erotic, and scary. There's a realistic part and then the thing goes sci fi. I didn't realize that we were doing this from reading the script. I thought it would be more like The Tenant...
TA: How would you describe your character's arc?
VC: He falls in love with Nina when she gets where he wants her. I hope you understand it's not about getting laid. It's very much about directing in a very intrusive way. When I first saw it at the Venice film festival when the lights came back I was like wow, let's go have a drink. It's very demanding I think.
TA: Why do you think it's so demanding?
VC: Maybe because it's visually very rich; there's so many things going on, so many details, even in terms of the sound.
TA: Could you talk about Natalie Portman? Her character is moving from light to dark; Nina is about finding the darkness within your self.
VC: I would say that she goes from something whiter than what she is to something darker than what she is because Natalie is not that cute little girl.
TA: The movie pushes Portman out of that safety zone
VC: She was looking for that. She wanted to grow.
TA: She wants to push her boundaries.
VC: In The Closer with Clive Owen she was already going there. On this she really goes for it, that's for sure.
TA: Tell me about your scenes together?
VC: She's very easy. She doesn't bring that diva bullshit that she could because she was the star. We had some scenes where you have to kiss and blah blah and it's not fun to do those scenes and she goes for it. She dares and she doesn't fake it. [laughs] It sounds like all the lines are coming from the movie now.
TA: What was different for you in this movie?
VC: It definitely has something to do with my father; an homage for me. He'd played that part in A Chorus Line. It occurred to me that I had to wait until he died to be a dancer in a movie. He would have loved it. Some times when parents disappear you suddenly accept more things from them. I worked with young directors all my life, only young directors. He dies, and it's the first time I do a Jean-Jacques Annaud movie, and David Cronenberg.
TA: Your shooting Cronenberg's Freud movie, A Dangerous Method...
VC: ...it's actually finished. It's shot.
TA: It's about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung
VC: Freud, Jung and I'm Otto.
TA: Otto who?
VC: Otto Gross. He would have been the spiritual son of Freud and Jung. He was really, really bright except that the guy was insane, more than they were. He was pushing the boundaries in terms of psychotherapy at the time, but he was a cocaine addict, he was having sex with literally everybody, he was having kids everywhere. His motto was to never repress any thing. He was living it. So, at some point, Freud sent him to Jung, saying to Jung I would like to cure this guy. He knew that Otto would push Jung further.
TA: And who plays those roles?
VC: Viggo Mortensen is Freud and Michael Fassbender is Jung.
TA: That's an intense group.
VC: You know what? It was a lot of fun. Cronenberg's a lot of fun, and that a lot of people don't know watching his movies. He doesn't take himself seriously. He's still reinventing himself.
TA: What's next?
VC: A romantic comedy with my wife; a very sexy one.
TA: Given your wife, Monica Bellucci, that's no surprise.
VC: Well, it's going to be sexy, very sexy.
TA: To quote Otto, "Never repress any thing."