Mr. Cassel, how come you always play such raw characters?
I guess because that’s what attracts me, really. Even when I watch people in real life. In French we call it à plusieurs couches.
Are you talking about multi-layered personalities?
Yes. The way people behave, the paradoxes, the contradictions. All these things we have to live with and still pretend that everything is only black or white. That, I think, is the most interesting thing in human nature. The fact that we have to do one thing and pretend something else. That’s when it becomes very interesting. If you can literally speak the way you feel, then it’s not interesting anymore. It’s when you have to lie that it becomes interesting.
Where do you think your interest in this comes from?
I don’t know, I started this career dreaming about Jean Gian Maria Volontè and Robert De Niro and they never really played nice, clean cut, crispy-clean kind of guys. They always played characters that were spiteful but at the same time fascinating. By the time I started to make movies that is the kind of thing that I chose. I think they’re just more interesting. And in a way I think they represent life better than heroes and the so-called good guys, really.
Speaking of De Niro, I once spoke to a director who had worked with him and he told me that there is something about De Niro, without him having to do anything at all, that scared him. I think people also have this kind of fear with you. Have you experienced that in the past?
Yeah, of course. When people see you doing those kinds of characters, then they don’t know. But it’s just acting and that’s fine. Plus, the mix of those two things keeps the mystery alive.
Is it easy to direct you? Do you argue with your directors?
No, no, no. I’m very confident with the director. If I say yes to a movie, it’s because the guy is fascinating in my eyes and I’m interested in the way he does things and I want to learn more. So yes, if I’m in the hands of somebody that I don’t trust then it’s going to be hard to direct me, but I never get into that position anymore. I do think it’s good when people never really know what your next move is going to be, whether you’re nice or not. I think it’s important for an actor to keep that thing. If you appear too much as yourself, if you talk too much about who you are, then people don’t care. They know you.
Do you feel that people also show off too much of themselves for the media, that the star is more important than the actor and they can’t disappear behind a role anymore?
It depends on who you are. Some people still manage to disappear. The problem is that the system is made in a way where it’s very hard to escape, you get trapped very easily. I used to be a little more rude. Every time somebody would talk to me about my wife or my kids I would just cut off. But then again, I’d rather be polite because you don’t have to be rude to people.
You seem to try to separate certain things from each other. Work and family. Even friends and family. Your wife Monica Bellucci once told me you don’t even have the same friends, which seems quite unusual.
But I think it’s pretty healthy. We have something in common – we do the same kind of business, but then, you know, to share the friends… I like it how we do it. I think it’s healthy – everybody has freedom, their own lives. If you stick together it’s not because you have to, it’s because you feel like it.
Talking about the freedom, is the constant travelling and not really living at one place part of that as well? Do you enjoy that?
I don’t know. We’re traveling a lot, it’s a way of living. It’s a little more expensive I have to say. But altogether it’s great to do these kind of things while you can, because after a certain point I guess you just stop because either you’re too old or your kids don’t want to move anymore. But right now that’s how we live. I love it actually. It definitely gives you a sense of freedom.
Did a search for freedom also influence your decision to become an actor?
The thing is that I really grew up on set and backstage and in theaters, so the minute I wanted to take control of my life, the easiest thing to project myself with was the stage, really. Not even movies at the time. It was more like: I could do this and show it. And that’s how I started. We had a show with my friends from the circus school and we would go and do it in the street. It was very immediate. It’s very easy, you don’t need money, you just need to train and just do it and if it’s good people stay and give you money, otherwise they just leave and whistle. So I don’t know, it was just the easiest thing for me to do.
I am sure back then the whistling was part of the game. But does is bother you if a movie is not successful nowadays?
A movie has to be different, unique, not something you’ve seen before. Yeah and then it’s interesting. Maybe it’s not box office wise a huge success, maybe some critics are not going to like it, or even hate it eventually, but at the end, as an audience, if you see something that doesn’t look like anything else, you didn’t waste your time.
With that attitude you’ve managed to be referred to as a big star of European cinema. Do you like that description?
I don’t mind it, you know. It’s not totally true, by the way. Maybe from an American point of view Europe is one big thing, but – as you know – Germany is very different from France, is very different from Italy. It’s not like that really. But I guess from that side of the Atlantic, it’s a vision. It’s a possible vision of what we do.
In comparisson to European cinema, US films are often labeled as too mainstream and two-dimensional, yet you’ve managed to show that there is much more to it by working with people like Aranofsky and Cronenberg.
First of all I think people have a tendency to confound American cinema and studio cinema, which is very different. I mean, Black Swan, the Darren Aronofsky movie, is not a typical American movie. If you want to make a long story short, I guess it’s very much about the end of the movie. If it’s a happy end, you know, it will be more American. If it’s not as clear who’s the bad guy, who’s the good person, then it’s a little more European (Laughs).