If nothing succeeds like excess, Natalie Portman could be a shoo-in to win an Oscar for her tour-de- force portrayal of a sexually deranged prima ballerina in Darren Aronofsky's mesmerising thriller Black Swan.
"I drove her to it," laughs Vincent Cassel, referring to his domineering role as a Svengali-like choreographer who plucks Portman's Nina from obscurity to dance the lead in a New York production of Swan Lake.
The 43-year-old Frenchman has a record of playing macho and often brutal characters. He made his name as a skinhead outsider in La Haine, and was an avenging lover in Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, a film notorious for a nine-minute long anal rape sequence involving his off-screen wife Monica Bellucci. He terrorised Diane Lane in Derailed and was a self-obsessed Russian thug in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises.
But he's been funny, too, as a narcissistic cat burglar in Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen.
"People ask why I keep being a baddie, but I don't regard these characters as baddies," he says. "They're accurate reflections of humanity. Baddies have complexes, they have problems. My Black Swan character Thomas is fortysomething and has a large apartment, but it's empty. Nobody lives with him. I don't think he's really interested in women so much as he's excited by the challenge of driving them to perfection. It's a pretty sad life. If people like that don't excel at what they do, they don't exist. I think when you start to get these things, they become a little touching."
While Cassel's Thomas is confident Nina has enough technical ability to capture the innocence of the ballet's White Swan, he initially doubts her emotional depth to convey the inherent evil of the Black Swan. She convinces him with a vicious bite when he tries to kiss her full on the lips. Letting loose her repressed inner feelings and longings – and defying her overly protective mother, a failed dancer hoping to realise her own frustrated ambitions through her – Nina submerses herself so obsessively in the role that she loses touch with reality and becomes a threat to herself and others, particularly a carefree, sexually promiscuous rival dancer Lily, played by Mila Kunis.
Cassel says great choreographers like Balanchine and Baryshnikov were role models for his own performance. "Balanchine was known for having affairs with his dancers and would direct them through their sexual relationship.
"Dancers are particularly vulnerable. They suffer every day for what is eventually a short career. Only a few really do what they want to do, the rest are participating in the back for years and never get to star.
"It's the muse thing with Nina. A lot of actors and directors have affairs with their lead actress. It's a way to know each other better."
He's talking from experience. He met the Italian actress Monica Bellucci when they were cast together in L'Appartement in 1996. They've been together ever since, marrying in 1999. So far, they've co-starred in eight films.
"With two little daughters, Deva and Leonie, we haven't worked together for a while, but we're going to do it again as soon as we can," he says.
"I don't understand why couples say they couldn't work together. For me, it's easier. With this business, you travel a lot. Sometimes it's complicated to meet for more than a few weeks. So when you get involved in the same movie you know you can stick together for at least two or three months."
Cassel prefers to work with friends. "I'd known Gasper Noe for years, so when he asked me one night at a party if I'd do Irreversible – Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman had dropped out for Eyes Wide Shut – I said yes right away."
He made La Haine with Mathieu Kassovitz because they were friends, and hired newcomer Jean-Francois Richet, another friend, to direct the two Mesrine films. "I feel I've discovered my identity through the films I've done."
It's the reason he kept refusing to work with his father Jean-Pierre Cassel, an iconic French star of the 1960s and '70s. "If you choose to be in the same business as your parents, you have to tear yourself away to prove yourself. You have to kill your father, especially if he is so much in the light. But the problem is my father didn't want to be killed."
His father, known as the 'French Astaire' for his lightness of feet, starred in several Philippe de Broca light comedies as well as Richard Lester's Three Musketeers and Murder on the Orient Express. Luis Bunuel brought out his deeper side in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
"I tried to go the other way and be as different to him as I could," Cassel says.
"For Mesrine, I gained weight, tinted my hair and wore lenses. When I saw the film it was terrible because I never looked like him as much as I did in that film. He'd agreed to act with me as Mesrine's father, who was dying of cancer. Then he got cancer too. I asked if he was sure he wanted to go ahead with the film. He said 'Well, Vincent, I suspect I would be rather good at it'. A couple of days later he died."
Cassel grew up in Paris, around the corner from where Mesrine was gunned down by gendarmes in 1979. "I was 12 and didn't know who he was. But it all happened live on television, so it stuck with me."
When Cassel's parents divorced, he was sent to boarding school, but he'd spend his holidays with his grandparents in south-west France. "They had a theatre-cum-cinema. They'd show cartoons or light comedies in the afternoons, regular films in the evening – that's how I first saw Taxi Driver – and horror and porn late-night. We children slept in the actors' dressing rooms which had these mirror with lights. We used the cinema bathroom as sneaking out to the toilet we'd see nearly everything that was showing. My grandmother was coming, 'Get out of here, this is not for you!' It was like Cinema Paradiso."
Cassel recently completed A Dangerous Method, reuniting with David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen from Eastern Promises. It's based on Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure and set in Vienna and Zurich just before World War I. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) falls out with his mentor Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) over a beautiful but troubled patient Sabina Speilrein (Keira Knightley).
"It's Natalie all over again," Cassel says. "I'll soon be an expert at handling difficult women."
Black Swan opens on Friday
The chart-topping music video Born Free, by multi-talented hip-hop rapper M.I.A., has been expanded into a feature film by its French director Romain Gavras, a son of Costa Gavras, director of Missing and Z.
"The video is about red-haired kids who are taken from their families and forced to run through minefields, so you see them running and exploding," says Vincent Cassel, who plays a teacher going on a rampage with one of his outcast pupils.
"Our film Our Day Will Come is a metaphor for the identity crisis of minorities. Instead of being blacks or Arabs or Jews or homosexuals, they're redheads. But it's about difference rather than redheads. The redheads is just a pretext."
He laughs. "You'll be amused to know they want to go to Ireland, because it's a promised land for them."
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