Vincent Cassel on Sex, Hip-Hop, and the Legacy of 'La Haine'


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Vincent Cassel on Sex, Hip-Hop, and the Legacy of 'La Haine'

We spoke to the star of 'Irréversible', 'Tale of Tales' and the cult French classic 'La Haine' about growing up in 1980s Paris.

Illustration by Dan Evans

This article originally appeared in VICE UK.

Topless, longhaired and in the middle of an orgy: that's how you make a good entrance in a film. Problem is, not any actor can pull this off. But Vincent Cassel can, and does, in Tale of Tales, Matteo Garrone's mad and beautiful new epic. Cassel is louche, sexy and French – very French. He's aged like a fine wine disguised as a ragged lion, all stubble and hair and Gallic mischief. The man's obviously had some fun.


"I think not taking yourself too seriously is one of the keys to not going crazy in this business," Cassel says over the phone from Paris. The 49-year-old actor, who made his breakthrough in Mathieu Kassovitz's iconic La Haine just over 20 years ago, lives in Rio now, but has returned to his home country. He's replacing one of his mentors, Gerard Depardieu, in a film the Russian citizen, vineyard owner and legend of French cinema has walked out of. Depardieu, it seems, is at that point in his life where he really just doesn't give a shit.

Depardieu's sense of fun is one of the things Cassel always liked about him. For ten years as a young actor, Cassel was a serious student. He studied all sorts of acting techniques, from method acting in New York to the "really French acting classes where they only talk about pronunciation". He took himself seriously, taking notes, agonising over the process, trying to reassure himself that what he was doing was real work.

"And then I realised one thing," he tells me. "The hardest thing is to accept that acting is easy. I would say anybody could do it. You have to accept it is nothing – and then eventually you can have fun and you can take it for what it is, which is the science of the moment." The moment is something Cassel is keen on. Being in the present is a key component of his work. He tells younger actors to chill out, points out that at least they're already working, and says they should respect what's happening while they're in the camera frame.


He takes photos of his children that he can't delete, even if they're out of focus, because, imperfect or not, the moment has value. Life is not the same as a film set, though, and Cassel is not the first artist to note the difference between the messy realities of life and the created fantasies of his line of work. "It's harder to do it in real life because you have a lot to lose," he says. "To do it in front of a camera is somehow a release – it's easier to be present in the moment as an actor in a situation that is fake, than in your actual life."

A few days before I speak to him, the Telegraph publishes an interview with Cassel in which he talks about his separation, three years ago, from the Italian actress Monica Bellucci, the mother of his two daughters. The interviewer digs up quotes alluding to the more open "European" nature of Cassel and Bellucci's relationship.

His role in Tale of Tales also has the Frenchman reflecting on male desire. I describe the film to him as a gothic fairytale, one that reminded me of the Brothers Grimm or Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, but Cassel thinks of it more as a "reference to Italian horror cinema from the 70s… there's something nostalgic about it, which is what I like about it, by the way".

As the King of Strongcliff, Cassel plays a man obsessed with sex and beauty. He must possess whatever he desires, hence those opening scene orgies, in which he crawls from naked woman to naked woman. "It's a mockery about being a man, really," he says. "The constant seeking of fresh meat, in an absurd way – the pursuit of desire, in order not to feel dead. The fact that this whole situation comes back to him like a slap in the face tells you about machismo and how a man who wants to control family doesn't control anything."


I ask Cassel if he thinks men in general are more restless beings. "Yeah," he says, "it feels like it's in our DNA. Whether we can try, through our lives, to rationalise desire and make it something we can control, it's still what makes the world go round. This is what people talk about all the time. The other day I was reading about Federico Fellini and Italo Calvino, who used to hang out. We're talking about really smart, talented people. What did they talk about when they were together? They talked about women."

Cassel sketches out an imagining of this in perfect Italian: "She's really cute, but she's married," Fellini says. "Yes, but if you hire her for a film, you'll have a moment with her," replies Calvino. Cassel roars with laughter.

Early in his life Vincent Cassel wanted to be part of this world of art and sex. He also wanted the streets. "I went to very shit and expensive boarding schools, and I was running away all the time," he explains. "So, finally, when I managed to come back to Paris and to take my future in hand, I decided I wanted to be an actor and a dancer and to work with my generation and fuck the others."

He acted in shows on the street and then in the theatre. He didn't make a lot of money, but he made more than his friends. He could pay for an apartment and he could travel around when he wanted to – "not business class, but I could travel".

In the early to mid-1980s, when he came back to Paris, he hung out on the streets. He was "dreaming about the Italian-American cinema from the 70s, it was all rough and gritty and that was what I was looking for". This was the Paris we see in La Haine. It didn't matter that Cassel was a boarding school kid – his brother was an MC, and anyway, "we were all going to the same parties. There were differences, but I wasn't riding a Porsche."


In squats in the 19th arrondissement and clubs like Le Globo and Le Bobino, Cassel was witness to the birth of French hip-hop. "It was very mixed," he recalls, of the crowds and the places. "It was the area of Jean-Paul Goude and Jean-Baptiste Mondino, but at the same time it was the beginning of hip-hop, and we had Public Enemy dropping by and all these kids from the street playing music that nobody would listen to. They weren't playing beats anywhere else – everything was very poppy and, let's face it, very white. We were different, we were dressed different," he trails off. "I don't know – it was real funky."

Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui and Hubert Koundé in 'La Haine'

I mention the style of La Haine – how the clothes him, Said and Hubert wore are back in fashion. "They never left!" he protests. "501s, Stan Smiths, a leather jacket, shave your head… it's funny how suddenly the fashion industry wants to make it new again, but it never left. Check the street, it's always been there." Today, Cassel tends to cut a smarter figure, at least in photo shoots. When did he stop dressing like Vinz from La Haine? "Did I really? I don't know. My pants are not that baggy any more, and my sneakers are lower and not as bright, but I feel like… it's not as baggy as it used to be, but it's more or less the same cuts." He laughs.

Before La Haine came out, the French film industry was so disconnected from the world of the nation's streets that distributors considered including subtitles for French audiences. Today, the stark societal divisions the film explored are just as present. A country built on cheap labour from its colonies, France has failed to invest in the children and grandchildren of those men and women who came from North and West Africa (among other places) to work in and for France. Behind the horrifying terrorist attacks that make the news, unemployment and poverty bite in the kinds of places La Haine depicted.


"When your kids are born in a place and people are pointing at them and telling them they are different, when they realise that even though they are French they don't have the same possibilities and luck and opportunities, they grow angry," says Cassel. "Anyone would do the same – they've been treated like shit. Each generation is getting more and more angry and has less and less education."

All his life, Cassel says, he voted against somebody. The vote he cast was for someone who wasn't quite as reprehensible than the other guy. He's feeling the Bern, though. "I wish I could be American, just to vote for Sanders. This is the first time that I see a politician that says things I can relate to." Does he think there's anyone like Bernie in France right now? "I don't think: I know there's no one in France like that right now."

His life in Rio sounds more sedate than his life as a hip-hop loving party guy in 80s and 90s Paris. "I became pretty healthy, so I don't drink or smoke that much," he says. "Rio's a very physical city – everyone's in shape, everyone runs, everyone goes to the gym." Cassel says you can still go out and "get berserk till 5AM", but that it's more about surfing at dawn and buying fresh fish and fruits from the market.

No longer with Monica Bellucci, I wonder if living in Rio is some kind of escape for Cassel. I ask him if he ever watches Irréversible, the film he made with her and director Gaspar Noé, in which she is brutally raped. "Most of the time, I don't re-watch my movies, but this one even less, though I love it and I think Gaspar is one of the greatest."


Able to engagingly intellectualise his passions and desires, Vincent Cassel continues to be one of international cinema's most interesting actors, a man capable of bringing the anarchic creativity of the Parisian streets of the 80s and 90s to a fairytale about a sex-obsessed king.

Tale of Tales is out on the 17th of June


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