Vincent Cassel, soon to be howling his way through the French martial-arts costume drama Brotherhood of the Wolf (opening January 11), has been in The Village Voice before, mentioned in reviews for roles in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and The Crimson Rivers. But the French cinema star has also been in the Voice—delivering packages to the paper’s offices during his stint as a Manhattan bike messenger 17 years ago. “That was one of many jobs I had,” says the actor, now 35. “Bike messenger, bartender, you name it, while I was here taking acting and dance classes.”
Though he’s the son of the prominent French film comedian Jean-Pierre Cassel, he didn’t want to follow precisely in his father’s footsteps. The younger Cassel admits to being bored by both the French movie classics and the “post-nouvelle vague, sweet little love stories.” Instead, it was Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and the Godfather movies that inspired him. So he came to Manhattan, where his mother had moved a few years earlier, to study more contemporary acting styles. “France is a very traditional country, and in acting class, they’ll look at you and say, You’re going to be the jeune premier—like the romantic lead,” he says. “I didn’t agree with that at all. I’d be watching French movies and I couldn’t recognize and identify with what I was seeing.”
Despite his Mediterranean profile and decent dance chops, becoming the next De Niro wasn’t quite so simple. “Until I came to America, I didn’t realize how French I was,” he says, in English that’s taken a long time to perfect. (And it is perfect: Whenever possible, he records his own English dialogue for dubbed versions of his French movies.) Returning to Paris, he met a group of young filmmakers—like Kassovitz, Jan Kounen (Dobermann), and Gilles Mimouni (L’Appartement)—and actors who felt as he did: that French cinema needed a jolt of energy. Cassel himself had two breakthrough films: La Haine, in which he was intentionally unrecognizable as a Parisian street tough, and L’Appartement. On the latter, he met his wife, Monica Bellucci, and they’ve since worked together on eight films. That he and Bellucci set off a tabloid frenzy wherever they go in Europe is something of a bother. But no one, it seems, likes talking about Bellucci more than Cassel: “She is one of the only women in Europe to have, I don’t know, this . . . glamour.”
Cassel’s role in Brotherhood of the Wolf, as a deliciously arrogant nobleman with a penchant for hunting and an unhealthy interest in his nubile younger sister (Rosetta‘s Emilie Dequenne), evolved after a few conversations with director Christophe Gans. “Christophe sees actors as technicians, and I don’t mind that,” explains Cassel. But during one pivotal scene, in which his character literally lets his hair down and rapes a young woman, the actor felt that he was being ignored. “I felt it was one of the most important scenes, and the camera was always behind me, on my back, on my long hair, this enormous wig. Christophe kept saying, ‘Don’t worry.’ And at a certain point, I was like, ‘Are you going to shoot my back the entire time?’ ” Finally, Cassel’s grousing (into an open microphone) drew the “visually obsessed” director into a rare creative discussion with his actors. The result? Cassel got his face time, and he will star in Gans’s next film, The Adventurer.
“If you’re doing your job well as an actor, the director should only have to say, more, less, this—no, this—yes. It’s about the situations they put you in, the relationships with other people. More and more, I realize it is about what is going to happen in the moment. You should have accidents happening all the time.”