Vincent Cassel tried to live in New York. He moved there when he was 17, to study acting. But after a year, he realized he was irrevocably, irredeemably, irresistibly French.
"I don't know how to explain it," he said in a recent phone interview. He speaks quickly, his manner brisk and certain. "The relationship I have to everyday life is very European. We have a different relationship with religion, with faith, with nudity, with sex, with food."
That's quite a quintet, I venture. "Have you been to Europe?" Cassel replies.
Cheeky devil. But that, after all, is what Cassel, 46, is about. He's as shiny as an American movie star, but stripped of any neediness or desire to please. This makes him seem worldlier, more mischievous and more tantalizing than his Oceans of peers. And name me an American actor who can speak English, French, Portuguese, Italian and a little Russian for good measure.
Onscreen, Cassel is lithe and dangerous as a panther, albeit one that toys with its prey. He's a devotee of the martial art Capoeira and an avid surfer, so that springiness is for real. No wonder he's always cast as insinuating sorts: a stormy ballet impresario in Black Swan, a combustible gangster in Eastern Promises, a slinky thief in George Clooney's Oceans franchise. In his European work, he was nominated for a César for La Haine (Hate) and won for Mesrine, the two-part tale of a French bank-robbing folk hero, and he co-starred in Irreversible with the gorgeous Italian actress Monica Bellucci, his wife since 1999. They have two daughters, Deva, 8, and Leonie, 3 – who, by the way, already speak four languages each.
In his latest film, Trance, directed by Danny Boyle, Cassel plays yet another thief, Franck, this time of the art variety. The kind of elegant, only-in-a-movie baddie whose apartment boasts a moodily lit lap pool, Franck teams up with an art auctioneer, Simon (James McAvoy), to steal a Goya masterpiece. Things go awry mid-heist, after Simon suffers an accident and can't recall where he stashed the painting. To jog Simon's memory, Franck is equally amenable to pulling out Simon's fingernails and to hiring a sexy hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson). But even Franck's cool is rattled when he finds himself falling in love with her.
(If you think I'm waxing overly rhapsodic about Cassel, check out what The New Yorker's Anthony Lane has to say about his [nude] scenes with Dawson: "When the Lord God forbade his worshippers to bow down before any graven image, Dawson's face was exactly the kind of thing He had in mind," Lane writes. "No other star can boast such sculptured features – except Cassel, who is pretty damn graven himself. When the two of them make love … it's like a clash of major religions.")
Cassel had long wanted to work with Dawson, he says: "I think she has a genuine beauty. And a gangster who is falling in love, I thought that was interesting. It's something we see rarely. Gangsters don't want to fall in love, because it's bad for business. They become vulnerable."
At this point, I lose phone reception, and suffer several sweaty minutes until I can get him back on the line. But Cassel picks right up where he left off, unflapped. "I've always been attracted to those characters," he continues smoothly. "Gangsters, dealers, traders, cheaters. Not so clean, not so white, with shades of greys. I think they're the most interesting. Instead of playing heroes and righteous people, I'd rather portray characters with problems of conscience, who have to lie, to betray, and then have to cope with that. They feel more true to me. Because that's what I do, that's what I see around me. I don't see all good people around me, I see people struggling with what they are."
There's one thing Cassel has never struggled with: getting work. Born in Paris, he grew up in an acting family – his father, the actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, who died in 2007, made scores of films, from 1956's The Happy Road, with Gene Kelly, to 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – "so it was a natural thing to move from my studies to this," he says. "Strangely enough, I never doubted that it would go right. The only thing is, I'd seen what French cinema was like, I couldn't relate with it at the time." He spent that year in New York, returned to France at 18 and "from that moment, I started to work and never stopped."
He's proud of his country's cinema, which refuses to bow down before Hollywood, and his countrymen's fractious ways. "People in France have a tendency to question everything," Cassel says. "We're the country of strikes, we question power, the church – we killed the king! We invented revolution. So in a way we are always killing the father. French people are never happy with what they have. They're always complaining. They're happy when they're complaining."
Currently, however, Cassel is taking another break from France – he and his family recently moved to Rio de Janeiro. He's been travelling there for 25 years and has owned a house there for 10. "I'm completely fascinated by the culture there, and now that the economy is better, the city isn't as dangerous as it used to be," he says. "I thought it was a good time to bring my family and try living there for a while."
Lately, Cassel has begun producing films – which meant that in the middle of filming Trance, he took a 24-hour trip to the Middle East to meet a potential investor, returned to the shoot on no sleep and found he had to jump into the freezing Thames. "It was a nice way to wake up," he tosses off.
In his next acting gig, he'll be a CGI-enhanced Beast in a classical, French-language retelling of La Belle & Le Bête. He's also writing a feature script, his first, that takes place during Brazil's famous Carnaval. "It happens all over Brazilian society, from the slums to the big hotels," Cassel says. "I'm travelling around to see how it all works and meeting a lot of different kinds of people. And I'm having a lot of adventures, of course, but I won't tell you about them now – hopefully they will be in the movie."
I'm sure they will. But it's hard to imagine how it could be more interesting than his real life.