Vincent Cassel is a most unlikely French movie star. He has played more violent anti-heroes than romantic heroes, more dangerous criminals than lovesick poets. Wiry and tall, his face all sharp angles, he is hardly a traditional screen hunk. And yet on screen Cassel is an electrifying and charismatic presence, with a live wire energy that some have compared to the young Robert De Niro, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Robert Mitchum. In the last 15 years he has played a string of dark, gritty, controversial roles.
He has steadily risen from moody outsider to Parisian celebrity royalty, with a hotline to Hollywood and a superstar wife, the Italian actress Monica Bellucci. Cassel, now 42, used to have a reputation as a prickly, intense interviewee. But when we met in a central London hotel, he was polite and relaxed, even telling self-depreciating jokes in impressively fluent English. "The danger is always to start taking yourself too seriously," Cassel grinned. "That's something I learnt from my wife and it's true. Now that I'm relaxing a bit, it's easier, not the movie-making itself, but the rest is becoming easier. And the rest is 50 per cent of what you do: the promotion, the image, the relationship with media. It's something you really have to learn, and it's not something you learn at acting school."
Earlier this year Cassel's national treasure status in France was confirmed when he became the face of Yves St Laurent's new scent, La Nuit de l'Homme, and won a Cesar - the French Oscar - for playing the real-life gangster Jacques Mesrine in two spectacular new biopics, Killer Instinct and Public Enemy Number One. Co-starring the cream of French acting talent, including Gerard Depardieu and Ludivine Sagnier, the director Jean-François Richet's Mesrine films have been huge hits in France and seem destined for similar success worldwide. Critics in the UK and US have already drawn parallels with Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas and Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather series.
Mesrine's colourful life story certainly suits the big screen. He was a charming and articulate thief, a serial jailbreaker, media manipulator and master of disguise who caught the public imagination with his avowed intention never to become a "slave to the alarm clock". He also pulled off some audacious crimes, including robbing two banks at once on the same street, and kidnapping the judge who was presiding over one of his criminal trials. As a result Mesrine earned a controversial reputation in France as a kind of gun-toting Robin Hood.
"He had a lot of charisma," Cassel said. "Strangely enough, in real life he looked like more or less everybody else. "He didn't have a particular face, but he was very sympathetic, he knew how to talk and he would understand people instinctively." In between his dramatic jailbreaks, Mesrine wrote two heavily exaggerated volumes of autobiography in which he confessed to 39 murders. But none of them have ever been proven, Cassel pointed out, which only added to his cult following in France.
"I think he's a folk hero and a common criminal, but not a hero because anybody that solves his problems with guns is not a hero," Cassel said. "Funnily enough, even the people who don't like him recognise he has a real place in the French consciousness. For a lot of people he represented an icon of counter-power. In that sense he really did inspire people - maybe not in the right way, but he did inspire people."
The two Mesrine films offer an interesting historical perspective on France's postcolonial past in North Africa. At the start, we meet the young Mesrine as a vicious enforcer during Algeria's bloody struggle for independence. Two decades later he is spouting Marxist slogans and waging a one-man guerrilla war on the French government. Cassel believes this revolutionary rhetoric was "more posture than a real personal belief". But he also agreed with some French historians that Mesrine's violent death in 1979, gunned down in Paris traffic in a dramatic police ambush, was effectively a politically motivated execution.
"The year he died Mesrine was the favourite celebrity of the French," he said. "All the French police were looking out for him. He gave a cover story for Paris-Match magazine insulting and threatening the government. He was too loud and that's why he died, really. So yeah, you can call it political." Mesrine was also a womaniser who left behind a string of ex-wives, glamorous girlfriends and children. His three offspring - Sabrina, Bruno and Boris - gave the films their cautious blessing. Mesrine's eldest daughter, Sabrina, even visited Cassel on set, catching him in character without warning.
"When I turned around I saw a woman sobbing," he recalled. "She was very touched. It was such a strange situation because I understood what it meant for her. I was sorry to provoke this. "I wish I could have met her before I was dressed as her father but, at the same time, it meant that I was going the right way." Cassel gained about 20 kilograms to play the more bulky Mesrine in later life. The films were shot back to back over nine months, in a reverse chronological order, which allowed him to slim back down to his natural wiry frame.
Reminiscent of De Niro's bloated performance in Raging Bull, Cassel's physical transformation was a risky business. The challenge, he said, was keeping the weight on. "De Niro is not that tall and he's not that skinny," he said. "I'm a skinny, tall guy so to fight against your nature is the hardest thing you can do ... I could eat anything I wanted, but past 80 kilos, 83, 84, I couldn't go further. I had to be helped by doctors because it's all about the insulin - you take precise medicines to help you stock the fat, but it's bad for the health. It was horrible."
The son of Jean-Pierre Cassel, a much-loved French dancer and comedian, Cassel was born into a Parisian acting dynasty. In his teens, after his parents divorced, he moved to New York to spend time with his mother, the journalist Sabine Litique. It was in the United States that he fell in love with hip-hop music and the films of Spike Lee, but his fascination with New York's fabled tradition of method acting soon waned.
"I went there really wanting to become an American actor, but going there I just realised that I was really French." Returning to Paris, Cassel scored only a handful of small roles in his 20s. "I couldn't fit in the post-nouvelle vague cinema, all those young directors making movies à la Godard and Truffaut. I thought it was boring, such a standard image of French cinema around the world. I couldn't recognise myself in them. Not enough ambition, from my point of view, too respectful of the past. I needed a change."
Change arrived in 1995 with the inflammatory urban thriller La Haine, directed by his friend and contemporary Mathieu Kassovitz. The award-winning and landmark drama was set among the multiracial street gangs of the high-rise Parisian suburbs. Cassel played Vinz, an angry teenage delinquent who steals a gun to fight back against a brutal, racist police force. La Haine, which sparked a national political debate in France, now feels like an uncanny prophecy of the street battles that have erupted on the fringes of Paris every few years, especially among alienated immigrants from the city's poor suburbs. It seems the social divisions highlighted in the film have only worsened.
"Movies don't change anything," Cassel said. "They educate people eventually, but it takes more than a movie to really educate people, especially with a problem as deep and complex as immigration and the integration of a past that we are ashamed of." Films such as La Haine gave new prominence to an emerging generation of French filmmakers, who drew their bold new aesthetic from hip-hop videos and graphic novels, rather than from traditional French drama.
A year later Cassel earned more acclaim for his starring role in Gilles Mimouni's romantic thriller L'Appartement, where he met his wife. He and Bellucci are now European cinema's most glamorous couple, with a five-year-old daughter and a string of shared film credits. Working with Bellucci, Cassel said, was a breeze. "You don't have to be polite, you go straight to the point. You don't even have to say everything - a glimpse of the eye, I know where she is. Maybe it's a little harder for a director, but for us it's easier. To me it's a plus. Working with her, or with people you really have a bond with, is richer I think."
Cassel likened the theme of his next film to La Haine, but with more of a comic twist. Les Seigneurs - The Lords in English - was directed by Romain Gavras, the son of the veteran Greek director Costa-Gavras and a member of the Paris-based Kourtrajmé collective of artists, filmmakers and musicians. "I guess it's a metaphor about the crisis of identity," Cassel said. "Except instead of being Jews or Arabs or blacks or any other minority, it's about redheads. People laugh because it's funny, but the bottom line is, it's still the same problem."
Unlike many European actors, Cassel's talent crosses international borders. In recent years he has become Hollywood's favourite Frenchman for hire, popping up everywhere from Shrek to Ocean's Twelve and Thirteen. But even trading quips with Brad Pitt and George Clooney in the lightweight Ocean's films was a typically intense experience for Cassel, who trained in the Afro-Brazilian martial arts dance form of capoeira in order to give his playboy character extra depth.
"When I did Ocean's Twelve I was the French guy in the middle of this all-star cast, so how can I make it special?" he said. "So I bring this capoeira thing and I work out like crazy, like none of them worked for that movie. I always take it seriously, every time. It's not a fight but it's a real challenge." Typical Cassel, taking the work very seriously. But at least, these days, not himself.