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Mesrine: Killer Instinct - Vincent Cassel interview

Vincent Cassel in Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Interview by Rob Carnevale

FRENCH actor Vincent Cassel talks to us about playing the role of legendary French gangster Jacques Mesrine in the back-to-back movies Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1.

He also recalls some of the battles he had to fight to ensure his vision was maintained and why he believes opinion is still so divided over Mesrine.

Q. Has your view of Mesrine changed since you played him?
Vincent Cassel: Well, first of all, I’ve never been a fan of the character but I never really judged him as a criminal. You never know why people are doing as they do. I’ve learned a lot… still today I’m not quite sure what to think about him, just as with an audience who watch the movie because we never really tell you what to think about the guy. Sometimes he’s really sympathetic, and sometimes he’s the worst jerk you can ever meet.

Q. But we get a sense of what made him into this man, don’t we? His experiences in the war…
Vincent Cassel: I think this excuse, to me, doesn’t work. To me it was a way for him to justify the way he was living. And the father figure, and everything, he used [that] as an excuse. I don’t believe these are the reasons why he became Jacques Mesrine. A lot of people went to the war, that war, and there was only one of him. There’s one thing that was don’t tell in the movies, but I thought it was very interesting. It’s that when he was a kid he loved to go and watch the movies of James Cagney. That’s one of the real justifications… he wanted to live like that and he was ready to pay the price for it.

Q. Is the French public’s perception the same as yours?
Vincent Cassel: It depends. The people who were adults at the time really have a strong judgment on him. But they believe what they read in the paper. Of the six murders he’s accused of… he accuses himself of 43 murders in the book he wrote while he was in jail. But he was really accused of six by the justice department, even though none of these crimes have been proven even now. And yet still this guy was executed in the street in front of everybody, with his corpse displayed on prime time TV.

Q. Why do you think the police got rid of him in the way that they did?
Vincent Cassel: What I’ve learned with the movie is that this guy died because he was becoming too dangerous as a clown. He was too loud a clown. You have to understand that in ’79, when he got shot by the cops, he was the favourite celebrity of the French people. Everybody was running after him and they couldn’t find him, but that same year he gave an interview with a cover story to Paris Match insulting and threatening the government. I think that’s why he died, not because of the so-called murder.

Q. Have you met anybody who knew him?
Vincent Cassel: Oh yeah, I’ve been connected to this movie for seven years, and it took a long time to work towards a good script, to find the right director, to raise the money. And the good thing about that is that in seven years I really had time to read everything written by him, on him, to meet people. The ones that I met were the ones that were still alive, the ones that I could meet without paying a fortune. I really collected a lot of information.

Q. Were there any scary characters?
Vincent Cassel: Well, you know, they’re getting older now, and it’s true that at 70 something they don’t want to go back to jail. Some of them, I’m thinking of one in particular, he’s really crazy. But as we say, he’s mean but not dangerous.

Q. What’s the real pronunciation of his name?
Vincent Cassel: The real pronunciation is May-reen, but because there is an ‘s’ in the word the press and everybody called him Mez-reen, and then it almost became a sign of recognition between the people who liked him and the people who didn’t like him. Still today, when I was doing promotion for the movie in France, when I was on a set on set for a TV show and the guy says: “So this guy, Mezz-reen…” Then I say: “Okay, I got it, you don’t like the character…” [Smiles]

Q. Did you find you had to not make him too sympathetic?
Vincent Cassel: Well, that was part of the deal from the beginning. Seven years ago when we started the project the original director was Barbet Schroeder. But I think [he] was really, really close to that era and he was politically involved, very much so, up to the point that I think he was a fan of Jacques Mesrine. And so we were talking about the script and he was saying: “And then the bad guys come in…” And I said: “But who are the bad guys?” And he says the cops. I just said: “Barbet, it’s not possible. We can’t make four hours about a guy who is the bad guy, and you think he’s the good guy.” There was something wrong. I really tried to talk with him and the writer so we can have a more complex character. But they didn’t want to go that way. And at that point I had to drop out of the movie. I spoke to the producer and to Barbet and I said I was sorry but I was leaving and I explained everything.

Q. So how did you get back?
Vincent Cassel: The thing is, it was a bluff. Maybe very pretentiously I never thought the movie would be made without me. I called the producer, Thomas Langmann, and I said he didn’t have much choice. I said: “If you weren’t doing it with me you could go to Benoit Magimel, but he’s still a little too young. Or you can go with Clovis Cornillac, but on the international market you’re dead. So you might fail, and if you do, please call me back.” And actually they failed. Ultimately, Barbet Schroeder dropped out of the movie and that’s when I picked up the phone and asked what we should do next.

I was ready to make only one movie, and he came up with the idea of Abdel Raouf Defri, who’s the ultimate scriptwriter in France. Abdel Raouf Defri, as his name suggests, is a second-generation Algerian immigrant in France. He said he didn’t want to write a script about this guy, because he knew what he did in Algeria. But I thought he was the guy to write the script, I could feel it right then, so he started to write, and he came back to me and said he thought we could make two movies. When I read what he wrote it was exactly what I was waiting for – meaning from one scene to another you didn’t know what to think about the character. For me that’s what Mesrine is.

Q. Is this the most important film of your career then?
Vincent Cassel: Well, you know what, I’ve another project that I’ve been following for seven years. Big projects like that, most of the time they take a while to be made. But it is definitely a very important project for me, of course I realise that.

Q. What do you remember about the actual murder of Mesrine?
Vincent Cassel: I actually remember Jacques Mesrine from that day. I grew up and I lived for a long time in the 18th Arrondisement, which is the same district as Porte de Clignancourt. That day my brother came back from school, he’s three years younger than me, and he said he was coming back from the soccer field which was on the other side [of the spot where Mesrine was killed]. He said they asked them to lay on the floor and they heard gunshots, he said he thought they killed a very famous gangster. We turned on the TV and it was Jacques Mesrine.

The way the body was displayed on the TV in prime time, it’s a really violent image, with blood. It was black and white at the time, but still you could really see that somebody had been shot. To me it was a statement from the government, meaning that if you crossed the line that’s the way you will end up. It was really clear. That’s what I analysed afterwards, but most of the others of that time, I think that’s what they understood – especially the gangsters.

Q. What do you see as the differences in the two parts of the story – Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1?
Vincent Cassel: I think they really are different in every way, meaning that of course the era is a different era, the 60s don’t look like the 70s in terms of looks or music or cars. It’s a different political environment, but more than that I think the way the story is told in the first movie is very linear, it’s a pretty classic genre movie I would say, film noir. It’s about a guy who’s trying to understand what he’s made of. At the end of the first movie he knows what he’s made of. The second movie is about an adult who knows exactly where this is going, but he’s going for it. So you’re more into the psychology and the ego trip of the character.