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Eastern Promises - Interview with Vincent Cassel
A film by David Cronenberg with Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel
The mysterious and charismatic Russian-born Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is a driver for one of London’s most notorious and violent organized crime families of Eastern European origin. The family itself is part of the Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood. Headed by Semyon (academy nominee Armin Muller-Stahl), whose courtly charms as the welcoming proprietor of the plush Trans-Siberian restaurant mask a cold and brutal core, the family’s fortunes are tested by Semyon’s volatile son and enforcer, Kirill (Vincent Cassel, who is more tightly bound to Nikolai than to his own father.
But Nikolai is more than he seems and although he maintains a careful existence, his life is jarred once he crosses paths with Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a North London hospital. Anna is deeply affected by the desperate situation of a teenager who dies while giving birth to her baby daughter.
Organised crime has been covered on many occasions but this is not just any organised crime. The subject at hand is very topical: teenage girls taken away from their Eastern European families under false pretences, raped, drugged, beaten and turned into prostitutes whilst still under age and all of this right under our very noses since this is happening in London. Cronenberg explained that the reality is even grimmer and more disturbing than what they saw whilst researching the film. They eventually had to tone the script down to make it more digestible to people like you and me. Still, this is without doubt one of the most violent films I have seen in a long time. Not simply violent but also disturbing. Let’s not forget what is happening is right on our doorstep, here in London. You would find it hard to believe that this is going on given the violence and brutality displayed in the film.
The International cast, hand picked by Cronenberg, is quite remarkable and gives the film more layers and diversity.
Mortensen, who is half Danish, plays a driver with a twist. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? You’ll have to find out for yourself. Naomi Watt had to lose her Australian accent for the part and take on a superb English one. However what really blew my mind was Vincent Cassel’s performance as a Russian baddy. There is no way you could tell that Mr Cassel is in fact as French as they come. He is totally credible and what a performance!
Don’t miss this film or you will regret it.
Patricia Connell Interviewed Vincent Cassel at the Soho Hotel
For once, I arrive just on time and I am quickly taken to where I am about to meet the man himself. Before going, I never agonised so much about what I should wear to meet someone I am about to interview. After all, he is married to La Bellucci, one of the most beautiful women in the world. In the end, I decide that quite frankly I can’t possibly compete with a woman like her and therefore should stop agonising over it.
For the purpose of the film, Vincent Cassel’s hair was changed to a sort of brownish which clearly didn’t do him justice but when the door opens, the man is in fact totally dark and has let his beard grow. As a result, his piercing blue eyes (the same as his father Jean-Pierre Cassel and even the voice is similar) cannot be ignored.
I saw the film very recently and I must admit that I am still disturbed by it. I found it even more disturbing to think that this is happening right here in London. We all know it exists but we try to think that it’s far away, in Moscow somewhere…
I am astonished about the fact that people are surprised about this. We have to remember that prostitution is one of the most important businesses in the world and that it’s only two clicks away on the net with very easy access for anyone. It doesn’t simply exist; it’s present everywhere.
Of course, but most ‘well to do’ people prefer to think it’s not under their noses.
You know these people are often the prostitutes’ best customers.
I don’t doubt that for a moment.
I don’t judge them. I think that we have rarely the opportunity to see what goes on behind the scene. In the film we only manage to touch on one aspect of prostitution but there are many more that we have not covered. There is a high proportion of people who are sex slaves but there are also a number of people who do it through their own choice and we don’t talk about them. The reason why they do it is because they found that this was the most effective mean of making money in terms of revenue vs hours of work.
It’s true that there are some girls who choose freely to get into this trade but there are also those who are taken against their will from their families, who are raped, drugged, violated and forced into prostitution and this is what the film talks about.
The second aspect is this free violence shown throughout the movie.
Not so free.
The men are not just violent vis à vis the women but also vis à vis themselves.
Their violence is free because sometimes, you wonder why they hit someone. It seems that this is the only way they know how to behave. It’s quite amazing for instance to see this ageing father repeatedly kick his son whilst he is on the floor. Not many fathers would do that.
Of course, but at the same time, he should not have been so gay (joke!). What there is in the film is 100% true. We had to develop the roles and create the links between the people. Obviously, we had to make all this more concentrated to make the film more action driven. It was also made more interesting by making it more dramatic.
But do you dramatise, it or do you pick the bits that are very strong, or do you know that there are bits that are probably even worse but you auto sensor them?
First of all, there is that. There are certain things that could be much worse. We’ve heard stories of burnt bodies, and a lot of other horrible stuff which I don’t need to go into. But what we have to remember, is that we were not making a documentary about the Russian mafia. For me, the Russian aspect and the ‘family’ makes an incredible back drop for the film. Personally, what I find the most successfully achieved, is the exchange between the characters. The father and son interaction for instance. I have seen it amongst other families, not to the extent of prison and death, but the son completely squashed by his father who keeps on tripping because he wants to please his father and who keeps on doing the opposite of what his father would want and who ends up looking for affection elsewhere. I have seen it amongst others and even to a certain extent with myself.
With your father?
Yes. If you start with the fact that you have to ‘kill’ your father, metaphorically, we all have to face it at some point in our life. What is more interesting is that some fathers are invincible, or defend themselves too well because they don’t want to leave their place to their son. I saw it in my family, if things are done with love then there is a time when the father ought to leave his place to his children because it’s nature, it’s the way things are. There is a time when we have to let our children shine and we have to accept to give them centre stage.
There are few fathers who are able to do it.
Who succeed or who are conscious of it. I thought about something whilst we were filming, I was thinking how difficult it must be to be Gerard Depardieu’s son. How can one kill Gerard Depardieu? Of course, the subject and the setting gives density to the film, but for me what is far more interesting is the rapport between the people.
The way for instance my character is being manipulated from A to Z by this guy he is in love with.
How did you cope with your character? In the film you play a Russian baddy. It’s not easy for a start to play a Russian when you’re French. How did you do it?
I still ask myself the question. At least in this film, I had to speak English with a Russian accent. In Birthday Girl with Nicole Kidman, I had to speak Russian only. I even to this day, I still don’t know how I did it. When they told me I had the part I thought right, what now!
Did you speak Russian before the movie?
No, not at all. I speak Italian, Portuguese, French and English that’s it. At the time, I told the production, I don’t know why you are casting me. I have to film in Australia in three weeks, you’ll have to dub me if I can’t do it. Then we started filming and sometime at the end of the day, I was thinking to myself, blast! We’ve just filmed a 3-page scene in Russian and we’ve done it!
It’s incredible! Because of course you have to learn it for a start.
It’s all phonetics anyway. But for me, having to do it in English which is not my first language and then add on this other layer, was the technical aspect of the film.
Didn’t you do this before with an Italian accent?
Yes I did. This time, I am going to make a film in Portuguese in Brazil. I love it. It keeps me on my toes and I continue to have to improve.
It’s great to keep on being challenged.
Absolutely, for me, the idea of finishing a film and having learnt something is very fulfilling. If it means that all of the sudden I am more complete as a person and as an actor then great. If I come out of a movie and I’ve learnt nothing, there is a problem. I feel that I have missed out something. I feel that I have been had along the way.
Isn’t there a risk that you are then constantly being cast for the same parts?
Yes, but this is independent of the language. If I look at my potential international career, indeed, I have to be careful. Because so far I have taken on parts that I enjoy playing, I now run the risk of being seen as a baddy. Although I enjoy these parts, I don’t want to reduce my choices.
You’re a villain in this film but you are quite sensitive and this makes you more friendly in a way.
You know, I have some sort of reflex. If I play a nice guy, I’m always inclined to make him a little darker. And in a way isn’t that what happens in real life? There aren’t many goody goodies?
And if I play a villain, I am going to try and find what can possibly save him. I will try to make him more understandable.
In this case, the script was very well written and there were in particular three scenes where I could show something else:
- The one with the little girl when I am blowing up the balloons
- The one with the baby
- The one in the cellar, which frankly surprised me. It’s a scene that surprised us all. Sometime, the varnish cracks and we see the real him.
Do you think that it’s because he knows nothing else?
Absolutely. He is a victim. He could have been someone else’s son and it would have been a lot easier to live that. It’s true of many people. Look at the Princesses of Monaco. One of them, ended up doing all sorts of stupid things.
I understand that when we have to carry such a load, I can understand why it happens. I personally think I would abdicate. If I were the son or the daughter, I would run away to avoid this pressure. What’s worse, is that when you are the daughter of the prince of Monaco, you know that your life is not going to change anything in the world.
Unless you do charity work.
You mentioned Birthday Girl earlier with Nicole Kidman and now you have also worked with Naomi who is often compared to Nicole. What is she like?
Actually, the first time I met Naomi, it was with Nicole Kidman when I was on the shoot of Birthday Girl in London. The problem that I had with Naomi unfortunately, I say unfortunately, even if I am delighted to have worked with her, is that the few scenes that I have with her, I am bashing her, spitting on her or insulting her. I really haven’t been able to get into a real rapport with her. I was more worried about not hurting her when we were doing the violent stuff.
All I can say is the with both of them, when they work they really work. There is no attitude.
They are easy to work with.
They really work. They are real actors. When we have to share something, it’s very easy.
What future projects do you have?
I am in the process of finishing a film on the life and the death of Jacques Mesrine. Mesrine was a French criminal who escaped from jail a number of times and who finally got killed by the French police in Paris on 2nd November 1979. We started filming 5 months ago and we have another 3 months. I started working on this film as soon as I finished Eastern Promises.
Are you Mesrine?
Yes, I am. The film will be out next year.
And we have just released a film in France called ‘Sa Majesté Minor’ by Jean-Jacques Annaud. I have the part of the God Pan. The film, for some reason, has not been well received by the critics. There are things that have been written about the film which I simply don’t understand. People haven’t fully understood the film. I heard things such as trivial, utter rubbish…It makes me think they just didn’t get it. Anyway, I am very proud of the film.
As soon as I have finished Mesrine, I am off for Brazil to work on another film called Adrift.
Any other American Projects?
So far, I haven’t been offered parts which I want to take on. There is a limit to what I will accept. If things are too boring, I simply pass.
I also carry on working in France with various friends of mine.
It means that I’m not always filming and I like that.
Have you ever thought of being on the other side of the camera?
You mean direct. I tried my hand out on two short films. But what I have realised is that making a film is not highly difficult but making a really good movie it is. I don’t think I am passionate enough to be able to do it well enough.
You know, I am always aware of the time we have on the earth and I don’t just want to be working. I also want to enjoy life. I want to enjoy my friends, my body. There are things that I can do today that I won’t be able to do in some years to come…and I want to enjoy my family of course.
Especially given the fact that your wife and you are rarely in the same place at the same time. You both have very busy lives.
We are lucky to remember which country we’re in.
I finally leave the room thinking that I could have asked so many more questions.
Next time perhaps.
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