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Cronenberg's New Villain Is Not That Evil in Real Life

Courtesy of Focus Features

In David Cronenberg’s new film Eastern Promises, French actor Vincent Cassel stars opposite Viggo Mortensen as the kind of ruthless, conflicted character that he’s made a cottage industry of playing — having found breakthrough success with a career-defining role in the French film Hate (in which he played a gun-wielding thug out for street vengeance) before moving on to bad-guy roles opposite Jennifer Aniston in Derailed and opposite the whole gang in Ocean’s 12 and 13. Cassel talked to Vulture about working with Cronenberg, the film’s soon-to-be infamous naked knife-fight scene, and his own potential as a hip-hop star.

You're somewhat known for playing tough criminal types. Is that surprising to people who know you well?
I’m definitely not like that in real life! I’m a pretty balanced person. I didn’t even have a thug life in my childhood. I guess that’s why I enjoy playing those. I just like anti-heroes.

What was it like working with David Cronenberg?
He’s a little bit like me in that he’s not like his movies. He’s not creepy, he’s not violent. He’s very elegant, I would say, with a great sense of humor, and he has a beautiful mellow voice. He barely says nothing on set, but on the other hand, you feel observed with a microscope all the time.

In the film, you're somewhat in love with Viggo Mortensen's character. Was that explicit in the script?
It was even clearer in the way it was written. I said to David, “You want it to be an obvious, almost sexual type, with a feminine aspect to it?” He said “No, of course not.” The truth is, in that world, there’s no way you could be that. I played Kirill as somebody who needs a father figure. He switches from his father to Nikolai who, as we can see, is there to protect him, and then it gets a little perverted of course because he’s my employee.

Were you around for the filming of the naked knife-fight?
I was gone in Paris, but I knew that Viggo was about to shoot this. I was like “Ah, good luck…”

Your brother's in a French hip-hop act. Does that run in the family?
No, but I grew up, musically speaking, in the French hip-hop scene. Still today, there’s a bunch of young artists I work with all the time, and they’re all part of that scene. It’s a very strong thing in France. We’re the only country in the world where we buy more local rap than American rap. People have their own story to tell.

Would you want to get into that if you weren’t acting?

I’m 40 years old — I’m not going to start rapping now! You don’t do something because it’s cool, but because there’s no other thing you can do. That was acting for me.
—Jocelyn Guest