In Black Swan, French-born actor Vincent Cassel stars as Thomas Leroy, the fervently prickish ballet director who chooses Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) to be the swan queen in his latest production of the ballet classic Swan Lake; his psychologically and sexually abusive character unknowingly launches Nina into a classic Darren Aronofsky spiral of doom. Already a legit film star in France, Cassel is most recognizable to American audiences from his roles in Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen, but the Black Swan buzz could result in Cassel experiencing his own Javier Bardem crossover moment this winter. Vulture talked to the actor about his creepy new film and whether he’s actually playing a variation on Swan Lake’s Von Rothbart.
Knowing the story line of Swan Lake, are we supposed to infer that the Thomas Leroy character is analogous to the ballet’s sorcerer, Von Rothbart?
I can see the connection. But then I’m the other guy, too, the French guy; he’s a choreographer. I’m not even sure [Aronofsky] is able to explain everything. But there are so many mirrors, that at a certain point, it’s becoming a reflection of your own understanding. And that’s what I think makes it fun. I don’t know if you noticed that.
I didn’t start to make the connections to Swan Lake’s original story line until afterwards; at first, I was consumed with your relationship with Nina, and whether or not it was sexual or just a guy trying to bring out the best in her performance.
I really don’t think it’s about getting laid. I don’t think he cares. But I think if the dancer is all the way [at the top], he might fall in love with [her]. But before she gets there, she’s in the process of it, so it means nothing.
It becomes sort of clear in that scene where you say something like, “I seduced you, now you seduce me” and then just walk away.
I walk away a lot in this movie. Punch line, and go. Such a diva.
Do you see this as an accurate depiction of the world of ballet?
It’s pretty close. And for once, they portray the pain of ballet. Because it’s terrible. I was never a professional dancer, but I remember the pain and after the weekends, I’d be scared to go back. It’s like being a boxer or a monk, you know? It’s a vocation.
The close-ups of the bloody feet, they looked disgusting.
Did you go out with a dancer?
No, I didn’t go out with a dancer. But I learned in this movie that if you have a foot fetish, you’re not going to want a ballet dancer.
Well, you must have a very twisted foot fetish.
Some of the reviews of Black Swan reference the filmmaking style of Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg. But what do you see in Black Swan that makes it clearly an Aronofsky film?
When you see all his movies, there’s definitely a style to it. It evolves. The difference between okay directors and let’s say “real” directors, is that real directors always try new stuff. You can feel The Wrestler behind this movie. He has style and I think he’s one of the best of his generation.
Black Swan already has some notable award buzz going — but you do films all around the world. Do those things matter to you?
One of the cool things about my job is you get to travel around and are involved with cool people. But of course I care, you kidding me? It’s an honor and means a lot to be in a movie with so much attention in the American market. If I manage to have a foot in this industry here in America, that’s a huge leap. That’ll help me produce my French movies, it’ll give me access to all the great directors. It’s a game. You play, you roll, you lose sometimes.