Interview: Vincent Cassel talks ‘Black Swan’

By  · Published on December 6th, 2010

Black Swan is a lot about filmmaking. Nearly all of Darren Aronofsky’s films have explored the idea of striving for greatness or perfection, and most of the time it only leads to terrible results. His latest film on the competitive dance world is no different, but here it’s more so about striving for perfection in art. In this dreamlike and comedic horror film, Vincent Cassel plays Thomas Leroy. Thomas is a pushy artistic force, almost to the point narcissism. Cassel makes him an understandable and surprisingly likable guy, despite a few of his questionable antics.

Cassel himself struck me as a serious actor, but not in the overly self-serious way. Cassel gave brief, but to the point and thoughtful answers in our recent phone interview. Cassel has been becoming more and more well known in the states, and I imagine Black Swan will further assist that rise in awareness for him. There was enough time to comfortably talk about Black Swan, but Cassel also talked a bit about his second collaborative effort with David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method. Just like Black Swan, it sounds funnier than you’d imagine with its subject matter.

Note: This is a spoiler filled chat.

Do you consider Black Swan to be about filmmaking?

That’s certainly one valid interpretation. I guess, with any good movie there’s different ways to interpret it. So yeah, that could be a metaphor for it.

Did you ever ask Aronofsky about that aspect? You even give a speech about ‘surprising the audience.’

That definitely applies. This is what I thought about this business before we even started the movie. We were on the same page.

The film is also all about the idea of striving for perfection. As an actor and artist yourself, how does that resonate with you?

That’s one point in which I disagree. I feel to look for perfection is a very dangerous path. More than that, it’s dangerous because it doesn’t exist. You can aim for it, but you already know you won’t get there because it doesn’t exist. Plus, I definitely think the flaws, little cracks, and accidents are a lot more interesting.

Don’t you think Nina gets perfection at the end?

Yeah. I think at the end she manages to be at peace with what she’s done, while dancing. I think at that point Thomas falls in love with her, because that’s the only thing he really respects in life.

But you don’t think perfection is possible?

No, I don’t think so. And I don’t really see the point of seeking for it. It’s really about the path to get there, almost like religion. It doesn’t exist, but you have to learn about it to live properly.

Were you surprised when you read the script that Thomas wasn’t the typical archetype of being the slimy instructor?

I definitely don’t think he’s slimy. He just uses sexuality to get more personal with the dancers. I don’t think he really has a strong sexual life. He’s one of those guys, who might be around my age, that lives by himself with no kids. The only thing he has is his career, so it’s a pretty sad environment. Because that’s the only thing he has, he’s very demanding in what he does. The only thing he wants is to push them.

I know you based him off a director who was gay. Is that also a part of Thomas?

No, I don’t he’s gay. I think it does make a difference in this business. There are people like that who use sexuality to direct their characters. The person I based it on was gay, but he was a man like that. He was totally obsessed with what he was doing, and that’s how he built his identity. Michael Bennet was the guy.

How do you interpret the sexualized aspect of the film? All the male characters are basically predators except Thomas.

Well, I guess the theme of discovering yourself, somehow, has to go through the experience of sex and letting it go. That’s most of the time where people have blocks, and suddenly all the men are becoming sexual predators.

It’s almost pompous, in a funny way, how the artist is the only one who uses sexuality in the film for a purpose.

Well, lets face it, it’s one of the most important things in life. That’s what drives the world, really.

Do you think of Thomas as likable?

The people who I have met, or have worked with, who are like that you usually consider them jerks. But once you get to know them, it becomes almost touching, in a way.

But he’s genuinely charming and funny, too.

Yeah, you can get away with a lot of things with the charms. And there is some humor here and there in the movie.

That’s something I wanted to bring up, actually. Not a whole lot of people talk about how funny the film is…

Yeah, but it has to do with… the film is almost Italian, in a way. There is maybe a little Dario Argento, in a way. I guess that’s what makes it funny sometimes.

There’s also a clear Cronenberg influence, as well.

Definitely. You know what? At first, I thought they were almost aiming more for Polanski’s The Tenant, but then I realized it would definitely have some Cronenberg aspect to it. Finally, I was surprised by the sexiness of it. There was much more of it than I thought there would be.

When it comes to the costumes, everyone is either black or white. Thomas is the only character who is a mixture of both, why is that?

Well, there is definitely huge work from the color pallet. I’m always a mix. When Natalie’s character is home, it’s a lot of pink and childhood stuff. Some colors were totally banned from the film.

A lot of the film you can interpret as reality or as hallucinations. What do you consider to be ‘what’s real and what isn’t’?

Honestly, I’m not quite sure. I also don’t think it really matters. It’s all about how it tricks you and how it provokes you while watching it. I cant answer that, and I’m not sure Darren could answer that for any particular scenes.

Do you consider the ending to be a happy one for Nina?

[Laughs] Even more than that, I think it’s a peaceful ending. I wouldn’t say it’s a “happy” ending, because it finishes like that. But, in a way, the nightmare finally ended.

But she does get what she wants at the end.

Yeah but, come on. The price is a little big, no? [Laughs]

What else does she having going for her in life?

Maybe it could have started after that. But, there won’t be a sequel, obviously. I guess, like a lot of dancers, she’s distant where she has no connection to anything else.

Even her relationship with her mother is terrible.

It’s a terrible relationship. It’s the scariest part of the film, I think.

Do you think it’s a sexual relationship? I’ve heard some come out with that interpretation.

[Pausing] No. Honestly, I don’t see that. You know, some parents who didn’t get what they wanted in life put a lot of pressure on their kids. It ends up becoming totally unhealthy, as we know.

When it comes to Aronofsky, how detailed is he as a director?

Well, he’s very detailed. But it changes all the time with what’s happening on set. It’s like, you’ll come up with something, and suddenly he’ll keep it and use it. He’s precise, but not programed. It’s very organic on set. I love it. He really asks you to be a part of everything. I remember one time he called me and said, “Would you like to stop by the production office? We’re having a meeting with the set designers, and we need to talk about your apartment. Maybe you can help us with the furniture.”

Can you recall any of the ideas you had?

I can’t really remember. There was a training machine and things here or there, but just the fact that he asked me really tells me a lot about the guy.

You don’t get that type of relationship with most directors?

It really depends. I really clicked with Darren. Organic is definitely the main thing. Now that I have said that, I’m not sure it’s totally true. It changes all the time. There’s occasions where you’re having a relationship for such a short amount of time with a tight schedule and emotions involved. It’s whatever works on the day. I love organic, but lately I did something where the director kept everything I was doing. I couldn’t move. I had to be like nothing, and that was terrible for me. But after two days, I really started to enjoy it. It was like a yoga class. I’m finding my pleasure in it. I adapt to it on the day, and that’s all you can really do. A set is chaos. You just have to keep your mind straight and get through it everyday. That’s the fun part of it.

Aronofsky is such a visual director. When it comes to certain sequences, how do they read on the page?

Like I told you, while shooting it I thought it would be more like early Polanski. Definitely with the visual aspect with the CGI and everything, it made the movie much bigger, rich and more epic than I thought it would be.

How did you imagine Nina turning into the black swan at the end? Was something like that a detailed passage in the script?

Well, it was written and I understood it. But because it was so gorgeous at the end, I was surprised by it.

Do you get this type of reaction to your own films often? Where when you finally see them, you’re surprised by how certain things turnout?

If they’re good, then yes, I’m always surprised. You can feel from the story the thing is going to be interesting and have a lot of personality to it or not. I was very confident from the start on this.

You were just talking about the different relationships you get with certain directors. What’s it like for you re-teaming with a director? Is there more comfort in a second collaboration? I know you just worked with Cronenberg again.

Actually, that was very comfortable from start. I guess that’s why I’m back on the second one, you know. When you’re on the same page with certain people and collaborate properly, it’s just fun. As we were saying, it’s organic. Things happen easily and smoothly. It’s focused, but also light and fun at the same time. When it happens like that, most of the time, you have chances to work together again.

How do you react or work in the opposite type of relationship? Where maybe things aren’t comfortable?

It’s been a while since that’s happened to me. With time and experience you start to smell, from a distance, what it’s going to be. When you know it’s going to be complicated or if there’s going to a problem, I usually don’t get involved.

Actually, how did A Dangerous Method go?

That was great. We shot that in Germany. I got to work with David and Viggo again, which was great. But I also got to discover Micahel Fassbender, who I didn’t know before. That was a discovery for me. He has incredible qualities as an actor and as a person. He’s very playful, and that’s one of a kind. On the set, it’s fun and light.

What is the film actually like? I’ve heard someone compare it to Dead Ringers, is that accurate?

Oh, I think it’s like nothing he’s ever done before. One thing about David is that, for the past three or four movies, he’s reinventing himself all the time. From A History of Violence to Eastern Promises, it’s… I think it’s going to be very different from what he’s done before.

What’s the tone of it?

Fun. Those guys were pioneers, and they were dealing with something very intense stuff. They were trying things and learning themselves. I guess, to see them learning their science and discovery can be both dangerous and fun, at times.

My final question: One of the reasons why Black Swan is such a theatrical experience is the fun of watching people react to it. How many times have you seen the film? And do you watch for people’s reactions to it?

I do a lot, actually. I think that’s the best way to discover a movie when you’re in it, and that’s the only way to. I discovered Black Swan, in particular, at the Venice Film Festival when we did the opening. There was a huge audience. The response was great.

Black Swan is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.