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To Become A 'Black Swan,' Portman Had To Go Dark

The Black Swan star describes what it was like to train with members of the New York City Ballet in preparation for her role as a mentally unstable ballet dancer in Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller.

21:20

Other segments from the episode on November 30, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 30, 2010: Interview with Natalie Portman; Interview with Vincent Cassel.

Transcript

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To Become A 'Black Swan,' Portman Had To Go Dark

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of film, "Black Swan")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actor): (As Nina Sayers) I had the craziest dream
last night, about a girl who was turned into a swan, but her prince
falls for the wrong girl, and she kills herself.

GROSS: That's my guest, Natalie Portman, playing a ballerina in the new
psychological thriller "Black Swan." Portman's character dances in a New
York City ballet company that is about to do its annual performance of
"Swan Lake." She gets the lead, playing the dual role of the innocent
white swan and the seductive and evil black swan. Because this dancer is
inhibited and sheltered, it's difficult for her to convincingly play the
black swan.

In the process of preparing for the role, she goes deep into her dark
side and confuses both herself and the film's audience about where
reality ends and paranoid fantasy begins.

The film was directed by Darren Aronofsky, who also directed "The
Wrestler." Both films are in part about people who push their bodies to
physical extremes.

Natalie Portman made her film debut at the age of 12 in the 1994 film
"The Professional." Her other movies include "Beautiful Girls,"
"Anywhere But Here," "Garden State," "The Other Boleyn Girl," and the
three "Star Wars" prequels.

Natalie Portman, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Ms. PORTMAN: Thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: So what was the preparation like for you to try to develop a
ballerina's body and movement?

Ms. PORTMAN: I started training a year ahead of time with a great
teacher, Mary Helen Bowers, who was in the New York City Ballet for 10
years. She started very basic with me, really focusing on strengthening
my toes. We would do 15 minutes of just toe exercises a day to get ready
for going en pointe, plus obviously ballet. And then we upped it to, you
know, we added more time as we went along, more hours a day of ballet,
and we added swimming.

We swam a mile a day. We toned. I watched the Frederick Wiseman
documentaries on ABT and Paris Opera Ballet, which were really helpful,
and read a lot of autobiographies of dancers.

I tried to do mainly New York City Ballet dancers because I thought it
was important to locate it in a particular culture, to have a sort of
specific world, because every company is very different. So it was sort
of Balanchine era, New York City Ballet that gave me the background.

GROSS: Are there things you have to do in ballet that you had to learn
how to do that a human body would otherwise never do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PORTMAN: Absolutely. The turnout is extreme and, you know, something
that is not natural for a lot of bodies. I think because I had the dance
training when I was little, it wasn't impossible for me to have turnouts
starting at 27.

GROSS: Describe what turnout is.

Ms. PORTMAN: Turnout is having your sort of - from your hips to your
toes pointing outwards instead of being parallel to each other. And, you
know, everything is supposed to be turned out, every move, every, you
know, tandeu or grande battement, you need to be turned out.

You have to sort of tuck your butt underneath and, like, pull in your
stomach towards your back so that your back becomes flat and doesn't
have an arch, which is not very natural for the spine.

And of course, going en pointe is also very unusual. It's not a natural
way for your body to hold itself.

GROSS: Did you have to do en pointe for "Black Swan"?

Ms. PORTMAN: Yes, yes, I was en pointe for - I mean, there's no way,
obviously, I could have learned, you know, fouette turns en pointe for
the film. That's something that takes a lifetime to perfect.

So there's a wonderful dancer, Sarah Lane, who did the more complicated
pointe work. But I did the stuff that was possible to learn in a year.

GROSS: So what happened to your feet in the process?

Ms. PORTMAN: They get disgusting. Toenails fall off. You know, they get
blistered and calloused, and you don't want anyone to look at them and
certainly not touch them.

GROSS: And what about the rest of your body? I read you, what, you
dislocated a rib? Do I have that right?

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, that was the sort of worst injury I had, was a
dislocated rib, which basically we just dealt with by not...

GROSS: By not breathing.

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, exactly. No deep breaths for six weeks, and I didn't
get lifted from my ribcage anymore. I got lifted under my armpits,
because that's sort of what does it. Yeah, but it wasn't the end of the
world. You know, real dancers dancer with such incredible injuries that
you wouldn't even believe. You know, it's such a nightmare for them to
be replaced.

You know, once they've made it to the top and they get these great
roles, they will dance on a sprained ankle or torn plantar fascia or
twisted necks, you know, just to make sure that they can keep their
moment.

GROSS: There are some very gruesome, disturbing body images in the film.
Maybe gruesome isn't exactly the right word, almost surreal. Like
there's an image where your toes are completely stuck together. It's
almost as if they'd grown into each other. And you're like trying to
like pry them apart.

And then there's an image of you peeling skin off your hand, you know,
as if it's dry skin and you're peeling it off and, like, a whole bunch
of skin comes off.

And then you have this rash on your back, or never really sure what
caused that or what it is, and it keeps getting bigger and uglier. You
crack your feet and you crack your toes.

Like some of this reminded me of the kind of, like, body imagery you're
likely to get in a surreal dream.

Ms. PORTMAN: Right, absolutely. Darren Aronofsky, our director, who's
clearly unbelievable, he is so good at physicalizing anxiety and terror
and obsession. And that's so much of it for dancers. I mean it's all
about the way your body looks and the way your body moves.

And when your worst anxiety and your worst terror is that you're going
to be prevented from moving or, you know, that your toes would stick
together or that, you know, that your skin wouldn't be pale enough, or
your body wouldn't be thin enough, I mean these are real ideals that
people talk about. And obviously any blemishes would be the worst
nightmare to cover.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Natalie Portman, and she's
starring in the new movie "Black Swan," and she plays a ballet dancer in
it.

When you accepted the part in "Black Swan," and you were working with,
you know, professional ballet choreographers and trainers, were people
sizing you up and thinking, like, oh, this is going to be tough - you
know, she doesn't really have a ballet dancer's body and we're going to
have to...

Ms. PORTMAN: Oh yeah...

GROSS: ...like stretch this and change that and move this and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PORTMAN: Oh yeah.

GROSS: Is that a weird process, having people assess you and finding
you, like, wanting and then figuring out how to fix you?

Ms. PORTMAN: It was, and, you know, it's also you have physical
limitations. You know, I have - I'm short and I have short limbs. And,
you know, the Balanchine sort of City Ballet ideal is to be very long.
And they had me working with a physical therapist, Sash Jairotani's(ph)
teacher, Michelle Rodriguez(ph), who's fantastic, who works with all the
dancers in New York, to lengthen me.

And she was literally just pulling my arms and opening my back and, you
know, having me over a ball. I would be lying on this sort of small ball
and she would just open my shoulders and open my back and do arm
exercises to try and slim my arms and lengthen them.

I was given instructions to lose as much weight as I could without
getting sick and, you know, was told every day sort of by the coaches
and stuff that I wasn't looking like a ballerina yet.

And all of a sudden, when I really started dieting and lost a serious
amount of weight, all of a sudden I started getting compliments from
everyone. But it was very much like what that world is.

GROSS: Now, Mila Kunis co-stars, and she plays a new dancer in the
company, and the ballet master thinks that she's very good. And, in
fact, she becomes your understudy. And it's always hard to tell whether
she's trying to be your best friend or trying to totally undermine you
so that she can take over as the lead. And this is where the thriller
aspect...

Ms. PORTMAN: Right.

GROSS: ... of the movie comes in. Now, I read, and tell me if this is
true, that the director of the film, Darren Aronofsky, actually created
a backstage competition between the two of you, that he would tell you
that she was doing better than you were in terms of really getting the
ballet moves down. Then he'd tell her that you were doing better than
she was.

Ms. PORTMAN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So did he actually do that?

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, it was really funny because Mila and I have been
friends for years. And when we were - you know, Darren and I have been
talking about the film for 10 years, and finally when it started
rolling, a year ahead of time, he said, you know, do you have any ideas
for who could play Lily?

And I was at the flea market with Mila, and I was telling her that I was
doing the ballet training. And she's, like, oh, be careful. I broke all
of my toes doing ballet.

And so I called up Darren, and I was like: Mila dances. Mila dances. So
then, you know, he met her and cast her, which was really exciting, to
work with a friend.

But then I was, like, why can't we train together? You know, we're doing
the same thing. Can't we take class? He kept us completely separate. He
tried to make us, like, not see each other. And then he would tell me
things like: Mila's looking really good. And then he would tell her,
like: Oh, Natalie's so much better than you.

And we would talk. So we knew that he was totally just messing with us.
And we would just laugh because, you know, we'd go out for our salad or
whatever we were eating at the time and, you know, dish on what he was,
what kind of feedback he was giving each of us. So we didn't really let
him manipulate us as he, as he desired.

GROSS: My guest is Natalie Portman. She stars as a ballerina in the new
movie "Black Swan."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Natalie Portman, and she's
starring in the new movie "Black Swan."

Now, you had your first film role when you were 13?

Ms. PORTMAN: I was 11, actually.

GROSS: Oh, God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PORTMAN: I turned 12 while we were filming "The Professional." Yes,
very young.

GROSS: And what a role to have at such a young age, because you play a
girl whose family is murdered. So you kind of move in with and
apprentice yourself to a hit man. And you want to learn the trade so you
can get revenge against the person who killed your family, particularly
your brother.

And then you think you're falling in love with him, and of course he's
this middle-aged hit man, and you're 12 in the movie. So how did you get
that part?

Ms. PORTMAN: Well, I had sort of begged my parents to audition for
things. We lived on Long Island, where a lot of sort of kids I knew were
going out on auditions for Broadway shows or commercials.

And my parents weren't really that keen on it but saw it as my passion
and supported it. And then that was just the first thing I got, which
probably attests to the kind of kid I was, that I wasn't getting, like,
Rice Krispies commercials, which I would have died for, but that they
cast me in this kind of crazy French film.

GROSS: What does that say about what you were like as a kid?

Ms. PORTMAN: I think I was, you know, acting like a grown-up, even
though I certainly didn't have the maturity of one. But I knew how to
mimic a grown-up pretty well.

So I think the sort of cute kid roles just never were the things that
anyone was interested in me for, whereas, you know, the child-woman was
sort of my type.

GROSS: Now, your father is Israeli, your mother American. You were born
in Jerusalem. At the age of three, the family moved to the U.S.

Ms. PORTMAN: Yes.

GROSS: How much time have you spent in Israel since moving to the U.S.?

Ms. PORTMAN: A lot. I go back at least once at year, but usually two,
three times a year. And five years ago I did a semester of grad school
at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. So I lived in Jerusalem for, like,
six months.

GROSS: Do you find that your personality changes a little bit in Israel
compared to when you're in the States?

Ms. PORTMAN: I don't know about my personality. Probably my politics.
You know, it's like how you can, like, say bad things about your parents
to, like, your brother or sister, but you wouldn't say it to, like, you
know, just a friend. It's sort of like you can criticize the government
more when you're in the country among other Israelis than outside; it
sort of feels like you're betraying your family or something.

GROSS: So you're more critical of Israeli policy when you're there than
you are when you're here?

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, well, I think you just feel more at ease to talk
about it because you're talking to other people who are in the same boat
as you, you know, as opposed to being, like, oh, someone here is going
to take my opinion as an Israeli and make it represent my entire
country, you know?

GROSS: How politically involved have you gotten in Middle East politics?

Ms. PORTMAN: Not - you know, I think I was really, really involved when
I was probably in my early 20s. I was, you know, reading Haaretz every
day. It was like my - the page, the website I opened to on my computer.
I would read obsessively and was very passionate and very emotionally
roused by it.

And then I sort of had to disconnect, and I barely pay attention anymore
because I think it's just - I know it's not necessarily the proudest
thing you can say, because I know it's important to be engaged, but it's
just - it can get so hard to feel that emotional about something that
you have no impact on, you know, for such a long time.

GROSS: One set of your grandparents - stop me if I'm wrong here - one
set of your grandparents was killed in Auschwitz?

Ms. PORTMAN: No, no, no. My great-grandparents.

GROSS: Great-grandparents.

Ms. PORTMAN: Yes, my father's parents migrated to Israel before the war,
in the late '30s. So their parents were killed in the camp.

GROSS: How was the Holocaust first described to you? Do you remember?

Ms. PORTMAN: I don't remember the first description. I just remember it
being a prominent feature of my education, because I went to a Jewish
school. I went to Jewish day school until I was 13. So...

GROSS: In the United States?

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, in the U.S. I went - because we moved a lot when we
were in the States. So I went to different schools in Maryland and then
Connecticut and then Long Island. So it was just such a central part of
our learning, of everything we learned, which, you know, definitely has
its - you can understand the power of memory for the Jewish people.

But also there's the drawbacks, too, because no one mentioned Rwanda to
us, which was happening at the same time, which is kind of an
interesting thing, which I regret and I, you know, wish was different.

GROSS: Were you religious when you were going to Jewish school? Or...

Ms. PORTMAN: Oh no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PORTMAN: No, my family - my family, like most Israelis, are very,
very non-religious. But they - my dad wanted me to keep my Hebrew, and
because it was half a day in Hebrew, that sort of was the purpose. And
so they would, you know, tell me to sort of abstain from prayer in the
morning, because we had to pray every morning.

And we had to bring kosher lunch, and my mom would pack me, like,
chicken salad sandwiches and tell me to lie and say it was tuna, and
that's, like, part of why I became vegetarian, because I hated lying so
much, because everyone was like: It doesn't smell like tuna.

So yeah, then I was, like, you're just sending me vegetarian lunches
from now on.

GROSS: Why was chicken bad?

Ms. PORTMAN: Because it - it was only dairy at school.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Ms. PORTMAN: You know, with milk and meat, it was only a dairy kitchen.
So you could only bring dairy lunches. So if she would pack me meat, she
would make me say it was, like, something else.

GROSS: Did you wish you were going to a public school at that time?

Ms. PORTMAN: Oh yeah, and I finally convinced my parents to let me
switch in eighth grade, mainly because I think it was just really small.
There were only 20 kids in my class. And I switched to a public school
where there were 500 kids in my class, and that made me really happy.

GROSS: Now, a lot of actors drop out of school so that they could just
act, you know, in a TV series or in a movie, or they just study acting.
I mean, they major in acting in college, whereas you studied at Harvard
and majored in psychology while continuing your acting career. And then
you spent a semester, I think, at University of Jerusalem.

But from what I read, it sounds like you didn't study acting. You
studied other things.

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, well, I've been acting since I was 11 in, you know,
film and stage. And I've gotten to have so many amazing experiences and
work with so many people that it's been sort of a school for me.

And so having the opportunity to go to university, which is really such
luck. I mean, how many people in the world, especially how many women in
the world, get to have higher education? It's really so, so rare that I
just wanted to take advantage of, you know, everything I could.

And psychology seemed also a way where I could learn things that would
be eventually helpful to my acting career without, you know, actually
taking acting classes there.

GROSS: And was it helpful?

Ms. PORTMAN: Absolutely. I mean, for this part, you know, just reading
the script and immediately having insight into obsessive-compulsive
behavior and ritualistic, almost religious practices, the relationship
with the mother that is, you know, restrictive and suffocating, and this
desire to please, the ability to dissociate oneself, when you're seeing
yourself through other people's eyes - you know, because she's always
viewing herself through her mother's eyes, her director's eyes, her
audience's eyes, the character, you know, starts seeing herself out of
her body and then has to do the dissociation where she starts seeing
this double.

So it was really - it was really helpful for this role and has been
helpful for roles in the past.

GROSS: Natalie Portman, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. PORTMAN: You too. Thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: Natalie Portman stars as a ballerina in the new movie "Black
Swan." We'll talk with her co-star, Vincent Cassel, in the second half
of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Actor Vincent Cassel: A Good Guy Who Plays Villains

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, the French actor Vincent Cassel, plays the demanding artistic
director of a ballet company in the new film "Black Swan." Earlier this
year, his film "Mesrine" was released in the U.S., in which he portrayed
the famous French gangster Jacques Mesrine.

Reviewing it in The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote: Cassel's
monumental performance fuses the cobra-like menace of the young Robert
Mitchum with the shape-shifting volatility of the classic Robert De
Niro.

Cassel played the son of a Russian gangster in David Cronenberg's film
"Eastern Promises," and just finished shooting a new Cronenberg film. He
played a master thief and "Ocean's Twelve." His father, the late actor
Jean-Pierre Cassel, worked with several French new wave directors.

Here's Vincent Cassel in a scene from "Black Swan." He's working with a
talented, but inhibited dancer played by Natalie Portman, who he's
chosen to star in "Swan Lake." He's trying to convince her to let go.

(Soundbite of movie, "Black Swan")

Mr. VINCENT CASSEL (Actor): (as Thomas Leroy) In four years, every time
you dance, I see you obsessed, getting each and every move perfectly
right, but I never see you lose yourself. Ever. All the discipline for
what?

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actor): (as Nina Sayers) I just want to be perfect.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Thomas Leroy) You what?

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) I want to be perfect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: (as Thomas Leroy) Perfection is not just about control. It's
also about letting go. Surprise yourself, so you can surprise the
audience. Transcendence. And very few have it in them.

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) I think I do have it in me.

(Soundbite of swooshing sound)

Mr. CASSEL: (as Thomas Leroy) Ah! You bit me? I can't - I can't believe
you - you bit me.

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) I'm sorry.

GROSS: Vincent Cassel, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what we just heard was
Natalie Portman biting you after you've kissed her. Was that in the
script? Were you expecting that to happen?

Mr. CASSEL: No, it was - of course, it was written. We did many times,
actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, that must have felt good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: Well, she didn't really bit me. I think she did it the first
time, and then it wasn't really needed anymore. So, you know, it's just
acting, let's say.

GROSS: Right. Well, that's the thing. You say it's just acting. But for
her, like, she had to go through this, like, grueling regimen of ballet
training, which you were probably spared from for the film, right?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, you see, I think in a career, once in a while you get,
you know, a part like that where you really have to get involved
physically. It doesn't really have to do with, you know, the situation
or the acting itself, but it's just like, let's say, a technical aspect
that you need to go through. You know, for this time, I mean, with her,
it was about dancing. Sometimes, you know, it's - I mean, not so long
ago, I had to gain a lot of weight. You know, it's things that you have
to do. It's physically very demanding, but, you know, when it's such a
wonderful part, I guess you just do it with a smile, you know. And
that's what she did. She went for it smiling.

GROSS: Did you have to learn about dance for your part as the ballet
master?

Mr. CASSEL: Actually, I've danced for a long time. I started my career
as a dancer. My father was a dancer, so I literally grew up on sets,
backstage, on stage, you know, and, you know, so I really grew up in
that environment. And I've danced - I took ballet classes for seven
years in Paris and in New York, so I really knew what it was about. I
remember the smell of the studio in the morning, and I still have my
tights and all my, you know, my things. So, you know, I went back to the
classes a little bit for that movie, because I wanted to carry myself in
a proper way. And it still hurts a lot, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. So what kind of dance did your father do, and what kind of
dance did you do besides ballet?

Mr. CASSEL: My father was a tap dancer, really, you know. He actually,
he was part of "Chorus Line," in the London production. He was doing the
part of Zach, who was actually more or less the same kind of character
that I'm portraying in "Black Swan." You know, he's a demanding
director, let's say. And for myself, I did ballet and I did jazz, I did
tap, and then Capoeira, which is kind of a martial art, but it's still a
dance. You know, nothing really well, but a little bit of everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think one of the American films that you're best known for is
"Ocean's Twelve" just because that series is so popular.

Mr. CASSEL: Mm.

GROSS: So I thought I'd play a scene from that, so people can hear you
in action. Because playing the French movies wouldn't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: Nobody will get it.

GROSS: ...wouldn't quite work. Yes. So you play a master thief.

Mr. CASSEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you see yourself as in competition with Danny Ocean, the
George Clooney character...

Mr. CASSEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...for who's the best the thief. So let's hear a scene. You've
invited Danny Ocean, George Clooney, to visit you at your mansion, where
you end up making him a proposition.

(Soundbite of movie, "Ocean's Twelve")

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) Mr. Ocean.

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (as Danny Ocean) You broke rule number one,
and that has consequences.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) Oh. You must be talking about the
paintings. Don't worry. You'll be dead in five days, and I'll get my
paintings back.

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Danny Ocean) Unless you have an accident first.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) I don't think so, Daniel. Perhaps I
should explain to you why I'm tormenting you like this.

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Danny Ocean) I'd like that.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) Mm-hmm. Well, you see, last month, I
was in Portugal to see my mentor.

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Danny Ocean) LeMarque.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) Indeed. A very loud and annoying
American businessman was there the same day. He worked for a big
insurance company. He's the one who suggested Benedict to you as a
potential mark. You know the man?

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Danny Ocean) What about him?

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) Well, he said it was the most
beautiful job he'd ever seen, and he went on and on about this job. And
then he said...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) ...it showed you were the greatest
thief in the world. But the worst part is that LeMarque never corrected
him. I told LeMarque that you can't be better than me. And he answered
that it was impossible to know for sure. So I thought about that for,
like, three weeks in a row, day and night. And then suddenly, I realized
that he was actually right. It is impossible to compare one theft to the
other, huh? So, I guess the only way to know who's the best of us for
sure is to go after the same object. Do the same job, don't you think?
That would be fun.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Francois Toulour) You're being awfully cavalier with a
lot of people's lives so you can play out a game. You're going to regret
it.

GROSS: That's George Clooney and my guest Vincent Cassel in a scene from
"Ocean's Twelve."

Did this movie strike you as, like, a very American movie? Because
there's big American stars. It's a sequel to a film that was a remake of
a Frank Sinatra film. The whole movie is tongue-in-cheek. So did it
strike you as this, like, very American film?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, you know, not really, because when you look at it -
okay, so you have a lot of big stars in it. But most of them are
friends, you know. And Steven Soderbergh, the director, is definitely a
very particular director in the American industry, I guess, you know,
because he really managed to make those big movies, you know, like the
"Ocean's" movies. And then on the other hand, he gets involved with
subject matter like "Solaris" or, you know, really, really artsy stuff.
So it was a big movie, but it felt very homemade on sets - you know,
very homey, very warm, a bunch of guys who know each other for a while.
And he had total control in it.

GROSS: So the "Ocean's" films are, you know, very suave and they're
about, you know, they're about, like, style and charisma and everything.
You played a genuine gangster in - I'm used to saying "Mesrine" or
"Mesrine"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But that's not - you say it right for me.

Mr. CASSEL: It's - actually, there's an S in the word, but I mean...

GROSS: He doesn't like - the gangster doesn't like to say it.

Mr. CASSEL: No.

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: But the real way to say it is Mesrine.

GROSS: Mesrine.

Mr. CASSEL: Mesrine. Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. So you play - this is based on a real gangster who lived in
France.

Mr. CASSEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Jacques Mesrine.

Mr. CASSEL: Jacques Mesrine, in the '70s.

GROSS: In the '70s. Yes. So - and he's not - he was not very famous
here. So tell us a little bit about the real gangster that your
character is based on.

Mr. CASSEL: Well, the guy was - well, he was very different from the
rest of the gangsters we had in France because he was the first one to
use the media, really. You know, that's what really made the difference
for him. He used the media for his own sake. He started to - when he -
actually, what really happened is that he's been used as an icon of the
counter-power by a left wing press in those days. And I guess he really
enjoyed it, and he really liked to be - yeah. He had a huge ego, so he
started to enjoy being in the papers and on TV and everything. So he
started to, you know, call the journalists himself and eventually
managed to be on the front page of things like Paris Match, which is the
equivalent, more or less, of Life - Time/Life magazine, you know.

And so it's really his relation to the media that made him different,
and actually, I think that's why he died, you know. He became much too
noisy for the government at the time, and they just decided to get rid
of him.

GROSS: The movie is in two parts.

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

GROSS: And the second part, you're older and you're heavier...

Mr. CASSEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...about 50 pounds heavier.

Mr. CASSEL: Beyond that.

GROSS: And you have like a big pot belly. You know, actors often like to
get into character by putting on the character's clothes, putting on
their hairdo or their hairpiece, or whatever. But for this, it's like
you're living in somebody else's body, and you're going to sleep in that
body. You're going home in that body. It just must be so odd to totally
transfigure yourself like that in a way that you can't take off when you
go home at night.

Mr. CASSEL: Yes, it is very hard. It is very hard, and it's not
something one should do too often, to be honest, because not good for
you, obviously. But there's something really great about it. You know,
just as we were saying for Natalie in "Black Swan," you know, it's that
when you get so physically involved with something, you don't have to do
much after that, you know. I mean, I was breathing differently. You
know, my walk was different, you know. So I felt so different already
that it was kind of easy to imagine myself as somebody else, you know.
And so that really helps.

I think all these things you were just saying, you know, about, you
know, hairdo and, you know, all the clothes and everything are not
something superficial. I think they're really important. If you let
yourself go to the feeling that, you know, that you have wearing
something that is not yours, you can go really far, actually.

GROSS: Were you afraid that you would never be yourself again
physically?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, I have a tendency to think that you always change,
really. So you never really are the one you were yesterday. And every
movie, especially when you're - when you get involved with a movie, it
takes something out of you. You know, you learn something, but you give
something to the movie and you - after a movie, if the experience has
been intense and a true experience, you're little different afterwards,
you know, physically. You know, I've noticed that the first important
movie that I did, I shaved my head for the movie. When the hair grew
back, you know, I had white hair...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: ...for the first time in my life. So it's, you know, I have
a tendency to play it cool and to say that it's, you know, easy and
normal and it's no big deal. But I know it really takes something away
from you when you get involved with something deeply.

GROSS: What's another example of a role that changed you in some way
that you had not expected it would?

Mr. CASSEL: It seems like, you know, when you do a character, especially
when it's something that is a little far away from you, it's like a door
that you open. And when you're done with the movie, you open that door,
and it's there. You know, it's like I don't know, it's kind of weird
but, you know, I played like a bunch of characters, and then I realized
that I would go back to my normal me, you know. But in a way, there was
something that added to my personality, you know?

For example, with Mesrine, you know, I realize that I feel heavier
sometime in the way I laugh, you know. Yeah, the laughs can really
change, you know, with a character. You laugh in a certain way, and it's
the way of the character, let's say. And then, you know, afterwards, you
realize that sometime in your laugh, there's something left from that
character.

GROSS: My guest is Vincent Cassel. He plays the artistic director of a
ballet company in the new film "Black Swan."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Vincent Cassel. He co-stars in the new film "Black
Swan." He starred in the French gangster film "Mesrine," and played a
master thief in "Ocean's Twelve."

Now, your grandfather owned a movie theater...

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...which was converted from a real theater, like a stage theater.

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you describe the theater?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: Okay. You see that big castle at the beginning of the Walt
Disney movies?

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. CASSEL: Something like that.

GROSS: No.

Mr. CASSEL: It's actually...

GROSS: Really?

Mr. CASSEL: I swear. Yeah. Yeah. It's actually - it was a casino.
That's, well, it was a castle that Napoleon built back in the days for
one of his lovers. And she never made it there, you know, she stopped
because of the rain in Bordeaux, I think she stopped. And that thing
became a casino with a theater, two nightclubs...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: ...and things like that. So, you know, I was literally with
my brother and my cousins and all that. We were living in the dressing
rooms of the theater, you know. So everybody had, like, a little room
with a bed and a mirror with lights around, you know, and the
bathroom...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: ...yeah, it was incredible. And so - and the bathroom were
actually the bathroom of the theater. So we just opened the door and be
in the theater. So, you know, it was like a home cinema before the -
before they even existed, you know. And that's where I really discovered
a lot of movies, you know, really good ones, very bad ones, horror
films, cartoons - porn, anything, you know.

GROSS: Porn? Did he show porn?

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah, at midnight on Saturdays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh. So did you're...

Mr. CASSEL: So imagine, yeah, we were...

GROSS: ...your parents try to prevent you from seeing it? Or...

Mr. CASSEL: Well, my parents weren't really there, you know. It was more
my grandparents. They were really busy. And anyway, you know, I knew the
theater more better than anybody else, so there was always a way to
sneak in.

GROSS: Were you surprised by pornography, or did you already know how it
was done?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: No. No. I knew and, I mean, you know, I mean - and imagine,
I mean I was 13. I was, you know, I loved it.

GROSS: Now you spent some time in a circus school.

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah. Quite a while, actually.

GROSS: How much?

Mr. CASSEL: Like, five years.

GROSS: How come?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, my father didn't really want me to be an actor because
he thought it was - and he was right, actually. He kind of protected me
from, you know, going in the same direction than him, you know, because,
you know, being an actor is wonderful when you've got work. But when you
don't, it's terrible. It's the end of the world if you don't do
anything.

So I guess he just, you know, if I wanted to do it, it had to be very
personal. And that's what it became, you know, very personal. But before
I could go on stage and take acting class and stuff, you know, he didn't
want me to get involved with that, so my way in was the circus, really,
you know, because it was kind of like a stage. And I thought that actors
should be able to do everything, you know.

So at the circus, you learn how to play with things. You know, you
juggle. You need to work on your balance. You kind of work with your
body, you know. And I don't know, I thought that was a plus for me. You
know, so I got involved. And I've learned quite a lot of things, and
especially to move, because, you know, I realized that a lot of actors
don't know how to move their body. You know, they're stiff. At least in
France. And so I've learned how to control my tool, really. And then,
you know, I realized that it was all about the emotions, so I've learned
how to control my emotions. But it started by the body.

GROSS: So with the body, when you were in circus school, you learned how
to juggle. What other, like, technical things did you learn?

Mr. CASSEL: Acrobatics. My specialty was acrobatics, so acrobatics,
working on the wire. You know...

GROSS: Wow. You did that?

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah. Well, you kind of learn everything, you know, at
first, and then you specialize in something - so, trapeze, you know,
acrobatics on a horse and ballet. Because when you are at the circus
school, you have to take ballet classes every day as a base, you know.

GROSS: So when you were doing trapeze work, what was it like when you'd
fall?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, there's a net.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know there's a net, but still, you're falling.

Mr. CASSEL: Well, it's actually - that's the first thing you learn, how
to fall, you see, how to fall flat, because if you don't fall flat, you
might hurt yourself. It's scary, you know. It's scary. It's exciting.
It's - you have to abandon yourself, you know, and to abandon yourself
is very useful when you act, too, because you have to trust your
choices. You have to trust, let's say, you have to trust yourself,
really, you know. It's - and even though you're not always know where -
how it's going to end, let's say.

You know what? Now that I'm talking about that with you, I realized that
when I was much younger, I read a book by Stanislavsky called...

GROSS: "The Actor Prepares"?

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah. And he's talking about acrobatics. And that's - I
think that's one of the reasons why I wanted to get involved with the
circus school, too. And he was saying that when you start an acrobatic
sequence, once you start it, you have to do it until the end because if
you stop in the middle you fall and you hurt yourself. And that's how
you should start a scene, too, you know. You have choices and you go for
it. You don't know if you're going to, you know, you're going to fall or
not, but you have to go with your choices until the end.

You know, that idea of danger, you know, I think it's a good parallel
between acting and acrobatics, you know. And that's one of the reasons
why I wanted to get involved with that, you know, because when you act
sometime, you need to dare things, you know. You need to not be scared
even though you're not - you don't know what's going to happen.

GROSS: My guest is Vincent Cassel. He plays the artistic director of a
ballet company in the new film "Black Swan."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Vincent Cassel. He costars in the new film "Black
Swan." He starred in the French gangster film "Mesrine" and played a
master thief in "Ocean's Twelve."

So here's something I've been waiting to ask you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know your parents divorced when you were 13.

Mr. CASSEL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Your mother moved to America, and then you spent some time in
America.

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

GROSS: And one of the things you did in America was go to summer camp.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm dying to hear about that experience.

Mr. CASSEL: I've been twice to summer camps. I've been to Camp Redwood,
Upstate New York, and I've been to the camp called Blueberry Cove in
Maine. That was a real culture shock for me.

GROSS: I'm thinking it might be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: You know, because, you know, I mean, kids are not raised the
same way in America and in France. There's a real difference, you know?
And so it was pretty hard for me to get into the - to get into it, you
know? First of all, you have to do a lot of things when you're in camp.
You have to play football. You have to play basketball. You have to eat
now. You know, it's like a lot of things, and I couldn't, you know,
relate to that thing where you had to do things. I grew up, I didn't
have to do anything. You know, I felt like a - very free as a kid, you
know. And suddenly, like to have so many rules was kind of a tough
thing. Actually, I ran away twice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: From camp? Really? How did...

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.

Mr. CASSEL: Did you have to run through the woods or something?

Mr. CASSEL: Yeah. I, you know, I just, you know, man away - literally
ran. I was, you know, and they catch me on the road running.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, just getting back for a second to the movie theater that you
partially grew up in.

GROSS: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, what's one or two of the really good or really bad movies
that you saw there that you think you may never have gotten to see had
you not basically been living in a movie theater?

Mr. CASSEL: A lot of, you know, B series from, you know, like the
"Insects of Fire," you know, for example. It was, like, roaches, you
know, burning roaches that would, like, come off the phone and they
would burn everything around. You know, they're really bad movies. But,
you know, there were - no, but they were very scary at the time for me.
And, you know, the B series, I've seen a lot of those and all those like
- it was, like, a trend in the '70s. They had, like, those kind of not -
it was like sexy movies, you know, from Italy with that actress called
Edwige Fenech, who was, like, a sex symbol. And so in one movie, she was
a nurse or she was a schoolteacher, you know. And those were really,
really bad, really bad movies. And - but I loved them because she was
she was gorgeous, that actress.

GROSS: So you loved acting when you were young, and you love it now. Do
you love it in a different way? Are there things about acting you love
now that are really different from what you loved when you were young?

Mr. CASSEL: Well, you see, when I was really young, the problem is that
I was acting, but in life, you know. I wouldn't call it lies, but let's
say, you know, I don't know. I was - I would create things. I would make
people believe in things that wouldn't exist, you know, and, you know, I
would like transform myself, you know, wearing disguise in the streets
in my neighborhood to see if people would recognize me or not, you know.
So it's not very healthy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: ...after a certain point, because, you start to mix
everything up. And - but the interesting thing about it is that if you
can make people believe things in life than it's easy to make, you know,
to make it in a movie, because it's harder, you know, to do that trick
in life than on a set, you know.

So when I started to work and get some job, you know, I started to
express that on movies, in movies, and that was a relief, really,
because I didn't have to do it in life anymore.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. CASSEL: Thank you. You took me so far away. I can't believe it.

GROSS: Vincent Cassel plays the artistic director of a ballet company in
the new film "Black Swan."

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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