Before filming Black Swan, Vincent Cassell would ‘hang out’ back stage at the world famous Opera Garnier in Paris.
Soaking up the atmosphere, taking mental notes, and later, crossing continents to watch rehearsals with the prestigious New York City Ballet in Manhattan’s Lincoln Centre.
For Cassell, it was all essential groundwork to prepare for his role as the driven and domineering choreographer Thomas Leroy, in Darren Aronofsky’s gripping psychological thriller, starring alongside Natalie Portman as Nina, a ballerina who is pushed to the edge as she takes on a career-defining role in Swan Lake.
Cassell counts himself privileged to have observed some of the greats of modern ballet at work, including the Russian born Mikhail Baryshnikov and Dane Peter Martins, both former dancers and now choreographers.
“I was lucky enough to work, just for half an hour, with Mikhail Baryshnikov, at the Opera Garnier,” he says. “And I went to see Peter Martins work during rehearsals at the New York City Ballet and that was great.”
His opportunity to see the great Baryshnikov at work came almost by chance. “I was hanging out at the Opera Garnier quite a lot, just to be there and do some background work for the movie,” he recalls.
“And one day there was a young dancer from the Opera who asked Mikhail Baryshnikov to help him on a piece that Mikhail did years ago.
“And so I was invited to be part of the session. It was an amazing moment. My internal computer was going into overdrive and Xeroxing everything in my mind. It was actually very useful.”
Cassell drew on other influences to help build up his character. He read up on another great dancer and choreographer, the late George Balanchine. “Leroy is actually a mix of a bunch of people and, of course, that’s the way Darren wrote the character in the script,” he explains.
“But I definitely thought about Balanchine, even though I never met him but I did read a lot about him. And in the 80s I was close to a guy called Michael Bennett, a choreographer who directed A Chorus Line, Dream Girls and many other shows.
“So I drew a little bit from Michael, who sadly, died in the late 80s. I had the good fortune of working with him when I was 17, 18. But actually, Benjamin Millepied, who choreographed Black Swan, is the closest person to who I’m playing.
“Not in terms of the story, of course, and he’s not a control freak, but he’s a modern dancer and a very good one and a great choreographer.”
Cassell is a talented dancer himself and studied ballet for six years. “My father danced and as long as I can remember, I always tap danced,” he says. “And then I got involved with ballet when I was sixteen.
“But I never thought I would be a dancer. For me, it was more that I liked to learn new things for my acting really, I don’t know why, but I thought that actors should know how to do everything, so I learned how to juggle, l learned acrobatics, clowning, stunts, you name it and I wanted to try it.”
Before playing Leroy in Black Swan, Cassell also took dancing lessons and, he admits, it was a painful experience. Performing at the highest level takes a huge physical toll on the dancers, he says.
“I went back to taking classes and it was very painful. But it was already painful when I was younger - dancing is painful by definition. Just see any professional dancer naked and you’ll see. A dancer’s body is beautiful when it’s in movement but when they stand still you see the injuries that their bodies have picked up over the years. It’s a very hard discipline.”
Cassell was born and raised in Paris and delivered a searing portrayal of a troubled young man from the wrong side of the tracks in La Haine (titled Hate in the US) for director Mathieu Kassovitz in 1995.
It proved to be a powerful calling card and since then Cassell has gone on to star in a number of European productions – notably L’Appartement, Doberman and Brotherhood of the Wolf – and English language films, including playing a violent Russian mobster in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and starring with George Clooney in Ocean’s 12 and Ocean’s 13.
In 2008 Cassell won a Cesar Award – the French equivalent of an Oscar – for his powerful portrayal of gangster Jacques Mesrine in Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1
The chance to work with Darren Aronofsky – a director he has long admired – on Black Swan was too good to turn down, he says.
“I only say ‘yes’ when I can’t say ‘no’, and that was exactly the case right here, because I’ve been following Darren’s work since the beginning,” he says. “I always thought he was one of the most interesting filmmakers of his generation so for me, the minute he called me, I was already flattered, and all actors need to be flattered once in a while.
“So we just had a little talk and he told me about the character and I had a background experience with ballet and so it’s something I could easily relate to. And then of course there was the chance to work with Natalie so all together it was very easy. In two days I’d met him, read the script and said ‘yes.’ And that’s pretty fast.”
Cassell is married to the actress Monica Bellucci and they have two daughters.