JULY 2004

Cassel: Spaced cowboy


Peruvian hallucinogens? All in a day’s work when you make a ‘metaphysical
Western’. Vincent Cassel talks to Liese Spencer

09 July 2004 The

The French pin-up and father-to-be Vincent Cassel is sipping mineral
water in Paris’s supercool Hotel Costes and talking about how director
Jan Kounen introduced him to psychotropic drugs.

“I went with Jan to Peru and took ayahuasca with the Shipibo-conibo
tribe. Did I hallucinate? You bet! I saw snakes. You know there are scientists
researching into what ayahuasca does to your metabolism,” says Cassel.
“Some of them think that these intertwined snakes are a visualisation of
DNA. Meaning that these Indian tribes are in contact with the meaning of

Blimey. For actorly preparation, it certainly beats Renée’s
doughnut diet for Bridget Jones’s Diary. The two men were in the Amazon
to research a metaphysical Western Kounen was planning, loosely based
on a cult French cartoon.

“I was scared, of course,” he says. “It’s not like going out and
taking ecstasy. It’s not recreational. In fact it’s the opposite. You
can have the worst night of your life.” Indeed, when Kounen had returned
from his first sojourn with the Shipibo-conibo, Cassel had been a bit worried.
“Jan came back saying, ‘You know what? Making movies is not that important.
There are many more important things in life.'”

Not the kind of insight you’d normally share with your potential
star, but Cassel was intrigued. “I thought it was a dangerous game he
was playing but I also thought he was brave to seek out a new perspective.
Jan said to me, ‘Come with me into the forest. You’ll see. It’s incredible,’
and I said, ‘Hooyaidonknow'” – Cassel gives a full-body shrug – ” ‘I ‘ave
things to do.'”

A few weeks later he was in the rainforest looking at his pineal
gland through his third eye. Or something. He finds the experience hard
to describe. In fact, after weeks of struggling to find the right metaphor
for the French press, he decided to do it again, just to remind himself.

“Jan and I talked about it so much, I began to wonder if it was really
what we described. So I went back and saw the shaman. I had another experience.
While I was upside-down I laughed so much, because actually we weren’t
wrong. It’s what’s in the movie plus 500 different sensations that go
through your body that you cannot put on screen.”

Apart from the film’s trippy climax, were there any lasting effects
from the drugs? “There’s no toxicity,” explains Cassel, “and your serotonin
levels, which are very low after having coffee or cigarettes, or any
kind of stimulant, actually go up after taking ayahuasca… so it’s really

So is Kounen’s finished film. Although Blueberry begins, conventionally
enough, with a shootout in a frontier town brothel, I can’t think of another
Western in which the good and bad guys duke it out by lying down in a cave
and tripping off their heads. Or of another Cajun cowboy for that matter.

Eddie Izzard, who plays an evil, bearded, Prussian prospector, calls
Blueberry a “baguetti” Western. French critics have called it pretentious.
Not that Cassel will be overly bothered. He’s made it his business to
rebel against mainstream “bourgeois cinema”. He made his debut as an angry
young skinhead in 1995’s La Haine, going on to star in Kounen’s graphic
Dobermann and the controversial rape drama Irréversible, co-starring
his wife Monica Belluci.

Through it all, he’s turned down a steady stream of “baddy” roles
from Hollywood. “I realised that I needed to be anchored,” he says. “I
made movies that are real.They are not just part of the industry.”

Cassel will never live in LA. He loves the anonymity of his home
town too much. “Paris is great because French people, as you know, are
a bit snobby, so even if they do recognise you, they don’t like to admit

He and Belluci live in a working-class neighbourhood. “I think people
are happy that we live there because they are like, ‘We have the prince
and princess,’ you know? But I’m still able to go down to the street corner
and have a smoke.”

Despite the grey hair growing up from his widow’s peak, Cassel burns
with a fast-talking, wide-ranging enthusiasm.”I think you can really
ruin yourself if you start working for the wrong reasons,” he says, “such
as money. Doing things that you don’t like is like sleeping with people
you don’t want to sleep with. After a point you lose your self-respect.”

Despite art-house hits such as Read My Lips and Brotherhood of the
Wolf, the versatile and talented Cassel is still relatively unknown outside
France. Still, he shows no sign of wanting to go mainstream. “It’s not
that I’m looking for the most bizarre roles but I like things that are

So what about comedy? Can this subversive force in French cinema
drag the country’s lame slapstick into the 21st-century? I put to him
the great film conundrum posed by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening:
“The French are funny. Comedies are funny. So why are no French comedies

“I can’t talk about humour with a British person because you are
the kings!” he says. “Actually, I did do a comedy: Guesthouse Paradiso
with Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson. I had a lot of fun. The balls in the
nutcracker. All that kind of stuff.” Touché.

Of course, with the release of Ocean’s 12 Cassel’s low profile will
be a thing of the past. He’s shooting it at the moment with the director
Stephen Soderbergh, George Clooney and the rest. Cassel plays the best
thief in the world. “I am very French in it. Varrry French. But I am not
a baddy. That was the deal.”

‘Blueberry’ is released on 23 July


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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.