Mathieu Kassovitz is no longer the cherub-faced youngster Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) fell in love with in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 hit, Amélie. In the intervening years, the French actor has carved a niche for himself as an action guy in the hit series The Bureau, which has been giving Homeland a run for its money in the espionage stakes (you can stream both The Bureau and Homeland at SBS On Demand). He’s fearless and lacking in vanity.
After growing up making short films, the son of Hungarian Jewish director Peter Kassowitz became a politicised director in his own right, making a huge impact with 1995’s La Haine (Hate), a film that was ahead of its time in casting a dark light on suburban violence. He had a hit directing The Crimson Rivers in France and subsequent commercial success with Gothika in Hollywood, though shooting Babylon A.D. with Vin Diesel would prove to be difficult. He also fulfilled a dream by working with his early cinematic hero Steven Spielberg in Munich, in which he played a Belgian explosives expert alongside Daniel Craig and Eric Bana.
Kassovitz has not directed a feature since 2011’s L’ordre et la morale (Rebellion) and now prefers to work in front of the camera. He is part of the ensemble in Austrian director Michael Haneke’s ironically titled family drama, Happy End; has a supporting role as the love interest in Ladies (De Plus Belle), a vehicle for French comedian Florence Foresti (screening in the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival); and is currently on French screens starring as an aging boxer and a devoted family man in Sparring.
How close is 'The Bureau' to reality?
It’s close enough that the guys from the French secret service give the DVDs to their wives and kids to show what they cannot tell. We presented the first couple of episodes to 300 guys and the only thing we know is they thanked us because it’s a way of being able to talk about what they do. But they cannot tell us if the techniques we use are theirs or not.
Is it more rewarding than making a Michael Haneke film (Happy End)?
For my ego, yeah. It’s great because girls, er, people think I’m a superhero. I’m a poor man’s Daniel Craig, which is good enough for me. In the Haneke movie, I look like an arsehole, I’m acting like an arsehole – I AM an arsehole in the movie. It’s disturbing and hard to watch, but the reward is not instant gratification.
Did you discuss the character and story with Haneke?
He asked me to read the script. “If you want to tell me something about the scene, I’ll listen," he said.
The relationship your character has with his 13-year-old daughter is quite unusual, once she knows he is having an affair.
I don't think it’s unusual. It’s very natural. He didn't raise her; she was raised by her mum. He was working all the time, and now he has to take care of her and doesn't know what to do. And he has an affair – who doesn't?
The family in the film is an allegory for society, and it’s no accident they come from Calais.
I would say the film is about how bourgeois society is falling. They don't notice how people are dying elsewhere; they are protecting their own world. That world is collapsing – they cannot stop the refugee crisis and they cannot stop the misery. Michael doesn't want to tell you what the subject is, but for me it’s about if you’re only thinking of yourself and you don't look around, that's how you die.
How was it to work with him?
He has his own rhythm, he has his own pace and he’s very specific. I cannot do what he does, but I love to see what somebody else is doing it. When I’m directing, I’m putting cameras saying, “Shoot, do two takes and onto the next one,” and he’s taking much longer saying, “I don't know what’s going on; I need to find something else.” He’s an artist, and you cannot emulate another artist.
After enjoying enormous international exposure, you seem to have come back to acting after maybe getting directing out of your system. The Bureau seems to have brought you back, do you think?
No. You have to understand that if you want to be commercial, if you want to be a star, you have to play by certain rules, shake certain hands and go certain places, which I realised really soon when I started. I was 25 when I did La Haine, and within the next years, I did Amélie and was on the top of the fucking world. I realised I could become a star if I kept going in that direction, but I couldn't cope with this, I didn't like it. I didn't want to have to go to places being nice to people I didn't want to be nice to. I can’t do that. I want to be free and be able to say, “Go fuck yourself!” if I need to. If you become part of the system, you cannot say that anymore. So I never looked for any exposure. What I always knew by watching other people’s careers is that you can go low, but you’re always going to come back at some point.
Not always... and you were so gorgeous when you were young...
I’m better now than I was before!
Isabelle Huppert, your sister in Happy End, is pretty hot and she's a 64-year-old.
Oh, fuck yeah, she is and she has that little kinky thing in her eyes. She’s very alive and so is Jean-Louis, who’s 87 and plays the family patriarch (a role Haneke devised especially for him). He was so happy and like a little kid when he saw the film. When you work with Isabelle, Jean-Louis or Michael, you know what you’re going to get. The trust is building fast.
Have you always wanted to work with famous directors?
When I was 17, and I was making short Super 8 movies and watching five movies a day, I had one dream: I wanted to be at the end of the credits of a Spielberg movie, as a gopher or whatever. I just wanted to be linked to the guy. I knew Spielberg’s stories and the way he started. Jean-Pierre Jeunet inspired me so much. On La Cité des Enfants Perdus (The City of Lost Children), I hired myself as an extra for three days and didn't tell him. After the second day, Jean-Pierre saw me and asked what the fuck I was doing there. I told him I wanted to be part of something great. Now as an actor, if I keep on having interesting projects, I don't need to return as a director because I’m satisfied to watch these guys work. When I see Michael work, I can feel in my blood what he’s experiencing.
You’ve worked on Luc Besson’s films for the same reason?
Of course. I’m so happy they’re fulfilling their dreams and mine. So I’m like, why should I work as hard as these guys when I can be paid much more as an actor? You've got one life, I have three kids and making movies is not an obligation. You can do something else and at the moment I’m really enjoying boxing. I trained hard for the Sparring role and we didn't want any choreography for the film, so we were fighting for real. Then when we stopped, they told me I should keep on doing it, so I said OK.
Happy End is now showing in Australian cinemas, and Ladies premieres at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.
Watch series 1 - 3 of 'The Bureau' at SBS On Demand