Sparring: An interview with Mathieu Kassovitz
Sparring is the first feature of director Samuel Jouy, and stars renowned French actor Mathieu Kassovitz. It is being shown in competition at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, receiving a positive response from critics. The movie follows Kassovitz’s journeyman boxer, Steve Landry, who seeks one last chance for professional self-respect and the means to provide for his family. To achieve this, Steve must become the sparring partner of a past European champion.
We interviewed Mathieu Kassovitz on the day of the first public screening of Sparring in Piazza Grande. We spoke with him about his newest film, his previous work and his experiences as both an actor and director.
Hello Mathieu. If your life was a boxing match, which round would you be in now?
You could say the 12th round but there’s always another fight coming. I never felt defeated. If you want to be defeated, you can be. It doesn’t have to be that way – it can be a lesson.
You had a real boxing match in June. Is that a universe you want to continue to explore?
I did that fight and I’m going to do another one in December. It’s not a career but it’s a hobby. It’s complicated because I can’t do it when I’m working as an actor. I can’t have a black eye because if I train I could get hit. I sometimes sacrifice a movie so I can work out. It’s a hobby but a thirsty one.
What’s your personal fascination with boxing?
It’s probably the first sport ever. Before running, people were fighting. It was the first sport that you needed to learn. You had to fight every day. It’s a sport and you have to become good. I think it’s the most honest sport. There are no instruments. There’s just gloves to protect yourself. Apart from that there’s nothing. It’s you fighting yourself. You can put anyone against you. Boxing is a way of life that is more interesting than acting. Acting is all about lying, and fighting is all about truth. If you’re not true to yourself, boxing will make sure you know who you are and won’t lie. Acting is the opposite: “wow you’ve saved the world three times already”. The guy was a stuntman. A liar believes he is saying the truth. That’s why good liars are good actors.
Why do you think boxing lends itself so well to cinema?
Because it is the ultimate drama. It’s goes up, it goes down. You are willing to train like a maniac for a month to get in a ring with a guy who wants to take your head off. You can say no, but you say yes. It’s a challenge to you and that’s why it’s so fascinating for everybody. The human drama is sensational. Visually it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t require cars and explosions. Nothing is more powerful than Rocky, when at the end he screams for Adrian and everybody cries. And he didn’t even win the fight! He just stood on his feet all the way to the end. I got chills. You can’t find that in a lot of stories. Boxing is so raw – it touches the human soul directly.
Can you find something true about your life through acting?
You need to have a face and a personality. I want to see Robert De Niro. He can be Napoleon, he can be a spaceman, and he can be whatever he wants. I want to see him. It’s him that makes the character. When I trained with Souleymane M’Baye, who plays M’Bareck in the film and is a boxing champion, he said I should not care, I should relax, I should stay intelligent, stay sharp. Get ready and have enough time to train. Try different things and make mistakes, but at the right moment you need to be ready. It is the same for an actor. When the camera is on you have to disconnect. You’re not here to prove anything. You’ve learned your lines and rehearsed the same movements. If you come with a game plan as an actor or a boxer you are fucked, he’s not going to answer to you. Then you don’t have a plan and you have to be open and make people believe. That’s why I don’t think you can take much from your characters. I didn’t know I could be that violent, that I could look so angry and that mad. A good actor is someone who doesn’t give a shit. That’s why actors are crazy. On one hand they are revered, on the other hand they are mainly puppets.
Are you then an artist or a craftsman?
You can become an artist later. Who gives a fuck if you do something wrong? You can be ridiculous, try something stupid. Al Pacino did stuff on set that must have been ridiculous. But as a director you take what you need. He can only give you that cause he tried more. He’s not just talented; he’s crazy. De Niro doesn’t give a shit. Brando doesn’t give a shit. Ask Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman, both approaches look the same. But Hoffman will say now that he just pretends. If the director thinks I’m not good enough then he shouldn’t have chosen me.
Do you fill more fulfilled when you work behind the camera?
I feel fulfilled when I work on a project that I like, whatever position I’m in. I could be anybody – electrician, grip, prop, runner. Who the fuck wouldn’t have wanted to be there when they shot Taxi Driver? It’s all about the finished project.
You recently worked with Michael Haneke on Happy End. How was that?
He’s a good guy. He’s a fun guy to work with, believe it or not. He knows what he’s doing. There are some things that are borderline, that make him uncomfortable, make him laugh. And he laughs all the time.