Eric Cantona created drama on the football pitch; now he’s doing the same on stage and screen, as he explains to Pierre de Villiers
“The most important thing for me is, every day, to find a way to express something,” Cantona says. “And acting is a kind of expression for me. I have to do different things and also challenge and push myself the whole time. I don’t need to do something in terms of money; everything I do is because I really need to do it as a human being, to feel alive. You can have a great painter, who only does paintings, but nearly all his life tries to express himself in different ways, most of the time doing the same things.”
Audiences now have an ideal opportunity to judge how well Cantona is expressing himself through acting. Not only has the 45-year-old been touring Europe in the play Ubu Encha�n�, but he makes a return to cinemas in the psychological thriller Switch. Set in Paris, the movie sees Cantona play gruff cop Damien Forgeat, who is trying to determine whether Canadian tourist Sophie (played by Karine Vanasse) committed a heinous crime.
“When I do a film I try to find a strong story,” says Cantona. “I like the fact that Forgeat’s instincts tell him Sophie is innocent and he has to prove it. I also like the way Fr�d�ric Schoendoerffer directs and his view on things. Even if the script is strong, much depends on the director. Fr�d�ric has great experience and I think he is one of the best directors in France, maybe in Europe. I am very positive about the French film industry because there are some great directors out there.”
While Cantona says he has identified other talented film-makers and actors he would love to work with, he is loath to name anyone. “I don’t want to use interviews to ask something. I am too proud for that,” he explains. “The actors I like are artists with a very strong personality, like G�rard Depardieu. It is important to be ourselves. If you have a strong personality, I think you feel that on screen.”
Like Depardieu, Cantona certainly has magnetism as an actor, whether he is on screen or stage. His performance as the eponymous anti-hero in Ubu Encha�n� – British director Dan Jemmett’s take on Alfred Jarry’s 1899 satire on power and greed – has been well-received.
“You have to try to take risks in front of people and when it comes to theatre, I like the excitement,” Cantona points out. “With Ubu I like it that everyone worked together before on research; we try different things and we have more time than in cinema. In theatre we all work together for a few weeks and every night is a different night.”
The fact that Ubu Encha�n� is a touring production has allowed Cantona to enjoy visiting different cities around France. “Being in Lyon was fantastic because the C�lestins is a wonderful theatre, one of the best in France,” he says. “Lyon is also a very beautiful city and I got to see a few things. Of course, we have to rest also for the evening but we have time to feel the atmosphere and Lyon is such a special place.”
Exploring French cities has meant coming into contact with his legions of fans, something the former footballer welcomes despite his reputation for having a prickly demeanour. “People want photos and autographs, and that is my life,” he shrugs. “In France it is the same as everywhere. It can be more difficult for those who need to be surrounded by people all the time. Me, I sometimes can stay at home when I’m not working or, when we are on tour, I stay in my room. When I do go out it is a pleasure because people are very respectful, so it is not a problem.”
Ubu Encha�n� is Cantona’s second stage role, coming two years after his debut in the two-hander Face au paradis – playing a man trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building – at Th��tre Marigny in Paris. It was an experience made all the more rewarding by the fact that his wife, the actress Rachida Brakni, directed the play.
“We could separate our work and private lives but it can be difficult because sometimes you argue,” he says. “But I trust her and I knew that she was good and would take me in a good direction. She knows more than anyone else what I could give. And I liked being on stage for the first time, challenging myself and trying something new. I grew up with that.”
Cantona was born and raised in Marseille, the middle child of three brothers. His paternal grandfather came to France from Sardinia while his grandparents on his mother’s side were Catalans who supported independence from Spain. Cantona grew up in extraordinary surroundings; the family home was a converted cave in the hills of the Caillols area of the city, but the star remembers his childhood fondly. “Those early years are very important and are with you all your life,” he says. “It helped me to become what I am today and Marseille is a real cosmopolitan city. After football I got to stay there for a few years and Marseille is a great place.”
Cantona’s football career started with his local side SO Caillolais, initially as a goalkeeper like his father, but his attacking flair and ability to read the game saw him moved up to become a striker. Cantona joined first division club Auxerre and made his full debut in 1983, winning his first international cap four years later, after a break for national service.
It was around this time that the man who would be crowned King in Manchester started to develop a reputation for outrageous behaviour. Over the following years, as Cantona moved back to Marseille and then to Bordeaux, Montpellier and N�mes, he clashed with team-mates, managers and supporters, and after picking up a ban for throwing the ball at the referee in 1991, announced his retirement. French national team coach Michel Platini persuaded him to reconsider and Cantona moved to England to restart his career.
After appearing for Leeds United, the player signed for Manchester United at the end of 1992; he went on to score 80 goals in less than five years with the club and was eventually made captain. During that time Cantona’s supreme skill as a footballer was again undermined by moments of madness. During a match against Crystal Palace in January 1995, he launched a kung-fu kick at a fan after being sent off. His actions saw him convicted of assault and earned him an eight-month ban from football. The incident also cemented the Frenchman’s reputation as a true eccentric when he responded to the controversy with this mystifying comment at a press conference: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.”
After making a successful comeback, Cantona unexpectedly quit the sport in 1997. He revealed later that, although still in love with the game, he had lost the passion to get up early in the morning and he wanted to spend more time with friends. Despite his poor disciplinary record, the man nicknamed ‘King Eric’ was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002. While Cantona’s decision to pursue acting in 1998 by starring as the French ambassador in Oscar-nominated period drama Elizabeth was met with derision, he has slowly but surely won over critics and the public with solid performances in films such as The Over-Eater and Looking for Eric. As you would expect from such a volatile talent, the new phase of his life has not been without controversy, especially when Cantona entered the political arena.
“I would rather not discuss that matter today thank you,” is the only response I get when bringing up reports that he had written to France’s elected mayors seeking the 500 signatures needed to stand in the 2012 French presidential election. Though tight-lipped about his political aspirations, Cantona clearly has a burning desire to bring about change in France. Two years ago, he called on the French people to withdraw their money from banks in protest at the financial crisis and he also campaigns on behalf of the housing charity Fondation Abb�-Pierre.
Whether or not he ends up becoming a full-time politician, Cantona, who was appointed director of soccer at the New York Cosmos club last year, will not be sticking to just one passion in the future. “I want to try things I haven’t done before,” he says. “But to really try things and express yourself and enjoy it you need to know the techniques. You have to take time to learn. So in the future I want to try something else and learn the techniques. When I eventually choose something, I will go on instinct.”