He shoots, he scores


Eric Cantona is still playing a beautiful game, although now it’s on the big screen, where he has appeared in more than a dozen movies, and taken his first step in directing. He talks to MICHAEL DWYERabout passion, Roy Keane and playing the trumpet

IT’S BEEN 12 years since Eric Cantona last wore the No 7 shirt for Manchester United and retired from professional football. He pursued a new career as an actor and has featured in more than a dozen movies, garnering respectable reviews but nothing to match the worship and acclaim showered on him as a footballer. Cantona may never reach those heights as an actor, but he ably demonstrates that he’s got what it takes in Looking for Eric, the deceptively light new movie directed by Ken Loach.

Looking for Ericfeatures Steve Evets as a Manchester postman who undergoes a mid- life crisis because of all his personal complications. In despair, he unburdens himself by talking to a poster of his football idol, who magically responds with pearls of wisdom. Cantona reveals a magnetic screen presence in this charismatic portrayal of a version of himself.

“I am a bit like that, but I am not only that,” he says. “I think it’s important that we take a bit of distance from ourselves in situations. Some people say it’s difficult to play yourself. In life, one is spontaneous.

“This film is fiction, but you have to remain natural and spontaneous. There was a degree of tension before it started shooting that I didn’t experience when I played other characters, but by the first day I had the requisite self-confidence.”

In Dublin for the movie’s Irish premiere on Tuesday, Cantona’s engaging on-screen presence was just as evident as he talked about football and films in a suite in the Clarence Hotel.

Not only has Cantona immersed himself in his acting career, but he has set up a production company with his brothers, fellow former footballers Joel and Jean-Marie, in Marseille, where they were raised.

“There was Warner Bros – now there’s Canto Bros,” he says with a proud beam. “We are co-producers on Looking for Ericand we are developing a lot of projects with different screenwriters. It’s a very interesting process.”

In 2002 Cantona made his directing debut with a short, Bring Me Your Love/Apporte-Moi Ton Amour, based on a Charles Bukowski story. “I want to direct a feature film now,” he says. “There is a project we have at Canto Bros. It was my idea, or our idea, in fact – me and my brothers. We are not writers, of course, so we have got a screenwriter working on it. I hope to make it in about two years.”

Later this year Cantona will co-star with his actress wife, Rachida Brackni, in The Pelvis Moves/Les Mouvements du Bassin, which is described as “a burlesque tragic action movie”. Both were drawn by the script, he says. “Acting is a real passion in my life. I stopped playing football when I was 30 because I lost my passion for the game.”

What caused him to lose that passion? “I don’t know. It just died. I had that passion for a long time, since I was 17 and I played my first game in the first division in France. I was tired and I had other passions. Football is so intense, and I wanted to focus on the future at that stage. I think it’s easier for somebody like me to tire of something quickly because I will die and I will not have not done everything I’ve dreamed about.”

His other preoccupation is with playing the trumpet, which he does in Looking for Eric. “I was banned from football for nine months and I had so much energy to waste. I tried the trumpet and I really liked it. I need to work a lot more on it. When Paul Laverty was writing the film, he asked me what I did when I was banned, and when I told him about the trumpet, he brought that into the film.”

Cantona hits a few bum notes when he plays La Marseillaisein the movie. When the soundtrack music was being recorded in London, Loach sent Cantona a text to say, “The musicians are impressed but suggest you don’t give up the football just yet”, to which Cantona replied, “Maybe they think I will take their work.”

He is just as gamely self-effacing in the film as he reassures Evets’ postman with drolly delivered nuggets of philosophical advice in the form of proverbs that recall his own famous line: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea”, which is featured during the closing credits.

“I think Paul Laverty enjoyed very much writing those lines, but I enjoyed saying them also,” Cantona says as he turns philosophical all over again. “The word, sardines, means nothing, but the situation means a lot, so I say something to say nothing. Then everyone tries to analyse what it means, which is good because people have different interpretations. If you try to find a sense in situations, you will always find a sense.”

The storyline of Looking for Ericoriginated in Cantona’s ideas for a picture based on the relationship he formed with one of his fans.

“I know when I go in the street that people will ask for autographs, so I’m prepared for that,” he says. “I don’t mind. I need to live with the people. I’m very proud of what I do and I like when people respond to it. If they did not stop me in the street, maybe then I would get worried.”

Cantona returns to Old Trafford at least once a year to watch his former team in action. He admits to still feeling a thrill hearing the fans singing songs about him so many years after he played there. “It’s great,” he says with a broad smile. “It’s really great. Every year, I think that the next time I return there, those songs will have disappeared.”

Is there any truth to the rumours that he would like to succeed Alex Ferguson when he retires as manager of Manchester United? “There is that rumour?” he asks as innocently as can be. “No, I am not interested. I have too many things planned for the future.”

How would he rate Roy Keane as a successor to Ferguson?

“He’s a great player and I am sure he would be a great manager for Manchester United. You have some managers who are good with average teams, but if you put them with better teams they might not do well. I think Roy Keane is the kind of manager who will be great with great players. I like him. He’s my friend and he was my teammate for a long time.”

As Cantona keeps his focus on his film career, he has no plans to merge the two passions of his professional life by making a movie about football.

“I think it’s very difficult to shoot football for a movie,” he says. “It’s different in Ken’s film because we use clips and because I can act, but I think it’s impossible to find the energy of a football game in a movie. I tried to do it for an advert with some other professional footballers, but when they asked us to do action, it just didn’t work. It has to be spontaneous.”

Up front and personal: Eric on Ken

“I’ve always loved the cinema,” Eric Cantona says. “When I was a player, we trained a lot and needed to rest, so I saw a lot of movies then, and I see even more since I retired.”

Cantona and Ken Loach were mutual admirers long before they met and worked together on Looking for Eric.

“I like Ken’s films for many reasons,” he says. “I loved The Wind That Shakes the Barley, although I am not a specialist in the history of Ireland, but I loved the way Ken told the story. It’s a great movie.

“I also like his movies, Raining Stonesand Riff Raff, which are more like Looking for Eric, because they have a lot of humour as well as drama. His films are so real that they could be documentaries, and they are so honest. You can feel the humanity and soul of the people.”

Cantona notes that the same elements are central to the work of his other favourite director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the great Italian film-maker who was murdered in 1975.

“They had very different styles, of course. The images in Pasolini’s films are so strong that if you stop them, it’s like looking at a painting.”

Looking for Ericopens next Friday