Much about the new Apple TV+ series “Liaison” was riding on whether Eva Green and Vincent Cassel got along. Their characters share a passionate history, so it was going to help considerably if the two French actors, whose careers had never overlapped, were at least somewhat simpatico.
“Everybody was a little nervous, but Vincent had a stroke of genius,” the show’s creator, Virginie Brac, said in a video interview. Cassel turned up at their first meeting with a photo of his father, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and Green’s mother, Marlène Jobert, posing together in the 1960s. Both parents used to be big movie stars in France, and the snapshot was taken when they were appearing in the Peter Shaffer play “Black Comedy,” in Paris.
“They were looking terrific and obviously getting along well, so Eva burst out laughing,” Brac continued.
The ice was broken.
“It was interesting to realize that somehow we have a past together,” Cassel said in a recent video call from Paris. “My father has died since, and she still has her mother, but it would have been fun for them to see that we’re working together now.”
It’s been a long time coming. Cassel, 56, has been a bit of a loose cannon in French cinema since his breakthrough role nearly three decades ago as an alienated youth from the projects in “La Haine” (1995); American audiences may know him best as a manipulative choreographer in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” and a mega-rich villain in the HBO series “Westworld.” Green broke out with her cinematic debut in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” (2003) and hasn’t slowed since, with memorable roles as the double-agent Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale” and in three seasons of the Showtime gothic horror series “Penny Dreadful.”
Cassel had been trying to work with Green for 15 years — at least, he insisted, since the 2008 film “Mesrine,” which he had hoped she could join. He finally snagged her for “Liaison,” a six-episode romantic spy thriller that debuted on Friday. Green plays Alison, a stiff-upper-lipped private secretary to the British security minister. Cassel plays Gabriel, a cool cucumber of a mercenary working for a shadowy French organization who gets under Alison’s skin. It helped that the actor got to Green, too — albeit in a much more playful manner.
“Vincent is extremely intense, and you get out of your comfort zone, which I love,” Green, 42, said by phone on her way to a shoot in Greece. “He has a crazy energy that is contagious. He’s also very funny. He doesn’t take himself seriously and he’s not actor-y.”
Billed as Apple TV+’s first Anglo-French production, “Liaison” is a polyglot, border-hopping show that dips into tense geopolitics, the Syrian civil war, terrorism and counterintelligence — fans of shows like “24” and “Homeland” will be on familiar ground — and where the second most heated relationship is the love-hate triangle among Britain, France and the European Union. The story, by Brac, is original. Cassel became involved in the show at a fairly early stage and took on an active role in its development.
“I wanted to be part of the production process so I wouldn’t be surprised by any of the choices that would be made later on,” he said.
In addition to the casting, he was interested in who would end up in the director’s seat. When the name of the TV veteran Stephen Hopkins (“24,” “House of Lies”) came up, Cassel remembered that they had met and gotten along, when Hopkins directed the 2000 thriller “Under Suspicion,” starring Monica Bellucci, then Cassel’s wife.
Cassel’s involvement continued on set.
“I asked Virginie permission to tweak things here and there,” he said. “I didn’t want to come up with some superhero character or anything like that. Believe it or not, I wanted my character to be very French — I wanted to come up with a French antihero instead of a brave, perfect spy.”
Cassel has a restless, chatty energy that he channeled into a coiled intensity for his role — an energy that crackled over during our call. As part of his research, he said, he met men who are in Gabriel’s secretive line of work, from whom he picked up a few useful tips.
“Real bad guys move in silence, so it has to be dry, effective, discreet,” he said. “Especially if there are people who are like lethal weapons physically and know how to do this properly.”
“So I said, ‘Everything that I’m involved with, I’m doing the choreography,’” he added. “And they let me do it.”
His co-star’s approach was not quite as proactive.
“Vincent would make little adjustments while Eva, who is very anxious, stuck to the script,” said Brac, an experienced French television maker (she was a writer on Seasons 2 and 4 of the acclaimed policier “Spiral,” among many credits). “It works because they liked each other in real life.”
In conversation, Green’s temperament did indeed seem rather opposite to Cassel’s go-for-broke looseness. She compared her early career theater experiences, where she could perform directly to her audiences, to what happens in film and television.
“Some people treat you like puppets,” she said. “Because of course you do a bit, and then they choose a take, they edit, they can play around. That’s why I’m always scared of watching my own movies. Sometimes I prefer to keep the experience in my heart.”
Cassel nonetheless found his co-star’s style to be compatible with his own.
“Strangely enough — and I’ve said that to her — as an actor I see myself in her,” he said. “She’s kind of an outsider, she’s particular, and she’s very instinctive. On set she’s really brave, and you never know what’s going to happen.”
“There was definitely electricity between Eva and I because we were very curious about each other,” he added. (That augurs well for the two-part film “The Three Musketeers,” coming this spring, in which they play another pair of tempestuous former lovers, Athos and Milady.)
On camera, Green had to contain some of the contact buzz she got from Cassel’s behind-the-scenes energy and enthusiasm, because of how buttoned up her “Liaison” character is.
“She’s practically married to a job, the phone is never off, she’s available 24/7,” Green said. “What drew me to the story is the fact that suddenly you have this mysterious man coming back from her past, and she’s so conflicted all the time — she has to choose between basically saving her country and protecting the man she loves.”
But maintaining that electrical undercurrent in person was critical; for all the show’s cloak-and-dagger thrills, their characters’ relationship is the beating pulse of the series. In one scene set inside a car, the two stars generate so much heat while simply looking at each other that you want to reach out and turn up the air conditioning.
“Even though it’s this international, political, action-packed thriller, what holds the thing together from my point of view is this thing between Eva’s character and mine,” Cassel said.
“It’s the unspoken attraction of two people who are dangerous for one another with the weight of the past.”