Page last updated at 11:39 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010

Ex-footballer Eric Cantona to make Paris stage debut

Eric Cantona in Face au Paradis
Cantona takes the role of a man trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building

By Alasdair Sandford
BBC News, Paris

Former footballer Eric Cantona takes his career in another challenging direction this week when he makes his theatre debut.

The former Manchester United hero turned film star is appearing on stage in Paris in a new play directed by his wife, Rachida Brakni. He is taking on what has been described as a highly demanding role that will inevitably be scrutinised by the critics.

"I love passion and I just want to try different things, to feel in danger sometimes," he says. "The goal is always the same: to play and feel pleasure. To enjoy it you need confidence, and that comes only from a lot of work."

Face au Paradis (Faced with Paradise) is a new work by a young playwright, Nathalie Saugeon. Cantona and fellow actor Lorant Deutsch find themselves buried in rubble, the only survivors under a collapsed building.

Every day I have things to prove to myself, and nothing to prove to other people
Eric Cantona

The obvious parallel with the Haiti earthquake aside, neither actor's role is the easiest of parts to play.

"They cannot see each other but they will reveal more of themselves than they did in the open," says the press release. The intensive dialogue lasts for an hour and a half.

Cantona's stage presence is undeniable. Even before laying his huge frame down in the rubble to begin rehearsing, he struts along the front of the scene, surveying those in the audience as if back at Old Trafford.

"In the cinema, sometimes your presence is just enough. In the theatre, it's not enough," says the director Brakni.

A former member of the Comedie Francaise and an award-winning film actress, she chose the play especially to suit her husband.

Watching each gesture, listening closely to each inflection at rehearsal in the Marigny Theatre, she tolerates no lapses.

Eric Cantona in 1996
Cantona played for Manchester United for almost five years

"Eric is a worker, he's not afraid by a challenge, by the theatre and the public. He has big qualities, he has a lot of talent," she says. "And it's not the woman who loves him who said it, it's the director."

For Cantona, the play represents another string in an increasingly artistic bow.

Since hanging up his football boots, he has acted in a number of films. After his highly praised performance in Ken Loach's film Looking for Eric last year, he published a book of his own photographs of the poor and disadvantaged.

But his stage appearance in Face au Paradis represents another radical departure into the unknown. Some critics are impressed by the risk he is taking.

"He could have chosen a farce or alternative theatre, something that would immediately have won over the audience with laughter," says Joelle Gayot, theatre critic for France Culture radio.

"By choosing a contemporary play that hasn't been performed, he's going to have to invent the role on stage with his co-actor and director. He doesn't have to do this, he doesn't have to risk his reputation."

Karate kick

For years, Cantona's reputation in France fell well short of the cult status he achieved in England playing for Manchester United. Largely lost to French football, his rough Marseille accent stopped many from taking him seriously off the pitch - an image that lives on today.

Marc Beauge of France Football magazine believes there is an element of jealousy in such attitudes.

"Personally I think that he does things genuinely, that he does acting because he likes it," he says, "but when you talk to people in French football - managers, club officials - they will virtually all tell you that he is fake. That he has built his image, that he was not as good a player as people made out."

On 25 January 1995, Cantona's infamous karate kick on a supporter at Crystal Palace propelled his notoriety to a new level.

The aftermath also prompted his first public foray into philosophy, as a bemused press conference took in his thoughts about seagulls following trawlers looking for sardines.

Exactly 15 years on, Cantona is equally dismissive of potential critics of Face au Paradis. "Some people will like it, some people will not like it," he says. "Every day I have things to prove to myself, and nothing to prove to other people."

Whatever they may say about his stage debut, no-one can deny that the trademark Cantona nonchalance is alive and well.

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