By Joey Nolfi
June 12, 2018 at 12:00 PM EDT

Upon boarding the biographical drama Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti as the titular icon of pre-modern art, Vincent Cassel knew he had a mammoth easel to fill. But like any great artist, the French actor wasn’t about to hew to tradition when it came to his vision for retelling the post-Impressionist’s story — and EW has an exclusive look the results in the trailer above.

“Biopics are always a lie somehow. The idea is to make a movie, not a book about somebody’s life,” the Black Swan star tells EW of the way the ambitious film paints an embellished portrait of the famed painter, an interpretation Cassel conjured from his own imagination. “[Playing] a character like Gauguin — unlike Muhammad Ali or Edith Piaf or any other people [whose lives became biopics] where we have video and precise traces of who they were — you can invent things. I guess that’s what we did sometimes: We invented his story, and we kept going in that direction.”

Still, the Edouard Deluc-directed film is anchored in reality. It’s a snapshot of a brief yet influential period of Gaugin’s life when he left his family in France for the shores of Tahiti in April 1891, married a teenage native named Tehura upon arrival, and left boasting perhaps his most famous works — all of which drew inspiration from regional styles and locales from the Polynesian territory. Cassel admits he’s never fancied himself an ace painter, but preparing for the part ignited a flame of artistic passion within him. Enough that, to avoid looking “stupid” while holding a brush on camera, he took up painting lessons.

“For the whole movie, I was painting,” he recalls. “It was a way for me to stay in character, and I got pretty obsessed. I thought, well, maybe that’s something I’m going to keep on doing! But, as the actor I am, the minute the movie was done I didn’t care for it anymore.” One thing that stayed etched in his mind was Gauguin’s struggle between familial duty and creative hunger, something that makes for a timeless piece which casual audiences and starving artists alike can readily absorb without knowledge of the painter’s history.

“From the beginning, I was worried about the idea of making another painter movie, because most of the movies about painters didn’t make money and didn’t really work with an audience,” he says of the film, which closely ties Gauguin’s reinvigoration during this period to his meeting of Tehura, who was reportedly around 13 years old when the pair married. “I was focused on the idea of making a movie not about a known painter, but a movie that even people who didn’t know about Gauguin or know about painting would be interested by.… There’s nothing that comes from the past, no references about something we should have known as an audience we should have known about. It was always about the present of the guy.”

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While undoubtedly a catalyst in Gauguin’s life, in the eyes of some, Tehura’s age puts a problematic stain on the artist’s career. Cassel anticipated an issue with casting, and he requested an older actress play the role. Thus the filmmakers found newcomer Tehueï Adams, whom Cassel indicated was underage during casting but turned 18 just before filming began.

“When you make a movie about a man going [to Tahiti] and having an affair with 13-year-old girl, that becomes the subject of the movie. And that’s not what the director wanted. Knowing that, I said, ‘Okay, let’s take this away from the center of the movie, otherwise it’s going to be a movie about pedophilia,’” Cassel recalls, alluding again to taking creative license in pursuit of a more cinematic story. “The mentality evolved.… Things that were kind of normal at the time are totally unbearable right now, which is an evolution. At the time, I don’t think they were thinking about that too much. Especially in the culture of Tahiti, it was normal for women to marry at that age.… Any story you could tell about that era would be the story of a pedophile because people didn’t think like that at the time.… It was somewhat too much of a problem in itself to keep it at the center of the movie.

“She’s much younger than me, that’s for sure,” Cassel says of his costar, adding that there were at times anxieties over whether their age difference (he’ll be 52 in November) would come across as an unintentional exaggeration in itself. “I don’t think it looks that strange the way it’s presented,” he says. “It doesn’t look like a Santa Claus having sex with, I don’t know, Alice in Wonderland or whatever.”

On that note, Cassel implies that, to historians who know a great deal about Gauguin’s life, the actors’ finished product might simply function as an eye-catching exaggeration of well-trodden territory, remixed and recolored like Gauguin adapted his style under the influence of Tahitian culture. But that doesn’t matter much to the man at its center.

“As long as it looks and sounds real to the audience,” Cassel says, “I’m not concerned about the rest.”

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti opens in theaters July 11. Watch the exclusive trailer for the film above, and check out a new poster below.

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