SINGAPORE (Dec 17): More than 20 years have passed since Eric Cantona hung up his football boots and decided to become an actor, but most still cannot bring up his name without immediately being reminded of his former club Manchester United, the Premier League titles he has won — and of course, the controversial 1995 “kungfu- kick” incident when an enraged Cantona infamously kicked a Crystal Palace supporter during an away game. Yet, none of these associations come to mind when I meet the retired football icon in the flesh. Clad in a grey suit and matching newsboy cap that complement his salt-and-pepper moustache and beard, he looks every bit the gentleman.

In fact, he does not mention football even once during my 20 minutes with him, focusing instead on the subject of his silver-screen career. He most recently wrapped up filming for Magic Seven, a Chinese motion picture directed by Gérard Krawczyk and due for release next year. Set in a Uyghur village in Xinjiang province, China, the film’s plot revolves around Cantona’s leading role as a football coach and mentor to a team of Uyghur boys. “I’m not Santa Claus, I’m not here to take care of your kids,” is a line from the film that he attempts to recite to me in Mandarin. Unfortunately, his thick French accent renders it incomprehensible to me. Noticing my blank stare, Cantona tells me good-naturedly, laughing: “The last time I was taught to say wo bu guan (I don’t care), I said bu guan, bu guan (without realising ‘wo’ was missing), and it all still sounded the same to me. Anyway, most of the cast don’t even speak Mandarin; they speak Uyghur. And with the director and me being French, we had to get someone to translate our French into Mandarin, and then another person to convey it in Uyghur to the boys. I think a lot of things were lost in translation as a result.”

Cantona’s visit to Singapore with his elder brother Jean-Marie, a producer and actor, is part of his Reinventing Time tour — a two-day event in November celebrating the new partnership between watch manufacturer Hautlence and Cortina Watch. To mark the occasion, the HL Vagabonde Cortina Watch (pictured in main image) — a red-gold variation of the new HL Vagabond range, inspired by 18th-century “wandering hours”, where conventional hands are replaced with revolving discs — was launched.

HL Vagabonde designs are available in a choice of two colour schemes: monochrome (Vagabonde 01), and black -and-orange (Vagabonde 02). Limited to just five pieces, the HL Vagabonde Cortina was developed in collaboration with Cortina’s founding family, and retails exclusively at Cortina points of sale. Besides its colour scheme of blue against 5N red gold, the watch retains distinctively Hautlence brand elements such as the honeycomb pattern on the dial, which is framed by the brand’s mainstay TV screen-shaped case. Like the HL Vagabonde 01 and 02 models, the limited-edition version features three open-worked discs, or “satellites”, that orbit around a central minute disc, their movement E powered by Hautlence’s new self-winding caliber HTL 205-1.

Another timepiece in the Vagabonde range is the HL Vagabonde Tourbillon (right), which also has a central disc and three satellites — but at six o’clock, boasts a one-minute tourbillon with a double hairspring. It is this model that Cantona reveals on his left wrist, but only after he pushes up the right sleeve and jokes that he may not be wearing a watch. For the Vagabonde Tourbillon, deep blue has been paired with 5N red gold for the TV-screenshaped case, bezel and fluted crown with the Hautlence logo, while the hour and minute numerals feature 5N varnish. The 52-year-old is quick to correct me when I mistakenly refer to him as an “ambassador” of Hautlence, of which he has been a brand partner since 2014. “I don’t consider myself a brand ambassador; I just work with [Hautlence]. What’s most important for me is the opportunity to express myself, which I have been doing with the brand so far,” he explains. This can be seen from the special projects he did with the brand over the years, namely Invictus Morphos and Vortex Primary, which were designed by Cantona in 2014 and 2016, respectively. He divulges that he is currently in the midst of planning yet another release of a Hautlence watch model under his name, which may be ready for launch as early as mid-2019.

Known among watch collectors for its quirky and original timepieces, Hautlence was founded in 2004. The independent watchmaker’s name is an anagram of Neuchâtel, the Swiss canton widely regarded as the birthplace of the art of watchmaking. “I didn’t know of Hautlence when they first approached me [to collaborate], as back then it was still very young. The brand wasn’t even 10 years old when I first got to know about it,” Cantona recalls.

“But once I started working with them on my first design, I got to meet so many wonderful, crazy, genius people… I like how they are always trying to find different ways to describe time; to reinvent time-telling. Time is existential and yet, we are obsessed about it.”

On the acting front, Cantona shares that, at the time of our interview in mid-November, it is only a week before he flies to Paris to star in Letters to Nour, a stage play written by French-Moroccan political scientist Rachid Benzine based on her book of the same title. Currently showing at the Theatre Antoine until late December, the production tackles the subject of teen radicalisation by exploring the relationship between a young woman and her father (played by Cantona) through the exchange of their letters.

The Frenchman is grateful that he is able to flex his creative muscles as an artist and artiste in diverse projects. “I’ve had the chance to work on many projects this year. Designing [watches], cinema, acting in the theatre… These are all my passions. [While I get to pursue them in the form of] very short adventures, I always try to do them well and enjoy them. So, I consider myself very lucky.”