May 9 2009: Ken Loach is famed for his socially aware cinema but he loves his football too. So when Eric Cantona called with an idea, Loach was happy to play ball

Who could have predicted that, 12 years after leaving football, Eric Cantona would be smoking a spliff and knocking back white wine in a Ken Loach film? Yet King Eric, as Manchester United fans named him, doesn’t look out of place in a typically uncompromising, socially aware Loach film. He’s acted before, of course, in a handful of obscure French films and he memorably played a French ambassador alongside Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth. But this time he’s playing a version of himself — and one that mocks his apparently pompous persona.

Looking for Eric, which joins films by Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee and Jane Campion in competition in Cannes, is something of a departure for Loach. Like all his work, it is about everyday characters: a depressed Mancunian postman, played with great naturalistic charm by Steve Evets, is left to bring up his two stepsons and struggles to keep his life together. There is, however, a lightness to Looking for Eric that has been absent in much of Loach’s recent output.

This is in part thanks to the film’s magic realism; the postman asks advice of the Cantona posters adorning his walls and is shocked when the former footballer appears in his bedroom, dispensing his trademark proverbs and sharing a spliff. But it’s also a funny, gripping film about teenagers, lager, soft porn and guns that might well be a mainstream hit for the resolutely independent film-maker.

So how did Loach, now 72, end up making a film with Cantona? The director smiles. “When the message initially came through that Eric Cantona wanted to meet, I thought someone was taking the piss. It was so unlikely that he’d get in touch. I’m not in awe of people in our business at all, but when somebody like Cantona gets in touch it’s something else.” It turns out that Cantona, 42, had done his homework. Not only was he a Loach fan but he also knew that the director and his regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty were football fans. Laverty is a Celtic fan and Loach a self-confessed “football tart” who once supported Fulham but now follows Bath City.

Cantona suggested a film about one of his super fans but Laverty couldn’t work out how to develop the story dramatically. “Before Eric even turned up, Paul and I had talked for a long time about doing a film involving football, but we couldn’t see how to do it,” Loach explains. “We also talked about how families can disintegrate and people can become someone else in the course of their lives. Then Eric came along and it all made sense. To begin with he was apprehensive because, being a legendary figure, he’s got a lot to lose.” But the footballer trusted the film-maker and a mutual respect has since grown into friendship.

Although I have interviewed Loach before, he is initially so softly spoken and unassuming that I fear he’s going to fade away. We sit at a wooden table in the garret room of Sixteen Films, the Soho-based production company he runs with Laverty and the producer Rebecca O’Brien. In a small room downstairs is a fireplace filled with boxes of champagne and cigars and, on the mantelpiece, a dozen film awards. Hidden inside an austere box is the Palme D’Or that Loach won in 2006 for The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

The garret room is, by turn, dominated by a framed poster of Kes, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary this October (“That’s terrifying . . . we shot it in ‘68 as the Russian troops were going into Prague”). In one corner sit a dozen cardboard boxes of press cuttings that quite possibly date back to the Sixties, when Loach started to direct hard-hitting documentary dramas such as Cathy Come Home for the BBC. Loach has been working for more than four decades now but it’s still hard to imagine the king of social realism hanging out with Cantona — or, at least, with the former Manchester United player who strutted around the pitch with his collar turned up.

Loach insists, however, that the real Cantona is nothing like this. He recalls the first time they met here at Sixteen Films. “I was very nervous. I couldn’t tell if he was too; if so, he hid it rather better than me. Eric can be quite a shy man so there was no immediate small talk. Once we actually started to work together, all that dissolved and our relationship was very easy. It was reassuring that he enjoys taking the mickey out of his public persona. I had an open mind before we met and it was immediately clear that he was a serious but funny man.”

It’s not so unusual for “high art” to flirt with football. In 2002, the conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to film a sleeping David Beckham, while Douglas Gordon’s 2006 documentary Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait followed the French player for an entire game. What is more unusual is a feature film about football that actually works. Loach, though, has a track record: Kes, after all, boasts one of cinema’s most memorable football scenes, in which a skinny, bedraggled Billy Casper is bullied by Brian Glover’s referee.

Looking for Eric works on one level because of Laverty’s strong script — he had great fun writing new proverbs for Cantona, including “he who sows thistles shall reap prickles”, which is almost impossible for a French person to say — and on another because Loach is big on teamwork and Cantona is a team player. There are no Winnebagos on Loach film sets and no one gets paid ridiculous amounts. “Eric was immediately one of the gang, which you are, of course, in a football team. He just relished the set-up, I think.”

Loach laughs when I ask if he employed a body double to smoke the spliff — “You couldn’t get a body double for Eric Cantona! It was just fun” — but is more serious about the kung-fu kick for which the footballer remains infamous. Back in January 1995, Cantona responded to a Crystal Palace fan who hurled abuse at him with a kung-fu kick. In Looking for Eric, the postman (also, confusingly, called Eric) talks to Cantona about the Palace fan and says: “That twat got what he deserved.”

At the press conference after the attack, and before his nine-month ban, Cantona offered his most-quoted proverb: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” It was all very entertaining, but the fact remains that a footballer kicked a fan. What did Loach think when he first saw the kick on Match of the Day? “I was just stunned by it, like everybody else. It was an extraordinary thing to do.”

Was it the right thing to do? “Um . . . well, no . . . not the right thing to do. But it wasn’t a considered act. He was playing football, a very physical sport, and his adrenalin was raised. A fan vilified him in an abusive way and he got angry. It’s not like he was in a debating chamber where he could have responded with words. It wasn’t the right thing to do and I’m sure Eric would agree. But neither is racist abuse the right thing.” I ask if Cantona is a leftie and he smiles. “I wouldn’t want to put words in his mouth but he’s on the side of the angels. He’s very proud that his family fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War — which is why they left Barcelona for France.”

Although Loach shrinks from any labels and would like to be known simply as a director, he is undeniably a political film- maker. Born in Nuneaton in 1936, he studied law at Oxford and was recruited as a trainee director by the BBC in 1963. Around this time he joined the Labour Party and left only in the mid-1990s when the party started taking subs by direct debit; for Loach this was the last vestige of local organisation disappearing.

He was a fierce critic of Tony Blair, whom he called “a right-wing careerist”, and is no more enamoured with Gordon Brown. His left-wing politics haven’t always found an audience; in the 1980s, after a series of documentaries were banned, he almost gave up film-making. To survive, he made adverts for, among others, Tetley’s Bitter.

The Nineties, by contrast, proved a very successful decade. Raining Stones won the Jury Prize at Cannes, while Riff-Raff, My Name is Joe and Ladybird, Ladybird were all acclaimed. He filmed Land and Freedom in Spain and Carla’s Song in Nicaragua — but has remained a resolutely British director with no interest in Hollywood. “There was a suggestion in the early Seventies that, if I really pushed, I could have gone to America. But I didn’t really want to. I’ve never liked American mainstream films and I didn’t want to have to start making them.”

Nonetheless, he briefly discussed moving to America with his wife. “We had a young family and neither of us fancied the idea of them becoming American. If you go when they’re small, their characters change.” He is quick to attribute his unceasing commitment to film-making to a solid family life. “I’ve been married very happily for a long time [since 1962]; I’ve been very lucky. I get told off on a regular basis, but who doesn’t?” In 1971 his young son Nicholas was killed in a road accident along with his mother-in-law; a private man, Loach rarely talks of this family tragedy.

Yet he is not the lugubrious, taciturn character sometimes portrayed by the press. It’s fair to say he has his foibles: he may watch Match of the Day, cricket and the odd documentary, but generally dismisses television as “an aggressive medium”. “We had a ruse with our kids when they were young: we pretended not to have a TV but actually kept one in a cupboard and got it out at night once they were in bed. We didn’t have one at all for years and I’d happily get rid of it again.”

He says that his public image is little to do with him as a person and everything to do with his work. “People think films should be about stars in expensive clothing taking us ‘out of ourselves’. I try to tell the story of what’s really going on in the world. My films are therefore seen as [puts his head in his hands] gritty. Or miserable. It’s as far from the truth as it’s possible to be. At least I hope it is.”

He does admit that Looking for Eric is unusual in that it has a happy ending; most of his films are as unresolved as life itself. How would he feel if it were a hit? “I’d be delighted! If one in six Manchester United fans across the world goes to see it, that’d be quite a few . . . My first loyalty is always to the story and we didn’t do anything different this time. But the fact that Eric Cantona is in it immediately puts it in a different league.”

Each mention of Cantona is accompanied with a big, daft grin. Are they still in touch? “Oh yes. We text each other now and again, when there’s something to say. His messages are the ones I don’t delete.” Although he says Cannes will be “a giggle”, Loach hasn’t quite had his head turned by Cantona. He’s already on to his next project, but will reveal nothing more. Will it be gritty? He laughs. “Ah yes, I’ll endeavour to keep the normal quota of grit in it.” His mobile beeps. I don’t ask why he’s smiling at his phone, but I’d like to think it’s a message from King Eric.

Looking for Eric opens nationwide on June 12