There will be no half measures for Eric Cantona's theatrical debut. For an hour and a half, he will be alone on stage in Face au paradis, a contemporary drama by Nathalie Saugeon, which opens on 26 January in the Théâtre Marigny in Paris. Before an end-of-the-world set, he plays Max, a dying man caught under a collapsed supermarket. And he is not in the least intimidated. "I know where I'm going," says Cantona, refering to his footballing past. "Listen kid, I had to play my part before 80,000 people. A 400-seater theatre is no sweat."

Cantona is something of an enigma: the French footballer elected Player of the Century in 2001 by the supporters of Manchester United, the English club where he played in the 1990s, is now making a splash in the world of culture. A glance at his official CV is more than intriguing. A talented painter, with at least one exhibition to his credit, he also has a flourishing career as a screen actor, which has brought him roles in 11 films, including Le bonheur est dans le pré(1995) by Etienne Chatiliez, and most recently Ensemble, c'est trop(to be released in France on 17 February) directed by Léa Fazer. Currently in the public eye for his lead role in Ken Loach's Palme D'or nominated Looking for Eric, which he also co-produced, he has recently published a book of photgraphs: Elle, lui et les autres — a collection of portraits of the poorly housed and homeless for the Abbé Pierre Foundation. The owner of an enviable art collection, he is also an accomplished theatre producer and the founder of the production company Canto Bros. However, scepticism about Cantona the artist still prevails in France, where he continues to be viewed as an arrogant and unmanageable athlete. But in England he is a huge star and the subject of unbridled adulation. Looking back at his sports career on both sides of the channel, it is clear that for Cantona, football was a form of artistic expression. On the pitch, he cut a particularly dramatic figure with his strangely erect posture and turned-up jersey collar — celebrating his goals with moments of statuesque immobility, his arms held wide to embrace the acclaim of the terraces.

Eric Cantona's 10 best goals

His father, Albert Cantona, was a psychiatric nurse and a gifted painter. "When he was 10 years old, Eric spent a lot of time watching me paint," says Albert Cantona. "He was always asking me to take him to exhibitions." Cantona left school at age 15 to join Auxerre where he was awarded his first professional contract. Away from the pitches in the Burgundy town, much of his time was spent working on paintings: fiery, violent, highly-colourful expressionist works, littered with images of dollars, which he later exhibited in Marseille in 1988. At age 22, he bought a dozen post-impressionist canvasses, but his taste is now focused on more contemporary artists. Recently, he acquired five giant-format works by Ronan Barrot. In photography, he collects Saul Leiter, Sarah Moon, Sabine Weiss, Lucien Hervé, and China's Fan Ho... Seven or eight years ago, Cantona set aside painting to devote himself to the art of photography, which he practices using traditional film — without any reframing or retouching — to produce images marked by a raw quality indicative of his personality as an artist. He also insists that pictures of him in the media should not be retouched, and has been quoted as saying: "Why bother improving me? I don't deal in illusions." As a photographer, he concentrates on three themes: the rendering of abstract details in colour, black and white studies of bullfighting — which have already been exhibited — and images of the poorly housed and homeless.

A quest for new experience

His approach to art is mirrored by a visceral relationship with literature, and a predilection for the books and films of Pasolini. At the 2008 Locarno Film Festival, the Italian polymath was the focus of a discussion with an independent director he admires, Bertrand Bonello. "We spoke about Poeta delle ceneri, in which Pasolini recounts his thoughts about death," explains Bonello. "Eric had a very perceptive take on the book." His taste in poetry and literature — Ezra Pound, Antonin Artaud, Yves Bonnefoy, Oscar Wilde and Hermann Hesse — and in film and painting — Pasolini, Renoir, Fassbinder, Zoran Music and Antoni Tàpies — identifies Cantona as a partisan of expressionist art that speaks — like Face au paradis of the nightmares of war, death, social exclusion and uprootedness, and also of the quest for self-knowledge. At age 20 in Auxerre, he spent time in psychoanalysis: "It helped me to get to know myself," he explains, "and then it became ridiculous."

The feisty footballer of the past has now re-emerged as a deeply sensitive and self-assured artist, with a bullfighter's propensity for brutal words and violent gesture. The 1995 incident, in which Cantona attacked a hooligan shouting insults from the terraces, may go down in history as the most infamous example of his intense sincerity, but it certainly is not the only one. Is he planning to devote his life to acting? His overriding motivation appears to be a quest for new experience. "There are so many things I want to do... " His brother Jean-Marie Cantona points out that he is also working on a film project based on the life of a Sardinian great uncle. Eric himself speaks of a desire to explore a passion for war photography "sometime in the next few years."

Cantona's kung fu kick against a Crystal Palace supporter in 1995