Alessandro Nivola has made more than two dozen films during the past twelve years, and his roles just keep getting better and better. His career is unusual in that it bounces back and forth across the Atlantic, and has currently landed him in the court of French filmmaking — acting in French — in “Coco Before Chanel,“ Anne Fontaine’s fine biopic about the French designer before she became a brand. Nivola plays Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, a young man of privilege and the paramour of the young Chanel (Audrey Tautou).
Although Boy’s an English Francophile, his pedigree background is not all together unlike Nivola’s own. The actor’s the prep school and Yale-educated son of a political science professor father and an artist mom, the grandson of sculptor Constantino Nivola and Ruth Guggenheim — yes, it’s ‘that’ family — and husband of actress Emily Mortimer, with whom he has a son named Sam.
Nivola’s is clearly more than his filmography. Yet the production notes for “Coco Before Chanel” present just the list of his films — “Face/Off,” “Mansfield Park,” “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” “Jurassic Park III,” “Smallville,” “Laurel Canyon,” “Junebug.” “Goal!” and “Goal! 2,” among them — as his bio. It’s a impressive list, indeed, but where are those juicy bits of information that everyone wants to know about the actor they‘ve come to love through the body of his work?
JENNIFER MERIN: Sandro, tell me, are you hiding your life from your admirers?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: No, not at all. That’s only because SONY probably didn’t call my agent for a real bio.
But, it’s true that I don’t seek publicity as a rule. I haven’t hired publicists even when I’ve had a big film that I thought could make a difference in my career. But I find that it takes an amazing amount of work to deal with publicity, and I just don’t have the energy for it anymore.
Actually, without being too vigilant about that stuff, over the past three years, I’ve started getting some of the best roles of my career. I mean I was a supporting actor until three years ago, and now I’ve got a starring role in a movie with Chris Walken, and am working on another with Abigail Breslin. And that it hasn’t come from a lot of publicity exposure really. It’s just come from people having seen my performances. So that’s all I’ve had to go on.
It doesn’t mean that I don’t like talking to you about who I am, but the reason that I’m sort of shy…well, it’s not really that either. But my experience in the past is that I’ve hired a publicist on a film and paid him $30,000 just to get an article in a magazine…and, well, it just didn’t seem worth it to me. (laughs)
MERIN: What, then, is your quest then? You’re obviously not driven by the desire to be a celebrity. What does move you?
NIVOLA: I’m driven by restlessness and boredom. So I’ve always had a kind of itinerant lifestyle. I can’t stay in the same place or do the same thing for very long. So that’s kind of shaped my career — which has been sort of like a Jackson Pollack splatter painting, where we just hurl all sorts of things at the canvas and see what happens.
MERIN: So, you like to explore different characters, different personalities. Of all the characters you’ve played, is there one whom you would like to — in real life — be?
NIVOLA: The truth is that I’m a bit in love with all of the people I’ve played — in some shape or form. There’s been a feeling for them — no matter how morally ambiguous they might be — and there’s something about them that I’ve come to know and like.
I think that must be because I’ve never felt that at ease in my own skin and the times — with some exceptions — I’m usually most comfortable when I’m able to create some little role for myself that’s completely separate from my own life, and when I feel that I can retreat to that it — I don’t know — it feels like I can breathe. And so inevitably when I’ve finished a role, all the time I’ve spent in and out of that little world has felt nice. And I get to study the personalities of these characters — well, so many of them have been such (laughs) just awful people.
I played Leonard Chess last year in “Who Do You Live?“ and I really enjoyed that. The world of the blues, and being on the road from Chicago down to new Orleans in the late 40s and 50s, living with various kinds of characters of that time — that’s a fantasy that I would have happy to adopt into my real life, But Chess, himself, was a serial adulterer and ruthless business man — quite awful. But, he was also a lover of music and lover of black culture.
MERIN: That was a great movie. What happened with it?
NIVOLA: Well it’s been terribly mismanaged… I’d tell you the whole story if we had more time, but the guy who put up the money was ridiculous. We had this big opening in Toronto, and there were two offers for distribution, and he turned them down — and then this other movie (“Cadillac Records,” with Adrien Brody playing Leonard Chess) came out and that was that. But who knows, maybe time will go by and they’ll have a second go at it. But it was just a bunch of amateurs there to send it out into the world. But anyway….that was harder on the director than on me, because I go on to make another movie, but for him it’s….
MERIN: Yeah, it’s the ‘what happened to your last movie?’ syndrome…
NIVOLA: It was a wonderful movie. Even now, with this film I’m doing with Abigail Breslin…
MERIN: What’s it called?
NIVOLA: It’s called “Janie Jones“…I play a slightly has been indie rock singer who discovers that he has a 12 year old daughter that he never knew about and gets saddled with on this tour that’s increasingly depressing for him and — he’s one of those narcissistic people who doesn’t want any responsibility for this child he has and they get to know each other.
So, I had to get covered with these tattoos and — for your benefit, I’ve wiped most of the off — but I took all the tattoos, the designs, from the Chess movie–there’s the Chess Records emblem, and I’ve got Muddy Waters on my thigh. So I carried that that movie into the next movie…
MERIN: Oh, that’s fun…and it’s fun to know about it, too.
MERIN: With the characters you play, you look into yourself to find them. But then, when you find them, do they, in turn, shape you or move you towards being another kind of person?
NIVOLA: I think so…and I used to be proud that I can separate my life from my work and all of that. But increasingly I’m aware of that –and certainly during the time that I’m filming, they have an effect on you and the way you see the world.
And it’s a tricky thing when you have a family and kids. I mean, it’s such a disruptive job and its so hard to come back home for a day or two. And this is a perfect example. I’m filming in Iowa now, and I’m home for two days and have to just sort of slip back into everyday life…and I’ve been in Des Moines, having the most intense few weeks of my life, maybe, where all day, everyday I’m performing in a way that is really demanding — doing these concert scenes, and I’m playing someone who’s out of control and drunk and all this stuff (laughs). And then you have to just jump — well it’s jarring coming back and forth, but that’s just what you have to do. And my wife, Em (actress Emily Mortimer) goes through the same thing, too, when she’s working.
MERIN: Do you have an agreement that you won’t work at the same time?
NIVOLA: Not an agreement, but we don’t really want our son to be tutored in some trailer all the time, so we’re trying to keep him in school as much as we can. She’s pregnant right now, so she’s not working for the time being…
MERIN: Oh, congratulations…
NIVOLA: Thanks. Yeah, we’ve got a girl on the way.
MERIN: Oh, lovely. A boy and a girl. So, does that mean you’re done? Is it tube-tying time?
NIVOLA: Well, yeah, I guess. I mean, it’s not gonna happen again. (laughs)
MERIN: When’s the baby due?
NIVOLA: January…soon. But in any case, we’ve just gotten used to the fact that our family life is completely chaotic — well, maybe it’s better to say that it’s exciting and never boring.
MERIN: That fits with what you said about your need to explore and your restlessness for change. But, with regard to that, it may seem strange, but I’ve sometimes wondered whether actors have a kind of death wish…or are a bit suicidal. What I mean is that you enter a character and live as that character so intensely — as you’ve said — then it’s over. You’ve got to put the character and the experiences to rest. Or, you might say that they — along with a bit of you — die. What do you think about that?
NIVOLA: Well, yeah, I understand what you’re saying, but the thing is that when you know that there’s a finite amount of time that you’re going to be living in the skin of this person — well, I think that is what gives you the feeling that anything goes. So, I actually see that as a relief, that you know you’re not going to be stuck with someone forever. And that means you can just… Well, the experience of making a movie for me has never been something that’s been easy. It’s never been something that is just coming and enjoying myself and just enjoying playing a part. It‘s grinding. Every performance that I’ve given is ground out of me, and I’ve done that knowing that it will end. (laughs).
You know, like knowing that those periods of three weeks or four months or however long, that I can actually put myself through a meat grinder and it’s going to be over. So I guess that’s some kind of suicide. But it’s some kind of security, too, that in this finite time period I can be whatever I want, and then it’s so exhausting that by the end, it’s a relief to have it go.
MERIN: You’ve worked a lot in England, and now in France. What’s the difference between working in Europe and the US?
NIVOLA: Well, it’s more civilized in Europe — on this movie, anyway. A lot of the movies I’ve done in America have been done on small budgets — not all, I’ve done some behemoths of films, too — but most of the things have have been my bread and butter have been small budget indies where you work long hours. This movie was just so show up at nine, work a couple of hours and then have lunch for a couple of hours with wine and cheese…
MERIN: That sounds exceptionally nice….
NIVOLA: Yes. Every table would be laid out with — you know, these long tables — with baguette, baguette, baguette every few feet apart. And bottle of wine, bottle of wine. bottle of wine. And cheese. And. Then, waiters coming in and giving you your choice of entrees and you…(gestures and laughs)
MERIN: I guess food is as important to the French, then, as fashion…
NIVOLA: (laughs). Well, yeah…and, if it hadn’t been for that bottle of wine at lunch, I don’t know how I would have made it through the film — because it was just so scary performing in another language that I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been kind of loosened up at lunch time by a nice Cabernet Sauvignon.
MERIN: How has your French and French-ness been accepted by the French?
NIVOLA: Well, I think everybody was impressed by how far along I came with my language during the course of the filming because I didn’t speak much French at all before this. I mean I had high school French, and I’m good at accents and shit like that so I kind of bullshitted my way into a job and then the fact was that I got really scared and I worked really hard at it. And since I was the only foreign person on the set I was speaking French 24 hours a day — well, Anne (director Anne Fontaine) speaks some English, but she’s the only one. So it was all in French. And half way through filming I was pretty good, and by the end, I was fluent.
MERIN: That was quick for learning a language.
NIVOLA: Well, it was a long shoot. I was there from August through September. And if you’re immersed that way, you’d be surprised at how quickly you learn a language. And, I speak Italian, so I had some advantage. But it was the biggest challenge of my career — just technically. I’d never put myself out like that or made myself that vulnerable before — just from the standpoint of language. On the other hand, though, I came away with a language, and that’s amazing.
MERIN: Was it always red wine, or sometimes white?
NIVOLA: For me, it’s red.
MERIN: While you were studying English literature at Yale, was there a character whom you met and felt you that you must someday play?
NIVOLA: I never even thought about it. I‘m not sure the part would be right for me, but I’ve just finished reading a “Our Man in Havana,” the Graham Greene novel about a vacuum salesman in Havana — this expatriate living in Cuba in the 50s — who accidentally gets recruited by MI5 to be their attaché in Cuba and he starts sending in false reports based on “Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare,’ and drawings of the insides of his vacuum cleaners which he claims are nuclear fuselages and the British government becomes convinced that he’s the most valuable member of their intelligence community. And, then, to make matters more exciting, all of these stories he’s imagined start to come true. It’s hilarious and bizarre and he’s such a hapless character…who ends up being this kind of romantic hero by accident, and it’s a great story. They made a movie of it some time ago, and maybe it’s time to make another one.
MERIN: On another subject, do you have any of your grandfathers art?
NIVOLA: I do.
MERIN: Where is it?
NIVOLA: Some of it’s in my house in Brooklyn, and some is museums — I’ve donated some to the Guggenheim. I think my grandfather was a truly great sculptor. His work varied during his lifetime and evolved, of course. My favorites are the pieces he did in his 80s. I don’t know whether it’s because he died when I was about 15, but I really idolize him in a way that may or may not be accurate. But he’s a great presence in my life.
MERIN: Would you like to play him?
NIVOLA: I don’t think it would work. He was about four feet tall and looked like a dark Sardinian immigrant. (laughs). Well, maybe I could play him if we did it the way Brad Pitt played Benjamin Button…
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