The Alessandro Nivola files

Ethan Hawke joins the A Most Violent Year star to talk Robert Redford, The Elephant Man and awards.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The aura of Alessandro Nivola - Dr. Treves in The Elephant Man:
The aura of Alessandro Nivola - Dr. Treves in The Elephant Man: "An England which informs me daily by the way it lives that it wants to die." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Alessandro Nivola will next be seen on the big screen in J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year with Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks. Bradley Cooper, with whom he worked on David O Russell's American Hustle and Patricia Clarkson will come to Broadway to co-star with him in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man directed by Scott Ellis.

When I showed up to have a conversation with Alessandro on his upcoming adventures - including Doll & Em with Emily Mortimer - Ethan Hawke and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman were having breakfast with him. Robert Redford's commanding performance in and integrity surrounding Chandor's riveting All Is Lost and Warren Beatty's with Reds turned into a discussion of Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Colour. Ethan had his film Seymour: An Introduction screened at this year's New York Film Festival and was honoured by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Alessandro Nivola with Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso on their upcoming Elephant Man:
Alessandro Nivola with Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso on their upcoming Elephant Man: "Annie Leibovitz is shooting us for Vogue in costume."

Ethan Hawke: It says a lot about his [Redford's] personal character. That he refused to engage in that dance. It cost him. He payed the price. He did give one of the best performances of the year but he wasn't on those lists. And not being on those lists hurt the movie. This is just the reality of where we are.

Alessandro Nivola: Do you think it's the responsibility of an actor to promote a movie?

Alessandro turned up at the 50th New York Film Festival press conference for Ginger And Rosa with director Sally Potter, Alice Englert and Elle Fanning.

Hawke: I don't know. It certainly seems that the culture sees it as our responsibility. It's part of the advertising campaign. In 1981 Warren Beatty decided not to do any press for his film Reds, he spent years of his life working on. And he won Best Director. He basically said, my work speaks for itself.

Nivola: And Robert Redford played that card.

Three days after our conversation, the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced that Robert Redford, Academy Award–winning director, actor, producer, environmentalist, and founder of the Sundance Film Festival and Institute, will be honored at the 42nd Annual Chaplin Award Gala held at Lincoln Center on Monday, April 27, 2015.

Anne-Katrin Titze: There is also a big difference in what is out there. Is it about the actual work of filmmaking, the art and the craft or is it gossip? A good example is last year's Blue is the Warmest Colour. Most of the press was around the scandal.

Hawke: It made me not want to see the movie - the scandal around it. These were some of the best performances… very powerful. I thought the scandal just made the movie smaller than it was.

Alessandro and I move to another table to catch up on some of our New York Film Festival experiences as part of the Nivola files. I told him about my interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne on Two Days, One Night, another film being released in late December [24].

Robert Redford with All is Lost director JC Chandor at the 51st New York Film Festival
Robert Redford with All is Lost director JC Chandor at the 51st New York Film Festival Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Alessandro Nivola: It's like a game of chicken!

Anne-Katrin Titze: Yours, by that I mean Chandor's A Most Violent Year, is the winner then with a release date on December 31.

AN: Next it's going to be that the first screening is going to be at 11:59 PM on December 31.

AKT: Is it finished? I expected it earlier.

AN: They were flirting with the idea of bringing it out earlier. I think it had something to do with A24's preparation. I think it's going to be their biggest release to date. They've been building up to being able to do an Oscar campaign. This is going to be one of their first ones, if not the first one. I haven't even seen it yet. My impression was that they wanted to make sure their ducks were in a row before it came out.

AKT: You were one of the very last releases with American Hustle in 2013.

AN: I think it was the beginning of December, it was like a week before the New York Film Critics.

AKT: Let's talk Elephant Man. Are you rehearsing?

AN: I started on Monday [this was Wednesday]. I obviously started my physical preparation five weeks ago [he twirls his moustache]. I decided, I want to get my walrus on.

AKT: Do you see your character Dr. Treves differently now than you saw him last time you played him?

AN: It's funny, I knew going into this rehearsal that it was going to be an experience I never had before. Because I never reprised a performance. It's a strange feeling, because if you say goodbye to a character, you finish and you never encounter them again.

Ethan Hawke on Robert Redford in All is Lost :
Ethan Hawke on Robert Redford in All is Lost : "He did give one of the best performances of the year but he wasn't on those lists." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Weirdly while you're playing them you feel so intimately connected with the character and then almost immediately after it's over you just feel completely divorced. I often can't remember any of my lines of a play even one that I performed for four months. Like all ties are severed.

AKT: Is that a trick of your trade? The only way perhaps to do the profession?

AN: It's a combination of psychological things and just muscle memory. With a play, your body almost takes on the whole thing on its own. Going back, now the question is how can I re-invent him and make it exciting for myself and on the other hand, not destroy all the things that worked well?

AKT: The character you are playing is very complex. Which direction are you going in with The Elephant Man?

AN: What creates the drama of the play for Treves is his sexual jealousy. The fact that The Elephant Man (Bradley Cooper) and Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) share - him having been in the circus and part of a freak show and her being a show person from the theater - they both live outside the boundaries of society.

At this moment, Jonathan Marc Sherman comes over to say goodbye, before he and Ethan Hawke leave.

Jonathan Marc Sherman: Everything he [Nivola] says is true. The most honest man I've ever known. Trust the "stache."

AKT: Apropos, show people!

AN: There we go. For Treves it's a window into that world that is totally exotic, sexy and dangerous and counter-cultural. He obviously has a real longing to be a part of that but resists it with everything he is worth. He has built up his whole life trying to talk himself into believing ideas of progress and enlightenment and England leading the world into the new century with society reaching its greatest height.

Alessandro Nivola with Alice Englert, Ginger and Rosa director Sally Potter and Elle Fanning at the 50th New York Film Festival
Alessandro Nivola with Alice Englert, Ginger and Rosa director Sally Potter and Elle Fanning at the 50th New York Film Festival

AKT: In Pomerance's play, isn't there is a speech by Treves about society eating itself up?

AN: Near the end of the play he has a nervous breakdown because he is so disgusted with himself and everything he stood for because it destroyed his own romantic soul and his closest friend's soul as well. He says : "An England which informs me daily by the way it lives that it wants to die."

AKT: The people eating and drinking themselves to death on purpose.

AN: "The middle-class, they destroy nature in themselves so fervently…" He is denying himself.

AKT: When you have such strict rules, the question is, who is not a part of this? The Elephant Man doesn't stand a chance in this society of gentlemen Treves speaks of. He is the outcast.

AN: Throughout the play, I am trying to drag him into society. I manage to convince him that that is the most important thing. That's what makes me ultimately so disgusted with myself, because I just convinced this man that all the things that make him most worthwhile and most valuable to who he is are worthless. And that the things that are false and frivolous are important. It's all a metaphor for the Noble Savage, that England had a responsibility to the world, which was to enlighten uneducated people around the world.

AKT: At the same time, there is the fascination - just like your role.

AN: So many people living double lives. There was this Victorian painter who had a second family.

AKT: The outward persona of the perfect member of society comes with the seedy underbelly.

AN: I was in Budapest visiting Emily [Mortimer] a few weeks ago. She is filming a big action movie called Spectral. There was a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition on. It hadn't really clicked how deformed Toulouse-Lautrec was. And looking at this exhibition I realized how he had clung to the theater as his refuge. He'd come from an aristocratic French family and this was the one place where he would feel accepted. That was exactly at the same time as our play, The Elephant Man was set.

AKT: One of the things I remember from reading the play a long time ago was the annotation at the start that the Elephant Man mustn't be played by someone with back problems. So I hope Bradley Cooper doesn't have any issues with his back?

AN: No. We decided that we are going to share a dressing room in the Booth [Theatre] because we shared one in Williamstown.

Alessandro Nivola as Anthony Amado in David O Russell's American Hustle
Alessandro Nivola as Anthony Amado in David O Russell's American Hustle

AKT: It was productive?

AN: Yeah, it kept either one of us from getting too miserable. So now we got a dressing room across the hall where we are going to have some fancy masseuse come and try and realign him after every performance.

AKT: Did the costumes change from your previous performance?

AN: I was just brought in to have a fitting yesterday because Annie Leibovitz is shooting us for Vogue in costume. So they brought me in to see if they may have to loosen the waistline in the intervening two years. But there wasn't really much to change. It was all made for me. It was all tailored. In the final scene how we staged it, I was deconstructing my costume. It's as though I'm suffocating and pulling at my clothes. The starched collars, if you pop open a few buttons, they fly out.

AKT: The collars are what signals respectability. I spoke on the significance of collars at the Munich Film Museum in the context of Carl Zuckmayer's The Captain Of Köpenick.

AN: The collars give you that feeling of arrogance and pride in that era. And also the restriction of it.

AKT: Keira Knightley gave a wonderful performance with all that comes with a restrictive collar as Sabina Spielrein in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method.

AN: Our big challenge now is to find a way for me to have a proper collar that has to pop open. They're rigging things. There's going to be Velcro involved, I'm told.

The Elephant Man begins previews at the Booth Theatre on November 7. Opening night is December 7 for a 13-week engagement through February 15, 2015.

A Most Violent Year opens in the US on December 31 and in the UK on January 23, 2015.

A second season of Doll & Em with Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer is being plotted.

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