Breakfast with Alessandro Nivola

Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon, Coco Before Chanel, Doll & Em and The Elephant Man.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alessandro Nivola is coming to London with a moustache, to star alongside Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson in The Elephant Man
Alessandro Nivola is coming to London with a moustache, to star alongside Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson in The Elephant Man Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

From Alessandro Nivola, over breakfast, we learn how Nicolas Winding Refn poached an entire family, including Elle Fanning and Christina Hendricks, from Sally Potter's Ginger And Rosa and spun them into The Neon Demon, with Alessandro channeling Anton Walbrook's portrayal of Boris Lermontov in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes wrapped into Tom Ford.

Coco Chanel is the link between Jean Renoir's masterpiece La Règle Du Jeu (The Rules Of The Game) and Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel, in which Alessandro plays Chanel's lover who "borrowed" her for two days. How James Gray, Darren Aronofsky and Matteo Garrone will factor in is yet to be determined. Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells with Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood will appear in the second season of Doll & Em. For now, it is time for an elephantasmal celebration of last week's Tony nominations for Nivola, Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and The Elephant Man.

Alessandro Nivola with Ginger and Rosa director Sally Potter and the star of Refn's The Neon Demon, Elle Fanning
Alessandro Nivola with Ginger and Rosa director Sally Potter and the star of Refn's The Neon Demon, Elle Fanning Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: Congratulations on the Tony nomination! Are you leaving for London now for another 12 weeks of The Elephant Man?

Alessandro Nivola: Thank you. Yes, 12 weeks.

AKT: You've had a gap of a few months since your last performance in New York.

AN: Just enough to forget my lines. We finished end of February. I have not said the lines since I walked off stage in February.

AKT: You did a film with Nicolas Winding Refn [The Neon Demon] in the meantime, didn't you?

AN: Yeah. I managed to find the one role that demanded that I have the same moustache as Frederick Treves.

AKT: I don't remember when I last saw you without a moustache.

AN: Well, I can't remember what I look like without it. I'm so sick of it. My family, my friends, they are all going to be shocked and horrified when I shave it off. I can't wait for the day. The night of our closing in London. So long as Bradley doesn't insist that we take it to Singapore or some other…

AKT: Is he thinking about taking it elsewhere or are you making this up?

AN: I'm making it up. But one never knows what the next stop might be. He's enjoyed doing it so much. As have I.

AKT: Tell me more about the Refn movie. Was he wearing shorts?

AN: He basically poached the cast of Sally Potter's Ginger And Rosa. I assumed that he wanted me in the movie because he had seen that movie. Elle [Fanning] was starring in it and Christina [Hendricks] was in that one.

Anton Walbrook as Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes:
Anton Walbrook as Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes: "It's a bit like the guy in The Red Shoes…"

AKT: The three of you were a family - they played your wife and daughter.

AN: That's right. Christina was my wife, Elle was my daughter and the film was about my having had an affair with my daughter's friend. But when I went to meet [Winding Refn] it turned out he had never seen the movie. And then I found out that his dad [Anders Refn] edited the movie. And he still hadn't seen the movie.

AKT: I spoke with him about Only God Forgives.

AN: I haven't seen that one.

AKT: So it goes both ways. You haven't seen much of each other's products?

AN (laughing): No. We boycotted each other's work.

AKT: What is your role?

AN: I'm like a … one of the biggest designers in the world and I'm a star maker. It's a bit like the guy in The Red Shoes [Boris Lermontov played by Anton Walbrook in the Powell Pressburger film]. I kind of pluck her out of obscurity.

AKT: That's where the moustache came from? Walbrook's looks great.

AN: I am gay in the film but I appeal to her vanity and ambition. And plant the seeds for her destruction. It was a very enjoyable character to play. He offered me another role initially but he only shoots in sequence. My character's role in the movie was supposed to be shot a few days after I was to go to London for the play. He refused to move the scenes to an earlier day in the shoot because of his insistence on the sequence. So I couldn't do it and it looked like I couldn't be in the film.

Only God Forgives director Nicolas Winding Refn with Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas
Only God Forgives director Nicolas Winding Refn with Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And then he wrote this part for me so that I could shoot it before leaving for London. The role only exists in the middle of the film. So that it could be finished before Thursday. I finished it a few days ago.

AKT: People do that for you. Didn't Atom Egoyan change a court scene so that you could fly to rehearse The Elephant Man?

AN: It seems that I'll be doing this play till I die. Every film from here on, I have to somehow work around The Elephant Man schedule.

AKT: For the rest of your life! That would make a good horror movie. By the way, how do you look in The Neon Demon? In Only God Forgives he transformed Kristin Scott Thomas so drastically, that she was almost unrecognisable.

Alessandro shows me a picture of himself not even remotely looking like Kristin Scott Thomas.

AN: This isn't much of a transformation. I just had a very deep tan and fashionable outfit.

AKT: You don't look grotesque at all. The sleeves are a little big.

AN: I think that's an homage to Tom Ford. That's the undone cufflink look while I'm doing alterations on the ladies' dresses.

AKT: Staying with fashion for a moment - tomorrow night, I am presenting Jean Renoir's La règle Du Jeu (The Rules Of The Game) at the French Institute Alliance Francaise as part of their Haute Couture on Film program. The clothes for that film were made by Coco Chanel.

You were in Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel which takes place before the First World War. The Rules Of The Game came out right before the outbreak of the Second World War. Do you remember if Fontaine referenced any French films from the first half of the 20th century?

Geneviève (Mila Parély) dressed by Chanel in The Rules Of The Game
Geneviève (Mila Parély) dressed by Chanel in The Rules Of The Game

AN: Not that she mentioned to me.

AKT: There is a scene when you come to the castle and your character asks to "borrow" Coco Chanel for two days.

AN: Emprunter, right?

AKT: Exactly. Emprunter. That moment has some Rules of the Game-ness to it.

AN: It's funny. I wonder if they translated it properly in the subtitles. That was the word used. From Rules Of The Game, I remember rabbit hunting.

AKT: Renoir didn't shoot these scenes himself, that was second unit. Henri Cartier-Bresson. Renoir himself was so disgusted by hunting. His father had him pose for a painting dressed as a hunter as a boy. The Rules of the Game was a huge flop when it opened.

AN: Really? What did they accuse it of?

AKT: It was too close to home. He showed bourgeois society in all its ugliness.

AN: It's amazing - these moments in art in the last century and a half that have been so shocking and offensive to people, that one couldn't imagine upsetting anyone, Rites Of Spring or whatever.

AKT: Back to the Refn movie!

AN: He has this very particular style which is so enjoyable to work with. It's so heightened and campy and for the first time in a long time, I didn't really have to worry about being real all the time - which can be so boring. I remember some brilliant shots that he set up.

One where I have this enormous pair of silver chrome fabric scissors. The shot begins about waist level and I walk into frame dangling these long fabric scissors that have something like light flares bouncing off them into the lens. And they're swinging back and forth in slow motion and then I move around and come and start and tailor Elle's dress.

Alessandro Nivola with Audrey Tautou Coco Before Chanel
Alessandro Nivola with Audrey Tautou Coco Before Chanel

AKT: That reminds me of Struwelpeter, the 19th century German cautionary tales. One of the tales about a boy who always sucks his thumbs has a tailor appear with enormous scissors and as punishment, he cuts off the boy's thumbs. In my conversation with Refn two years ago, he told me about the obsession he had as a child with his hands, that his mother had to put cream on them every night and then protect them in gloves [it was vaseline and socks].

AN: That wouldn't surprise me. He is full of eccentric, obsessive compulsive… That connection to the scissors sounds entirely possible. In the past few years my only criteria for choosing roles has been the director. So I look for people like him who have something particular about them and are not like anybody else.

AKT: American Hustle wasn't exactly normal.

AN: David [O. Russell] is another example, definitely.

AKT: Are there any dead directors you sometimes imagine you would have liked to work with? Or do you just think about the living and not the dead?

AN: So many of the great filmmakers are still alive. The list is a mile long. Who do I want to work with now? I want to work with James Gray. Darren Aronofsky. I could send you a long list. I want to work with that guy [Matteo Garrone] who made Gomorrah.

AKT: What is Emily doing?

AN: Well, we are editing our television show for HBO, Doll & Em, second season. She did a big action film [Nic Mathieu's Spectral] in Budapest, she came back and we went straight into production for Doll & Em.

AKT: When will it air on HBO?

AN: September. I'm in this series as well while I wasn't the last time. We have everyone in it this time - both her mother and Dolly's mother are in it. I'm in it. My son, Dolly's two kids and my daughter. And Dolly's husband, you know, who plays Emily's husband, now he's a major role in the second one. And he is brilliant too and he is not an actor! We're all joking that he is going to be snatched up. He's got this huge beard and long hair, which is an ongoing joke throughout the series.

AKT: You are taking facial hair revenge wherever you can!

AN: I play him in a play. Emily and Dolly write a play and they cast Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood to play them in the play. In the play, I play her husband. We've been heavily in the edit until just the past few days. Now it's going into all the sound mixing. Em is coming to London with me and we'll do promotional stuff the next couple of months. It's coming out in the UK in June and then here in September.

The Elephant Man, directed by Scott Ellis, will run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London with the original Broadway cast from May 19 through August 8.

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