Cause of desire

Alessandro Nivola on playing 'the Donald Trump' of The Neon Demon.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alessandro Nivola plays a fashion designer in Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon
Alessandro Nivola plays a fashion designer in Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

From Sally Potter's Ginger And Rosa with Elle Fanning and Christina Hendricks, cinematography by Anders Refn, to Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon with Fanning and Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola's thread continues with costume designer Erin Benach and a wedding suit. Refn's Drive, Ryan Gosling's Lost River, Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, Blue Valentine and upcoming film The Light Between Oceans, Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special and Loving, all have Benach habiliments.

Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling teamed up for Only God Forgives and Drive
Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling teamed up for Only God Forgives and Drive Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Barry Levinson's The Wizard Of Lies, starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer is up next for Alessandro and he has a future project involving Géza Röhrig, star of László Nemes' Oscar-winner Son Of Saul. Before the Cannes premiere of The Neon Demon, Alessandro told me how he became involved between engagements of The Elephant Man with Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson and that he sees Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone as a kindred spirit.

Elle Fanning, along with her sister Dakota, attended the Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology Benefit Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute on The First Monday In May, looking very un-Neon Demon-like.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The Neon Demon has its World Premiere at Cannes this Friday. Tell me about your role!

Alessandro Nivola: This character didn't exist in the script. I had a meeting with Nic [Nicolas Winding Refn] and he said he wanted me to be in the movie. I had this little window between doing The Elephant Man on Broadway and doing The Elephant Man in London. He was filming his movie right between these two runs of the show. But he only films in sequence.

Elle Fanning was in Ginger And Rosa with Alessandro
Elle Fanning was in Ginger And Rosa with Alessandro Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Did he ever give a reason for that?

AN: I am trying to remember. We did talk about it. It became a real sticking point for us. Everything we looked at in the script, there would always be like one day conflict … Until I got a phone call saying that he had another idea. He said: 'I'm going to write you a character that is only in the middle of the film. It's going to be four consecutive scenes that are all right next to each other so that none of them will conflict with either of your runs of the play.'

AKT: So it's a sandwich film and you are the pickle?

AN: Precisely! 'Furthermore, it's a role that demands that you keep the mustache that you have for the play.' Finally, it's a role that is going to speak the demonic mantra of the film, which is: Beauty isn't everything. It's the only thing! He wanted a mouthpiece for those words. It was the reason that he created this role.

AKT: Of a fashion designer?

Elle Fanning as Jesse in The Neon Demon:
Elle Fanning as Jesse in The Neon Demon: "She becomes a total obsession for him."

AN: Yeah. Basically, he's the Donald Trump of the movie. He says things that people sometimes think but don't say. Not all people, mind you, half of the country. The character is a truth teller. It's one truth, obviously it's not the only truth. He is there to say, don't lie to yourself, we all have these base impulses and don't pretend you don't. It's really ugly. It's Mephistophelean. He is completely, totally confident in himself, has no self-doubt, is totally self-obsessed.

AKT: Is that nice to play? To play someone with no doubt?

AN: It was one of the more enjoyable roles that I've played.

AKT: What is happening around you in Neon Demon?

AN: At the time that he discovers Elle [Fanning], he is more interested … The first scene that I have with her, where I discover her is about some sort of line of lingerie that I've designed and we're auditioning models for my show. And I am so bored and uninspired by all the women that are on display that I become fascinated by this handkerchief that I had in my coat pocket - which I start to shape into a lapel flower.

Alessandro Nivola, the producer, will work with Géza Röhrig
Alessandro Nivola, the producer, will work with Géza Röhrig Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

That was just a prop that they happened to give me and I was fiddling with it. It struck me that he was a character who believes that he could create something out of nothing. He believes in himself as a creator and that he is always creating.

AKT: Let me quickly interrupt you here. Last time we spoke, you said that one of the directors you would like to work with is Matteo Garrone, who did Gomorrah. Did you see his Tale Of Tales?

AN: No.

AKT: There is a scene in Tale Of Tales where one of the kings is so fascinated by a flea and so bored by everyone else around him. Your handkerchief story made me think of that.

AN: That's the same scene. I hope he [Matteo Garrone] sees my scene and recognises a brother-in-arms! That makes me happy to know that we're inextricably bound together.

AKT: Please continue with Neon Demon!

Ruby (Jena Malone) with Jesse (Elle Fanning)
Ruby (Jena Malone) with Jesse (Elle Fanning)

AN: In a later scene we find out that he used to be an actor and that now he is a fashion designer and that it's all the same to him because he is a creator. So he is more interested in his handkerchief until he sees Elle [Fanning as Jesse]. She makes him weep.

AKT: Just by being there?

AN: Just by being there. She becomes a total obsession for him. He recognises in her a particular kind of beauty that is not manufactured, that is pure and exists on its own in all of its many original ways. He keeps comparing her to women who've had plastic surgery in an attempt to manufacture beauty. It's all a waste of time, because you know, it's that one thing that's indescribable that we all thirst for and are drawn to and can't deny as a driving force.

AKT: In Lacanian terms, it's the object-cause-of-desire. What makes us desire someone is often mis-perceived by us as a flaw. The little imperfection is actually the cause of our desire. Is that the point in the film?

AN: Absolutely. Her perfection comes from her imperfection. And he is completely overwhelmed by it and it's also a life force for him. He spends the rest of the scenes trying to expose everyone else as a fraud. It's the voice of the film that's the devil's advocate. And Nic wanted to make the devil's advocate a compelling voice.

The Neon Demon poster
The Neon Demon poster

AKT: Well, if it's not compelling, it's not working. These are really interesting questions this brings up. You mention Trump, on the very other hand you could think of Tom Ford. I am really, really looking forward to his second movie [Nocturnal Animals with Jake Gyllenhaal]. I liked his first one very much.

AN: I am so curious how people are going to react to [Neon Demon] on Friday. With all of his movies, he does his best to make people uncomfortable.

AKT: Only God Forgives had some scenes where I wondered - why am I being put through this by him? Last time we spoke about scissors and the tailor who cuts off the boy's thumbs in Struwelpeter. You are not wearing red pants in Neon Demon?

AN: Unfortunately not. I am wearing this suit that I wore at my wedding. For real.

AKT: Your real wedding?

AN: Yeah. We tried on lots of different suits but the one that fit me best was the one that was tailored for me by my father-in-law's tailor in Oxford. It's the only time I've ever had a suit made for me and it's the only time I've worn it, except for at my wedding.

AKT: I will look out for the suit. The costume designer, I saw, is Erin Benach, who also did the costumes for Midnight Special, Loving and the new film by Derek Cianfrance, The Light Between Oceans.

AN: Oh, wow. Cool, those are great movies.

Coming up - Playing the Madoffs with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in Barry Levinson's The Wizard of Lies, abstract expressionism running in the family, Rupert Everett's performance at BAM in David Hare's Judas Kiss and future projects on the horizon.

The Cannes Film Festival World Premiere of The Neon Demon is today, May 20.

The Neon Demon opens in the US on June 24 and in the UK on July 8.

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