Telling performances

Further conversation with Alessandro Nivola

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alessandro Nivola, Elle Fanning and Alice Englert in Ginger And Rosa
Alessandro Nivola, Elle Fanning and Alice Englert in Ginger And Rosa

In the second half of our conversation, Alessandro Nivola discusses his role in Ginger And Rosa, Sally Potter's directing style, what he and Ethan Hawke share with Sam Shepard, future film projects with Hawke, and Nivola's wife Emily Mortimer's creation with Paolo Sorrentino. Bird rescues with Shepard, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and a trip to August: Osage County complete the circle.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Last week at Monkey Bar, you mentioned the very different styles of directing between David O. Russell in American Hustle and Sally Potter in Ginger And Rosa.

Alessandro Nivola: Sally is a very different type of personality. Intellectually just so bright, she has a very particular aesthetic herself, a very keen eye for detail. The process of working on that film was really the opposite. We spent a long time rehearsing scenes and talking about them. She would scrutinise my face. She became fascinated with all the actors' faces and would photograph us in different light and different angles. It was a huge amount of aesthetic preparation that way.

AKT: The movie is also very alive. Elle Fanning sparkles and despairs and is full of life.

London, 1962 - Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) are best friends, dress alike, practice kissing and smoking, interrupted by giggles, and play the remnants of childhood games. Radio announcements talk daily about nuclear threats. Ginger's father Roland (Nivola) is an active pacifist and teacher.

Alessandro Nivola on Sally Potter''s Ginger and Rosa: "She would scrutinise my face."
Alessandro Nivola on Sally Potter''s Ginger and Rosa: "She would scrutinise my face." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AN: That movie was very personal to Sally. She had grown up in that bohemian milieu in London. The look and feel to it was very, very true to the time, I think. Her style of filmmaking was much quieter and calmer and more deliberate. That brought to the movie a different kind of power. The power of American Hustle is wild, explosive.

AKT: In both films you are betraying somebody.

AN: You are determined to find a parallel between those two roles!

AKT: Well, in both films you are playing someone who gravely disappoints a person dependent on them.

AN: Both are characters that get completely caught up in themselves. The character in Ginger And Rosa, how I see him [Roland], is someone who just got hoodwinked by love. He didn't have the wherewithal to take a step back and recognise all the havoc that he was wreaking with the people he was closest to. There's a scene where he says "real love is like a siren call - one simply has to obey it." You have the feeling that he is in that hypnotic state. I've seen that happen to so many people. Just a blindness that it creates. Here it's coupled with his political philosophy. He was a fanatic, it's all or nothing, total commitment to the notion of freedom.

AKT: When I arrived, you were discussing future plans with Ethan Hawke?

AN: We're scheming about a project that we might put together.

AKT: Theatre?

AN: No, film. We'll talk in six months.

AKT: I'll take you up on that.

AN: You know, he directed me in A Lie Of The Mind (2010), the Sam Shepard play, and for both of us it was one of the most successful endeavors that we have been part of. It was a big moment for him as a director. It was a very challenging role for me. For both of us it was a very exciting time.

Alessandro Nivola with Alice Englert, Sally Potter, Elle Fanning - 50th New York Film Festival
Alessandro Nivola with Alice Englert, Sally Potter, Elle Fanning - 50th New York Film Festival Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I was at a luncheon with Sam Shepard yesterday and we spent some time together afterwards. We shared bird rescue and Gregory Corso stories. Christopher Marlowe and how it feels to hold a heart in your hands.

AN: You're kidding me? He came around when we were rehearsing that play. At first he kind of quietly watched from a distance the rehearsals. Then he started offering up new dialogue. It was like Shakespeare changing his own folio. He would tailor the dialogue to our performances, which was so bizarre.

AKT: Do you remember one of the new lines?

AN: I can't distinguish them from the original but I remember he gave me lots of new jokes. The play is such a young man's play. It has the perfect balance of gut-wrenching pain and black comic hilarity. I suspect he was nervous about the play being revived again. He had originally done it with Harvey Keitel in the Eighties. It was such an emotional blood-letting at times and this comic tour de force. I imagine, as a young man you just pour your heart on the page and he wanted to protect the play from potential skeptics by giving more weight to the comic side of it.

AKT: Sam is also a very funny man.

AN: He is hilarious and so dry. And all his plays have that. He himself, from what I can tell, is that cocktail of, on the one hand, son of an Air Force pilot, a guy from the West, grown up in a family that taught him how to be a man, being somebody who is like a tough cowboy. On the other hand he is a kind of Greenwich Village poet, who was floating around with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. Those, almost warring sides make all his plays so beautiful.

AKT: He has a lot of layers. Have you seen him in August: Osage County?

"My wife takes pills. I drink," is how Sam Shepard, who plays husband Beverly to Meryl Streep's Violet, sums up the main occupations of their lives. He cannot stop the endless flow of venomous words. At the recent press junket, Streep said how much she was affected by Shepard's glances. "My wife has been diagnosed with a touch of cancer," he says in the film with what is left of his dignity, and has a hard time looking at her.

AN: Not yet, I'm going to see it tonight. By the way, Ethan gave me as my opening night gift for the play [A Lie Of The Mind], a photo that this French photographer, Brigitte Lacombe, took of Sam Shepard standing on the desert plain, throwing a huge ox skull, or a bull skull, you know, with horns, up in the air. It's this amazing picture that he had given to Ethan, and Ethan gave it to me and I have it up in my office.

AKT: And again, there is the other side to the skull throwing, hunting and fishing persona of Sam Shepard. Yesterday at Pastis, he told me he rescued a starving egret. But, let's not ruin the macho image here, we also talked about deals with the devil...

Sam Shepard at Le Cirque luncheon for August: Osage County: Nivola on A Lie Of The Mind "It has the perfect balance."
Sam Shepard at Le Cirque luncheon for August: Osage County: Nivola on A Lie Of The Mind "It has the perfect balance." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AN: I am also looking forward to seeing The Great Beauty.

AKT: It's a great film.

AN: Emily [Mortimer], my wife, just did Paolo Sorrentino's short for the Rio, I Love You film. It's about an old man in his eighties having an affair with a younger woman, that my wife plays. This was only three weeks ago. They just shot it.

AKT: How was it filming with him, for her?

AN: She really is crazy about him.

Nivola shows me a great still of Emily in a bikini dancing on the beach, which reminds me of the wild, high-energy divorce party in The Great Beauty.

AN: She is on her walkman, dancing around and he is in his wheelchair, this old man. She goes out into the water and gets swept away by the tide, or something like that. I can't remember exactly the plot. He is really one of the most innovative filmmakers alive now. It's good to have some Italian filmmakers on the scene again. There was a real lull.

AKT: When I spoke with Sorrentino, he had a magazine with an image of The Great Gatsby on the cover in front of him, aside from the word great, the two films couldn't be more different.

AN: He is a stylistic master. He has complete control over his filmmaking style and it's very distinctive. You would recognise one of his movies after five minutes even if you didn't know who directed it.

You can read our earlier conversation with Alessandro Nivola here.

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