Shooting A Most Violent Year

Alessandro Nivola on his role in JC Chandor's latest, plus TV show Doll & Em.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alessandro Nivola on JC Chandor's A Most Violent Year: "It's really dealing with these questions of the American dream and how real it is or not."
Alessandro Nivola on JC Chandor's A Most Violent Year: "It's really dealing with these questions of the American dream and how real it is or not." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
JC Chandor has been filming his latest project A Most Violent Year in New York over the winter, with a cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks and Alessandro Nivola. In 2013, Chandor had Robert Redford, known only as "Our Man", battle the elements in All Is Lost. On a beautiful, almost spring-like morning this month, Alessandro and I discussed his role as "Oil Man", the influence of Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom on the formation of King Bee Productions, and being a first-time producer for Doll & Em, starring and co-written by childhood friends Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer.

Anne-Katrin Titze: We spoke almost to the day three months ago when American Hustle had just opened (read that interview here). And we are still wearing the same heavy coats and scarves today. It's been a tough winter in New York.

Alessandro Nivola: I know! It feels like it might finally be breaking.

AKT: And you are working on a film with a fitting title - A Most Violent Year.

AN: Yeah, it feels that way. The people on that film all despise me because all my scenes are inside. And they've been filming outdoors on some of these days when it's been sub-zero [Celsius]. I think it's going to look great but it's been a long hard shoot for the crew. Everyone's getting along great, but physically.

AKT: Was the winter of 1981 [when the film takes place] a harsh one as well? Did JC Chandor count on the harsh weather?

AN: They always wanted to shoot in the winter. I don't know that he was planning for it to be blizzard after blizzard after blizzard. The urban landscape of the film is going to be complemented by this time of year and the colour of the grey sky.

AKT: It's a unique New York grey. You can often tell by the colour of the sky when a film pretends to take place here and was shot elsewhere. Tell me more about A Most Violent Year.

AN: It is about a Hispanic immigrant who has established himself in the heating oil business. He has a company that is starting to grow and he is a very exacting, demanding, almost anal person who has grown his company just by pure determination and being uncompromising about his business standards. Competing distributors are not happy about it and feel threatened. The movie is really about if it's possible - especially at this time 1981, which was the most violent year in New York on record this past century - to survive in the capitalist rat race without resorting to violence to protect yourself or to get ahead.

AKT: A tale of survival in a different sense. In All is Lost, Chandor has Robert Redford confront the violence of the storm at sea and even has him shaving in one mesmerising scene (read what Redford said about that here).

AN: There is a bigger moral conundrum in the film. It's really dealing with these questions of the American dream and how real it is or not. If there's one thing JC has proven to be a master of, it's creating tension in two completely different settings already and this really has the sense of a world slowly closing in on the hero.

AKT: Tell me about your role.

AN: I play a guy who is the son of an Italian-American gangster, well, he is an immigrant, who set up this heating oil business. He ended up creating an empire. I then grew up rich, going to private schools, trying to fit in with the preppy establishment. I live in Westchester [County, in New York State] in this mansion with an indoor tennis court. This kind of establishment veneer just thinly veils my roots, which are...

AKT: In crime?

JC Chandor with Robert Redford at the 51st New York Film Festival for All is Lost
JC Chandor with Robert Redford at the 51st New York Film Festival for All is Lost Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AN: Yeah, the son of a criminal. So my company is probably five times the size of the one run by the guy that Oscar Isaac is playing. We've known each other for 10 years and I've been consigliere to him and also competitor. It's very ambiguous whether I have any involvement in the increasing threat that has been posed to him because of his incursion into my service area.

AKT: That kind of tension is in Margin Call as well.

AN: Absolutely.

AKT: I spoke with Bertrand Tavernier recently (read the interview here). His latest film The French Minister (Quai d'Orsay) is the closing night of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. It is a little bit like In the Loop thematically. We talked about Coup de Torchon from 1981 and how Philippe Noiret's character keeps changing and changing and changing and adding layers so that you wonder, is he Jesus? Is he a serial killer in colonial Africa in 1938? Tavernier said he never stops adding depth to a character until the last edit but that actors sometimes say that they know when they have found the character. He mentioned that Noiret found his in the shape of a washed out pink henley shirt that he wanted to have the exact same colour as the one Dean Martin was wearing in Rio Bravo. Does that happen to you? Do you sometimes find the character in an undershirt?

AN: Absolutely. I've always started with physical things. It's usually on the days of the costume fittings that you get most inspiration.

AKT: We talked about your transformation and the badger and the bull in American Hustle. Anything here for Oil Man?

AN: There's this one scene where I get this new tennis ball machine. In the early Eighties they just started using them and nobody had ever seen them before.

AKT: Similar to the "science oven" in American Hustle?

AN: Exactly. And I'm so pleased with it because I had to pay somebody the year before to hit balls at me. I decided that the main obsession of this character is tennis. In every scene I have some sort of tennis outfit. You know how people who play tennis a lot are always sort of practicing their stroke? That became this obsessive thing he does all the time, even in scenes that are about completely other things at odd moments.

Nivola shows me pictures of the tennis outfit and then some more outfits.

AKT: Very short tennis shorts. Very early Eighties.

AN: And then he got this gold chain and very tight cable knit sweaters.

AKT: With the collar just a little too high at the neck. And the middle section the fit's not right. I get him. As actor, do you ever test new characters on the world around you?

AN: Once you're preparing for a role, all throughout the day you see the world through the eyes of the character you are going to play, that's part of the enjoyment of it, part of the escape. For example, the guy I'm playing now has grown up with a real sense of entitlement.

AKT: And shame also?

AN: Well, I think he secretly admires his father. Someone who grew up being served and wielding a lot of power from a young age. So you go around imagining how it would feel having people do your bidding. It must be quite relaxing not to feel that you have to be grateful all the time.

AKT: Possibly. People like him, how you describe him, have other things to hide and a lot of shame that would again keep them from relaxing, no?

AN: He is a flawed character, definitely, and potentially a violent person, on some level a criminal himself. The insecurity for him comes from wanting to be part of this WASPy world where he grew up and went to prep school, really being an immigrant's son. There's definitely something fake about him and he doesn't get it quite right.

Alessandro Nivola on Doll & Em: "We had seen Steve Coogan in Michael
 Winterbottom's The Trip..."
Alessandro Nivola on Doll & Em: "We had seen Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom's The Trip..."
AKT: Tell me about Doll & Em. You are the producer, your wife Emily Mortimer wrote it and stars with Dolly Wells.

AN: That's right. We set up this company King Bee Productions [with Emily] about two years ago. We had seen Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom's The Trip, which originally was a six part series, which is totally brilliant.

AKT: The scallops are resting…

AN: We wanted to make something inspired by that. So Emily and her friend did a similar thing where they play versions of themselves - quite ghoulish versions of themselves. Emily plays an English actress in Hollywood named Em who is making a film there and she hires her best friend from childhood to be her personal assistant. It's all about how the relationship unravels and it's also how the hilarity comes from the relationship people have to their assistants. They call them their best friends but there's also that strange hierarchy and unwitting abuse that goes on. Throughout the story, there's an All About Eve role reversal that happens, where Dolly having been this seemingly oppressed friend and assistant ends up becoming so beloved on the film set that she starts getting these opportunities for stardom. Emily's career, meanwhile, starts to unravel because of her paranoia and insecurity. It's a film told in six episodes.

AKT: How did this structure come about?

AN: We got together with Azazel Jacobs, who directed all six episodes. I was to raise money for an independent film. That was the first idea. We decided to shoot 20 minutes of footage to use as a kind of teaser to entice investors. We shot over a weekend, totally improvised, 20 minutes. Aza cut it together and I couldn't believe how good it was when I saw it. On a whim we showed it to Sky [Television]. And they said, 'Not only do we want it, we want those 20minutes to be the first episode'. And it remains unchanged. We shot it for a thousand dollars, I think. We kept the format for the other episodes.

Doll & Em will have a two-episode premiere on HBO in the US, March 19, at 10pm. In the UK it is currently showing on Tuesday nights on Sky Living at 10pm, the sixth episode will air on March 25.

In part two of our conversation, Nivola discusses Bradley Cooper's ingenious role in the making of Atom Egoyan's Devil's Knot starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth and the casting of The Elephant Man leading to a Broadway production this fall.

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