From Doll & Em to The Elephant Man

Alessandro Nivola introduces the series he produced and talks about his current screen and stage projects.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells in Doll & Em
Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells in Doll & Em Photo: Mischa Richter/Sky Living
In part one of our conversation Alessandro Nivola discussed his role in JC Chandor's upcoming A Most Violent Year and his collaboration with Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells on Doll & Em. Here, Nivola exposes Bradley Cooper's ingenious role in the making of Atom Egoyan's Devil's Knot, which stars Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, and the casting of The Elephant Man leading to a Broadway production this autumn with Patricia Clarkson.

On Monday evening the US premiere of Doll & Em took place at the Museum of Modern Art with the creators in attendance. Susan Sarandon, Chloë Sevigny, Andy Garcia and John Cusack have guest appearances on the show about friendship that also pointedly lays open in engaging parcels the dynamics of Hollywood parties, how to hold hands with a casting agent, how to gracefully sport a red turban or a 90-year-old chin and why Shakespeare's TheTempest looks best on a boat.

Nivola introduced the screening at the Celeste Bartos Theater: "We're going to screen all six episodes of our show, but don't panic because in its entirety it's still over an hour shorter than any Martin Scorsese film. It is really a film in six parts all of which were co-written and directed by the wonderful filmmaker Azazel Jacobs. He brought a continuity to its style and subtle reality to its tone that lends depth to this funny and awkward story.

Alessandro Nivola, Azazel Jacobs, Emily Mortimer, Dolly Wells and Jonathan Cake
Alessandro Nivola, Azazel Jacobs, Emily Mortimer, Dolly Wells and Jonathan Cake Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
"My wife Emily and her best friend Dolly have a language all of their own and occasionally their shorthand drives me insane. It's never been put to use better than to create this show. It's a testament to their friendship that they're closer than ever after two years of making Doll & Em. I've never produced anything prior to this and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It's a family endeavour - we made the show exclusively with friends and relatives. Dolly's husband Mischa was both our still photographer and also played Em's husband. Aza's wife is the costume designer, Toby, our DP's wife was the set designer, my brother-in-law recorded songs for us and all our kids are in it."

After the premiere, Doll & Em director Azazel Jacobs told me about some of his inspiration after I told him that Nivola had mentioned Michael Winterbottom's The Trip as a trigger for them.

Azazel Jacobs: That makes sense. When they came to me, I had just seen Joseph Losey's The Servant [1963, screenplay by Harold Pinter] and they had recently seen it and I was so excited I was thinking about it a lot. It had a very big impact on me so when they brought this idea of [Emily hiring Dolly as her personal assistant] it played in really well with something that was already on my mind.

Last week, I asked the freshly minted producer about his acting on stage and screen.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Do you have a different way to approach characters you play on screen or on stage in general? Or is it all dependent on the part? You will be doing Elephant Man with Bradley Cooper on Broadway this fall.

Alessandro Nivola: The main difference is that the process is just so different. With a play, you have so much more time to rehearse. With a film you try to capture almost an accidental moment of spontaneity. In a play you try to return to that spontaneity after a relentless period of repetition. That repetition pushes you through and brings you full circle back to where you started now informed...

AKT: Through that repetition, the creation of character is never over. And you probably don't want it to be over because in the moment of finding it, it would be dead.

AN: In a play with a long run, you tend to go through two-week cycles of extreme boredom and exhaustion and bursts of new-found inspiration. Something will happen one night on stage. It could be the tiniest thing. You suddenly heard a line that you hadn't really heard before and it takes on a new meaning for you. It could be your own line or somebody else's or a physical thing. It suddenly gives you a completely new awareness of it and you suddenly feel alive again. Then you keep repeating that, exploring that and eventually you get disgusted with yourself for trying to recreate something that is no longer a new discovery. Two weeks in you feel that there is nothing alive at all about the experience of performing the play. And around that time, almost invariably, you hear another line and the process starts again.

AKT: You worked with Bradley Cooper in American Hustle.

AN: We're excited about it. We did the play together already up at Williamstown theater two years ago. It was miraculous that I was even able to do it. I was filming this movie Devil's Knot with Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth. I really wanted to do both. First we were wondering if I could fly back and forth between Atlanta where we were shooting the movie and Williamstown up in Western Massachusetts for the rehearsals. There was one day of filming I had on Devil's Knot that was a real sticking point, that would make it impossible for me to rehearse the play. We had all but given up.

AKT: Devil's Knot is coming out in cinemas in the US early May, correct (it is released in the UK on June 13)? Please continue with the story.

Director Azazel Jacobs on Doll & Em: "When they came to me, I had just seen Joseph Losey's The Servant"
Director Azazel Jacobs on Doll & Em: "When they came to me, I had just seen Joseph Losey's The Servant" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AN: Yes, around that time. So I got a call from the agents, saying we tried everything. The calendar was shifted around, but there's no way this is going to work. And I thought, what a shame. An hour later, my phone rings and it's Bradley and he's like, "Hey pal, do you want to do this play?" And I said, "Yeah, I've tried everything. I'd be willing to fly up three times to rehearse." And he said, "Hang on a minute". We hung up, I didn't know what he was doing and an hour later I get a call again from him saying, "I worked it out. We're all good. There's this court room scene you're in but you don't have any lines. The producers agreed to re-write the scene so that you leave before the scene starts and that will open up that week and you can fly up for rehearsals".

AKT: Bradley "God" Cooper?

AN: Sure enough, if you watch the movie there's the scene where I come up to Reese and say something like, "I'll be right back".

AKT: Who are you playing in The Elephant Man?

AN: I play the Anthony Hopkins character. His name is Dr Frederick Treves. The play is quite different from the film. Treves rescues the Elephant Man from this circus freak show and he sets him up in a room in his hospital. The doctor is his saviour and they have a real affection for each other but at the same time the doctor gets obsessed by the idea of civilising him, almost like he is a savage and trying to instill in him that kind of English Victorian morality which really is a metaphor for the folly of the British Empire at its height. He tries to grind out of him some of the romantic and poetic longings. When eventually the Elephant Man dies, the doctor is so confused and guilt-ridden for having done this that he has a nervous breakdown. A crisis of confidence in his whole world view.

AKT: While you were talking, I saw in my mind the face of François Truffaut in L'enfant savage (1970), the Kaspar Hauser story in which he plays the doctor.

AN: That's a good analogy.

AKT: The circus freak story is the other side. Did you see Abdellatif Kechiche's Vénus noire (2010) about what was known as the "Hottentot Venus"?

AN: No, sounds interesting. David Lynch's movie was really beautiful, too. It really goes much further in the play.

AKT: The topic of colonialism is still relevant. I just saw a press screening in the New Directors/New Films programme of a very strong film called We Come As Friends by Hubert Sauper about Sudan and the new old colonialism going on there.

Alessandro Nivola on Doll & Em: "It's a family endeavor - we made the show exclusively with friends and relatives."
Alessandro Nivola on Doll & Em: "It's a family endeavor - we made the show exclusively with friends and relatives." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AN: The play is definitely still relevant and the story works, of course, just on a purely emotional level, someone who is enduring that kind of suffering because of their physicality.

AKT: There is a really interesting discrepancy between the story you just told me of Bradley Cooper pulling strings and then he is the one playing the Elephant Man.

AN: This is a real passion project for him. He has done it as his thesis project in drama school. He wanted to do it for a long time. There's the obvious irony that this incredibly handsome man is playing somebody with a terrible deformity.

AKT: It's all about veneer, as you were saying about the character you play in A Most Violent Year. Some people who seem to be confidence personified are really just hiding that inside it's the Elephant Man.

AN: I am very indebted to him for refusing to give up when it looked impossible at the very beginning.

The Elephant Man will open on Broadway this autumn with Bradley Cooper as John Merrick, Patricia Clarkson as Mrs Kendal, and Alessandro Nivola as Dr Fredrik Treves, directed by Scott Ellis.

More on my conversation with Doll & Em director Azazel Jacobs coming up.

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.

Read what Nivola had to say about shooting A Most Violent Year, here

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