Feeling the character

Alessandro Nivola on The Art Of Self-Defense and The Red Sea Diving Resort

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alessandro Nivola stars with Jesse Eisenberg in Riley Stearns's ‪The Art Of Self-Defense‬ and Gideon Raff's The Red Sea Diving Resort with Chris Evans and Ben Kingsley
Alessandro Nivola stars with Jesse Eisenberg in Riley Stearns's ‪The Art Of Self-Defense‬ and Gideon Raff's The Red Sea Diving Resort with Chris Evans and Ben Kingsley Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Last year's Tribeca Film Festival Best Actor winner Alessandro Nivola (for his role in Liz W Garcia's One Percent More Humid, opposite Juno Temple, Julia Garner and Maggie Siff), comes back this year in a new position as a co-producer with Emily Mortimer, Ron Perlman, Josh Crook, and Scott Lochmus of Shawn Snyder's To Dust, starring the dynamic, excavating duo of Géza Röhrig and Matthew Broderick. You can also find Alessandro in another highlight at the festival, Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience where he stars with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.

2017 Tribeca Best Actor award winner ‪Alessandro Nivola‬: "Sometimes the creative process can feel more real than life itself."
2017 Tribeca Best Actor award winner ‪Alessandro Nivola‬: "Sometimes the creative process can feel more real than life itself." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Over breakfast before the start of the Tribeca Film Festival, Alessandro gave me some background on The Art of Self-Defense and The Red Sea Diving Resort. It has been a very busy past couple of years for the actor turned producer (Doll & Em).

Anne-Katrin Titze: Besides Disobedience and To Dust screening in the Tribeca Film Festival, you mentioned a third film coming up.

Alessandro Nivola: There's two other films coming up as well. One is called The Red Sea Diving Resort. It's me and Chris Evans and Ben Kingsley. Gideon Raff directed it, who is the Israeli director who did the original Homeland. I think it's called Prisoners Of War. And that is a true story, kind of Argo-like story, kind of crazier than fiction.

Set in the late 1970s, early 1980s after the ouster of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia there was a population of black Ethiopian Jews living there. Who were being persecuted by rebel groups and all the chaos after he was deposed. And they had all fled into Sudan into these refugee camps. There were thousands and thousands, 50,000 I think in these refugee camps just dying.

AKT: Another one of those stories that are almost forgotten unless a movie comes along and pushes it back into our consciousness.

AN: Yeah, exactly. And the Israelis sent a group of five Mossad agents down to Sudan to set up a fake hotel on the Sudanese coast, that they were going to run as a real hotel, as a kind of diving resort for international tourists. By day they ran this hotel, washed people's laundry, the whole thing.

Alessandro Nivola with Juno Temple in Liz W. Garcia's One Percent More Humid
Alessandro Nivola with Juno Temple in Liz W. Garcia's One Percent More Humid

And at night they were driving into these refugee camps and loading up trucks full of Ethiopian Jews and driving them to the coast and loading them onto Israeli Navy Seal boats and sending them back to Jerusalem. And they got 30,000 refugees out of Sudan in like over four years. It's all about that group.

AKT: Wow! I have never heard of this. And you are one of the group?

AN: I'm one of these five.

AKT: The other film is also done already?

AN: Done, yeah. It's a black comedy called The Art Of Self-Defense. It stars me and Jesse Eisenberg. It's about a kind of wimpy guy, … played by Jesse.

AKT: Nice pause.

AN: It would be far too much of a stretch for me to play that. He gets beaten up so badly that he nearly dies and is so fed up with being kicked around that he decides that he has to man up. And he finds that karate Sensei, guru-type who I play who runs a dojo. And he joins this class.

And I take him under my tutelage and take a real interest in him and try to teach him how to be a man. And slowly you start to discover that I'm just completely unhinged. Starting to try to kill people, it gets really dark. It's all about masculinity and sort of how to be a man in this day and age.

AKT: Do you ever just stop in your tracks, sit back and wonder what you are doing? Take only these stories you told me while having eggs. What a strange, strange job it is you have?

Alessandro Nivola in Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon
Alessandro Nivola in Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon

AN: Yeah.

AKT: You are playing these totally different characters who would never meet. Just imagine these men you played in one room together! The fashion designer with the scissors you played in Neon Demon, and this one, and maybe the professor you played in the film you won the Tribeca award for last year - what do they have in common?

AN: Well, that's always been my main excitement for me. To play characters that have had very different experiences from my own experience. And I get to learn about other people's lives and also escape my own.

AKT: There's the question of how much we can learn from other people's experiences. As an actor, does it happen that you are in a situation in your life and suddenly something that you played comes in? And you say, ah! I know how to deal with this, because I have done it in fiction. This is maybe a strange question.

AN: Yeah. I suppose it goes both ways. Obviously when you're playing these characters you are always looking to your own life to find things that feel relevant to the experience and what that character is going through. Of course there are these universal things.

Alessandro Nivola stars with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience
Alessandro Nivola stars with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

No matter what kind of experience or background you had. Behavioral things that we all are trying to share. You always think of things in your own life that you imagine made you feel the way the character might feel like.

AKT: That's why I'm asking about the other way around. It happens in the audience. I sometimes think, John Wayne did this, so why don't I.

AN: I think there is an element of that. Sometimes the creative process can feel more real than life itself. Which is not the easiest thing to grapple with.

World Premiere Special Screening of To Dust - Sunday, April 22, 6:00pm - SVA 01 Expected to attend: Géza Röhrig, director Shawn Snyder, producers Emily Mortimer, Alessandro Nivola, Ron Perlman, Josh Crook, Scott Lochmus, and cast members Sarah Jes Austell, Natalie E. Carter, Bern Cohen, Marceline Hagot, Leo Heller, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jill Marie Lawrence, Larry Owens, Isabelle Phillips, Aaron Raksin, Zalman Raksin, Janet Sarno, Joseph Siprut, Samuel Voit, Ziv Zaifman

US Premiere Spotlight Narrative of Disobedience - Tuesday, April 24, 8:00pm - BMCC Tribeca PAC - Expected to attend: Sebastián Lelio, Alessandro Nivola, producer and star Rachel Weisz, composer Matthew Herbert, producer Frida Torresblanco, To Dust producer Emily Mortimer.

Disobedience opens in the US on April 27 and in the UK on September 28.

The Art Of Self-Defense, The Red Sea Diving Resort and To Dust later this year.

The 17th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival presented by AT&T runs from April 18 through April 29.

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