Alessandro Nivola talks Disobedience, reuniting with Rachel Weisz, and The Art of Self-Defense.
As an entertainment journalist, I like to do as many interviews as possible even with actors or filmmakers whose work I have seen but careers I don’t know much about. While I have seen Alessandro Nivola in several different roles throughout the past two decades including American Hustle and Jurassic Park 3, I have never really taken much notice of his name. Truth be told, before this interview, Alessandro Nivola was an actor who if someone mentioned his name I would have responded with who? and then proceed to look him up on IMDB.
After seeing Nivola’s incredible performance in Sebastián Lelio‘s Disobedience, I won’t be asking who again. In fact, when you combine that terrific performance with this delightful thirty-minute conversation we had below, I can honestly say that this guy isn’t just an underrated talent but a man who understands the industry and put a lot of pride into his craft.
Scott Menzel: First of all, I know everyone has been talking about the girls, but I think your performance was freaking incredible.
Alessandro Nivola: Thank you. Wow. I’m flattered. Thank you.
Menzel: I just thought it was really heartfelt. It was a difficult performance. I’ve been in this situation like your character before where I was engaged to someone who turned out to be a lesbian.
Nivola: Wow. I had a girlfriend where that happened, as well. We weren’t engaged, so I can’t claim to have had the stakes as high as maybe it was for you, but yeah, very confusing.
Menzel: Very confusing. It’s like, “What’d I do? Did I do something?” What was it about the material? What was it about this role that really spoke to you?
Nivola: Well, I felt that what was surprising and wonderful about the script was that this character was presented as a really good person who really loved both of these women and was a very kind of open-minded person within the sort of constructs of that religious law that he had chosen to live his life by, and that he was just thrust into this impossible situation that was emotionally really challenging for him. As opposed to being somebody who was set up as a kind of straw man to be reviled by the audience so that they would encourage an extramarital affair between the two girls. He didn’t make that easy choice.
Instead, he presented a marriage that was a loving marriage, but just like was missing a vital element of sexual passion on her side, and that that’s such a kind of human and not unusual situation, regardless of whether it’s to do with a gay relationship or not, and how painful that is, and how difficult, and to have the strength of character to be able to accept that it might not be right, even though it’s the thing that he most wants is her, and children, and a family, so I just thought it was really like compassionate towards all the characters, and that they were all really appealing people. Then I also just was … I’m always really excited by the challenge of playing somebody that is from a culture that’s really different from my own, or that has behavioral things that are really different from me.
Menzel: Some of your family’s Jewish, right?
Nivola: On my dad’s side, my grandmother was a German Jew who left Frankfurt in the ’30s and moved to Milan to get away from Hitler, and then went to art school there and met my grandfather who was a Sardinian Catholic who had gotten a scholarship to go to this same art school in Milan, and they ended up getting married. They came to New York as refugees, but they were really kind of bohemian artists and not particularly religious at all, either of them
Menzel: That’s kind of how I fall. I’m like half Jewish, half Italian, and I just don’t really care about either one. I’m like I am what am I.
Nivola: Really? Yeah. Well, that’s like the same background as me. I mean, my grandmother was sort of spiritual, and I remember she used to pray before bed every night. She would say a little prayer over my bed. She would say, “God make my life a little light within the world to glow, a little light that burneth bright wherever I may go. Amen.” She would say that every night, but she wasn’t like … she didn’t really believe in God, or she didn’t believe in an afterlife. I mean, obviously, completely for her to have married a Catholic guy, and he had been the son of a stonemason. He had a sort of artistic talent as a young man, and he had apprenticed a church fresco painter in Italy, in Sardinia, and had been traveling around with a church fresco painter, and was painting all these churches, and the master painter would always be put up in the priest’s house, and he would have to sleep on the like cold floor in the winter in the church with like a blanket and was freezing cold. He would say … you said it. “Every night I pray to Jesus Christ to come and save me from this misery, and he would never come.” So like he gave up on … it was painting churches that made him lose his faith. Anyway, that was my religious background. But so, I certainly had a lot of research to do.
Menzel: Your character was invested in becoming a rabbi, but your character also grows. When you give that grand speech at the end, which bookends the movie because it opens with another speech. I just thought that was a really bold move.
Nivola: Yeah. What I felt was so interesting is this idea of a character who because he’s like Rachel Weisz’s biggest advocate at the beginning of the movie. He’s the one telling the community, “No, we have to embrace her. We have to welcome her back. She’s mourning her father, and this is the right thing to do. Not to treat her like an outsider, or to punish her for having left our community. She has every right to be here.” Of course, as she starts to become a greater and greater threat to his marriage, and to his love, and to his future, and to his standing in the community himself, and to his career, and all those things in a very personal way, his natural tendency towards being open-minded, liberal-minded person within that community is really challenged.
I love this idea of when it gets personal, it gets much harder to stand by those kinds of principles that you might have theoretically, and so he starts really having to grapple with rage, and anger, and panic, and fear of everything crumbling around him. His instinct in those moments is to blame it on Rachel Weisz as this kind of catalyst for a total upheaval of his life. Of course, in the end, he’s able to kind of master that, and really express his love for both of them despite everything, and I mean, that’s just like a great little story in and of itself.
Menzel: What was it like working with Rachel McAdams? Rachel Weisz was saying that she doesn’t have chemistry with people. They just either click or they don’t click, so do you feel that way too with both of them, or do you feel like there was something that you guys did to create that chemistry that you had?
Nivola: Well, they’re very different people. I’ve known Rachel Weisz for many, many years because we had done a movie together. We did a Michael Winterbottom movie together called I Want You like 20 years ago or something, and it was the movie that actually brought me to England for the first time. It sort of opened up a whole part of my career that was centered in England and in English movies that I hadn’t anticipated having, and has ended up being kind of half my career. Half the roles I’ve played, maybe, have been English characters, and it was all because of that movie, and so anyway.
So, she and I knew each other really well, and McAdams, I didn’t know at all. But Rachel McAdams and I both were faced with this daunting challenge of having to kind of be convincing as people from a very specific world, and that had very specific behavior, and ritualistic behaviors, and Hebrew language, and all kinds of things that were really … that we were starting at kind of ground zero with, and so that was bonding, because we were calling each other up even before we started filming, and going like, “Oh my god. How’s your Hebrew coming?” So, there was a feeling … and we were both American playing English people in the film, and so there was a … we had a real solidarity, I think, over that, and we would compare notes about what we’d learned from our separate research and everything. She was just totally committed like I was, so yeah, I really just adore her. I think she’s just such a lovely person, and so natural and easy to work with. There was never a moment of feeling like … I don’t know … that she was being tricky or difficult. It was just from the minute that we met just this sort of feeling of openness, and curiosity, and enthusiasm.
Rachel Weisz as I said, we’d known each other a long time. She’s obviously so intelligent and was so clever to have found this book and to have brought it to the other producers that she did, and to kind of … the whole germ of it was her idea, and I was really grateful to her for having brought me to be part of it again, since it had been such a long time since we worked together before.
Menzel: Rachel was telling me director Sebastián Lelio is empathetic and he really cares about the actors.
Nivola: He does. Yeah, he’s very, very easy to talk to, very sensitive to us, really welcoming of our ideas, and very collaborative that way, but also has a strong idea of what he wanted to do. I mean, that’s really what you want in a director, is somebody who’s confident enough to be collaborative, and be interested in inviting the ideas of all the people that he’s assembled around him, but then on the other hand, forceful personality, too, you know.
Menzel: How has your career varied? What have you noticed are the biggest differences going between TV, independent films, and studio films?
Nivola: I guess the biggest thing that’s happened in my career really started about six years ago where I made a decision to choose roles based purely on who the director was. Before that, I had pretty much only chosen my roles based on how the role was on the page. I ended up being sort of better than the movies I was in for a long time, and it really pissed me off.
So I, at a certain point, decided I just only wanted to work with people who I really believe we’re going to make a great … at least have the potential to make a great film, and making a great film is so nearly impossible, because there are just so many things that have to go right, but at least you have to have a director that’s got it within their arsenal to do something special. I started just taking the attitude like I don’t really care. I’ll play anything in a movie with a great director, and that was what started sort of like American Hustle, the David O. Russell thing. Neon Demon, and Ava DuVernay’s thing. Like these were little … I chose to play some little roles that they were still good parts, but they were little parts in movies that had big ambitions with great directors, and it really had a major impact both on just my own enjoyment and satisfaction of taking part in something that had potential to be relevant, and then also it’s had an impact on my career, as well.
I mean, I’m having now the best, the biggest opportunities that I’ve ever had. I’m convinced it’s the result of having worked with … chosen to work with directors that were doing something that was different, or unusual, or powerful. There was nothing average about any of these people that I started working with. So roles like this one have come out of that, and now it’s just the thing where I’m getting a chance to play something that’s really like a big, meaty role with a director like Sebastian who’s obviously just won an Oscar, and is special. So that’s been really good to me, I think.
Menzel: I mean you and Rachel have both done films that seemed to be more for the money, right?
Nivola: Well, it’s money, and it’s also the reason that actors do those movies is because the exposure is so big that it actually has an impact on the kinds of roles that you get the opportunity to play in more like highbrow artful things, because film finance is such that if an actor is in like The Avengers or whatever, it actually makes it more likely that you can finance a movie around that actor.
Menzel: Something like that can have the reverse effect. I feel like there has to be a balance. “Okay. Maybe I need to do like one or two studio things, but I need to do projects that are quality, otherwise, I’m just going to be out of work and people are going to hate me.
Nivola: Yeah. I mean, it’s like a combination of sort of careful career planning and then luck because you never know how certain things are going to turn out. Like there are movies that … you can make a movie and it can turn out to be sort of really cheesy or kind of cool, and it’s often a fine line, and it just depends on little things that you might not be able to predict when you sign on as an actor, so it can be tricky. Yeah, definitely like it’s an art all onto itself like trying to sustain a career over a long time and trying to figure out how to keep people guessing and keep doing things that are surprising and that are … but that a lot of people are going to see, because when you’re in things that nobody sees, that can be frustrating, too, and so there are very, very few movies that a lot of people see that are also really, really good you know. Like just a couple a year. You know what I mean?
Menzel: Let’s be honest, there’s like 15 to 20.
Nivola: Yeah. And everybody wants to be in those. Movies that stand out, and if they get nominated for awards and stuff, then they can get a pretty big audience, even if they’re sort of more on the kind of art-house scale, but yeah, it’s really like the sort of days where the studio movies had the same kind of artistic ambitions as like a movie like this or whatever are kind of gone. It’s not an easy thing to navigate, and you’re often dealing with … it’s not like you can just pick any movie you want. You’re dealing with well, these are the options that I have in front of me.
Menzel: And you can make the wrong picture.
Nivola: I have been willing to. I have gone through stretches where I’ve been willing to not work, and I’ve turned down work in order just because I didn’t think it was good enough, and I’ve had stretches we’re I’ve just gone like I’d rather not work at all than be doing this, and now my wife and I have a production company, and we’ve produced two seasons of a show at HBO, and we’ve got a film that we just produced that’s playing at Tribeca on Sunday called To Dust that stars Geza Rohrig from Son of Saul. And Matthew Broderick and we have a deal now, a studio deal, at eOne, and we’re developing a whole huge slate of things, and so that is kind of … the nice thing about that is that it’s taken away any kind of feelings of restlessness in between acting jobs, because I’m so busy all the time that I don’t have time to sort of sit around and contemplate that. It’s taken the pressure off of me to sort of want to do jobs that I might agree to do if I were just restless and bored, and wanting to be busy.
Menzel: You’re doing a movie with Riley Stearns who directed Faults which I loved. Can you talk a little bit about that because I’m super excited for it?
Nivola: Absolutely. Yeah. I’m really excited about it, too. I haven’t seen it, but I had a great time filming it. It was in the same year as this movie. I mean, I shot it at the end of last year. The story is Jesse Eisenberg plays this kind of wimpy guy who at the beginning of the movie gets the crap beaten out of him, like to an inch of his life, and he just gets so upset by it, and he is so sick of being kicked around, both emotionally and physically, that he decides to take matters into his own hands. He finds this Karate Dojo, and the sort of Sensei, the karate Sensei, who runs the Dojo which I play. I kind of take him under my wing to try and teach him how to man up. The movie is about the relationship between the two of us. I initially seem like this kind of dude who’s going to be the answer to all his prayers, and he’s going to teach him how to be a man and everything, but then slowly you start to realize that I’m just completely unhinged, and like a complete lunatic. It’s like a really wonderfully black comedy.
Menzel: Sounds about right for Riley.
Nivola: Yeah. It was a great script, and really, really funny, and really dark.
Menzel: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Nivola: Thank you, very nice talking with you.
Disobedience is now playing.