Not outshone by his blinding-bright icon of a co-star, Alessandro Nivola’s diverting attention as Chanel’s smart, mustachioed, polo-player paramour in Coco Before Chanel. In person, and minus the mustache, Nivola’s just as charming, but happily married, unfortunately for fans. Easy-going and well-spoken, this Brooklyn resident opened up about his biggest role yet. More importantly, on faking his way through an English degree, on getting confused for Freddy Mercury, and finally, on how he prepares himself to play someone who’s very, very hungover.
In Coco Before Chanel you have a dark moustache and a mass of combed-back black hair, so it’s funny to see you today looking so different. It’s really funny. When I was in my costumes, the look kind of made some sort of sense, but I was living in the Marais in Paris while we were filming, which is a pretty gay neighborhood. I would come home in my own clothes–like my jeans and my leather jacket–and I had this slicked back black hair, and literally guys walking by were like, [sexily] “Allo Freddie Mehrcury….” [laughs]
“Je vous Adore!” ….. I heard you had to learn French to play the role of Arthur Capel? Wel,l I had high school French, and I have a good ear for languages. My Dad’s Italian, and I speak Italian decently, but once I arrived on the set, I wasn’t really prepared. I was sitting around, waiting to have lunch with the other actors, and I remember in the first few weeks of filming, people telling jokes, and I was laughing along, pretending I understood and then just praying they weren’t going to ask me, “So what did I just say?”
“Why was that joke funny?” Yeah, [laughs] but I knew going into it that I’d be able to do something completely unlike anything I’ve ever done, and I had no idea what to expect and that I would just hope for the best—but it was pretty shit scary.
Well, you know… France, Audrey Tautou…! [Laughs] Well yes, that was the thing, on the one hand I was having this incredibly glamorous life—I was living in Paris in this really cool flat near Place des Vosges, and I was hanging out at cafes and smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and red wine and going to this movie set that was in this incredible chateau west of Versailles that hadn’t been touched since the 17th century, and yet, just going onto the set everyday was like throwing myself in a freezing cold ocean and trying not to scream. I felt completely out of control.
So surreal… Although in your past roles, you’ve played fictional characters, and for Coco Before Chanel you were representing a historical figure. Well that was actually one of the nicest things about it I guess. Although Audrey had, I think, a lot of pressure on her because everyone knows a lot about Chanel and knows what she looked like, and there’s an allure surrounding her. For Audrey to step into those shoes, I think there’s a lot of expectation, but people don’t know that much about my character. No one’s going to go [in a pinched, nerdy voice] “wait a minute, he wasn’t like that!” [laughs]
You never know! I’m sure there’s someone saying that. [laughs] But on the other hand, there was some research material I could draw on to give me an idea of what he looked like and some descriptions about him, so I had a jumping off point to work with on that character, because there’s material about him. But it didn’t feel like I had to do an impersonation of someone that had been on TV, or something that everyone was familiar with.
So beyond Coco Before Chanel, I read that you were playing Luther Nichols, the San Francisco Chronicle Book Editor and the main defense in the Ginsberg obscenity trials, in the upcoming biopic Howl, but I also read that Paul Rudd was to play this role. What’s going on? Well, there’s a series of cameos for the witnesses, me, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, and Treat Williams, and some others; we worked a couple of days on it. The film is in three parts. There is the re-creation of Ginsberg’s early life, which James Franco does. He does Ginsberg as a young man, which I’m sure Ginsberg would be endlessly flattered. Although, Ginsberg was not nearly as attractive as James Franco. [Laughs] And then there are these semi-pornographic psychedellic cartoons, animations that play over in sections with Ginsberg’s voice is reading the poem, and then there’s the trial, which has Bob Balaban as judge and Jon Hamm as Defense Attorney and David Strathairn as defense attorney, and then there were like five of us who came in to do these witnesses. It was just a fun couple of days.
My next big role is the movie I’m doing now, a movie called Janie Jones. It’s the story of a rock singer in a band that was at one point quite popular and now is a little bit on the wane. He’s sort of a mess, an alcoholic, a little bit out of control, and one night before one of his concerts, a woman shows up and tells him that they have a twelve-year-old daughter together, and she leaves the kid at the concert, and the movie becomes a road movie with me and her where I have to take her on this tour, and it’s this strange thing where I’m this narcissistic self-involved person having to grapple with the responsibility of looking after this kid, who turns out to be this extraordinary girl, played by Abigail Breslin. I’m in the middle of that now. I’m going to finish that in a few weeks. That’s why I have all these fake tatoos all over me [points to a large, Celtic looking- circle on his arm that had initially had this reporter fooled]. I had a big one on my neck here, which I managed to rub off before my TV interview this morning! We’re filming in Demoines, I flew in today, and I’m leaving at five in the morning tomorrow to go back to the set, but luckily I’m always hungover in the movie so….[laughs].
I was just going to say, it must be a challenge for hair and makeup to make you look like you’re ‘over the hill’ in this movie, I was wondering if you were going to have to go out and stay up really late to try to make yourself look extra haggard. Yeah, [sarcastically] rock and roll is a young man’s game, and after 25, you’re over!
So… you have a very creative background. I have an expat background and a schizophrenic parentage; my mom is a wasp, which is why I’m fair, and my dad is from Sardinia—he has dark features. His father was a sculptor, Costantino Nivola, who came over here in the late 1940s and was part of the abstract expressionist group of painters and sculptors that moved out to the Springs. Those were some amazing times, the 1950s and 60s out there just sound like where it was at.
The Hamptons are a little different now! It must be great to have a creative background, and I’m sure your family encouraged you to pursue theater and acting. Well, actually, my dad was kind of the rebel of his family and became an intellectual.
Wait; that’s considered rebellious? I guess there are different levels of rebellion. He became a professor and now works at Brookings in D.C. His main plan for me was my education and that I go to good schools. As far as me being an actor, he wasn’t trying to thwart my progress, he was happy with me doing plays, as long as I got my degree, and I was at one point tempted to leave college when I started getting work professionally. I was so restless and anxious to get started and everything, but he wouldn’t let me. I’m glad he didn’t. But it wasn’t like ‘stage parents’ trying to send me to auditions for TV commercials all the time. At the same time, it wasn’t a shock to them to have someone in the family to take on sort of freelance creative work because they’d been around that, but it’s always hard I think for parents to have their children take on a job that isn’t steady.
Did you major in theater? No, I studied English.
Well, that’s practical. I bullshat my way through college anyways.
That’s what college is all about. I worked much harder in high school. Then, it was so much easier in college. There was so much pressure there. I was living in fear the whole time that I was going to get kicked out.
Was there a two-strike system? Yeah, and there was a student judiciary, and I think a third of my freshman class was kicked out by the time we were seniors.
“I saw the best minds of my generation…” What’s next. Five Dollars a Day, this movie I play with Chris Walken, where we play father and son, a road comedy. It was an amazing experience. I asked Chris ‘How do you get into a role?’ and he told me that he says all of his lines as if he were a German sub commander…. Unless, of course, he’s playing a German sub commander.
I feel like that little bit of knowledge right there, I should be paying you for that. And then, another one called Turning Green. It’s a little Irish movie I did with Colm Meaney and Timothy Hutton. I think that comes out in the end of October. Howl is playing at the New York Film Festival.
You live in Brooklyn [Boerum Hill]. What do you like best about it? Can you give us a couple of great places to eat and drink in the neighborhood? Brooklyn is I guess the only bohemian part of New York left. Really, where you live [Bushwick] is where the more cool cats live. I live in a more bougie part, but it doesn’t have any pretensions, it’s a real mix of people of all backgrounds. It’s kind of like, “be who you are.” It’s not particularly trendy, but it doesn’t have that Manhattan vibe either. I like it for that reason. The places in my neighborhood that I like, there’s this restaurant called Building on Bond. It’s really cool you can go in the middle of the day, it doubles as a cafe and then at night it turns into a restaurant and bar. It’s got great food and its really cheap. Then, there’s this Irish pub down Smith Street called Ceol that feels like you’re in Dublin. They’ve got sorta bad pub food—and every kind of Guinness—hot, cold, in-between. I like to go in the middle of the day when there are just a few people in there and it’s really dark; it feels like being in Ireland. Then, let’s see. Frankie’s, but the one in Carroll Gardens, it’s well discovered there….There are so many other great places.
Trader Joes. That’s what weaned us off Fresh Direct…Well actually my younger brother [artist Adrian Nivola] recently took me to a bunch of places in Bushwick that were incredible. I can’t remember the name. There’s a brick pizza oven there.
Roberta’s? Yeah, that must be it. It reminds me Echo Park when I used to live out there years ago. It’s a really exciting place to be.