I had the pleasure of speaking with Alessandro Nivola on the phone at length about his role as Joel in Jaron Alebertin’s emotional, atmospheric journey into familial trauma and the ravages of mental illness, Weightless. Joel is a troubled man living a simple small town existence who experiences a major emotional upheaval when faced with the responsibility of raising his estranged 10-year-old son.
Nivola has been a favorite of mine since his performance as English rock star Ian McKnight in Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, and I’m delighted to let you all know that he’s one of the warmest, funniest artists I’ve had the opportunity of speaking with so far in my role as film critic. We also discussed projects that are on the horizon for this wildly versatile character actor.
Your performance as Joel reminds me of a lot of guys that I’ve met…
Alessandro Nivola: Ex-boyfriends?
Yes. Yes. Absolutely. When I was writing all my questions down and processing the movie, I was like “Oh shit!” I actually saw an ex of mine the other day.
I take it you like to go out with suicidally depressed, anxiety-ridden fellas? That’s your thing?
Yeah, I wanna go out with people that are like me, so you know (lol).
You’re just a total narcissist!
“I have huge compassion for every character I play…”
Yeah, seriously though, the thing is that Joel is so simple but he’s also very complex, so how did you get into that space? I just don’t understand because you were so right on this character and talking to you now, you seem completely different…
Meaning I can put a sentence together? Yeah, I grew up in rural Vermont, and I just had somebody that I had known when I was a kid growing up in my mind and I was just imitating him. They have a very particular way of talking up there, and it’s just across Lake Champlain from the Adirondacks, which is kind of vaguely where this is set. We shot it, in fact, up at the base of the Adirondacks and there’s kind of a particular accent, speech pattern, and rhythm that people up there talk with. I also hadn’t really been where I’d grown up for a long time and I went back up there, and a lot of it came flooding back for me and all that was really the inspiration for it.
I know it’s kind of purposely vague but did you have any personal leanings or did you and Jaron (Albertin, director of Weightless) talk about what might be the specific (mental illness) diagnosis that Joel has?
In keeping with the movie and the style of the movie, our communication was very spare and Jaron is a really visually driven director. So I was taking my cues from him more from the rhythms of his visual storytelling more than anything and so we didn’t really discuss those things.
I, for myself, created personal things that I was feeling throughout the story as that character, but he’s just somebody who I think suffers from severe anxiety and has real trouble being around other people. He gets these–almost PTSD-like panic attacks that come over him at certain moments and they’re so painful that he wants to die…
…His clinical anxiety is barely manageable on his own, and the presence of other people is just untenable. He obviously had been on medication that he had given up for whatever reason, which is why he’s sort of an unreliable person to act as a caretaker for a child.
People keep reaching out to him, trying to engage him in some kind of a community and there’s obviously this feeling that he’s not a bad guy. He’s got a big heart and people can sense that. That’s why his coworker and Janeece and others really want to draw him in. I think he would like to as well. He doesn’t want to be as isolated as he is but he just…can’t.
Don’t you think that because of the setting of Weightless that people would probably think that Joel wasn’t “masculine enough” if he admitted he had these problems?
You have kids, so was it hard for you as a parent to play this part, because you know, Joel really isn’t the greatest dad on Earth or does it give you more empathy for him? How did that all tie together?
No, I just had huge compassion for the character. I have huge compassion for every character I play and if anything I have tended to gravitate towards roles that are as little like myself as possible. I often feel like I don’t really know how to describe myself if I had to, whereas I can describe characters I’ve played in great detail.
“You’re just a total narcissist!”
Well, I guess you picked the right job.
I definitely became an actor because I didn’t feel that comfortable in my own skin and when I was playing a character that was different than me, I felt protected and hidden and free. So that has been the driving force behind most of my performances, which is why I’m basically a character actor. I’m really interested in exploring as many types of people as I can and I have no trouble feeling compassion for even people who do horrible things.
That’s a really good skill, not just for your job but also just in life, I think because people can be very frustrating.
Yeah, and everyone is very, very flawed. The older you get the more aware you are and it becomes almost impossible to have any sense of moral superiority.
Tell us about what you’re working on now…I heard something about a film with Chris Evans?
I have a handful of things coming out. The thing I just finished is a 4-hour miniseries called Foreign Skies that was made for Channel 4 in the U.K. and is gonna be sold over here in the next month. It’s an adaptation of a play by Lucy Kirkwood that was called Chi-merica. It’s about a fictional photojournalist who took one of the iconic photos of the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and 20 years later gets obsessed with the notion that he’s still alive and starts in on this rabbit hole search to find him.
That’s the thing I just finished, and before that, I shot a movie that Bleecker Street is putting out in the Spring. It’s kind of a two-hander with me and Jesse Eisenberg, called The Art of Self Defense. It’s a very black comedy about a guy played by Jesse, who’s sort of a wimpy fella who gets the shit beaten out of him one night. He starts taking these karate classes with this sort of mysterious guru sensei that I play, who takes him under his wing and mentors him. He tries to teach him how to “man up” and turns out that he’s totally unhinged, so that’s fun, it’s directed by Riley Stern.
The thing I did with Chris Evans is an Argo-like political adventure-thriller true story about a group of Assad agents that had in 1980 built a fake hotel on the Sudanese coast. They try to use it as a front to make these forays into a refugee camp where they’re rescuing 30,000 black Ethiopian Jews who had been chased out of Ethiopia after Haile Selassie was ousted. So it’s this crazier-than-fiction story about these guys that were running this diving resort on the Sudanese coast for international tourists while at night ferreting these refugees onto boats (the film is called The Red Sea Diving Resort)
“…when I was playing a character that was different than me, I felt protected and hidden and free.”
And Disobedience is also out?
Yeah, Disobedience is out, it’s about to come out in the U.K. From my point of view it’s the movie I’m probably most proud of to date. It was a really important experience for me. My dad died, while I was filming it and it was a very profound shoot. I’ve had the best critical response for anything I’ve done for it. I’ve just been nominated for the British Independent Film Award. I love the director and both Rachel Weisz and McAdams, so it’s wonderful.
To tie up things, I’m gonna ask you a question that I try to ask everybody because I’m trying to be James Lipton..or something..I don’t know. What’s your favorite movie that you’re not in?
I guess it would be either On The Waterfront, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, maybe Brief Encounter.
And the follow-up to that is…Why?
Oh God, well, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that, I didn’t want to have to put it into words…well let me think. On the Waterfront was storywise was just the most perfectly crafter films in terms of presenting a moral conundrum. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was probably my favorite performance by an actor ever (by Jack Nicholson), and Brief Encounter was just one of the great forbidden love stories.
We continued to talk for a while longer, and I really do have to say that as of now, Alessandro Nivola has been my favorite person to interview and if you’re reading this, Sandro, I will gladly interview you again!