May 25, 2003|The decorations in the leather-lined bar of Denver's Panzano restaurant tend towards distressed dark wood and coloured glass; it's a new town's take on the old world and the perfect place to meet actress Valeria Golino. The daughter of an Italian scholar and a Greek painter, Ms. Golino is passionate about film as art, considers herself fortunate to have worked with so many strong auteur voices, and feels somewhat dissatisfied with her own contribution to the medium to this point.
Having overcome a crippling scoliosis that resulted in surgery at a young age, there is a sadness to Ms. Golino, as well as a self-effacing forthrightness--an unapologetic directness--that charms. Midway through our conversation, Ms. Golino startled me by turning the tables: "Let me ask you, do you want to be a filmmaker?" I answered in the negative, indicating that I was pleased to be a critic, and so we embarked on a lengthy exploration of the role of criticism in the longevity and importance of individual works--the importance of learning again to treat film as a serious medium for serious artists. Ms. Golino: "Film can be poetry. Good poetry or bad poetry, but poetry." Words after my own heart.
With a small green pot of mint tea brewing for me and a cup of coffee cooling at Ms. Golino's right hand, I was stricken by how petite she seemed in person, particularly after a whirlwind performance in Respiro that recalls fellow Italian beauty Gina Lollobrigida's earthy, expansive sexuality. It is Ms. Golino's best work since her turn in Sean Penn's The Indian Runner--the type of performance that calls for a reassessment of a career that, since her debut in Lina Wertmüller's 1983 Scherzo del destino in agguato dietro l'angolo come un brigante da strada, includes in upwards of forty-eight pictures. Despite the usual ups and downs that accompany a long résumé, what impresses upon an overview is the number of distinctive directors for whom Ms. Golino has acted. While Wertmüller seems serendipitous, her associations with Mike Figgis, (my personal hero) Bernard Rose, and John Carpenter seem governed by design.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How did you come to work with Lina Wertmüller?
VALERIO GOLINO: By chance, really by chance. I was having lunch at my uncle's house with a friend. She was calling him, searching for a girl for her movie, and as I was leaving for the airport my uncle says, "No, don't go to the airport, go to Lina's house." I was sixteen years old when I met her.
That first experience was a good one?
She's tough, she's a very tough director and she's tough in the literal sense of the word. She doesn't have patience, she's very demanding of her actors. If she doesn't like something that you do, she won't find soft words, she'll tell you that it sucks. It was really tough on me. You know, I think that for a first-time actor, it doesn't really serve a useful purpose for a director to be overly kind to you, the learning comes faster when there's adversity. I love her, but she was really tough. I did my first movie with her and because I was still modeling at the time, a beer commercial. (laughs) Non-alcoholic, I was a minor. We've tried really hard to work together ever since, every time she has a new movie it seems like I'm already involved in something else and vice versa, so that hasn't worked out yet.
After about ten films, you made your debut in the United States in 1988 with Big Top Pee-Wee and Rain Man.
It was pretty shocking, I'd only really done small, intellectual auteur movies at that point and suddenly I was on the Paramount studio on this giant lot. Huge crew, huge budget: a shock, but a pleasant one in a lot of ways. I was very young and here I'm in a movie with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Rain Man was a little different than Big Top Pee-Wee, it was more of what I was used to. If there was such a thing, it felt like a Hollywood auteur movie--it was an actor's movie and I was so pleased to be working with them. At the same time, I don't know if I used Rain Man as much as I should have. If I had known better how to use that moment, my career could have been more important.
What do you think, generally, about the state of film at this moment?
In America? So-so. There's still a lot of good directors in town, but as far as the big productions, it's so messed-up. I don't know, there's too much money involved and points of view get diluted in the process--you have one or two movies and they keep getting made again, and again, and again, and again. There are so many talented actors, and they're forced or they choose to be just these cutouts... I mean, who am I to talk, right, they make millions of dollars, millions of people love them--I don't know. When it's good though, like Mulholland Drive... Oh! I walked out of that film with my mouth wide open--I didn't know what I had seen, but I knew it was genius. It made me feel like I was on a drug, it's what movies are supposed to be: challenging and beautiful, and so scary, so unpredictable.
The Indian Runner is one of my favourite films from the nineties.
I love The Indian Runner. Working with Sean Penn was the best. The best. He is so charismatic, so passionate as a director, as an actor, as a human being. He's difficult at times, but he's smart. He's a perceptive, sensitive actor's director, being the amazing actor that he is has only helped his ability to work with performers. The experience was just great for me. We were in Omaha for a couple of months for the shoot with just the nicest people: Viggo Mortensen, Patricia Arquette--who's since become one of my best friends--and Charles Bronson who is just this icon, y'know. Dennis Hopper, David Morse--truly, that's one of my favourite experiences in America. As much as I love Sean, though, I still haven't seen The Pledge.
It's very strong.
Have you seen 11'09"01?
It's beautiful, beautiful. I saw Sean a couple of days ago and we didn't talk about working together again, but I was looking at him and thinking, I love to work with this man. I have so much respect for him and we're friends, of course, so I hope a project comes together somewhere down the road.
I adore Bernard Rose, you've worked with him twice now in Immortal Beloved and Ivansxtc.
I love Bernard. You would love him. I don't know if you'd like him or not in the beginning, he's so eccentric, but I think that you would love him. He's crazy. I think Immortal Beloved, a scene here and again, is visually on a level with Kubrick--like Barry Lyndon--not all of it, but for flashes it's there. Paperhouse is genius, Candyman, I didn't know what I was going to see and then, "Oh my God." Bernard, when you talk to him about his films or his ideas for a film--even for Anna Karenina, which was eventually taken away from him in post-production--you ask Bernard about his theory of film and he'll say, "This isn't a movie about a woman unfaithful to her husband, this is a movie about a woman unfaithful to God!" He's incredible. On Beethoven: "This is not a movie about a genius, it's about touching the face of God!" He's always looking for that taste of the sublime, he is a questioner. Immortal Beloved is an amazing way to capture something essential about an artist. Most biopics are just such a snore, but Bernard was able to find a pulse and a point of view.
You've also worked with Mike Figgis twice--he and Rose are pretty different directors.
Very different, very different. They have a different kind of approach to their work, to their actors. Their ethics are different, I think. Mike is much more... sexual. There's always a sexual feeling about everything that he does--whatever he's talking about, he's very... he's very carnal in his approach. He's a courageous director, he works with actors and against actors. I don't know how to explain that better. Let me give you an example. I worked with him on a movie called Hotel, a digital movie that's never been released here, maybe a screening at the Museum of Modern Art...
It was shot two years ago in Venice, twenty-five actors in a hotel and Mike the puppeteer. He gave us hell and, at the same time, we had a hell of a time. It's a very impressionistic movie--he's very close to actors, but actors at the same time are not necessarily, how do you say it, present in his mind as actors. You're part of the environment that he's creating--it's so interesting. If Mike were to call me up, or Bernard, or Peter Del Monte--they could each call me and say, "Look, I need you to read the phone book for me," and I'd say, "Okay," and get on a plane.
You said in a 1994 interview that you were getting bored with yourself. It's almost ten years and twenty-five films later--how would you assess your work?
Some... okay. Some, much less than okay. A person who makes courageous choices isn't necessarily a good actor. I try to choose films that are different with directors that I admire and screenplays that I love, but if I make some choices that are courageous, it doesn't suddenly make me a good actor. I read an interview with a colleague of mine, a beautiful woman--not a good actor in my opinion, but she's working a lot, and she was saying, "Well the fact that I make a drama then a comedy shows how versatile I am." And I say, "Baby, that doesn't mean anything." I mean, I do Hot Shots! and then a John Carpenter movie and then Frida--it doesn't make me versatile, it doesn't make my career valuable--it doesn't mean a thing unless I do something different in those films. It's the interiors that matter--everything else is lucky, or canny, but it doesn't make you good. I think I can be a good actor, and I think in Respiro I am good, I was right for that role, but sometimes... I don't know.
Respiro is, visually, just beautiful.
It's so beautiful, I know. I knew that the director [Emanuele Crialese] was gonna set the tone of the movie--like a cadence in a poem--and that what I needed to do was get in sympathy with that pulse and not interfere with it. My character is so elemental, and she's in her element among the rocks and the water. There's something hypnotic about the movie. It's such a simple storyline, but it has so many rich opportunities to attach meaning and metaphors. Those scenes feel so natural that a lot of people think that the picture wasn't scripted, but almost everything was--the script was so, it was so good, but I think that during the shooting, Emanuele didn't know what he was making, where he was going--he was working on his gut, you know, and he found the heart of the movie while he was editing.
You grew up in an artistic household, your mother a painter--does that influence your choice to work with so many distinctive visual directors?
That's one of the privileges, I choose when I can of course, but it's not always up to you. You have to be chosen, too, sometimes. Of course I'd love to work with the Coen Brothers, with David Lynch, Neil LaBute, Darren Aronofsky--but they have to want to work with you, they have to want this funny little Italian girl. My mother gave me a very joyful sense of life, my father gave me a very analytical perspective and I feel very lucky for that. I'm not an intellectual, you know, but it's so important to have that balance of temperatures: the mind and the body, and that's what my parents gave me is a grounding. The choices that I make in my work will of course be influenced by what my parents instilled in me--to what extent, I don't know, but I know that I have always been in love with what is pleasing to my eye as well as with artists who know themselves inside their craft.
What would you ask yourself at this point in your career?
I'd ask if I were satisfied.