Alessandro Nivola graduates to 'Mansfield Park' and beyond
November 30, 1999
By Jamie Allen
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Alessandro Nivola arrives for his interview wearing a black leather jacket over a casual shirt, jeans, cool shoes. He looks like the prototypic actor: That is, he looks so typical that he could be molded into any character needed for any genre of film.
That's exactly what directors have been finding out about Nivola. This Boston native schooled at Exeter and Yale can play the annoying genius brother of Nicolas Cage's character in "Face/Off" (1997) and then turn around and become a dastardly English chap disguised as a lovelorn fool in the new screen adaptation of Jane Austen's 1814 novel "Mansfield Park."
The screenplay, currently in theaters, was written and directed by Patricia Rozema, with Frances O'Connor taking the Austen-esque role of Fanny Price. She's a young, intelligent female staying with "rich relations" and searching for herself while falling in love. Nivola plays Henry Crawford, and Jonny Lee Miller plays Edmund Bertram, Henry's passive romantic rival.
Between "Face/Off" and "Mansfield Park," Nivola has been busy. Now 27, he has filmed "Best Laid Plans" opposite Reese Witherspoon (released this past September), and "Love's Labour's Lost," a movie musical mixed with Shakespeare directed by Kenneth Branagh with Alicia Silverstone and Nathan Lane. It's set for a spring release. Nivola, in true chameleon form, plays a king.
In his spare time, Nivola starred this past summer in a staging of "As You Like It" at the Williamstown (Massachusetts) Theatre Festival. His co-star? Gwyneth Paltrow.
That subject, and Nivola's most recent film, "Mansfield Park," were up for discussion during his Q&A with CNN.
Q: Congratulations on your new film. You must be proud of it.
Nivola: I'm really proud of the movie. This is the first film I've done that I could show my parents without worrying too much that they were going to see me naked. (Laughs.) I guess they do briefly even in this one, but it's fairly modest.
Q: In the film, you play a guy we think is bad, then it looks like he might be good. But people don't change, do they?
Nivola: I think it's difficult to assess what sort of character he is and that was one of the attractions for me -- that I could play a philanderer and romantic all at once. I think it's one of the most human characters in the story actually, because both the Fanny Price character and the Edmund character are held up by Jane Austen as sort of ideals for society. But I think my character is the truest character.
Q: Austen liked her men to be close to perfect -- is it possible for modern man to satisfy her expectations?
Nivola: Probably not. (Laughs.) This is the dilemma always in these types of stories, in that you're choosing between the spice of one character and the loyalty of another, and with each you have to sacrifice other qualities. But certainly her moral standards are very high. I suppose it's inspiring and daunting, all at once.
Q: Austen's work is constantly mined by Hollywood. Why is it so popular?
Nivola: One reason is that there aren't many good scripts in Hollywood, so people are constantly looking back to these great novels because you have a built-in story that is tried and tested. Also I think the stories are universal. People are always going to be struggling to make decisions about who you want to spend your life with. That one person is going to give you a certain type of life, another person another type. And what are your priorities?
People are always going to identify with what it's like living in society and have people judge you in certain ways, and how you can be strong enough to be your own person and all those good things.
And lastly, I think every time one of these films is done, people are determined to do it in a new way. And this one, I think, is unlike the other films, in that the look of it is different. The house isn't as glossy and pristine. It feels a little more real, and in doing so it has a contemporary feel to it that some people might criticize, but I don't think it sacrifices the period.
We're still wearing those clothes and speaking in proper English and observing the manners of the time. But there's a feel to the scenes that's somehow contemporary or real, and is not glossed over by some sort of cinematic touch.
Q: What was it like wearing those bizarre 19th century get-ups? How did people actually wear that stuff?
Nivola: It was a period that was very flashy and I particularly benefited from it because my character is the rich guy. So he had the most costume changes in the story and I got to wear all the lushest clothes, and I had these sort of velvet jackets that were tailored for me and lots of fancy, sparkly pins and cravats.
It definitely informs the way you move and feel and think. It gives you a certain dashing quality that you don't really feel in your contemporary clothes, you know?
There's one piece of jewelry called the fob that hangs from your waist down the side of your leg and the costume designer (Andrea Galer) said, "It's meant to draw the eye."
Q: Frances O'Connor plays Fanny Price -- she does a great job.
Nivola: I had really been dying for her to do this job and I had seen her in a couple of other films. I remember I had some conversation with the director (Rozema) early on and I said, "Who are you thinking for the lead?" And she said, "We're not sure." And I said, "You ought to hire this girl Frances O'Connor." She said, "Oh my God, we're flying her in to read for your sister." I said, "No, you've got to read her for the lead."
So they flew her in she read for the lead and they offered it to her the next day. I was overjoyed. I think she's just a committed actress.
The other performances I'd seen her do were much more kind of untethered and wild, and that really appealed to me. I thought she was really exciting to watch. And in this, she was much more held-in and subtle, and she was really compelling in a completely different way.
Q: You just starred in Shakespeare's "As You Like It" with Gwyneth Paltrow. Intimidating?
Nivola: It was fantastic. We both had incredible pressure on us because neither of us had done a play in about five years. So we were clinging to each other opening night in the dressing room, begging not to have to go on.
On one hand it was summer theater and it was meant to be fun and light. But then because she was in it, (Steven) Spielberg was showing up and every night there was some celeb, so the pressure was on. But she has a great sense of humor and once we were up and running, everything was very relaxed and fun.
Q: What's next for you?
Nivola: I'm taking the rest of the year off ... then "Love's Labour's Lost" comes out in the spring.
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