By Nina Rehfeld
September 28, 2003 - 5:19 PM PDT
Laura Morante, the Italian actress who plays Yolanda, the ballet teacher in The Dancer Upstairs, has been a treasure of European cinema all but hidden to US audiences for over two decades. If she's known at all in the States, it's for her work with Nanni Moretti, who only recently broke through the transatlantic barrier with The Son's Room. She struggles with English almost as much as Javier Bardem, only with a lot more verve and speed.
Quite a story, quite a distinguished director...
Yes, I was very happy. But it's been a very long journey from when we first talked about the movie and when we did the movie, finally, three or four years later. In between, in the process, I've been out of the movie several times. At one point, John wrote to me and said, "I'm sorry, but I can't have you in the movie 'cause I need a Spanish-speaking actress, and so, we will work together some time," and you know, I answered, "Ok... I won't die." [laughs] "I'll be very unhappy, but I'll survive." Then finally, after all this, he called me, but, like, one year later. I couldn't have stayed that excited for four years. I would have died. Sure, I was very happy when he finally said, "You are in the movie." But then the movie stopped again. For another year! Production reasons. You know, in the beginning, the production wanted an American star. They wanted him to play a role and Malkovich didn't want to play any role in the movie. So this seemed to be a problem. These kinds of things. But finally, we did the movie together.
Malkovich doesn't talk much about what you're supposed to do. I think - but this is my feeling - that he considers that when he chooses his actors he already did, in a certain way, a kind of directing. He doesn't seem to choose his actors just because he thinks that they are talented and certainly not for the box office. He doesn't care at all about the box office, John. [laughs] He chooses persons. I think that what he felt was that just putting the camera there and filming the way these people were going to move and talk, that that would give the film what he needed. He created an atmosphere and let the actors get into and move in this atmosphere.
What's your take on your character?
I think that there is certainly some violence in this character but there is, at the same time, a big amount of fragility. She's a very fragile human being. You can see it at the beginning. You know, she's afraid of darkness like a baby, in a way. She has these two sides, which is not so rare. Many times, the kind of people who need this kind of blind faith are very fragile people. They can't live without faith. And faith can be very dangerous. It's certainly dangerous in this movie.
She chooses revolution instead of love?
Yes, because in a certain way, Rejas sees the truth: She is a victim of her own faith. She is perhaps responsible - we don't know in the movie - for some terrible acts. But she's also a victim of her faith because of her fragility. So, because he loves her, he has some understanding for her. We don't know what she really did. Did she kill people? We don't know, in the movie. You can see she's not a monster, she's someone who's blinded by her faith. You can do the worst things in life believing you are doing the right thing. I think that when they're talking in the bar - I never asked Malkovich, but I play it this way - and she asks him, "What do you do for a living?" And he says something which is ambiguous, and she looks at him and she wonders if he is or could be in the movement. This is my way of seeing it; I don't know about Malkovich, perhaps he would kill me. [laughs] But I had to find some support in this scene, so this is what I thought. But she can't know he's a policeman. To her, the police are just bad, bad people. But she loves him, likes him, she can't think that he is what he is, just as he can't believe that she's a terrorist until the end.
Why do you think she doesn't want to get involved with him?
Because she's in the revolution. Because she thinks: If she falls in love, some attachment, too much of a human feeling would take her away from her faith.
When you prepared for this role, did you have in the back of your mind recent Italian history? The Red Brigades, for example?
Not in a conscious way. Certainly, all the experience that you have or the things that you know or feel always help you in some ways. But I didn't really decide to use this for my acting. Also because my acting had to be very... you know, I couldn't reveal much of the character until the end. So I had to be mysterious, or it could have been too obvious. I had to stay in between. There's always a part of the character that's in the shade. Even when she closes the door upstairs... you barely notice the fact that she closes the door.
Is this your first English-language role?
No. It's the first time with an American director. Years and years ago, in an Italian movie that was never released in the States, so I don't know why we played in English, but we did, and then, in a movie for television for Germany. Several times. In a Portuguese movie, when I had an acting partner in English. And at that time, I didn't even understand what I was saying.
Javier Bardem said he was a little intimated by you on the set because you were so well-educated. He didn't know what to talk to you about.
Well-educated? I was just pretending. [laughs] I congratulate myself for being so good in pretending.
A few words about working with Moretti.
It's impossible to say a few words about working with Moretti. [laughs] Really. I'm not joking so much. I've known Nanni forever. We were very, very young when we first met and did our first movie together in 1980. So, it's a long story. I was a student; he was a professor and I was the student he fell in love with. And I was pregnant. Six months pregnant, so it was very hard to hide that. It's hard to talk about Nanni now without being conditioned by the legend. He's been a friend for so long. As everybody knows, he's very accurate. He can do the same take 25 times. Sometimes, he's right and sometimes he doesn't know himself why he does it. He says so.
He said to me, after La Stanza del Figlio, there was one scene we did I don't know how many times, and I said, "Nanni, I can't do any more. I don't know what to do." I was just opening a door. And he said, "No, again, it's not what I want. Again."
Then I was at the editing, and he said, "I don't know why I asked you to do this scene so many times. It was best the first time." So he's very maniacal, but sometimes, he's right. He was so concerned and so worried because of the theme of the movie. Which everybody was very respectful for. Certainly, you don't take a story like this to make your own performance as an actor. You just want to be very respectful. Which is also why it took so long. It took six months to do La Stanza del Figlio.
Do you have a favorite role in your career?
Sure, there are two or three roles I particularly loved. But not particularly my roles - I like the movies. You always choose the movie anyway, not the role. You can't love any role in a bad movie.
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A freelance journalist based in Berlin, Nina Rehfeld's reviews, interviews and articles have been published in several major German papers and magazines. For more info, see the Kulturbotschaft.
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