S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.
S2: I started just obsessively learning my lines so that, you know, when it came time to shoot, I just I just knew them so well that I was never reaching for the word or whatever. I just was totally like that was just gone as part of my consciousness. I was just, you know, I could just see what came out.
S1: Welcome back to working, I’m your host, Joon Thomas,
S3: and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler,
S1: and whose voice did we hear at the top of the show?
S3: June we just heard the voice of veteran actor Alessandra Nivola.
S1: What might we know him from?
S3: Well, Alessandro has been in truly a ton of work. If you go and visit his IMDb page, I mean, one of his early films, even his first film was playing Nicholas Cage’s brother in the John Woo film Face Off, which he emotionally mortally utters the line by Bro. I approve.
S2: Drop me a line, some poem.
S3: He’s the rock star boyfriend in Laurel Canyon. He was in Jurassic Park three. He’s been in American Hustle. He was in Selma. I mean, he is in many things. He’s good in all of them, but he is currently starring in The Many Saints of Newark.
S1: Now I know that Alessandro plays a character called Dickie Moltisanti in that movie, which I think it’s accurate to call The Sopranos prequel. What do listeners need to know about Dickie?
S3: Yeah, the film is definitely a prequel, kind of to the The Sopranos. It tells a story that is independent of The Sopranos, but also kind of sets up the young Tony Soprano and how he kind of entered the world of crime. And the way he did that is through his mentor, who is Dickie Moltisanti. So Dickie Moltisanti is a character who never appeared on the television show of The Sopranos, but is the father of Christopher Moltisanti. Michael Imperioli is a character. And and like I said, he’s a mentor to the young young sopranos. So we get to kind of learn about what this mythic figure who casts a very long shadow over the show. You get to learn kind of who he actually was while also getting glimpses of characters like the Savio Dante and Uncle Junior and Carmela and Tony’s mom and Tony as well in their youth.
S1: I am really excited to hear this interview, but first, I believe that you have an extra segment for Slate Plus members. What will they hear?
S3: Yes, we’ll be talking a little bit a shop about the actor’s craft and very specifically about emotion and strong emotion. And how do you enter a take at the height of rage or grief or distress? What do you need to do to be able to get there as part of your job?
S1: That sounds fascinating, and fortunately, it’s incredibly easy to subscribe to Slate Plus. In fact, I have a special announcement today. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Slate, and for a limited time only, we’re offering our annual Slate Plus membership at $25 off. As a member, you’ll get no ads on any of our podcasts and limited reading on the slate site, a member, exclusive episodes and segments from us and other shows like The Gabfest and Amicus. For the last quarter Century Slate podcast have been covering all the major news events, from elections to social issues to historic court decisions, and our culture shows have debated whether things are sexist. They usually are named the best summer songs and explained the latest Tik Tok trends if we’ve become part of your listening routine. We ask that you support our work by joining Slate. Plus, you can sign up for Slate Plus at Slate.com Slash Working Plus to keep us going for another 25 years. Again, we’re giving you $25 of an annual membership through October 31st. So sign up now at Slate.com. Slush working plus. OK. Let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Alessandro Nivola.
S3: Alessandro, thank you so much for joining us this week. I’m working to talk about your process.
S2: Hey, thanks for having me.
S3: So let’s start at the very beginning. When did you first become really interested in being an actor and pursuing this life?
S2: Third grade, I think I was Peter Pan. There must be so many people who were Peter Pan and decided they wanted to be actors. I was among, however, many of those guys there were, and I asked my mom if she could put me in summer acting classes and things like that. And so she started putting me over the summers in in like little drama school type things. And from that point, it was kind of a pretty old fashioned way in all, based in the theater, I had started doing summer internships and stuff at summer theaters. And then there was this one place called the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center up in Waterford, Connecticut, which was a place that developed new plays and all of August Wilson’s plays and John Guerra’s plays and John Patrick Shanley’s plays Lanford Wilson’s plays. They all were workshopped up there, and it was this beautiful spot. It was up where Eugene O’Neill had lived, and they, you know, back in the day used to get unbelievable actors to come there and do these staged readings. And there would be in any given the summer like Meryl Streep or Sam Jackson. And well, I had been working there as a as an intern doing the punching meal tickets and I don’t know various odd jobs around the place. And then one summer I was there for four or five summers in a row in the final summer. I think I was 16, maybe. And they they asked me to do. There was a part of a teenager in one of the plays and it was a very cool thing where you would you would have this script and they would stage the play, but with kind of like modular furniture. So it wasn’t, you know, big production values. The whole focus was just on the play to try and improve the play. And so all the actors were there and the director and everybody sort of working to make this thing happen was there just to serve the playwright. And they would do then four productions of it. And they were and they were beautifully acted. I mean, there were these great actors there really performing the things, but you would hold the script in your hand, but you kind of knew it because you’d rehearsed for two weeks before and and then every day the morning after the night performance where they would bring audiences and everything they would have like a thing where they would bring everybody in the company, including little interns like me, who had just been sweep sweeping floors and stuff to sit around and give their opinions to the playwright and offer what they thought was advice to the playwright about changes to make and the playwright with their would sit and take it from everybody and take notes and then go and do rewrites that night. And then he could incorporate it into the script for the next day. And then so the actors would get new pages every day and just pop them into the script and then rehearse them for a little bit. And. And that was my first professional job, and from there I went on. I went to Yale and I got an agent and was doing kind of audition and driving into the city from from Yale on on days off and doing auditions. And I started getting cast in regional theater stuff around the country, which kind of culminated in my first lead role in anything was an Athol Fugard play. He’s a brilliant South African writer. And it was called Master Harold and the boys. It was it was in Seattle and and it was just one of the kind of most thrilling experiences of my life. And then finally, I graduated, came into New York, and I hadn’t done anything in New York at all. And my first job there was playing opposite Helen Mirren in a Turgenev play called a month in the country.
S3: Right, you were Ballia, right?
S2: Exactly. Yeah, that was that was my first big thing.
S3: You know, it’s wild to me. You have this in-depth background in theater going back to when you’re a kid, you know, and then one of your your very early films is a huge action blockbuster. Very heightened in style. Talking about face off, of course, directed by John Woo. Or you’re playing opposite Travolta and Nicolas Cage. I mean, was that like, did that totally throw you for a loop? Was it really overwhelming to be on a film set, you know, under those circumstances at the time?
S2: Well, the thing is that I didn’t really have any film and. And I didn’t grow up being a cinephile or anything like that, I all of my heroes were theater actors, and I kind of just, I don’t know, being on Broadway was sort of my big fantasy. But once I was there, the time when I was first doing that play with Helen Mirren and there were all these other young actors who were making their Broadway debuts at the same time, most of whom you’ve heard of now. Billy Crudup, Damian Lewis, Jude Law, Rafe Fines was already established, but he was playing Hamlet at the same time and we were all hanging out together and we would do our plays and then meet up at this restaurant in Times Square called Café and Trois. And it was like a kind of, I don’t know. It’s like the closest thing I’ve had to some old fashioned like salon or whatever. Like you imagine Paris in the 30s or whatever, like we would all get together and kind of start getting drunk there and just like, talk about our shows and all the people we were working with and what was going on and in town. And and then, you know, Jude and I in particular were really spending a lot of time together just, you know, it was probably three or four months that we were doing those plays and we were just hanging out a lot. And suddenly I started noticing these like he was at CAA at the time, and he had these scripts that CAA scripts were had these red covers. And so they were very identifiable. And I started noticing these like piles of red covered film scripts that were like piled up on his tables, like all in like piles all around. And I was like, Jesus Christ, like, what’s going on? There’s like hundreds of scripts here, and I had never been sent the fucking film’s script, you know? Right. And you know, he was just clearly like he was a star before he was a star. Like, he just, you know, he was if you would walk down the street with him, like people would be like, Who’s that? You know what I mean? Like. Yeah. And sure enough, like his play clothes in off, he went to Hollywood and just started like banging out these movies. And I just thought like, Oh, I guess that’s what I’m supposed to be doing, like everybody else is doing it. And why? Why don’t I have these movie scripts piling up on my desk? And so I, you know, I started sort of trying to make that happen and face off wasn’t until really a year after that play closed, the casting director, Mindy Maron, had seen the play. And so she was kind of, you know, interested in bringing me in for things and stuff. But it wasn’t until like a year later, I think that I met John Woo. And I didn’t do another play for nine years from getting face off. So it was just like overnight, everything just completely shifted. I went out to L.A. to shoot that. It was a really long five months shoot and I got evicted from my apartment in New York while I was there. And I, I just got this little apartment in West Hollywood and my whole like life and career shifted to to Hollywood in the movies.
S3: I mean, you know, theater, obviously, you know, theater and film are very different, although it’s still acting. But you know, theater, you’re repeating the role night after night, creating the illusion of spontaneity film. You’re often shooting out of order. It’s about like being really present in that moment. It’s going to be edited together later. Do those feel like different processes to you or does it all feel like one job?
S2: The processes are different, but you’re kind of trying to get to the same thing, which is just spontaneity and surprise and being like relaxed enough for something unexpected to happen. And you know, on that note, you know, probably the biggest text that had an influence on me was this sports psychology book called The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Galway. Oh yeah, are you a tennis guy? I’m a huge, huge tennis fan. I’m a I’m a
S3: huge tennis nerd as well. Are you really? I think about tennis is like a metaphor for the creative process all the time.
S2: This book, you know, is all about concentration and focus and relaxation. And and I remember being assigned to me in some acting class when I was a kid, but that is kind of what it’s all about. And how do you get yourself to that state? What can you do in your preparation that can get you to the point where you feel so sort of comfortable in your own skin as this other character that you? Don’t have to really think anymore. And you can just react and be alive in in the moment and, you know, I’d say more and more. I. Treats my preparation for movies like my preparation for plays. I used to worry that learning just learning my lines, for example, really, really well for a film was a dangerous business because I was worried that I would start to get into like a rote rhythm of a way of saying things and that I wouldn’t be able to get out of it because I’d said it so many times in my head or out loud that it would just be kind of stuck in that rhythm. And then I wouldn’t it wouldn’t be kind of coming out of what was happening in the scene. It would just be like a muscle memory that I had developed, and I didn’t want that. And so I kind of just didn’t ever really learn my lines heavily. I would sort of know them and be in the makeup trailer kind of looking over them and playing around with them. But just before we would do the scene I had, I would always prepare in other ways, just in terms of character and background of the character and behavior and vocal things. But like in terms of the actual dialogue I try, I kind of I was I treated it like a bad smell, almost. And, you know, a bunch of years ago, I’ve worked with Robert De Niro three times now, and the thing I notice the most about the way he worked was that he knew his lines backwards and forwards months before we started shooting. And if anything, the thing that pissed him off the most was if they changed like the day before and he of everybody I’ve ever worked with is probably like the loosest freest actor in. In the sense that if I said something very differently or did something differently or was, you know, angry on the line instead of sad or whatever, it would completely change the way that he was in the scene. And there are a lot of actors where you could do it a million different ways, and they’ll just give you the same line reading or whatever. And and he. And so I was thinking, My God, what? He’s learned his lines and it didn’t. It didn’t have that, that dreaded effect. And so I just started doing that and I started just obsessively learning my lines so that when I, you know, when it came time to shoot, I just I just knew them so well that I was never, you know, reaching for the word or whatever. I just was totally like, that was just gone as part of my consciousness. I was just, you know, I could just live and and see what came out. And I definitely to this day, like, do that as much as they can. And a lot of it depends on how much time you have. You know this many Saints of Newark and disobedience movie I did a couple of years ago. I was cast like six months before shooting, and so I had so much time to prepare. So by the time we we got to filming the movie, I just knew the thing so backwards and forwards that I could have just rattled off the whole script to you. Like a play, you know, I could even do it like speed talking or whatever. And and not miss a word. And and in this case, David Chase is very particular about his language and stuff. So he there’s no improvisation in his movies or his, you know, scripts. And so I just I just really knew it. And so, you know, I’ve I’ve never really felt freer, I don’t think, than than when we were shooting this movie.
S1: We’ll be back with more of ICIS conversation with Alessandro Nivola. One of the things we’d love to do with the show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a question about preparation, setting the mood so you can do your best work. Anything at all? Send them to us at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at three or four nine three three w o r k. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. All right. Let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Alessandro Nivola.
S3: Another thing that’s really fascinating about your performance as as Dickie Moltisanti is the physicality that you kind of adopt for the film because, you know, I’ve seen you in several films and and, you know, Dickie moves differently than your other characters. To some extent, he seems sort of weighted down, and he’s also containing this kind of coil of anger that we see come out a few times. And did you, you know, how did you develop the physicality for that role?
S2: You know, I I met a lot of people who are sort of on the fringes of this kind of, you know, fraudulent world.
S3: We’ll take a stroll down to Carroll Gardens
S2: and Carroll Gardens used to be know really the hub of it all. It’s kind of it’s kind of transformed now. You got to go further into the outer boroughs. But but I yeah, I met a lot of people. I just, you know, observed a lot of people. I watched a lot of movies and and so I had sort of I started to kind of have certain people in mind in, you know, who I’d met. But then I also just like from everybody, everybody I’d spoken to from that, who knew about that time and place, just like so many of these guys had been like amateur boxers when they were younger and. And so I started I worked with the trainer for the time that I was in the months before filming, and I wanted to just I mainly initially I just said to the guy, Look, I don’t want to be like some big, bulky, you know, you know, guys in the 60s, like, didn’t. It’s not like this sopranos of the of the 90s or whatever, where everybody’s just like insanely fat and, you know, just jamming processed meat down their throats and just kind of like hefty like that, you know, people just were perfectly the food was made differently and there just wasn’t that same kind of like look to the to the 60s and. But I did. So I knew that I wanted to be more like wiry than that. But at the same time, I wanted to feel like I projected a physical power. And I don’t in my real life, to say the least. I’m a very unimposing, physical presence, and so I wanted to. I wanted to just get stronger, to feel stronger, to feel like if I hit you that it would hurt and like I just did, I could look like I could. I could do that to you. And so that I wouldn’t have to sort of play, you know, some kind of, you know, tough guy with my attitude, but instead, just like allow my body to to project that a little bit and then my attitude could be a lot more kind of charming.
S3: Yeah. I mean, it’s something that you mentioned the sort of different poses that the different physicality is because, you know, in the film, a lot of this film is about sort of Dickie divided self, right? That like who he is in a scene with actually somewhat radically impacts his behavior and attitude. I mean, in the in your scenes with your uncle. No spoilers, but in your scenes, with your uncle, you know you’re a very different person than in your scenes, with your mistress or with your your friends or whatever. Was that something you were like really carefully charting as you prepared for the role?
S2: Yeah. I mean, that was kind of the joy of the movie was that I got to play all these different characters really within within the one and the way he is with each different person is is so different and dynamically altered, you know, his uncle and is a kind of proxy for Dr. Melfi. And in The Sopranos, it’s his uncle is really his confessor, and he goes to him wanting to unburden himself and to tell him the truth. But all he does is lie over and over again and be honest with you on. I want to do a good deed. Huh. How what? A good deed. And so those scenes are his most vulnerable, really, apart from when he’s completely alone, like in the warehouse at the towards the end of the movie where, you know, he allows his emotion to get the better of him finally. Those are his most vulnerable moments, really are sort of just like aching longing to just say all of the horrible things that he’s done and how much he regrets it and how confused he is by it because it feels like a different person, this kind of. I mean, one of the great things about the role was that unlike most mob characters in movies, almost all the violence that he perpetrate in the movie is are crimes of passion. They, you know, they’re like they come erupting out of him and in a moment of rage, that’s, you know, and are usually directed towards people that he has a complicated relationship with, rather than kind of calculated mob hits. So there’s this he was beaten up as a kid. He was he was a child of abuse in. And he’s got this rage that he can’t control, that that comes in flashes and then disappears, just just recedes and evaporates and leaves him completely confused by how that happened, who that was and why he couldn’t control it, and why it’s left this kind of wreckage in its wake. Right?
S3: So when you’re preparing for that, are you like looking at the script and writing down? Are you someone who takes a lot of notes on sort of what the character’s doing? And are you writing a lengthy back story or are you that kind of actor or is it more that you intuitively find yourself in those moments or? Yeah.
S2: I mean, I definitely have like an intellectual side of the of the preparation as well as just kind of instinctive side. Yeah. You know, there’s there’s you know, on the one hand, like I did a lot of reading, I read, I read this book, it’s called Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese. Gay Talese was a great journalist and writer who was Italian-American. This was about the Bonanno crime family, and it’s about the crime boss and his relationship with his son, who then later took over from him and and, you know, his father son relationship is so important in the movie. So I was looking for movies about books, about fathers and sons that were in and around that world. There was another book by this famous mob killer’s son got the killer. His name was Roy de Mayo, and his son is called Al de Mayo. And I read that. I read, you know, I found some book. I’d read that a lot of the mob guys back in the day in the 60s, you know, had all read Machiavelli, the prince. And so I read that again and I read and then it kind of more like contemporary sort of pop psychology version of it, which is called like 48 lessons about power or something that was written by the guy who had also written a manual about like how to seduce women or something, right? And then I I think I just I watched Raging Bull just. Many times a week, like I just kept it, I had certain scenes that I had recorded on my iPhone that I was just watching over and over again all throughout the shoot, even sometimes like in between setups, I just go back to my trailer and I would watch certain scenes again. And then I really just saw so many parallels to the character in Dickie Moltisanti to to Jake LaMotta in the sense of like a guy who can’t control his own rage and his own violence and who is, you know, and it’s totally self-defeating and and is brought down by by that. And then and then finally is aware of the fact that he is the architect of his own destruction. And that and it was that awareness by the end of the of the of the story that is what’s sympathetic about them because I was thinking, like, Do you have to love this guy like Dickie? Dickie does these horrible things. And do you have to love him to appreciate the movie or for the for the tragedy of the story to work? And and I and I thought, Well, no, I don’t I don’t think you have to love him, but you have to feel for him. You have to you have to understand him.
S3: Is there a kind of project or role or maybe on stage a canonical part that you that you haven’t done that you really want to do is there is there as you look forward, is there a kind of project you really want to work on
S2: when people ask me, like, what do I want to do next? Like, the thought of doing anything just seems so exhausting. Like, I just want to kind of get in bed and pull the covers over my head. And it’s usually not until like I’m actually doing it and that I then get kind of excited about it and start to find all of these sort of inspiring things and ideas. And like, I really sort of understand those actors who just kind of do a movie and then just go off and do something else for a long time and then kind of come back and do another one. You know, I would love to be able to do that, like in a perfect world, like I wouldn’t work all the time like I would. But I mean, you know, that’s that’s a luxury afforded to people like Daniel Day-Lewis or whatever who can go on vacation
S3: to go study being a cobbler and come back.
S2: Yeah, but I I don’t know. I mean, I’ve, you know, I grew up really admiring character actors who had managed to. I mean, there was that generation in the 70s that that ushered in this new kind of leading man where Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall and De Niro and Dustin Hoffman and all these people were like these unlikely heroes or unlikely focal points for a story. And. And those were the actors that I always wanted to be like, I mean, I remember seeing Dustin Hoffman do like Death of a Salesman for for a television movie or something and thinking when I when I was about 14 and thinking like, Oh God, you know, that’s so brilliant, you know, and some of these, you know, some of these plays allow you in the way that this movie did for me to to to play a character. But that is a tragic, you know, focal point of the story. And that is why this was such a pleasure and some and something you know that I hope I can do more of. I mean, I’ve played this wide range of roles, but they’ve, for the most part been supporting characters where I’ve had to make more of of the role than was on the page. And that is, you know, I take pride in doing that, but it’s but it’s exhausting, you know, like you, I mean, I spent, like most of my life sort of trying to figure out how I can and kind of. Not have a character recede into the background of a film and and yet still honor the story and in fact, help tell the story. And you know, there is the there is a thrill to that when you find a way in, but a but a role like this was an opportunity to transform myself and come up with all this detail and of a character, but who was also, you know, had a kind of attractive like magnetism to him. And you know, some of these oddballs that I’ve played are kind of alienating to the audience. And weirdly, despite all of his violent tendencies, he kind of draws the audience towards him. Mm-Hmm.
S3: Well, Alessandro, thank you so much for joining us this week and telling us all about your process.
S2: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been fun.
S1: Isaac, that was fascinating, and I’m so glad that you were the person talking to Alessandro because I learned a lot about acting and how actors prepare from your conversation. And I loved your question about finding Dickie Moltisanti physicality like I know, I usually find myself focusing on what actors do with their voices. But unless it’s an animated film like what they do with their bodies really matters too. And there’s more to a physical transformation than just putting on or losing a lot of weight, which seems to be the thing that people actually notice.
S3: Yeah, we do notice that a lot, right? Or maybe like if you’re Meryl Streep and have a bunch of prosthetics on your face, we manage that. But yeah, weight gain and loss is the biggie. And I think it really traces back to Robert De Niro’s startling and incredibly influential transformation in Raging Bull as he went from the, you know, the younger version to the older version of that character and ate his way through Italy and France to game, you know, 50 or 60 pounds. But there’s a lot of shaping to the physicality of a character that doesn’t have to do with the kind of extreme physical gambits that Christian Bale is known for. Recently, Kumail Nanjiani has talked a lot about about, you know, becoming muscular enough to be in the internals because who we are is reflected in how we move and in our relationship to our bodies, you know, and often we cast people because they’re physically very similar to the role and that’s what we want. And, you know, physical type is very important, but that’s not always why we cast someone. And that’s sort of what we think of as the quote unquote character actor, right? Is the person who’s going to transform themself in such a way disappear into the role, and that includes disappearing into the body. In the case of playing Dickie, Dickie Moltisanti is a physically solid and threatening person in a way that Alessandro is not. And so, you know, I was quite taken with this description of trying to find a physicality that not only was like Dickie, but also appropriate to the period. You know, Dickie is not going to have the modern gym body with 32 pack abs and, you know, crushing a grapefruit with his biceps or whatever, right? He’s going to be big and imposing in the way someone in the 70s is big and imposing.
S1: Yeah, that’s so important. Another thing that really struck me was how utterly random events like Alessandro being evicted from his New York apartment while he was in L.A. for one film job. And that meaning that he stayed in California, in the apartment that he had there, rather than going back east as he had meant to. And so doing a bunch of movies instead of the theater work that he’d envisioned for himself, apart from anything else, that would be a great plotline for a movie.
S3: That’s true. That’s true. Maybe you should call up your manager and pitch it right. But you know, I mean, there’s so much about our lives that’s completely out of our control. And I mean, there’s a way in which his film career seems to have almost happened by accident. That’s not really true. He’s very talented. He’s very dedicated. He worked very hard at it, right? You don’t actually accidentally have a lifelong film career. But that inciting incident was a life coincidence that he rolled with and and it led to a career. That’s not the career he originally envisioned for himself, but it’s still been a good one. And I do think that part of having a creative life is figuring out when to roll with those moments and when to resist them to use one from my own life. You know, there was a different book I was working on when Dan approached me and said, Hey, do you want to write this oral history of angels in America for Slate? And that was not originally conceived as something we were going to try to get a book deal off of or anything. But after two months of working on it, we were just like, This is so huge and there’s so much we have to cut. The only way we could sort of make peace with the cuts we had to make was to promise each other that if the article was a hit, we turn it into a book and then it was a hit. And so we were able to turn into a book. And that’s how I started writing books that you can’t predict that you can’t plan for that. You know, you just have to say yes when those moments happen and hope for the best.
S1: Yeah. And maybe also there’s a message there that, you know, sometimes I know I want to sit down and plan every minute of every day and just kind of make a plan. This is what I’m going to do over the next month and quarter and year and decade. And you know, there’s some phrase about God laughing at plans like that or something, but there’s something to the messiness of life and embracing what gets thrown at you that is actually more effective. I think a lot of the time.
S3: Yeah, I believe the saying is if you want to make God laugh by a bullet journal.
S1: Isaac, thank you for asking a question that led Alessandro to share his philosophy of learning lines. For the longest time, I didn’t know if that was something that actors who were making TV shows or movies actually did. I mean, it’s not like a play where you’re maybe alone are certainly up there. On a proscenium reciting the same lines eight times a week for as many weeks as possible. So I just didn’t even know if they if it was worth the effort, if did they even try to do that? And I remember when I was making the behind the scenes podcast with the Americans, I asked Noah Emmerich if it was something he did. And he actually gave an answer that was very similar to is that you had to know them well enough to be able to respond naturally to what the other characters say. But at the same time, it’s just such a anachronistic thing to do. We just don’t memorize things elsewhere in life. And I wonder, are there actors who just can’t memorize, is that something you’ve come across?
S3: This is actually a question with a much bigger answer than you might have anticipated. But you know, Marlon Brando had a terrible time memorizing lines, in part because he was dyslexic. And so, you know, he was infamous for improvising lines both on stage and on camera and because he was such an influence as an actor. It often came to be that actors who followed in his footsteps and actors aligned with the method would take a more improvisatory. It’s not that they would refuse to memorize the lines, but if in the truth of the moment they wanted to say the line differently, they would. And it was very controversial at the time, and it remains somewhat controversial to this day. But, you know, an acting teacher like Sanford Meisner, you know, when when you were preparing for scene study in Meisner technique Sanford Miser. For those of you who don’t know is who trained like Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton and a whole host of other actors. Mary Steenburgen with Sandy, he demanded that you learn the lines by rote before you came in and worked on it, and that knowing them by rote would actually allow you to do the job of being impulsive and being truthful in the moment. So there’s there’s different schools of thoughts about it. In general, writers want you to learn the lines and to say them as written and then often in film, you know, if there’s time for additional takes and to play around with the with the language, they’ll give you the right to do that if you’re a big enough star. Maybe you can do it yourself on stage. Obviously, you need to know the lines by heart. Sometimes these days, older actors in particular. I don’t want to be ages, but it is a particular thing that often happens. Older actors lose the ability to memorize lines in the same way and will perform with earpieces, and someone is reading their their lines to them. And that is actually technology that’s been around for a while, and things like industrial films and ads that are made very quickly where you might not have time to memorize the lines. Often they’ll be dictated to you in an ear piece or obviously put on cue cards.
S1: Well, Alessandro shared an anecdote about spending several months where he had an intense bonding experience with a bunch of his peers when they were all doing Broadway plays. And it strikes me that that is one wonderful thing about dance theater centers like Broadway or London’s West End. The people working there all have similar schedules. They’re all in a high when sort of normies with nine to fives a winding down, and they’re all working in the same few blocks and can get together after the show. And I often think of acting as a lonely profession, you know, all those auditions, all those afternoons in your trailer. But it can also provide a space to do some really intense kind of thinking and workshopping about craft with other people who are also obsessed with the same things. That was really a lovely sort of revelation.
S3: Yeah, and there are those famous and beloved Midtown Theater hangouts. Joe Allen is, of course, one of the one of the most famous right. You know, like when the History Boys was on Broadway, that company who are all young men? I mean, there is something about them being young as well that that company of young men would decamp to Joe Allen and they would spend the whole night there, eating and drinking and carousing with other actors around. There is something fun about wandering around midtown pre-COVID, you know, and getting to experience some of that. You know, you might go to a diner for one time. I went to a diner for lunch and Kenneth Branagh was at the next table over with two of the actors in the play he was directing. You know, I mean, there is a charge you get out of that on almost every show. You make a kind of fast family with the people you’re doing that show with, right? So you do have that. But what you’re talking about is something different, which is the the pleasures of being part of a scene. Yes, right. Right? And yes, that happens on Broadway, that happens in the West End. But I have experienced it also happens in cities that have their own theater scenes that are independent of New York and L.A. You know where or New York and London, where people aren’t. The actors aren’t flown in, you know, but everyone lives in that city and works together, you know, over years they become friends. It becomes their own scene. They meet for a drink, they talk about the craft. They there’s a show called The Mighty Boosh, where there’s a where Noel Fielding at one point plays a parody of an older actor. And at one point, he says, Let’s take a break time for a break. Seven Lucas really a double brandy and bitch about the industry, you know, and it seems like there is that kind of energy of what you want from a scene. You know, it’s really valuable when you’re in a creative profession, especially when you’re in one is a freelancer to have those. Kinds of communities, you know, for a lot of writers, it’s the group chat, right? That’s where we get it or for for a lot of now that Slate’s not in the office, it’s the slack at Slate. You know, that’s its own version of Joe Allen to some extent of people who are also in your industry having fun together and in speaking the private codes of your art form, right?
S1: Alessandro described being part of a developmental process at the Eugene O’Neill, where a playwright and a cast work on a stage reading. And then after the performance or whatever the right term is, there’s a massive feedback session in which anyone present can share their thoughts, which the playwright can then use to tweak the piece if she wants to. I’ve only taken part in that kind of thing once, and I have to say that beforehand. I didn’t really believe that they’d be going around asking every schmo in the room for feedback. You must have been in that kind of situation many times. Do you think that’s an effective creative process?
S3: No, no, no. I mean, to be completely honest, I think the O’Neill is its own beast because they’ve been set up to do that. The audience comes there wanting to do that. They’ve cultivated a smart and considerate theater, literate, giving generous audience. The O’Neill is special, and their record of producing great plays and playwrights speaks for itself. I mean, no shade to them at all. I do mean shade to this practice in general, however, because I think talkbacks with an audience are a terrible way to learn what they think about the play. Actually, because audience members begin to perform because they are themselves in front of an audience, and it’s very hard to get something useful and meaningful out of it. I am someone, you know, like giving notes to another artist. Whether it’s a student with a short story in workshop or a playwright you’re working with is an art form that I have dedicated years to. Trying to figure out how to do in any schmo off the street cannot actually walk in and do it. Some of them can. I mean, there’s natural geniuses in any form, but it actually is its own discipline that you have to work hard to do to give a note that is meaningful that also can be heard and be useful is really, really hard. But that does not mean that audience members have nothing to teach artists. They absolutely have something to teach artists. And but often the best way to find that out is to have the director who they’ve never seen before, lurk in the audience and listen to what they say. Or, you know, take a friend, you trust out to a beer afterwards and talk to them. It is not the kind of structured talkback session.
S1: Yeah, I actually didn’t do it in with a full audience, but it was a sort of one of those. It was a small group stage reading, you know, Monday afternoon or something. And even so, even though it was a smaller group which felt like it had the potential to be more effective, just the fact that, like some of these people were famous or not famous, like people I had admired and I, you know, kind of wanted to impress. So, yeah, even that in that limited scenario, it just didn’t. It was just like me, you know, showing off, not actually giving notes.
S3: Now, did you say at any point that you had more of a comment than a question?
S1: I always say it with my eyes. We hope you enjoyed the show if you have. Remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And a quick reminder there is a special 25th anniversary offer on right now. You will get $25 off a Slate Plus membership until October 31st. To learn more, go to Slate.com Slush working plus.
S3: Thank you to Alessandra Nivola for being our guest this week. If you’d like to hear more discussion of the many saints of Newark, I encourage you to check out the recent Spoiler special episode about it, featuring Slate’s Dana Stevens and Sopranos expert Alan Sepinwall of Rolling Stone. Enormous thanks to our stellar producer Cameron Drews, and we’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with true crime podcaster and friend of the program, Rebecca LaVoy. Until then, get back to work. Hey, Slate plus subscribers. Thank you so much for everything you do for us, we got a little extra few minutes of talk with Alessandro. I think you’ll really enjoy it. So here it is. Thanks again. You have a few moments of like very, very intense emotion in in the film. Is that something that comes easily to you or are you someone who like, are you using emotional recall stuff or is it just you? You just sort of enter the moment or, you know, how do you handle those moments of peak emotion?
S2: Well, it all depends. There’s so many intangible factors in any given scene, and like a lot of it is depends on how the scene is written and whether it kind of leads you to, you know, whatever emotion it is, you know, whether it’s rage or pain, or if the scene kind of leads you there naturally. And if you get a kind of tragic sense from it when you read it and you just feel like, Oh God, like I, you know, if it hits a nerve that way like I, it can just come naturally. But then there are other times where it’s not really written in a way that that feels. Like it brings you there, and so then you have to sort of try and figure out how to make it work and figure out sort of what the moment is, where where, you know, where does the emotion sort of lie in the scene and and that can be tricky. And yeah, I mean, there’s definitely been times where I’ve, you know, been called upon to be emotional in a scene and it’s like, you know, I’ve had trouble because it just hasn’t felt like I was led to water. And yeah, so much of it is just like burrowing deep deep inside and just, you know, yeah, I’ve drawn on yeah, I’ve definitely found it easier than the the older I’ve gotten and the more shit I’ve gone through.
S3: Right? Totally. You have worked in a, you know, your body of work. There’s a lot of stylistic diversity in it, whether we’re talking about on stage or on screen or really when you when you view them both. Do you think about style like when you’re going into many Saints of Newark or are you thinking this is a mob family saga that’s a prequel to this other TV show and there’s a style I have to fit into? Or is that not something you really worry about?
S2: No, definitely. Definitely. It’s so important. Like you have to know the world that you’re in and you have to be, you know, aware of the bigger story that you’re telling as opposed to just, you know, in some kind of blinkered universe, all your own. Yeah, a lot of it’s the script, but you know, especially when there’s comedy involved, like there’s so many different nuanced types of comedy, and that’s usually where the kind of big differences are in tone and style, especially because, you know, I mean, there’s it’s all a question of like, how broad is something or how kind of deadpan, really as the two kind of extremes of the of the spectrum. And I mean, you know, it’s I’ve really like in recent years, I’ve played comic roles throughout my career in in more kind of dramatic movies. But just in recent years since I did The Art of Self-Defense with Jesse Eisenberg, that really was like a flat out comedy, albeit a very black one. I’ve started getting offered all these funny parts and funny movies and and it’s been really fascinating. I mean, the role I play and David O. Russell’s movie that I did earlier this year is is another like, very comic character. And then and then I just did a movie that Jeff Baena directed with Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza and and Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon and Tim Heidecker, all these guys. And so that was like a kind of another whole world. And but, you know, in both cases. Playing things pretty real, but just I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just an awareness of something of the absurdity of it. Right, right. And there is a lot of that in many Saints of Newark, in fact. I mean, there are moments that are both really kind of sad or upsetting and also just absurd or ironic or. And to have I mean, in those scenes in the prison, in the prison, for example, like to have just as little. It’s an intangible thing. I don’t know how to describe it, but when when I come in to tell, you know, somebody that their brother has died and and I say, you know, I brought you some shoe, you know? Right, right. You know, there’s just, you know, you don’t want to sort of send up the line, but there’s. There’s just something hilarious about it. It’s a little Gracenote, you have to just, yeah, you just have to be have an aware of that lightness to it and allow that allow that in.
S3: All right, that’s it for this week. Catch you next time right here on working.