100+ YEARS OF THE GREAT ITALIAN MOVIEMAKERS
Born on August 21, 1956 in Tuscany, actress Laura Morante brings an effortless passion to her work and is known for delivering intense dramatic performances that make her characters unforgettable.
Morante started out as a dancer and attributes her success in acting to the self-discipline and love of rehearsal she found in dancing. She began her acting career in theater before making her screen debut in Giuseppe Bertolucci's 1981 Oggetti Smarrit (Lost and Found). The film that brought her recognition outside Italy was Nanni Moretti’s 2001 La stanza del figlio (The Son's Room). Morante's character deals with the devastating loss of a child, and her sensitivity to the feelings of her character was apparent as she went through so many of the painful stages of mourning a loved one.
Since she started out as a dancer, Morante found common ground with her character, Yolanda, in John Malkovich's The Dancer Upstairs. Although she has also worked in French cinema, The Dancer Upstairs was her first high-profile film outside Italy and made her an international star. “She had a very communicative face. I didn’t want someone with an innocent face. I wanted someone with a history,” said Malkovich of his choice to cast Morante in the part of Yolanda. She acted opposite Academy Award winner, Javier Bardem and the pair had strong chemistry and brilliantly carried scenes in a nostalgic, artistic manner.
In recent years, she’s gone beyond the boundaries of acting to find further success in directing and screenwriting. She made her directorial debut with the Italy/France coproduction Ciliegine (The Cherry on the Cake). Morante also stars in the romantic comedy of a middle-aged woman about to give up on love.
I spoke with Laura Morante at Lincoln Center's 2016 edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema when she was presenting her second directorial effort, Assolo (Solo). Although she has an exotic, intellectual air about her, I found her to be delightful and down-to-earth with a wicked sense of humor. There was so much laughter during our interview, at times it was hard to hear our voices when I was transcribing the recording.
Directors such as Nanni Moretti and John Malkovich have given a certain sensuality to the characters they created for you. However, the character you created for yourself is anything but sensual.
I'm not sure that that’s always the case being represented as sexy. You can certainly say that about John Malkovich but I wouldn’t say that Nanni Moretti represents me as being sexy but I could be wrong. In France, they definitely tend to portray me as the lover and the sensual part whereas in Italy I usually play the part of the wife.. the betrayed wife! When I showed the script for Solo to the first producer, a woman, she looked at me and said, What are you, some kind of a masochist? Why did you write a character like this? And I said because I thought it was a very interesting story, I thought it was very amusing. I thought to talk about a character like this, not in terms of her sex life but a character with various difficulties, who had problems.. and I wanted to narrate her journey towards self-esteem. I think that a character that has to overcome hurdles and obstacles in life has a much more interesting story to tell. If you’re talking about someone where everything is going fine with their life, then there’s not a story. There’s nothing there and it’s over before it’s begun. So there was some humor involved but there was a very complex trajectory to this character and I thought it was a story worth telling.
Marco Giallini’s character was repulsive. Where did that character come from and why did you think he’d be the actor to portray him?
He’s such a nice man. He said why did you write such a character for me? I can never really tell you where my characters come from but in the case of Marco, I think that even though he played this terrible person, he has an irresistible charm about him and I think that character in a sense is saved by him. When you see it in the theaters, the audience always laughs during his scenes. So he redeems his character, he saves his character.
I noticed the music was very strong. It was almost like a separate protagonist. There is the Tango, the ending music and also jazzy, whimsical almost Woody Allen-esque melodies. Tell me your thoughts on music and the role you wanted it to play in this film.
Nicola Piovani did the music like my first movie. The jazz is all mine. I love jazz. Piovani doesn’t necessarily share my taste for jazz. He actually scolds me about that. Why do you insist on jazz? One of the things that I did tell him though was that I wanted to have this sort of disconnect, this slippage between the music and the scenes. So if it’s a sad scene, I didn’t want to have sad music. If it’s a funny scene, I didn’t want to have funny music. He pretty much followed what I wanted to do but not in every single case. In terms of the Tango, he wrote the Tango for the dream sequence. But all the other Tangos are the classical Tangos. So Piovani is a great musician for cinema and a great friend. But in the end, he always does what he wants to do.
I’d like to talk about the last scene and your character’s connection with the driver.
That scene with the cab driver is actually based on something that happened to me. Many years ago, I was in Paris. I was trying to escape from a really horrible evening. I took a taxi. There were few times back then that I took a taxi because I didn’t have any money. I was very very sad. As I was sitting in my taxi, another taxi pulled up alongside us. I looked in and there was another young girl like myself who looked just as sad as me. I looked at her. She looked at me. She smiled, I smiled. We sort of gave each other a little wave and it’s been a moment that I’ve never really forgotten. It’s as if we were saying, look at us. We’re both in the same situation. And there was this sudden moment of empathy. There was this kind of spontaneous emotion. And I think in that last scene, this is something the film has been leading us up to. Flavia looks over and she sees this very sad woman in the cab next to her. She herself doesn’t realize she’s being observed. Then the radio comes on and we don’t know if the concert is real or imagined but it’s everything we have hoped for since the beginning of the film: that Flavia would finally complete this journey toward self-acceptance. It goes back to a dream that she has. She is part of a chorus and she suddenly realizes that none of the others are going to sing and that she has to sing by herself and she’s not able to do that. The whole narrative arc of the film leads us to this moment to this final scene where the musicians are prepared to go on and Flavia is running the courage to perform to sing that solo and there is an exchange of glances between her and the cab driver is a way of saying, yes I can, yes we can.
Having worked four decades in cinema, knowing what you know today, what advice would you give your younger self?
Well my daughter is an actress. She’s in my film. She plays the part of the son’s girlfriend. And it took her a while to admit to herself that she wanted to be an actress. And the one thing that I said to her was that in my opinion, it’s a mistake to take the world of cinema too seriously but not to take the craft serious enough. And it’s a mistake that we all admit to. There’s too much focus on the career and not enough focus on the craft of acting. I think the mistake that I made at the start was of a different sort. My mistake was that it took me too long to love what I was doing. I didn’t initially like being an actress, and I only learned to love it later. My initial dreams were to do something else. I loved to dance, I loved writing and I sort of saw acting as, okay this is something that I can do. But the time had passed for me to become a dancer. I didn’t think I had enough talent to do that. There were too many writers in my family, so I didn’t have that ambition. So the one thing that I regret is that I didn’t love acting enough in the beginning. So as a result, it’s something that I only learned to really enjoy later.
So you must have enjoyed your role in The Dancer Upstairs then..
I don’t really dance in the movie but it was really interesting because I first met John Malkovich at a celebration of Bertolucci to which we were both invited, both of us having worked with him on films. Then I ran into him again when we were both part of a film jury and at the time, I did not know that he was working on a screenplay for The Dancer Upstairs. Then we were talking and I told him that I was a ballerina and that I had been to dance school, and that I had come from a very political family. This sort of gave him the inspiration. He handed me a script and said, 'Read this.' However, it wasn’t all that easy. The Spanish producer did not want me in the film. I’m really grateful to John because he insisted on having me for this. It was two years before John could have the cast that he wanted Bardem, Botto and me. I love his perseverance and I love his loyalty.
Do you enjoy acting in English? It seems effortless for you.
In fact, I acted in English many times. In the beginning, it was easier for me to act in English or French because I was shy, so I didn’t really like to hear myself speaking in Italian because I understood my own words too well. And also because my family is a very literary family and so I have a kind of respect for words and writing and in Italian. So my judgement is very severe! When I speak English or French, I don’t understand. So it’s much easier.
What inspired you to make the transition from acting to directing and what is it like directing yourself?
I wanted to take responsibility for my own choices, for my own behavior. I didn’t want to direct the first time. I wrote the script with Daniele Costantini and we sold the screenplay to a French producer. He said, 'Now you write the screenplay' because it was only a treatment.. 'but it has to take place in France because it’s a French movie.' Because the treatment took place in Rome, we changed everything and at the end when he approved the screenplay, he said, 'So now let’s look for a French director' but we couldn’t find one. Some were working. Some wouldn’t do a movie that they hadn’t written. So it was very complicated. At one point, he said to me, 'Don’t you want to try to do it yourself?' I said, 'Well it’s not my work. I don’t know how to do it.' He said, 'Let’s try.' And so I accepted. Since I enjoy it, the second time was easier for me to say 'ok, I’ll be the director.'