She has immortalized two of the most memorable characters in American cinema and now she’s promoting her new film that mirrors issues facing the working class.
Talia Shire became a household name in the 1970s with her role as Connie Corleone in The Godfather and Adrian Balboa in Rocky: two characters that went on to experience tremendous growth in the sequels of both films.
Shire and her brother, collaborator and director Francis Ford Coppola grew up in a family that embraced the arts. Their father Carmine Coppola was a renowned flutist and composer. He often took his children on the road when he performed. So there was always that creative energy and sense of adventure present in their childhood and adolescent years.
“What you have to understand is that Francis is probably the greatest writer. He and Mario (Puzo) did Shakespeare and the Greeks. So people who love The Godfather are really listening to literature. He went on and did what Shakespeare did because Shakespeare was always interested in power,” explained Shire when I sat down with her at the Buffalo Film Festival in October while she was attending the screening of her new film, Working Man.
“In the case of The Godfather, it’s true art. I saw that movie at Radio City. Francis was behind me. It was monumental. Those movies are monuments. There’s nothing like them. There is him and everybody else. He was a theater major and when you’re a theater major, you realize that there are 2500 years of dramatic literature and there’s something about that that is nice to have when you’re writing a film and give it to great actors. So he did that.”
Connie Corleone was introduced to us as a battered wife and soft-spoken little sister in this family of giants. After the death of her husband and abuser, she began to emerge as a stronger voice, a voice of opposition, the voice of a woman who was tired of being bossed around and told what to do. She eventually came full circle and inevitably joined the family business. Meanwhile in the Rocky films, Shire was going through a similar type of evolution with her character, the beloved Adrian. The shy, timid girl next door with glasses became a force, a beacon of strength and stability for Rocky Balboa, an everyman’s hero who achieved his dream through old fashioned hard work and dedication. Shire revealed during our conversation that although Sylvester Stallone created her character, the two collaborated on developing Adrian throughout the sequels.
Tell me about the arc of Adrian from the first one and then into the sequels.
Sylvester is a movie star of enormous proportions. So he changed and therefore, I had to change. I had to make my hair blond. We were changing.
How much of that change was you and how much was him?
What he wrote, and I have a great love for what he wrote, was a partner, a true partner for a man and what a woman can deliver. And here’s where certain groups make a mistake.. But you’re not a feminist. I am for emancipation and enormous freedom to use feminine intuition. I happen to know that, as a woman, we can play with our children. We can make the guy feel like a million dollars because God gave you those energies. But he (Stallone) made that. He needed a partner to tell him the truth. Now that’s all Sylvester. It was supposed to be the greatest love affair ever, and in a way it was. But she was a partner and she told the truth. We discussed it. We discussed what that could mean in a moral issue, especially with Rocky V, which was the end.
Shire went on address why Rocky was never able to love another woman, even though he tried. “He was never unfaithful. He loved her. And even when we talked about the death of Adrian, and I was really sensitive about that because I knew about death and loss, and how he could bring that forward into their child, he was quite tortured because there was a little hint that he could have another relationship but he didn’t do it. He couldn’t go on to have another love affair because that exploration didn’t work. What he had with Adrian was mythical and once it becomes mythical, you’re stuck.”
She has worked with her share of cinema legends. The one I was most curious about was Marlon Brando.
You and your fellow principle actors from The Godfather have all become icons of your generation. What was it like for a bunch of young actors to work with Marlon Brando an icon of the generation before you, the generation you grew up watching?
He was a master actor, a well-trained actor.
Were you all watching and learning from him?
Yes because we worshipped him. I knew that he had not studied with Strasburg. He was not a Strasburg student ever. He was always Stella Adler who was very technical and really artful. Marlon Brando was a genius, a highly intelligent man. But he did two things which were funny for a bunch of actors watching him. One thing is he wore wax in his ears and that’s because there is a thing called active listening in acting. So he wanted to listen to you, to focus. So we all tried it and of course, we couldn’t do it. But he was very technical and very artful. In the scene at the end with the fruit, that’s very Marlon Brando doing what Stella Adler would say. You think I’m a monster, well I am and I frighten.. He did that. So it was a lesson. Also, he didn’t waste energy. You know, you waste energy being on a film set for 14 hours. So when he wasn’t shooting, he was either sleeping or pretended to or he had a book. He knew that he had to bring that dynamite. What we were always struck with is here he’s playing the Godfather but when he went home at night, he was a young man and he was the most beautiful young man that you can imagine. So it was watching somebody, but it wasn't (Lawrence) Oliver’s approach, who was a theater actor. It was Brando. You could see that he was artful and every moment was understood. It was improvisation but he was a very disciplined actor. He understood space.
Barbara Stanwick said to me over lunch (isn’t it great that I can tell you that), she said to me, “You know, it’s only this when you’re acting,” meaning it’s only this space. It’s not over here, it’s not over there. And that frame comes in sizes and you can only do so much. When you begin to understand that, you begin to understand editing and you know what that is. That’s what it was. He wasn’t ever improvising outside of that knowledge. Back to Stella Adler.. She was brilliant at the master class of what is the spine of the piece, what we are all doing, and she was his teacher. That’s what he was doing.
Did you fall in love with him a little?
You can’t not swoon because there’s a sexual energy. But that’s his charisma and that’s what you see on the screen. He came at a unique time. You know, he had the male and female energy that we talk about. I think it was Martin Luther King. It was one of those walks, and who was there? Marlon Brando. He gave a shit about the other guy.
In 1989, just one year before the release of Rocky V and The Godfather Part III, Shire teamed up with her brother for New York Stories, an anthology film that consists of three vignettes directed by Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. Coppola’s segment, Life Without Zoe stars Shire opposite Giancarlo Giannini as Upper East Side parents trying to balance their socialite lives with parenting their daughter. Giannini plays a world renowned flutist, a character that Shire says was inspired by her father. “There’s a lot of my father in there. He was a great flutist with this little girl. My brother was writing about Carmine.”
Her latest film, Working Man, was shot on location in Chicago and follows Allery Parkes, a factory worker as he deals with the loss of his job after his plant closes. Shire describes the film as “A fascinating piece about maybe the suicide of a factory, which didn’t have to happen, which is what we’re all dealing with. These things don’t have to happen.” She plays the role of Iola Parkes, Allery’s wife, and shines once again as the nurturer, the good woman who offers support to the man she loves. Perhaps art imitates life beyond the factory closure as Shire plays nurturer in real life to four sons who have all taken creative paths. So this is a role that she is comfortable with on and off camera.
As I mentioned, we met for this interview near the Buffalo International Film Festival where Working Man was screening. We had breakfast together and Shire revealed to the waitress right away, "I'm vegetarian." A lifelong vegetarian myself, I asked her about this at the end of our conversation as the interview was wrapping up. "My son Jason is a vegan. People didn’t realize the misery that animals were going through. Also, this is just a fact- the amount of antibiotics being given to cows and so forth is what created the problem with antibiotics in us- the resistance. It doesn’t help with the suffering of animals to have so many just for slaughter. No chicken should be mistreated with their beaks cut off. So it was really just having to do with the suffering. That was my feeling. And we don’t even need it. The so called fake meat is delicious and frankly, I never liked all those little cartilages. It doesn’t help this planet on any level. Should every egg be cage free? You’re damn right. Nothing should have an ugly death. Nothing and no one. So don’t eat animals. They’re your friends."
Having grown up watching her beautiful characters grow and evolve and continuing to watch them for three decades, Talia Shire has always been a familiar, friendly face. Now, hearing how her thoughts and convictions on animal welfare are so close to my own, it made the experience of meeting her even more poignant. They say to never meet your idols, but in this case, I'm sure glad that I did.
As for the future, Shire says that she is always evolving. “The best definition of evil that I heard was something that goes backwards or involution. There’s only evolution. We can’t go backward. We have to be open to the excitement of diversity, so that’s where I’m headed.”
- Written by Jeannine Guilyard for the January issue of Fra Noi Magazine
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