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Coco Before Chanel - Alessandro Nivola interview

Alessandro Nivola in Coco Before Chanel

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ALESSANDRO Nivola talks about playing real-life character Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel in Coco Before Chanel, which is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday, November 23, and coping with speaking in French and swollen genitals at different stages of production.

He also reminisces about his experiences on Face/Off and Jurassic Park, as well as giving us a little insight into new movies Howl and Janie Jones

Q. How did you become involved with Coco Before Chanel and what was the appeal of playing Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel?
Alessandro Nivola: Anne Fontaine had seen me playing Englishmen in various other films and inquired whether I could speak French. I lied and said I could. I loved the script when I read it. I had no idea how dramatic Chanel’s life was. I knew nothing about Chanel before making the movie except that my wife wears No.5 perfume. (And I’d heard something about Nazis.) I was surprised to discover how well the story of her life suited a biographical film. That she was born an orphan and sang in Parisian Cabarets, and that she remained unwed because of a tragic romance all seemed reminiscent of Edith Piaf. The thing that really made me want to be in the film was the fact that the romance between Boy Capel and Chanel really begins in earnest AFTER he tells her he’s going to marry someone else! I thought that was very modern and unusual for a costume drama.

Q. How much did you know about Arthur prior to playing him?
Alessandro Nivola: I knew nothing about Boy Capel before playing him except that he had a very large moustache.

Q. What kind of research did you do?
Alessandro Nivola: For research I read a book called Lewis and Irene, which was written by Paul Morand. He was a close friend of Capel and Chanel and apparently the love affair depicted in the book is based on theirs.

Q. How was the hockey playing and horse-riding? Could you ride?
Alessandro Nivola: I had to ride in Mansfield Park but only at a slow walk and there had been a man holding the bridle while crouching down below the level of the frame. So, no I couldn’t really ride. I had two weeks of training with an Argentine Polo playing stunt rider named Mario at a stable outside Paris. He made me begin without a saddle to “find my balance”. After two days of this my inner thighs were so swollen there was no room for my bollocks and I could hardly walk.

Q. You had to be multi-lingual for this one… perfecting an English accent as well as speaking in French. How easy were both to master? I know you’ve done English before… but this was a different style.
Alessandro Nivola: The English accent was the least of my concerns. Half of all the roles I’ve played have been Englishmen of all classes and regions. The French is was what killed me. I had only high school French before the film. Despite six weeks of daily two hour tutoring sessions at my house in Brooklyn, I still found it difficult to understand what the hell anyone was saying at lunch on the set. It was a very long shoot however – four months – and by about the second month, I realised I was speaking surprisingly well. But until then, I was depending heavily on the encouragement of Audrey Tautou who had been similarly terrified while filming movies in English.

Q. How did you enjoy working with Audrey Tautou?
Alessandro Nivola: Audrey is much more like Chanel than any of the other roles she’s played. She looks delicate, almost fragile and tiny like a little bird. But she’s very powerful. She’s not refined and doesn’t put on airs – her French is cool and colloquial. She’s ambitious and determined and knows what she wants. As I mentioned before, she was very understanding about my struggle with the language. She doesn’t speak English that well but gave a great performance in Stephen Frears’ film Dirty Pretty Things. She described her misery in the early days of that shoot and it set my mind at rest. I’m eternally grateful.

Q. What did Anne Fontaine bring to the story as a director? What appealed to you about working with her? And how was the reality of working with her? Did she do anything that particularly surprised or impressed you?
Alessandro Nivola: Working with Anne on this film was different than any experience I’ve had with a director. I’m used to showing up knowing already what I wanted to do and having the director let me get on with it. But that was never going to be an option this time: because of the language, I was heavily dependent on Anne. She wanted there to be a strong contrast between me and Benoit. He is so flamboyant and so she wanted my performance to be very still and quiet. She often asked me to speak more softly which I’ve never been asked to do before.

Q. How much did you enjoy dressing up in some of the fashions of the time? Did they help to inform your character?
Alessandro Nivola: The costumes went a long way to make sense of the preposterous moustache I had to grow. They were very tight though and when I sat down I sometimes had buttons flying off in different directions. They certainly force you to stand up straight, which I’m not good at.

Q. In real-life, are you a snappy dresser and do you keep up with fashion trends?
Alessandro Nivola: I’m not much of a fancy dresser. I have a few things that I wear all the time. Mostly bought at used clothing stores.

Q. Career-wise, you have a diverse and impressive CV, from football players to adventurers, and devoted husbands to terrorists! Has it always been the intention to keep it so diverse, mixing blockbusters with indie films?
Alessandro Nivola: I’m a restless person. I get bored very quickly, particularly with myself. I’ve used acting as an escape and a way to channel my nervous energy. So I’ve always looked to find a role that’s as different from the one before it. I need change and variety or start to feel depressed.

Q. I have to ask, what was the Face/Off experience like? Was it as fun to film as it is to watch?
Alessandro Nivola: I was really lucky to have Face/Off be my first film. Mainly because Nicolas Cage and I enjoyed hanging out and we improvised most of our dialogue based on hours of joking around in our trailers. For a big action film, it was very creative. We felt we could do anything and John Woo would film it. He loved our relationship in the movie and never made us feel anything was too extravagant. We improvised something about a “sex sandwich” in one scene – he called us over and said: “Sex sandwich…very funny.”

Q. Likewise, what was it like becoming a part of the Jurassic Park franchise?
Alessandro Nivola: Jurassic Park was the deadliest experience I’ve ever had making a movie. All I did was sit around for hours and then run through sound stages. The worst. So boring.

Q. Which types of film do you prefer doing? How does something like Coco Before Chanel or The Girl in The Park compare to the blockbuster experience?
Alessandro Nivola: I don’t prefer Indies to blockbusters or vice versa. As long as I have an interesting character to play I’m happy.

Q. Any plans to step behind the camera?
Alessandro Nivola: I want to direct a movie sometime but I’m getting the biggest roles of my career so far as an actor right now. I’m a late bloomer and I’m trying to enjoy it for the moment.

Q. Finally, can you tell us a little bit about Howl and Janie Jones?
Alessandro Nivola: Howl looks to be a very unusual and interesting film. It’s just been chosen to open the Sundance Festival in January. It’s about the obscenity trial over the famous Alan Ginsberg poem of the same name. The movie segues back and forth between three different parts. There’s James Franco playing Ginsberg in recreations of the poet’s early life experiences, then there are psychedelic/ pornographic animations playing over Ginsberg’s actual voice reading the poem, and finally there are courtroom scenes from the trial. I play Luther Nichols – a witness for the defence. Jeff Daniels, Mary Louise Parker, Treat Williams and I were each brought in just for a couple of days for cameos.

Janie Jones is perhaps my most exciting role to date. It’s the story of a fading Indie/punk rock singer (me) who discovers he has a 12-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin). It was the perfect film to do after the quiet control of Coco because the character is totally out of control. In concert, I was thrashing around like Fugazi and I threw my back out. I loved it.

Coco Before Chanel is available now to buy on DVD and Blu-ray. Read our review