Vincere - Filippo Timi interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
FILIPPO Timi talks about the dual challenges of playing Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his son in Marco Bellocchio’s acclaimed historical drama Vincere, which examines the story of Ida Dalser, the secret wife of the political leader, and her struggle for recognition for herself and their son.
He also talks about working with George Clooney on Anton Corbijn’s forthcoming The American and how he has overcome a stammer to emerge as one of Italy’s bright new stars…
Q. What was the appeal of Vincere?
Filippo Timi: Marco Bellocchio called me. I didn’t think of myself as being suited to taking on that sort of role because in my mind Mussolini was older, he was shorter, he was nastier and a number of things that were different to me. But then I understood that I was to interpret him as a younger man, so started to look on the Internet for photographs of Mussolini as a young man. With hair on, he did look like me [laughs]! So, that was a bit of a fright for me at first. But afterwards there were meetings with Marco, during which the impossible seemed possible and I was enticed.
Q. How much of a taboo subject is the issue of Mussolini in Italy? I know that it took a long time for Germany to make a film about Hitler… Did Italian cinema take the same view?
Filippo Timi: No, it’s rather different in Italy… apart from the fact that we’re experiencing a period when the right wing is actually in the street… you can’t compare it to Fascism. It’s obviously a completely different thing. But it’s true that there haven’t been recent films that have used the subject of Mussolini before. But I don’t think it’s because it was a taboo subject as such.
Q. How much is known about Ida Dalser’s story? Or did it come as a surprise when you read the script?
Filippo Timi: Nothing. I knew nothing of any sort of first wife or son. The whole thing was unknown to me.
Q. Where did you look to research that story?
Filippo Timi: There was a documentary [Mussolini‘s Secret by Fabrizio Laurenti and Gianfranco Norellis] that was made in Italy, which was actually the thing that sparked the idea in Marco to make the film. The documentary was an adaptation of the books Mussolini’s Marriage by Marco Zeni and Mussolini’s Secret Child by Alfredo Pieroni, which talk about this secret son of Mussolini. So, I learned of this story through that documentary and the book. But then in order to prepare myself for the role, there’s an awful lot of material to see about Mussolini. He was a man who loved to put himself out there, so there’s a lot of material about him.
Q. During the course of your research, did you find that you gained a greater understanding of Mussolini, especially the younger man before power corrupted him?
Filippo Timi: Yes. It’s true that there was a certain period when he was a Socialist that he was very active as a man. He was very much against the power of the church, the power of the monarchy and he really wanted power to be brought back to the people. So, he had some ambition in that sense. But at a certain point, he obviously decided that instead of giving that power to the people, he decided to appropriate it for himself. And so things changed.
Q. How draining was the role to play? And which was more draining – playing Mussolini or his son?
Filippo Timi: They were both very draining. As the son, this part had fewer scenes, which made it more complicated giving the role the three dimensions it needs in just four scenes. Of course, great actors – even when they do a cameo role – are fantastic. But this was even more complicated for me because one of those four scenes involved the son imitating his father and so my brain went into overdrive at that point [laughs]. It was difficult having to imitate somebody who was me! And then the last scene, when he went mad, was even harder for me and for the film. There are certain things that you can’t act.
Q. It’s heartbreaking to watch…
Filippo Timi: When I saw that scene I didn’t recognise myself.
Q. Going into the project, did you always know you’d be playing both roles?
Filippo Timi: Oh yes, it was one of the reasons that made me more interested in doing it. It was already complicated to play Mussolini but to also play his son was a real challenge. But the more complicated, impossible and uncomfortable a role is, the more interesting it becomes. And the last scene of the son in the mental asylum… at a certain point Bellocchio was reluctant. He didn’t know if he wanted to make it anymore. But I insisted that he had to.
Q. Why was that?
Filippo Timi: Maybe he considered that it was no longer necessary for that story… but I persuaded him and he thanked me for doing so afterwards [smiles]. He said he’d been right to allow himself to be persuaded.
Q. When you first saw the film, what did you think about the director’s use of music? It’s operatic at times…
Filippo Timi: It was very, very exciting. It was like watching an opera. It’s a film that really touches you, it physically grabs you. I loved it because it makes it more cinematic. Film is different to reality. I saw La Dolce Vita again very recently and I realised that what I understood as a concrete historic past of Rome in the ’50s – that whole lifestyle – was actually cinema because cinema creates collective history. You then think that it’s reality.
Q. You’ve now had your first experience of Hollywood with The American, alongside George Clooney. How was that?
Filippo Timi: It was fantastic because I love the director, Anton Corbijn. I had seen Control and I thought it was incredible. I can’t say very much about The American because I signed a confidentiality agreement. But George Clooney is one of the most humane human beings. He’s very laidback. It’s amazing because when you think of these big stars, you do find some very nice people and that can be a surprise.
Q. Did you bond over your love of Italy? He has a villa on the lake…
Filippo Timi: I didn’t spend that much time with him… I don’t speak that much English [smiles]. But it was a small part.
Q. What’s like going from Italian cinema into the Hollywood set-up where you have to sign confidentiality clauses in contracts?
Filippo Timi: Well, we were shooting in Italy for The American, so part of the crew was Italian and part of the crew was American. Professional people are beyond their nationalities, so it doesn’t matter anymore. But keeping the content of films secret is the same all over the world… you just don’t have to sign anything [laughs]. I’ve just finished shooting a film now and the director of that film asked me not to say too much about it in case it weakens the expectation surrounding it. A film that went to the Venice Film Festival last year, which was a first feature for a director, and a thriller… I couldn’t say anything about what went on it because it would have ruined it.
But I don’t see Hollywood as the bad guys, and George Clooney, in particular, is a very intelligent actor because he makes very special films. The director, too… he made Control, so he’s not a blockbuster movie-maker. So, when I get to make Pirates of the Caribbean 4 with Johnny Depp, maybe I’ll start to notice the difference a little bit more. But I probably won’t mind too much then [laughs].
Q. Would you like to do more in Hollywood?
Filippo Timi: It’s also a bit of a game. It might be nice to make a film every so often, and to earn so much money, that I could then come back to Italy and produce four films. And then it’s also true that there are Hollywood directors that I have a lot of respect for and would love to work with. But I don’t speak English and that could be a problem.
Q. What’s your profile like in Italy? Do you get recognised in the streets and are you comfortable with that?
Filippo Timi: Yes I do get recognised. It makes me laugh a bit when people label me, though. They imagine I might be a certain way and they say: “Oh I like you.” But I don’t understand what exactly they like – a part that I’ve played, or some interviews they’ve seen. But fortunately, they recognise me not just for the films but also for some books that I’ve written and that’s very interesting because in reading a book you do effectively get to know someone more. So, when they approach it’s always for a fairly deep reason. [It’s because] something had resonance for them.
Obviously, I’m also a sex symbol [laughs] but that’s nice for me as well because it means that anyone can be a sex symbol! And that opens up all sorts of possibilities. It also means that we’ve had enough of those sex symbols that seem to be perfect. It’s great to open the doors to sex symbols who are people who have no fear of being stammerers. It allows people to be who they are… although it’s true that when I act I don’t stammer. It’s funny because when they invite me onto TV programmes to talk about the film you can see people that can’t believe not only that I do stammer, but that I allow myself to do that on TV because I could also concentrate to ensure that I don’t. It’s like putting on a mask… I don’t stammer anymore. But that’s not me. So, I’m quite a revolutionary in that sense.
Q. Why do you think it is that you don’t stammer when you act?
Filippo Timi: I don’t know [laughs]. When I was at school… in Italy exams are all verbal, so they do this questioning and I was stammering all over the place. But then there would be moments when I would perhaps tell a joke or tell a story and suddenly the thing would change and it would all come out smoothly. I realised that when I was play-acting, or assuming some sort of other role in order to tell things, then it all flowed.
Q. Is that the same for you during the audition process?
Filippo Timi: At the moment, the directors that I’ve worked with have never been concerned about it. But in the past, 15 years ago, when I was a penniless actor I went to do an audition for a soap opera – a very bad soap opera. But I really needed the money, so I went for the part, and memorised the entire script. But I stammered from the beginning to the end during the screen test, with the camera rolling. Something inside me was refusing this thing at some level [laughs]. And so I understood that this thing can also save me! It’s a conscious regulator… or quality control [laughs].
Q. It’s an amazing thing to overcome… and a testament to your bravery of spirit…
Filippo Timi: But also recklessness [smiles]. When I found myself on stage, and I understood that I’d never become that classic actor that everyone imagined, I simply thought I had to bring the theatre to me. So, when I work I don’t actually experience it as a problem. The problem is a bit more complicated in my real life. But in one way or another, each one of us stammers somewhere. I have a handicapped cousin, who is really closed up in her world. Her mother, my aunt, has suffered for years, sort of hiding her away, considering her something to be ashamed of. The stammering could be considered a distortion… the son who came out wrong. This aunt, as well as having a handicapped daughter, also has a son who is one of the best looking, nicest, perfect kids you could imagine. And she’s always presenting him to the world.
But at a certain point, there was an accident that happened at home, and the one who saved everybody was the girl. It’s easy to give your love to the beautiful, fine son, but when you try and give your love to the other one, it’s obvious that the lame son is never going to be able to run, but maybe with all that love he might learn to fly. And that’s the leap that you have to believe in. It’s true that I’ll never be able to speak in that way without struggling and thinking in a fluid way, but maybe because I can’t run that easily I might be forced to fly.
Q. You’ve written novels and have your own theatre company in Italy. Which medium do you prefer?
Filippo Timi: Rock star [laughs]! In the bathroom, after I’ve had a shower, in that 15 minutes of real fame with yourself, you’re naked in front of the mirror and you can be anyone you like! A combination of David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elvis Presely. My real dream is to be a rock star [laughs]. It’s a good idea for a novel, yes?
Q. Would you like to play a rock star on film?
Filippo Timi: Oh yes, very much so.
Q. You’ve written books, of course, but would you also like to write screenplays and would one based on a rock star be a possibility?
Filippo Timi: I would love to. I’ve worked on a screenplay already and I’d like to make a film a film someday.
Q. Italian cinema has recently produced some real classics, especially in the work of Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo), and last year’s Gomorrah [ by Matteo Garrone]. As an Italian actor, how do you think Italian cinema is now perceived internationally?
Filippo Timi: We’ve had an amazing past. There was the artificial Hollywood world, then the neo-realists who threw everything into disarray… to create that level of innovation again is impossible. But when I see the work of Paolo Sorrentino, Marco Bellocchio, I understand that that extraordinary strength is still there inside some people and that makes me happy.
Q. So, is is an exciting time to be part of Italian cinema?
Filippo Timi: Yes, but always with the fear that the state is cutting all the financing, just as things are beginning to improve and just when I’ve started to make films! It became clear very quickly that there was very little money. No! Why now?! [Laughs] Money is good to have in order not to worry. But it’s more important to make good films. I’ll marry an old rich lady… I’m a good actor.
- Read our review
- Filippo Timi interview
- Vincere Photo Gallery
- Vincere wins eight Italian David awards