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500-1 Odds? That's Not a Problem

Asia Argento is ready for anything after facing a big field to play Vin's love interest in 'XXX'

August 08, 2002|KEVIN MAYNARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In her surreal, nightmarish directorial debut, "Scarlet Diva" (2000), Asia Argento played a troubled young actress stalked and seduced by men and women who stop at nothing. Among them is an American film producer who claims he wants to cast her in a remake of "Cleopatra" opposite Robert De Niro as Marc Antony but really just wants to get her in bed. If "Diva" represented this intense, opinionated 26-year-old's statement on celebrity commodity, what is she doing as super-spy Vin Diesel's love interest in "XXX," a monster Hollywood action movie?

"I wasn't seeking anything," says Argento. "I was disenchanted, I guess. I didn't have an agent out here and I still don't. But this casting director in London sent me the script, and I had seen 'The Fast and the Furious,' which I loved. And I think the kid gave me the inner strength to go out and get it."

"The kid" is Anna Lou, Argento's 13-month-old daughter from a two-year relationship with Italian musician Marco "Morgan" Castoldi. (No longer together, they remain friends.)

Argento beat out 500 actresses for the role of Yelena, the tougher-than-nails Russian girlfriend of a criminal mastermind (Marton Csokas). Her first line is a biting rejoinder to Diesel's character, Xander Cage, that makes clear she's more than an ornament.

"In the original script, the woman only had two scenes, and in one of them she was unconscious because she had been tortured," says director Rob Cohen, but "I wanted a movie that would appeal to women, not just a testosterone fest. Asia reminded me of Ingrid Bergman. She had a vibration that the greatest part of her beauty was her mind. All of her intrigue wasn't her cleavage but her IQ."

Daughter of horror film director Dario Argento and actress Daria Nicolodi, Argento grew up in front of the camera, landing her first role in an Italian miniseries when she was 9. She worked steadily all over Europe until taking a self-imposed hiatus from ages 14 to 17. "I was on this inner trip," she says, undergoing therapy, among other things. "For those years, I didn't act, I was just a teenager."

When Argento returned to making movies, she graduated to more complex roles, including three films with her father: "Trauma" (1993), in which she played an anorexic searching for her parents' killer, "Stendhal Syndrome" (1996) and "The Phantom of the Opera" (1998).

In her father's films, Argento played women who were stalked, beaten and raped, but she says she never thought twice about the roles. "I was attracted to violence," she says. "I've always been attracted to the dark side. I guess it's inherited from my parents.""

With acknowledged nods to the films of Roman Polanski, Argento's "Scarlet Diva" is a barely fictionalized road map through her inner psyche. She and her on-screen doppelganger both had parents who divorced, bitterly. And it's no coincidence that both her character and her real-life baby daughter are named Anna; they were named for her older sister, who died in a scooter accident in Rome. She was 21 and Argento was 19. Argento turned the traumatic incident into the film's climactic scene.

"You have to let go of the people that you love. If you let them go, they can protect you. I believe that."

Argento's sister's name is tattooed on her ribs and, in total, she has four body adornments--the others being an angel on her belly, two snakes on her lower back, and an eye on her left shoulder. "They don't mean much," she says. "They're just beautiful."

Clearly, she's wary about Hollywood making too big a fuss over her "bad girl" image instead of her work. She expresses sympathy for Angelina Jolie, another off-screen siren who's received a lot of press scrutiny. "Even if you don't care about everybody, you care a little bit."

Argento has played the Hollywood game before. When she was 17, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein helped her land a featured role in the period costume drama "Queen Margot" (1994). Then he gave Argento her first English-speaking starring part, the title role of "B. Monkey," a sultry bank robber. The film had an impressive pedigree, including director Michael Radford, fresh off the worldwide success of "Il Postino" (1994), and a stellar supporting cast that included Jared Harris, Rupert Everett and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. But after a troubled production--the film was finished in 1996 but unreleased until 1999--"B. Monkey" tanked with critics and audiences.

But Weinstein is still a mentor figure; in fact, the indie movie mogul sat by her side at a "XXX" junket screening last week.

"I don't blame him. I lost my interest in 'B. Monkey' too," says Argento. "I wanted him to be there to prove to him that it was important that he believed in me before I ever did."

"I think Asia has found a new maturity," Weinstein says. "She's going to be an incredible director, but I'm urging her to act right now. That's my two cents."

Weinstein says he set up a meeting with her to co-star with Anthony Hopkins and Javier Bardem, who are expected to appear in the 19th century period drama "Edgardo Mortrara." "She said the role was too small," says Weinstein.

The question remains: Can an outspoken woman who counts among her heroes underground guys like street-hustler-turned-novelist J.T. LeRoy and Abel Ferrara (who directed her in 1998's "New Rose Hotel") live with herself for going Hollywood?

"Yeah, it's bizarre for me," says Argento. " I don't want to end up with one label. Like in Europe, they label me 'the dark lady' and I come out here and they label me 'kick-ass chick.' Though I'd rather be a kick-ass chick than a dark lady at this point. It's like that [Greek] story, Sisyphus. You feel like you're on the top of the hill, but then you have to start all over again. But it's great. You appreciate this job more instead of just sitting on what you already achieved."

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