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Alessandro Nivola: Man of a thousand accents

American's ear for dialect makes him an in-demand character actor. He's Irish in the upcoming 'Turning Green.'

November 07, 2009|Michael Ordona

"I don't see myself as having any integrity at all," says Alessandro Nivola through his roguish, close-toothed smile, toying with a glass of red wine. It's 11 in the morning at the Chateau Marmont, which probably feels earlier than in most other places.

"That's great because I can do any kind of movie and enjoy it; I'm just doing my work and can be serious about it, whether it's some horror movie like 'The Eye,' or action movie like 'Face / Off,' or an indie like 'Laurel Canyon.' "

This mildly disheveled room in a hotel etched in rock 'n' roll lore looks vaguely like a set from that 2002 indie, Nivola echoing his debauched English rocker character with that near-empty bottle of red wine. And why not? That film was largely shot just down the hall. But looks are deceiving: The actor is now a family man with two small children by his wife, actress Emily Mortimer. It's not the only confusing thing about Nivola, who has made a name playing Englishmen of all social classes but in the current "Coco Before Chanel" plays a rich American suavely speaking French, and in the new "Turning Green" is a shady Irishman.

"I think not many people know I'm American," he says, complete with hard R. "That's given me the opportunity to play a range of roles I'd never imagined."

After his first big splash as Nicolas Cage's loose-cannon brother in "Face / Off," his career took a detour to England, where he played parts in various British accents.

"People kept saying, 'You're going the wrong direction!' But being foreign there afforded me a whole set of opportunities I don't think I would have had in my own country at the time. When you're not from a place, it's harder for people to define you -- especially in England, where people are very aware of your class background, your regional upbringing and everything. Because I was American with this Italian name, nobody could quantify me."

The protagonist of "Turning Green" is, appropriately enough, an expatriate American in Ireland -- a discontent teen (promising newcomer Donal Gallery) in a small West Coast town trying to earn his way back home. Among the shady enterprises the angst-ridden, quick-witted, chronic onanist explores is an apprenticeship under the dangerous local bookie (Nivola).

"What was important to me was that it be the opposite sound of a tough guy," he says of crafting yet another accent for his growing palette of voices. "I have this friend who's from Dublin -- the Dublin accent's different -- he's a big guy, he was a heavyweight boxer, his dad was in the IRA, but his accent sounds almost effeminate. He has these S's that are extremely sibilant. 'Alessssandro, how are you?' This very lilting sort of -- you see this big, strapping guy and he's talking in this really high voice with this effeminate S. That's what I'm doing in the movie: " 'You remind me of messsself.' "

As to "Coco Before Chanel," it wasn't the shooting in France or even the romancing of Audrey Tautou that sealed the deal:

"The thing that made me want to do that role was the fact that the romance between Chanel and my character, 'Boy' Capel, begins in earnest the moment he tells her he's going to marry someone else. That, to me, was so modern," he says of a role more complex than the traditional cad.

"Suddenly, the pressure was taken off their relationship and -- apparently, this was true -- the two years they spent together after that were the most romantic times they had."

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