Roberto Benigni in a scene from Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love." (Sony Pictures Classics )
It's been more than 13 years since Roberto Benigni — the actor-director-writer-producer and all-around Italian force of nature — joyously clambered atop the back of seats at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on his way to pick up the Oscar awarded to "Life Is Beautiful" for foreign-language film. Benigni also took home the lead actor Academy Award that night in 1999 for his performance in the World War II drama.
Since then, he's had a much lower profile on American movie screens; fans may have caught him in his 2002 version of "Pinocchio"and his 2005 drama "The Tiger and the Snow" (which, like "Life Is Beautiful," costarred his wife, Nicoletta Braschi).
Benigni makes a hysterical return to the big screen in Woody Allen's new movie, "To Rome With Love," a romantic comedy of vignettes set in the Eternal City. Benigni plays Leopoldo Pisanello, a married clerk and father who suddenly finds himself famous for no apparent reason. Leopoldo can't go anywhere in Rome without paparazzi asking him what he had for breakfast, or whether he wears briefs or boxers (at one point, he actually drops his trousers to show his preferred undergarments).
The 59-year-old actor is also a scholar of Dante, and is currently touring Italy in his acclaimed one-man show "TuttoDante," in which he recites from Dante's epic poem "The Divine Comedy."
The exuberant Benigni recently spoke by phone from Italy about working with Allen, the meaning of celebrity and why he didn't make any films in America after his Oscar win.
It was so great seeing you on screen again.
Thank you very much. Sometimes I will tell you that I don't understand [the question] because my English has not improved that much. I apologize in advance.
In the movie they keep asking you if you wear boxers or briefs. So I need to know, what is your preference in real life?
Excuse me? Oh yeah, my underwear! Now I understand. This is the most important thing. Boxers! And I show to everybody.
Where did you shoot the underwear scene?
Via Veneto. There were so many paparazzi, like in "La Dolce Vita." And what was happening in the movie was continuing in real life. We were followed by lines and lines of paparazzi saying, "What do you think about God? What do you think about Obama?" One day an ambulance with a siren, [the drivers] recognize me and they braked and they asked to take a picture of me. Then they go back into the ambulance and say now we take the sick man [to the hospital]. They stopped the ambulance for an autograph and picture.
What was it like working with Woody Allen?
I had a wonderful relationship with Mr. Allen and would like to do something together again, maybe in English next time. Maybe father and son. I would play the father of course.
You are about the same height and build.
You know, I am called the Italian Woody Allen!
Would you talk about his directing style? I have heard he doesn't give much direction to actors.
He didn't tell me anything. He just looked in my eyes like a conductor for music. He conducted me ... just a glimpse.... He is very fragile and strong but in the meantime, you feel somewhere [in him] is a very, very, big someone — really kind of genius looking at me.
Regarding celebrity, I am sure you and your wife can't go anywhere in Italy without being recognized.
I am very well-known. They love me and I thank them a lot. I have a wonderful relationship with Italians.
Still, do you ever just once want to be able to walk down the street and be left alone?
I lost my real life, so my dream is to have a walk in the center of Rome just watching people. It's not like in the 1960s. I was talking with Marcello Mastroianni and he was terrible about people asking him for his autograph. But now it is not the problem of autograph. If am sitting in a bar and I look around, there are two or three people shooting a movie with their iPhone. They put it on the Internet and I see myself there in the pizzeria — Benigni eating a pizza with the mozzarella out of my mouth!
Did the same thing happen in the U.S. when you did "Life is Beautiful"?
I couldn't walk in New York or Los Angeles. [The fans] were so generous. Everybody was applauding to me when I went into some restaurant or on the streets. But now too much time has [passed]. When I come to the United States I can walk now.
Why didn't you do movies here after "Life Is Beautiful"?
I have a lot of friends like Mr. Jim Jarmusch, Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick and some others, but I didn't receive any idea that I loved very, very much. If we have something good I would like [to do it]. I am doing a tour now in Italy. It will end at the end of August or September. I will start to think about my new movie.
Do you know what your new movie is going to be about?
If I could tell you [I would].... I am looking at a lot of Frank Capra movies [for inspiration]. I like his kind of emotion.