EXCLUSIVE: It’s tempting to say that Alessandro Nivola lives a charmed life, and that might be true if he weren’t working so hard. He’s Zelig in plain sight: At this moment in time you can see him in Selma as Justice Department civil rights lawyer John Doar, who would become the lead prosecutor in the government’s case against the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. And you can see him on the other side of the mirror, as a mobbed-up oil distributor and bete noir of Oscar Isaacs in A Most Violent Year. He played another nemesis, FBI agent Anthony Amado, on the trail of Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. And he’s still batting it around with Cooper, but now on Broadway, where he plays Frederick Treves, the humanistic doctor who rescues Cooper’s John Merrick – AKA the Elephant Man – from life in a freak show booth.
Behind the scenes, King Bee, the production company he started with his wife of 12 years, Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom), is completing production on season two of their HBO series Doll & Em, in which Mortimer and her best friend Dolly Wells star as an actress who hires her best friend to be her personal assistant.
Nivola, Cooper and the rest of the Elephant Man company, including co-star Patricia Clarkson, will bring the show to London this spring for a limited run on the West End. Like many of their peers, success has reinforced their independent streak rather than making them slaves to Hollywood. Not long ago, agents and managers would be tearing their hair out when a client chose theater over film work. Broadway was for career rehab, not hot stars. No more, as this season definitively shows, with Cooper, Elisabeth Moss, Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ruth Wilson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Taylor Schilling, Emma Stone, Sienna Miller and Anna Chlumsky among the film and TV stars appearing on Broadway or in major off-Broadway shows. And after years living in Los Angeles, Nivola, Mortimer and their two children have relocated to Brooklyn, having found that the demands of a screen career no longer necessarily include living in L.A.
Nivola’s Sardinian-born grandfather was the renowned Abstract Impressionist sculptor Costantino Nivola married to a German Jew, which led to their middle-of-the-night escape to the artists colony of Long Island’s East End, where the neighbors included Jackson Pollock and the Swiss architect and painter Le Corbusier. Nivola’s father was a political scientist who ended up teaching at Harvard, and the son was born in Boston and grew up in New England, eventually attending Yale while taking leaves to work in regional theaters around the country. Then he was cast with Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in John Woo’s 1997 Face/Off, and his career was launched.
We spoke about his career across mediums and genres one afternoon recently at Deadline.com’s New York office.
JEREMY GERARD: How did your grandparents survive the war and get to the U.S.?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: They enrolled at the same art school in Milan, they fell in love. They got married just as the war was starting, and her parents and her sister all fled to New York, and she stayed behind to marry him and live with him in Sardinia. One night at the very onset of the war, one of their close friends woke them up in the middle of the night and said, “You have to leave tonight. I’ve been informing on you for months.” He wept and was like, “They’re going to come for you in the morning.” They left with nothing, and friends helped them get into France on these fake papers, and then they came across. He became a fairly important sculptor. He has a piece at the Met, and he’s about to have a piece in the National Gallery in their main atrium. There’s a museum for him in Sardinia.
JEREMY GERARD: They ended up living In The Springs, which is near the Hamptons on Long Island, and were friendly with Jackson Pollock.
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: Pollock gave him one of his first splatter paintings, and there’s a photograph of my dad and my grandfather sitting in a chair and this Pollock painting is up there apparently for, like, a week, and it just made him so agitated, drove him so crazy, that he finally gave it back to him.
JEREMY GERARD: I thought you were going to say “Pollock said, ‘You idiot, it’s upside down!’ ”
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: If only that were the end of the story! He gave it back, he said, “Jackson, I just don’t like this style, it makes me nervous.” MOMA bought it years later. It’s in their permanent collection now and worth $30 million or something like that. It’s just unbelievable.
JEREMY GERARD: So now that we’ve gone way back, let’s come right up to the present. You have a long-standing professional relationship with Bradley Cooper. What’s it been like doing this run? You were in it with him from the beginning, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival two seasons ago, right?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: Yeah. Both he and I had a real history with [Elephant Man director] Scott Ellis, because Scott gave me both my New York theater and my Broadway debut 18 years ago. That was the year I got out of college, and I had just arrived in town. I hadn’t done a single show in New York. It was A Month In The Country with Helen Mirren. And that was what really started my career. Bradley did a show with Scott up at Williamstown a bunch of years ago, and so they had worked together as well. He and Scott had been talking about wanting to do something together, and Scott just said, “Well, what do you want to do?”
Bradley said, “I want to do The Elephant Man. I don’t think it was the play Scott had in mind, but it was this passion project for Bradley to do it up there.
JEREMY GERARD: Did you say to Brad, “Come on, I got a career that’s like, you know…”
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: Well, Williamstown is really attractive to movie actors because it’s such a short gig. And to be honest, I’d had a huge hiatus from the theater after A Month In The Country. I hadn’t done any theater in all those years, and then when Emily and I moved back here from LA together, about eight years ago, I suddenly just, you know, it just seemed preposterous not to be doing theater. It had really been the way that my career had started. So the first thing I did was Sam Shepard’s A Lie Of The Mind that Ethan Hawke directed, with Laurie Metcalf. It was just the greatest experience, you know, one of the best I’ve ever had.
“Those times when I’m just so incredibly overwhelmed with different projects and my concentration is being pulled in different directions, it all serves me well. It pushes you into creative overdrive.”
JEREMY GERARD: And when Elephant Man came along you were shooting Devil’s Knot with Reese Witherspoon, with Atom Egoyan directing.
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: Reese and I had done a movie together before too, called Best Laid Plans. It was me and her and Josh Brolin. It was a while back, she was still really young. We had a sex scene together which was like, I think her first sex scene. She was almost just too young for her to be legitimate [actually she was 23], but yeah, it was fun. We had a great time.
JEREMY GERARD: The situation you just described is a kind of perfect way to talk about the differences for you, doing both theater and film — especially when you’re doing both at the same time. What does that do to your head?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: Well, I find in general that those times when I’m just so incredibly overwhelmed with different projects and my concentration is being pulled in different directions, it all serves me well. It pushes you into creative overdrive. And you don’t have enough time to kind of second-guess yourself. Ideas just start coming to you more quickly than they do when you have endless amounts of time to obsess over minutiae on one particular job.
And while I’m on Broadway, Emily and I produce Doll & Em for HBO that she writes, I produce and she stars in, and actually I’m in it as well, in the second season. We were shooting the second season right through the opening of the play, through previews and through the opening of the play.
JEREMY GERARD: Where were you shooting?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: All over the place. And to tie it all together even more, there’s a play within the show. Emily and Dolly in the second season have written a play, and Olivia Wilde is cast to play Emily, and Evan Rachel Wood is cast to play Dolly, and I’m cast to play Emily’s husband, even though her real husband is played by someone else.
JEREMY GERARD: This is like Pirandello squared.
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: Yeah the meta levels were almost unendurable. But you know I was filming all morning and then coming and doing the play at night. There was so much pressure with the show, coming into the opening and all the critics and everything, that it was just great to have, Dolly & Me. I was just so overwhelmed and distracted, I couldn’t even really pause to consider.
JEREMY GERARD: Can you tell me about the different technical demands?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: You’re trying to get to the same thing in both cases, which is just a moment of spontaneity.The big difference is in the process. In movies, you hope that you find that from your first, best impulse, whereas in a play, you go through this very long cycle, hopefully to return to the same thing. It comes out of repetition, and the repetition becomes almost like a ritual, sort of saying the same word, when you say the same word over and over and over again. At first it sort of loses its meaning, and then it takes on a different meaning that suddenly surprises you, and that you hadn’t even considered before.
Some people tend to say their lines the same way every time, and that can be just stultifying. In Bradley’s case, the two of us are so committed to trying to make it alive every night and not sort of just have the same inflections in everything we say every night, that it’s really started to evolve, the whole experience of doing the play. It’s a very different show, probably, than when you saw it.
JEREMY GERARD: How so?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: One of the big challenges that we have is that the play does not lead my character to that final speech in a way that is natural. Bradley’s just completely unselfish about it. In the beginning of the second act, when the hoi polloi show up to meet him, it just wasn’t clear that I had kind of replaced Ross, the circus master, as the new circus master, essentially, just with a different clientele.
“With the movies, you do your preparation on your own. It’s much more internalized and … the actual performance is a kind of, just trying to capture one moment at a time, for the first time.”
And that was so important for the audience to understand my self-loathing by the end of the play, and so he suggested that we re-stage that whole scene. At the beginning of the second act I look out over the audience, and button up my jacket and turn and there he is in this finery I’ve placed him in, and then I come, I fix his tie and then introduce him to all these people. And then he says all his lines almost to me like he’s been coached, he’s been told what to say and he’s uncomfortable with how to say it. So that’s kept it alive and changing and new.
But with the movies, you do your preparation, but you do it on your own. It’s much more internalized and you spend time reading and listening to music and watching things and observing people, but then the actual performance is a kind of, just trying to capture one moment at a time, for the first time.
JEREMY GERARD: How much has been affected by audience reaction to American Sniper?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: Strangely, it doesn’t feel any different at all. There were a thousand people outside the theater from the first preview after the show, and there are still a thousand people now.
JEREMY GERARD: What’s your next project coming out?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: Well, nothing. I’m going to try and do something between now and when we go to London, and we’ll see. It’s a pretty tight window. If I can’t slip something in there, then I’ll wait till the fall.
JEREMY GERARD: Everyone talks about how in the UK everything’s central in London so you can do it all, but here, we can’t. What was it like with your wife shooting The Newsroom in L.A. and you living in New York?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: It didn’t feel any different, really, when we first moved here, up until The Newsroom came along, because one or the other of us would go away on a filming stint and then come back and carry on. But when this thing came, it was just something that was exciting for her. We wanted to make it work.
JEREMY GERARD: Did you, at some point, make a decision that you were not going to change your name, and has it ever affected your career?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: There was absolutely nothing savvy about my early career as an actor. I had the least natural sense of self-promotion. It’s turned out to be kind of a late-blooming career. I’m having opportunities that I just didn’t have throughout my career. But I just didn’t have a clue, and nobody seemed to want to advise me about it. Had I changed my name, I would’ve given people an easier time of it, earlier on. Now, I don’t give a shit at all. I’ve always been proud of it, but there was a time where I felt like, “God, I wonder, the number of times I’ve had to sort of spell it, you know, had it pronounced wrong and people think I’m a girl,” you know what I mean?
It’s taken people a long time to connect the dots of my career, and it’s only now just starting to happen. People just don’t associate me with two or three of the roles that I’ve played, which I’m both proud of and it’s also been like, you know, part of why it’s taken this long. I feel like there’s a long road ahead of me, and I feel full of enthusiasm for it. I’ve been at it for a while. But I don’t feel long in the tooth.