Alessandro Nivola: All-American, Always European


Actor Alessandro Nivola has something he'd like people to know: He's not British. Nor French, Italian, Irish, or Australian. As he told me last week, he'd forgive you for thinking otherwise, but in real life, Nivola's just a regular old Boston native who speaks with an utterly neutral voice.

Of course, Nivola himself would be the first to admit he's made things difficult for people. In his biggest roles, he's employed some sort of odd voice or accent (typically a British one, as in Laurel Canyon or Mansfield Park) and he shows off two more in theaters now: In the new film Turning Green, he's an Irish thug, and in Coco Before Chanel, he plays a Brit who speaks in fluent French throughout the picture. Do people in the industry ever forget that he's an American? "American?" laughed the affable actor. "When have people ever thought that about me?"

It wasn't always supposed to be this way. "I didn't imagine I would be in foreign films," Nivola confessed. "It was completely by accident. I started off as an actor thinking that I would be this Romeo, this dashing leading man. It turns out that I'm a character actor."

After breaking out as Nicolas Cage's squirrelly brother in Face/Off, Nivola was offered the sort of part he'd been anticipating: a romantic lead role in Michael Winterbottom's next film. If he'd taken it, it's easy to imagine a different path for the actor, but when Harvey Weinstein pulled financing for the movie, Winterbottom regrouped and sent Nivola a very different script: Instead of playing an American heartthrob, Winterbottom wanted him to play a South Coast Londoner straight out of prison in I Want You.

"It was the most preposterous casting," said Nivola. "I was terrified that I would be made fun of by English actors who thought, 'I should have that role.'" It was the first job where Nivola devoted himself to learning an accent, and he moved to Hastings for two months to live the life of his character and learn the affectations of his speech and class. It took a physical toll he was unprepared for. "Since it was the first time I'd done it," he recalled, "I had these painful headaches from using my jaw in all sorts of uncomfortable ways."

Still, the role led to even more accented characters in other films, and Nivola found himself embracing the unexpected career turn. "I wasn't comfortable playing roles like myself -- for a long time, at least," he said. "I never had a strong sense of myself. Also, any time there's something obviously distinctive about a character, it's a good starting point. It's a gift. When you speak in another accent, it affects you. You can't help but be changed by it."

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