Inspired by the true story of director/writer David M. Rosenthal, Janie Jones follows rocker Ethan Brand (Alessandro Nivola), whose former flame (Elisabeth Shue) drops a 13-year-old girl (Abigail Breslin) in his lap, with the surprise news that she is his daughter. On the road in an attempt to get his career back, Ethan’s self-destructive behavior not only threatens the group’s future, but also any chance of having a relationship with his child. Once the two are left alone, Janie displays her own musical talent, giving the two something to bond over.
At the film’s press day, actor Alessandro Nivola spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how he was cast in this role only a week prior to shooting, that co-star Frank Whaley’s band The Niagras was the inspiration for his character’s performance style, that he felt the music was really well written for the role, and how natural and uncensored Abigail Breslin is, as an actress. He also talked about his next role in the film Redemption, written by Louis Mellis (who wrote Sexy Beast) and co-starring his real-life wife, Emily Mortimer. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: No, it came out of the blue. I had been in France for four months, shooting Coco Before Chanel, which was this movie I did with Audrey Tautou that was all in French. I had just come back and was so beaten up by the whole experience. As wonderful as the movie was, it was just really difficult to make because I had to speak French through the whole movie and my French wasn’t that good. It was just pretty painful.
So, I got home and I was convalescing after the shoot, and they just sent the script to me. I think somebody else had been attached and dropped out, and they were starting in a week. I read it and they sent me the music, and I felt like it was something that, as much of a departure as it was from what I had just finished, it would be a great thing to do, and I really liked the music, so off I went.
When you have so little time before you have to start a project, is it more exciting for you because you can’t stop to over-think it, or is it more nerve-wracking because you don’t have time to think about it?
NIVOLA: That’s a good question. Every experience has been different. There are so many factors that go into how you feel, as a performer, on any given movie, that it’s really hard to identify which things are the things that help you be good, and which are the things that hinder you. I’ve had times where I’ve had very little time to prepare, that have been really exciting and liberating, and I’ve had times where I’ve had no time to prepare, that have just been terrible. And, I’ve had times where I’ve had endless amounts of research and build-up to the job, where it’s really paid off and I’ve given some of my most fully realized performances, and then other times, it’s just been stale.
So much of it’s to do with the director, really. With films, it’s all down to the director. Even your performance, in the context of the film, can be brilliant or mediocre, depending on how the movie is put together, how the story is told, how it’s shot, how the tone of the movie is set by the director, and how the performances around you are. It’s often a frustrating thing, being an actor, because you have no control over any of that. All you can do is try to be in this childlike state, throughout the course of the filming, where you’re just trying to be as spontaneous and in-the-moment as you can. It’s not your responsibility to have the bigger picture in mind. But, the downside is that then, a lot of times, you’re disappointed by the movies that are made around you. There are so many things that have to go right for a movie to be good that it’s a miracle whenever one is. It’s such a collaborative art form, if you want to call it that.
Because when audiences meet this guy at the beginning of the film, he’s already a complete disaster, did you give any thought about the path that got him there and where he came from before we meet him?
NIVOLA: Yeah. I think that he was from a very rich family, but was really neglected by his parents. His dad died when he was fairly young, and I don’t know how close he was with his dad, but he is convinced that his dad was a wonderful guy. That may have been something that he imagined, after his dad died, because he wasn’t that close with his mother. But, he had some kind of relationship with him that’s gone. And, his mother is an alcoholic and just didn’t seem to pay him that much attention. So, he’s spoiled by wealth, but also a damaged person who is unloved, really. And then, he’s a talented musician who had both the desire to be a good musician and also was rebelling against his family and his fancy upbringing by trying to shove his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in their face. It was not a legitimate career, for his mother to have her son be involved with.
As I was playing him, he has a very combative, confrontational style of performing and rapport with his audience where he tends to want to create some kind of discomfort between himself and the audience, and it runs a fine line between being exciting and slightly crazy and edgy, and then just being obnoxious and horrible and depressing. As we find him in the movie, and as with so many indie bands, their popularity is waning and they didn’t have a breakthrough album, in the way that they needed. He’s watching his career disintegrate around him, and it’s just fueling this anger and depression, and he’s just thrashing around like a hooked fish. That pushes his performance and drinking to a really unattractive place, which just further alienates his fans and the people that have good will towards him, like his manager and the rest of his band. There’s a self-destructive will to just destroy it all. If it’s going to just seep away, he feels like it’s better to just fuck the whole thing, all at once. That’s what I imagined was going through his head, at the moment that Janie enters into his life.
Did you watch anyone, as far as getting inspiration for his performance style?
NIVOLA: So, the guy who plays the drummer in the band, Frank Whaley, is a great actor and he’s an old friend of mine from New York. When I was starting out in New York, he had been in a bunch of movies. He’s a little bit older than me. He was also in a rock band, called The Niagras, that used to play this weekly gig at this place in the Village called Mondo Cane, and I used to go there with all of our friends, every time. He played drums, and his brother, Robert, was the singer. He and his brother had this really tense relationship, similar to the one that I have with him, in the movie.
His brother was a really outrageous performer. He played trumpet, and then he would sing and dance. And then, he’d get up and take his clothes off. And then, he would sit and talk to the audience for long periods of time, and Frank would be left at the drums. Or, in the middle of a song, he’d turn around and yell at Frank about his playing. There was just that sense of, “Holy fuck! What is this guy going to do next?” Similarly, he was really sexy for awhile, and then it just got out of control. The whole band just fell apart. I don’t know how his relationship with Frank is now, but they had a period where they just couldn’t really deal with each other. I took a lot of my inspiration from having watched him perform.
Did having all the tattoos also help you find this character?
NIVOLA: Yeah, every little thing about your physicality, the things that you wear and the way that you look, have a huge impact on performance, for me. I definitely pay a lot of attention to all of that, and sometimes I start that way. A lot of other things just follow from that, psychologically. I love costumes. I love getting dressed up because it really helps my imagination make the leap to believe that I am who I say I am. The tattoos were great. I spent a lot of time thinking about what images I wanted. We made them all, from things that I showed them that I wanted.
I had just done this movie, a year before, where I played Leonard Chess in this movie called Who Do You Love, that was a biopic about Leonard Chess. I had just loved all that blues music, and we filmed down in New Orleans. A lot of indie rockers have guys like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and all of those bands, as their heroes. So, I had one tattoo that was Muddy Waters’ face, and then I had the Chess records logo on my arm. That was all just taken from that other movie, but it was in my mind, at the time. And then, I had this “E” on my neck, which was my character’s first initial. I wanted to just push the narcissism as far as I could go, so it was almost silly, and then it would be funny. You can’t really go too far with any of this shit.
NIVOLA: It was a pleasant surprise, when I heard the music. When I read the script, I was like, “Well, it’s all going to depend on the music because the music is going to define what the character is. You know, the minute you hear the songs, what kind of musician it’s going to be.” And, I loved Eef Barzelay’s music. He recorded these demos for it. It’s very hard to write music for a film because you’re writing about somebody else’s experience, and I thought that he had done it expertly. The one lucky thing was that his vocal register and mine are very similar.
The only other time that I had to record music for a movie was for Laurel Canyon, and Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse had written the two songs that I sang in that movie, which were a completely different vocal register for me. That was cool, in a way, because it was a total vocal transformation for me to sing them. One song, “Shade & Honey,” was really low, and I just drank lots of whiskey and smoked lots of cigarettes before I recorded it. But, these were songs that I could really sing out on, in my own register, in a place that was comfortable for me. That was just lucky. Somebody else had been cast in this role, so they weren’t written for me.
But, the most important thing was that the music helps define the character and is an extension of the character somehow, so that you are able to use both the songs themselves and the way that you sing them to tell something about the character and his story, as well as develop a performance style. In the early stages of the film, I wanted his punky performance style to be really angry and funny and weird, and just untethered. And then, for the scenes that he’s not performing, I wanted him to just be lifeless and have a hard time just getting it up to have a conversation with anybody. I thought the music was really well written for the role. There’s also a progression of the music, from these more rock ‘n’ roll songs to the more folksy stuff that comes later on.
NIVOLA: She’s just this strange mixture of a little girl and this old soul, who’s obviously had so much experience and is so worldly, in some ways, and then in other ways, she’s been so sheltered because she spent most of her time in her mother with hotel rooms and at the mall. Those two things, side by side, make her a really unusual character. She’s just a natural. She’s not self-conscious, which I was, at that age. I can’t imagine being 13 and not censoring myself.
There was no real moment, from where we were sitting around talking to when we were filming, where something would change and suddenly she’d start performing. It was all just an extension of herself. Sometimes you’ll be acting with somebody and you’ll be waiting for the take, so you’re just sitting there and talking to them. And then, they say, “Okay, action!,” and everything changes in the person’s face and their voice, and they get their intense actor gaze. It all just flowed one into the other with her, which helped to create that easy reality between us, in scenes. This was one of the first adult-ish parts that she was having to play, but she never really seemed fazed by anything. It was kind of intimidating. Don’t they say never to act with children or animals?
What are you going to be working on next?
NIVOLA: I am making a movie that was written by a guy named Louis Mellis, who wrote Sexy Beast with Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone. He’s a Scottish guy, and it’s this fantastic script that I’m also producing with Ted Hope, who produced all the films of Ang Lee, Michel Gondry and Todd Solondz. It’s a Hitchcock-type movie. It’s about an English guy, who is a French art expert at Sotheby’s. He has a very comfortable, well-to-do life. And, a colleague of his gets knifed in London, by some hoodlums, and he starts obsessing about it, in the sense of feeling his own vulnerability. He can’t stop thinking about it, and he can’t get it out of his mind. He finally manages to get this gun, but in England, nobody has a gun. So, he doesn’t show it to anybody. He just keeps it in his pocket and makes his way through his life, as he always did. Slowly, it just starts to change his behavior, in really subtle ways. He starts checking himself into a hotel room, every lunch time, just to take it out and let it sit there. I won’t tell you what happens because there’s a twist and there are exciting plot turns, but he becomes his best self, at least for awhile. He becomes more confident, and more sexually confident with his wife. I’ll leave it at that. It’s called Respectable. (Real life wife) Emily [Mortimer] is going to play my wife. We haven’t made a movie together, since we met. It’s been a long time coming.