Alessandro Nivola: The Sopranos film was one of the few times I was first choice

Cast in The Art of Self-Defense after another actor dropped out, Nivola had 24 hours to learn black belt karate. But his greatest victory, he says, was securing the lead in David Chase’s big screen Sopranos prequel

‘I would say a good percentage of the roles I’ve done have only come to me after somebody dropped out at the last minute,” says Alessandro Nivola. I assume he is being self-deprecating, but he assures me he is being honest. He is in London to talk about The Art of Self-Defense, a black comedy that holds toxic masculinity in its satirical crosshairs. “This one, I’m sure somebody did drop out because I was offered it a week before it started.”

At 47, Nivola is in the midst of a particularly fruitful period of his career. He has been a working actor since he left Yale in the mid-90s, but the last few years have taken him to a new level. There was Selma, You Were Never Really Here and a remarkable turn in Disobedience. On television, he co-starred with Robert De Niro in the Bernie Madoff film The Wizard of Lies and played Lee Berger in Channel 4’s adaptation of Chimerica.

If, as he says, he is usually the second choice, how is that for his ego? “I couldn’t give a shit, really. If I think it’s a great job, I’m only too happy that the other idiot decided he had better things to do.”

Nivola is an excellent and effusive storyteller. In The Art of Self-Defense, Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey, a loner who is beaten up by a gang and takes refuge in a karate class run by Nivola’s absurdly macho, ultra-violent Sensei. “I had just put my bags down in the hotel room and there was this loud knock on my door,” Nivola says, of his last-minute arrival on the project. “I opened it up and this very strong woman just pushed me out of the way and marched into my room – and announced that she was there to make me a black belt in 24 hours.”

Watch a trailer for The Art of Self-Defense, starring Alessandro Nivola and Jesse Eisenberg

He didn’t quite become a black belt, but it didn’t matter. “I mean, look, it was all for comic effect, the stuff that I had to do.” For a long time, the audience is not quite sure who or what Sensei is. “But I felt like the more convincing I could be, the more this particular deadpan style of humour would work. You’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh or be horrified or both at the same time.”

People often assume that Nivola is English. In fact, he was born and raised in Boston, US, but spent a good portion of his early career doing British films; and he is married to Emily Mortimer. “And it’s partly because I have a European name,” he adds. In the early days, his agent would be asked if he could do an American accent. He gets called Alejandro a lot. “Everyone assumes it’s Spanish. My father-in-law [the late barrister and author John Mortimer] called me Alfonso for the first three years that I was with Emily.” He pauses. “That may have been intentional.”

Nivola as Sensei in The Art of Self-Defense.
Nivola as Sensei in The Art of Self-Defense. Photograph: Bleecker Street

When we meet, he has just finished shooting The Many Saints of Newark, the film prequel to The Sopranos, in which he plays Dickie Moltisanti, father of Christopher. In this instance, the name worked in his favour. “I’m absolutely certain that my being the son of an Italian immigrant was a big factor in being offered that role by David [Chase, creator of The Sopranos] and I know it really mattered to him.”

Nivola brings the conversation back to The Sopranos film at every turn. He loves to research a role, and The Many Saints of Newark, which begins in 1967 and moves through the early 70s, provided a banquet of opportunity. “A friend’s friend was a priest in Newark. He had grown up in that neighbourhood and introduced me to all kinds of people there. You know, the connection between the mob and the church is notorious,” he says, laughing.

He starts to talk about the famous Newark mob boss, Richie “The Boot” Boiardo. “I think Coppola may have based some of Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather on this guy,” he explains. The priest took Nivola to one of the Catholic churches that had been built by Italian immigrants. “He showed me this incredible stained glass window and said, ‘Go and look up close.’

“I looked and it says, ‘Gift of Mr and Mrs Ruggiero Boiardo’.” He beams. “That’s Richie the Boot!”

He flicks through photos on his phone. “The weirdest thing happened,” he begins. “The day I got offered this job, my brother sent me this screenshot from an episode of The Sopranos where Tony is in Naples, and he’s in these underground catacombs. In the back of this photo was this sculpture. And this sculpture turns out to be made by my grandfather.”

Nivola’s grandfather was the sculptor Costantino Nivola, and there had been a travelling exhibition of his work when The Sopranos happened to be shooting in Naples. “I told David after they’d offered me the job and he just couldn’t believe it. He thought it was divine intervention or something.”

Nivola with his wife, British actor Emily Mortimer.
Nivola with his wife, English actor Emily Mortimer. Photograph: Greg Allen/Invision/AP

Nivola also met some real-life mobsters. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “I mean, I don’t have any dirt on anybody, but I had the opportunity to talk to somebody who introduced me to somebody else, who introduced me to somebody else and, finally, I was sitting at a table with a bunch of guys who really were living this life. Trying to determine whether these guys are imitating the movies or the movies are imitating them is such a tricky thing.”

In fact, the person who made the introduction told him not to mention The Sopranos because he was worried they would start to play to type. “They just thought I was a friend of his. But if those real guys had been in a movie, you would have thought it was a send-up of a mob movie.”

Nivola as photojournalist Lee Berger in the Channel 4 drama Chimerica.
Nivola as photojournalist Lee Berger in the Channel 4 drama Chimerica. Photograph: Playground/© Playground

I ask about James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, playing the young Tony Soprano, but Nivola starts to worry about how much he can say. “I just don’t want David to kill me,” he reasons. “I can maybe give you a little bit of a feel for it. Dickie was a kind of mentor figure to Tony as a young guy. I think Tony and everyone else in that neighbourhood saw this guy as a perfect man and the story of this movie really reveals otherwise.”

There are “big Greek themes running through it”, and it is set against the backdrop of the late-60s race riots. “It’s a big part of the fabric of the story, the relations between the Italian-American community and the black community in Newark at that time. The main thing is that this character is, like all of David’s heroes, incredibly complex, morally complex, and just full of kind of every colour that you could imagine.” He sighs happily. “It was something I could have spent years working on.”

Now he is thinking about what comes next. He is working on a film with Ethan Hawke, about the fractious relationship between the 1950s vocal duo, the Louvin Brothers. Phil Morrison, who directed Nivola in Junebug, is in line to direct. From an outside perspective, it looks as if his career is the best it has ever been. “Yeah,” he nods, smiling. Then he turns back to The Sopranos once again. “I had been feeling over these past several years that something was brewing, but I never could have guessed that whatever the thing was would be as great as that.”

The Art of Self-Defense is released on download on 4 November


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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