The star of David M. Rosenthal's rock indie can act, but his soulful duets with Abigail Breslin will leave you jonesing for the album. Janie Jones opens Friday, October 28, in theaters and on VOD.
Kristin McCracken: Tell us a little about Janie Jones.
Alessandro Nivola: It’s a father-daughter story about a man who discovers he has a daughter he never knew about who has already lived a considerable amount of her life. It’s set in the world of a traveling indie rock band, and I play a man who, at the beginning of the film, is extremely narcissistic and forced to contend with the existence of someone in his life who is as important or maybe more important than he is.
KMc: What attracted you to the role? What did you like about it when you read it?
AN: Well, I think that the whole question of how one can be an artist or a performer of any kind and have another side of your life that involves children and family is a really interesting one [laughs], given the fact that I’m an actor and I’ve got two kids and a wife and find it really difficult.
KMc: And your wife, Emily Mortimer, is an actress too.
AN: She is, so if it wasn’t hard enough already… But Ethan is a character who is at a moment in his life where he could potentially give up what he is doing because it’s not going so well, but he has some kind of compulsion to keep going. Whether that is to do with some kind of escapism or just a creative urge I don’t know, but I liked the idea that he really only feels alive when he’s onstage and that he has two very different personas: one in performance and one in private. Onstage he’s a really animated, insane performer, and privately he’s kind of a depressive. Having to suddenly take care of somebody when the pattern of your life is purely based around self-indulgence, and trying to satisfy some need to get out of your own skin, feel the moment of euphoria that you feel when you do drugs or give a performance, I thought was something that would be pretty exciting to explore.
KMc: Were you particularly musical before Janie Jones? Did you have a musical background? Was there training involved for this role?
AN: Yeah, I’ve played a lot of instruments, and I played in a lot of bands growing up and I’ve even had to play music in a lot of films that I’ve done. I first had to record music for Laurel Canyon, in which I played an English sort of “Brit Pop” guy and recorded these two songs, which the late Mark Linkous from Sparklehorse wrote for the movie. I never had any professional ambitions towards music or rock & roll or anything like that, but I’m very used to performing and I’ve done it a lot and I’ve always found that singing is more freeing than other types of performance. Even though I haven’t made it the main focus of my career at all, there is something about it that allows me to feel less self-conscious than I do with other kinds of performance. It’s something to do with being forced to get your voice out, as oppose to acting, where the tendency can often be to swallow yourself. And you can do it drunk! [laughs]
KMc: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?
AN: I think that really we knew we were on our way with the movie from the recording sessions for the music. I read the script first, which I really loved, but it was a very simple story. What made it original was not the structure of its plotting, which was fairly conventional, but the way that it was heartfelt and that the director, David M. Rosenthal, was telling his own life story through this film. This actually happened to him. He wasn’t a singer — the setting of the band and everything else was invented — but he discovered late in life that he had a 12-year-old. There was something about the script that felt very truthful and touching because the story had its heart on its sleeve.
But getting back to the recording sessions, I felt that if the music sucked, the movie would never be any good, no matter how well the roles were acted, how well it was cast etc., because the music was such a prominent part of the movie. Ethan and his daughter get to know each other through music, so if the songs sucked it was just going to ruin the whole movie. And it’s really hard to write music for film, because even if you’re a great musician, you’re not writing the songs from some deeply personal place. You’re trying to imagine what somebody else is going through, and satisfy certain things that are going on in the story at any given point in time.
KMc: Who wrote the songs for Janie Jones?
AN: Eef Barzelay, who plays in the indie band Clem Snide, which is based out of Nashville. He wrote these great songs for the film, and when I first listened to them it really put the world and the character and everything into a clear focus. I knew what kind of a musician he was then, and what kind of music they were playing. But I was only given these songs two weeks before we started shooting and had two days to record them.
It was the complete opposite of Laurel Canyon, where we had two months to record just two tracks for the film — and they were heavily produced because we reinterpreted the songs a lot from the original demos that Mark Linkous had done. For that film, we went over the songs again and again, and Frances McDormand, who played my producer in the film, and I would hang out in the studio drinking whiskey and just living the life and having a great time.
For Janie Jones, we had 10 or 12 songs we had to record, and there were no other musicians or a record producer. We just went into this little studio in Des Moines (where we shot the film), and we completed all the recordings live in just two days. I’m playing the guitar and singing at the same time, and we weren’t even separating the tracks because we were under such a tight schedule. So I was literally just strumming through them maybe three times each before we were like, “OK, let’s move on.” But there was something really satisfying about that because they sound live, and they’re meant to be played live. There were one or two things that we actually played live in the film, like the scene in the Laundromat, but everything else was pre-recorded.
KMc: Can you talk about how you and Abigail Breslin developed your relationship for the film? She is terrific.
AN: Yeah, she’s an incredible actress ... Abigail is just strangely comfortable in her own skin at an age (15) when most people are deeply uncomfortable — at least I was. She doesn’t have any vanity, and she’s not trying to be more grown up than she is. A lot of the time with child actors, you get the feeling they’re trying to have a kind of poise or presentation that’s beyond their years that might be put on, but also might be because they’ve spent years just hanging out with adults and they don’t even have a sense of what it's like to grow up with kids their own age. But for some reason she doesn’t have that. She’s just this delightful, young girl who’s kind of goofy and really bright, and just instinctively very sensitive and emotionally available. The way that she was able to summon up the vulnerability she reveals in the film was so impressive.
KMc: Did you guys hit it off right away?
AN: Yeah. Our relationship in real life kind of mirrored our relationship in the movie, in the sense that we had a natural affinity towards each other, but didn’t know each other well at all. Initially there was the awkwardness that you always have when you’re first working with someone, and there was no real rehearsal. I think the first scene we shot was me with my shirt off showing her all my tattoos and I’m like, “Check out this naked lady’s ass on my shoulder!”
KMc: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
AN: Ok, my choice of actor would be Elias Koteas. At the moment, he’s my favorite actor. I think that he’s a total genius. We were in a movie together actually, but didn’t have any scenes together, so I didn’t even meet him.
And my choice of director would be someone with nearly the same name, Elia Kazan, because, apart from wanting to ask him about naming names, I just would want to hear about what it was like to have made the movies that he did. He managed to combine a style of performance that was very modern and naturalistic, partly ushered in by Marlon Brando and other people he was working with, but with these films that had big moral and political stakes. I think that’s such a hard thing to marry, because when you’re dealing with big, dramatic storylines like that, it's very hard to allow the performance style to settle into something that’s quiet and real. So I’d love to meet up with him sometime.
KMc: What would your biopic be called?
Janie Jones opens theatrically on Friday, October 28, in New York and Seattle, with more cities to follow. Alessandro Nivola, Abigail Breslin, and director David M. Rosenthal will be on hand for a Q&A following the 7:00 pm screening on Friday, October 28, and will introduce the 9:55 screening, both at Village East Cinema in New York. Get tickets!
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