In Who Do You Love, directed by Jerry Zaks and opening in limited release Friday (4/9/10), actor Alessandro Nivola plays record mogul Leonard Chess, whose label helped create contemporary urban blues and rhythm and blues -- and rock'n'roll -- in Chicago in the mid-1950s.
In one of those confluences of the movie zeitgeist, it was one of two biopics about Chess being shot at the same time; the other, Darnell Martin's Cadillac Records, opened at the end of 2008. Nivola, who has starred in films as varied as Junebug and Jurassic Park III and who lives in Brooklyn with wife Emily Mortimer and their two kids, took time recently to chat about the film.
Q: When you were filming Who Do You Love, were you aware that there was another Leonard Chess movie in production at the same time?
A: We knew the other film was being shot. But I wanted to do this one because I've been obsessed with the blues and I thought it was a good script. And it was personal to Jerry.
Q: In what way?
A: As a story of a Jewish immigrant having to make it in the big city, it spoke to him. Jerry used to say, "There are tough Jews and there are placating Jews. I'm a placating Jew. Leonard Chess was a tough Jew."
Q: Leonard Chess has a bad reputation in some quarters for business practices that were, shall we say, questionable. What did you think of him?
A: I've heard stories about how he exploited the artists. To what extent he did or didn't, I don't know. He adored black culture but he was a businessman. And he was working with people who were not at all savvy about money. Muddy Waters came from plantation work. I thought the whole relationship was fascinating. But there's a fascinating relationship between Jews and blacks in general. The film also looks at the roles Jews played in bringing the arts to a commercial reality when nobody wanted to get involved. That sort of music was considered to be low class. But the Jews stepped in and found a market in music. It was the same thing with movies. As for the relationship between artists and producers, that's always been complicated and interesting. Both the Jews and the blacks are part of the underclass. Leonard in particularly felt more comfortable being around black people than being around the goyim. And he was an incredibly ambitious guy.
Q: He also seemed to treat them alternately as friends and as employees. Was there a conflict of interest?
A: Chess was acting on behalf of the artist as a manager as well as running the record label. So the musicians didn't have anybody to handle their assets. The Chess brothers were in control. Muddy would come in and say, 'I need a new Cadillac' - and Leonard would get him one. Sometimes it was unclear if it was a gift or if it was coming out of Muddy's pocket. There were a lot of gray areas.