Alessandro Nivola has always been an actor’s actor, but in the last handful of years, audiences are catching up to the fact that he’s one of the most versatile performers in town. From an Orthodox rabbi in Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience to Tony Soprano’s tragic mentor in The Many Saints of Newark, Nivola has that unique ability to disappear into his characters. The Boston native is currently starring alongside Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza in Jeff Baena’s Spin Me Round, which subverts the romantic comedy genre in a welcomed way. Nivola is mostly known for drama, but he’s grateful for Riley Stearns’ indie black comedy The Art of Self-Defense (2019), as it’s created more and more comedic opportunities for him.
Nivola recently reunited with his A Most Violent Year director J.C. Chandor in Kraven the Hunter, and he appreciates that his first foray into the superhero genre happened in the most grounded way possible. The Sony-Marvel film was shot entirely on location, and Nivola didn’t have to shoot in front of a green screen.
“I only transform, physically, in the final moments of the movie, so it’s just a classic villain role,” Nivola tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It had a really interesting, complex psychology and personal history to draw on, and the movie has a time jump in it, so the character changes a lot from the way he is in the beginning of the film. It was as much of an acting opportunity as any other film I’ve done.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Nivola also discusses the “totally exhilarating” process behind David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, before opening up about his relationship with long-time friend and neighbor, Ethan Hawke.
To start in an unexpected place, I sometimes listen to a recommended playlist based on music I’ve played on YouTube, and Alessandro Nivola’s “Shade and Honey” cover from Laurel Canyon always catches my ear. Are you proud of your rendition?
Yeah, I remember at the time feeling a little bit sheepish around [late Sparklehorse frontman] Mark Linkous because Lisa Cholodenko actually put him in a scene in the film. I hadn’t met him at the time that I’d recorded the song, and then there was a big party scene at the Chateau Marmont. So Daniel Lanois and all these famous music people that Lisa was friends with were there. She got them to come to the Chateau, and so we just had a big party with all those guys. They were just roaming around with the camera, and that was the first time that I’d actually met Mark.
And so I just remember thinking, “Oh God, did he think that I fucked up his song?” I mean, it was basically a completely different song than the version that he’d recorded. It was almost unrecognizable, but the process of recording it was one of the most enjoyable parts of making the movie because Fran [McDormand] came with me to all the sessions. We just kept demoing it a million different ways with a great music producer named Mickey Petralia. So Fran and I would go together to the studio once a week, and we would do all these demos. We’d drink whiskey and basically just live the lives of the characters. (Laughs.) And then, after the tenth different version, we finally settled on the version you’ve heard.
So with Spin Me Round, the prospect of working with Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza is certainly appealing, but when someone says you’ll be shooting on a yacht in Italy, do you need to hear anything else before committing?
(Laughs.) There was no hard sell. It’s funny because after [filmmaker Riley Stearns’] The Art of Self-Defense, I started getting asked to do those kinds of movies a lot more. And I love it. I want to do more of it. This particular group was a very tight-knit group, and they’d all worked with [writer-director] Jeff [Baena] before. It’s almost like he has this ensemble of actors who do all his movies with him. And on top of that, they’ve all known each other from Upright Citizens Brigade and all of the improv stuff that they started out doing. So it’s a kind of a club. It’s actually amazing how little crossover there is, socially, between the funny crowd and serious crowd. I’ve been making movies for more years than I can count on two hands, and I had never met or even had anybody in common with almost all of them. So I was this kind of alien that had been dropped into their midst, which was both intimidating, but also great. We all stayed in this hotel together in Tuscany, outside of Lucca, and my face hurt after dinner every night because of not being able to draw a breath from just laughing at them.
Your character’s Mafia game meltdown is hilarious, especially his tearful line, “It was supposed to be my Spago, my Chez Panisse.”
(Laughs.) That was the first scene that I had to shoot. I had never met any of the cast, and it’s a big swing of a scene. The whole trick with Jeff’s movies is to just play everything for real. None of it is self-consciously trying to be a comedic acting style. It’s very deadpan. It’s not the same as Riley Stearns’ movies, tonally, but everybody is playing it really, really straight. So in my first scene, I had to cry before meeting any of these guys. I was dumped in at the deep end.
Your character, Nick, is also shown in a commercial for his Italian restaurant chain, and you’re a natural spokesman in the ad. Did you do any commercial work back in the day that gave you a leg up on this?
(Laughs.) No, I’ve never even auditioned for commercials, but for years, I’ve auditioned for voiceover work and never gotten one. So maybe this will convince people that they have to rethink the situation.
I spoke to your friend/neighbor Ethan Hawke a couple months ago, and I referenced the story of how he bumped into Oscar Isaac at a Brooklyn coffee shop and left with a Marvel role. So then I jokingly asked if you got your Marvel role at the same Brooklyn coffee shop, and he proceeded to keel over with laughter.
But you probably didn’t have to go very far for the Kraven the Hunter gig given your history with J.C. Chandor, right?
Yeah, it was all from having worked with him before on A Most Violent Year, and it’s funny because up until this year, no director had ever hired me twice. And then in one year, David O. Russell put me in a second movie [Amsterdam], as did J.C., so maybe this ship is turning around. (Laughs.) But the most enticing part about Kraven was that J.C. was gonna direct it; we had such a great time on A Most Violent Year. I also knew Chris Abbott from A Most Violent Year, and so it was kind of a reunion in that way.
These movies all have a certain formula to them, but J.C. said that he wanted to shoot all on location. The physical ability of the characters in the movie is also more grounded in reality. People aren’t flying around or anything. J.C. described it as the most incredible Olympic athlete you’ve ever seen. Moreover, the role, which I’m not yet allowed to disclose, was just a real acting opportunity for me. You’ll see. It’s just a great character part, and I didn’t have to do any CGI. I didn’t have to do any green screen. I only transform, physically, in the final moments of the movie, so it’s just a classic villain role. It had a really interesting, complex psychology and personal history to draw on, and the movie has a time jump in it, so the character changes a lot from the way he is in the beginning of the film. It was as much of an acting opportunity as any other film I’ve done, and I didn’t have to contend with wearing a spandex outfit or anything like that. (Laughs.)
I was quite fond of your work as Dickie Moltisanti in The Many Saints of Newark, and I remember you saying that Ethan doubted you during your pursuit of the role. Did he eventually issue you a mea culpa?
(Laughs.) It wasn’t that he doubted that the performance I gave in my audition deserved to win me the role. He was basically just saying, “The right people never get hired, and so you’ll be fucked.” (Laughs.) And I fully agreed with him. So I think it came as a surprise to both of us when they did offer it to me, but it wasn’t because he thought that I came up short in the audition.
You touched on Amsterdam already, but it’s also a Laurel Canyon and American Hustle reunion for you and Christian Bale, although I’m not sure if you have scenes together or not. I think you had just one in American Hustle. Anyway, what can you say about Amsterdam?
Yeah, we do have scenes together in Amsterdam. David O. Russell’s filming style has been described so many times, so it’s probably not news to anybody, but it’s just the most unusual way of filmmaking. I’ve never experienced anything close to it with anybody else. I like to describe him as like a Glenn Gould. Glenn Gould was this virtuoso pianist who famously recorded Bach: The Goldberg Variations. You should listen to them because they’re just incredible. It’s just him and the piano, and when he would play, he would sing and hum to himself while he was actually playing. And on the recordings, you can actually hear him humming along to what he’s playing and singing the notes out loud to himself. And in a similar way, that’s what David does. He talks throughout the takes, and he tells you what to say while the camera is rolling. But he doesn’t do it quietly. He yells it out. And so it’s like having a voice in your ear, telling you what to say, and then you just say it.
The first time I worked with him was really terrifying because I didn’t know what he was going to come up with. You just have no idea what’s going to happen next at every moment, and you have no control. He really controls the whole thing, like a sort of puppet master or whatever. And he’s improvising. He’s written the script, so it’s clear what’s supposed to happen in the scene, but then he starts improvising based off of his own script, usually with jokes. And then he just feeds them out to everybody, and somehow, they cut out his voice from the takes in post. I don’t know how they do it, but they do. So I just find it totally exhilarating, especially coming into this one.
I really knew what it was going to be like because I had worked with him before on American Hustle. I knew the drill, and before you start, you have to have a very clearly defined character. You have to know your voice, your physicality and everything has to be very specific and comfortable to you before you start. And then you can just completely abandon any kind of plan that you might have about how to play the scene and just be there and allow somebody to kind of talk through you. It’s bracing, but really thrilling, too. I definitely couldn’t make every movie that way, but once every few years or whatever, I come away from those experiences with the feeling that surprising things happened.
I’m also looking forward to Matt Ruskin’s Boston Strangler. Did you discover the virtue of Carrie Coon on that set?
I did, but all my stuff is really with Keira [Knightley]. Almost every scene that I’m in is just me and her. So I didn’t really get to dig into some scenes with Carrie, but I hung out with her on set and she just seems so bright and talented. She’s just a brilliant actress, and I’m sure she’s going to be amazing in the movie.
I spoke to Rachel McAdams a couple months ago for her Marvel movie, and I gushed about Disobedience most of the time. She’s convinced it made her a better person. Did that movie affect you a great deal as well? Do you think that role had a hand in this hot streak you’re on right now?
Yes. I mean, I definitely consider that role to be among my top-three best. I certainly prepared more for it than any other role I’ve done, except for Many Saints of Newark. The preparation for the role was the most interesting and unusual experience that I’ve ever had, just because I was entering into a kind of closed community that I only was able to penetrate due to the fact that I was playing that role and that people in the Orthodox community were either sort of seduced by the Hollywood side of it or skeptical that I was gonna misrepresent them. (Laughs.) Or it was some combination of both. So I really was allowed to have a close encounter that I never would’ve had otherwise. Emotionally, I just really understood the character, maybe more than any other role I’ve played. And when it came to that synagogue speech, I felt very emotionally present, maybe more than I ever have. I’m playing another Jewish guy now …
On the Apple TV+ series The Big Cigar? [Writer’s Note: Nivola plays Easy Rider producer Bert Schneider, who helped Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton (Andre Holland) flee to Cuba to avoid a murder charge.]
Yeah, this role is as far from an Orthodox rabbi as it could be. It’s a sort of coke-addicted Hollywood playboy film producer, but it’s funny that I’ve ended up playing these Jewish roles so frequently. I have a Jewish grandmother, but it’s on my dad’s side, so it doesn’t count.
Do you have a lot of close actor friends, or is Ethan the exception?
I’m in touch with a lot of actors who are supportive of me and I’m supportive of them, but I don’t really have a lot of close friends anywhere. I mean, once you’re married and have children, your life becomes so insular and focused on your family, but Ethan and I got to be friends, initially, in a different capacity. He directed me in this Sam Shephard play called A Lie of the Mind, and we had known each other for many years before that when I first started coming to New York. So we met in our early twenties, I guess, but it wasn’t until he cast me in that play that we became friends.
So we went through that whole process together, and that’s where we really became close. And then, I was living in Brooklyn, in Boerum Hill, and he came over to my house and was like, “I need to move here.” And within three months, he had bought a house on my block, so the proximity of where he lives just meant that we could spend a huge amount of time together. Our kids go to the same school, and so our lives have become so intertwined because of that.
Do you guys jam ever?
All the time. We’ve been trying to get this movie off the ground for a couple of years now about these country singers called the Louvin Brothers. The movie is called Satan Is Real, and Phil Morrison is going to direct. He did Junebug that I was in, and we started putting it together right when the pandemic started, so everything got fouled up with our financing as a result. We’re trying to piece it back together now, and hopefully we can because it’s all Ethan and I singing and playing together.
Spin Me Round is now available in theaters and on AMC+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.