Alessandro Nivola: Hiding in plain sight

The American actor Alessandro Nivola likes playing the chameleon. The only problem, as he tells Ryan Gilbey, is that no one knows who he is
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When I first see Alessandro Nivola, the 31-year-old Italian-American who is the brightest thing about the new comedy Laurel Canyon (see Charlotte O'Sullivan's review), he is striding along the Portobello Road in London wearing a chunky jumper, faded jeans and battered brown boots. He has short, mousy hair and the features of a reformed hardnut; he resembles a gentler Tim Roth, one who would not steal your dinner money. At his side, a mobile phone clamped to her ear, is his wife, the actress Emily Mortimer. Worryingly, they are heading in the opposite direction from the brasserie where I am due to meet Nivola. We all dither uncertainly on the white lines in the middle of the road, before he introduces me to Mortimer and promises that he is not fleeing the interview before it has begun.

Sure enough, he returns without Mortimer and proceeds to babble excitedly about the new movie as we sit down for lunch. He only became a father three weeks ago, and the fact that he has cleared space in his pressing timetable of domestic responsibility to talk about Laurel Canyon underlines his belief in Lisa Cholodenko's film, not to mention his desire to make sure it gets seen. When he keeps steering our meandering conversation back to the movie, it is not in that pushy way of a professional flogging product; after all, it was he who suggested to the distributor that the film might benefit from some promotion. He seems energised by discussing his portrayal of Ian, a chipper English rock star who is first seen smoking a bong, but who gets his biggest high from a sunny, unselfconscious romance with an older producer, played by Frances McDormand.

He believes it's the best part he's had since his breakthrough role as Nicolas Cage's kid brother in John Woo's Face/Off (1997). Before that, he was content to have fulfilled his dream of acting on stage, after an adolescence spent in drama schools. Creativity, if not performing, was in his blood. His Italian grandfather, sculptor Costantino Nivola, came to New York during the war and became part of a community of abstract expressionists.

I ask Nivola about the time Jackson Pollock came to see him act in a play. "I don't know what you're talking about," he says, giggling sweetly, "but I'm curious." He is very gracious when it turns out that I have my facts back-to-front. "There is a Pollock connection, though," he says, consoling me. "He was a friend of my grandfather's. He gave him one of his first splatter paintings. My grandfather said, 'Ugh, I don't like this splatter business,' and gave it straight back."

Nivola got the stamp of approval from his grandfather, an imperious man who had been known to simply dismiss those students whom he considered unpromising. "As a young man of 13, it was a major hurdle for me to have him see me act. But if he'd hated it, it wouldn't have stopped me. I was already hooked."

He realised his ambition of performing on Broadway by the time he was 23. When he was there in 1995, starring alongside Helen Mirren in A Month in the Country, his peers were acting on the same street - Billy Crudup, Jude Law, Rufus Sewell, Damien Lewis. Just imagine if a bomb had dropped on Broadway. Anyway, Nivola was the odd one out.

"We all used to hang out together, but everyone else was going off to movie auditions," he muses, still sounding vaguely perplexed at the idea. "I didn't want to live my life in obscurity, but I just never had those ambitions. I suddenly thought: 'Oh, I wanna do that too.'" After landing a few days work on the little-seen Inventing the Abbotts, he was cast in Face/Off. "I read the script and thought, 'Oh, this is one of those piece-of-shit things you do to get experience.' I had no idea it would be as good as it was."

He gave an eye-catching, scene-stealing performance from beneath a carrot-coloured hairdo, a voice stolen from the cartoonist Robert Crumb's dysfunctional older brother Charles, and a bizarre repertoire of rat-like mannerisms. At first you thought: is he gay? Then you thought: is he of this world?

"The part was written as a standard coke-snorting heavy, but I had an idea that he could instead be brilliant but hopeless. Films like that are so huge that no one really pays attention to what you're doing." One night, the cinematographer approached him. "He said, 'I've just seen the dailies. That's one strange little man.'" Cage was especially enthusiastic. "We improvised in his trailer, and he encouraged me to push it to the edge of cartoon. After that I had all the confidence in the world. People laughed at everything I did. I would skip to work, slide on my outfit and play around for the day."

The downside, he will admit, is that this liberating experience came at the start of his career. "I've done everything backwards," he says. "I did that big, showy part in LA, then spent two years working in London. It was probably a terrible decision, but I did some of my best work here."

After Face/Off, he met with Michael Winterbottom, who wound up casting him as an ex-con in the unloved English noir, I Want You. "I don't know what Winterbottom was thinking," he says. "He'd never heard me do an English accent before." But Nivola did a menacing job in this unloved film, and continued to reject bland studio movies in favour of odd parts in idiosyncratic projects - he exhibited a bruised good humour in the thriller Best Laid Plans, and was part of Mike Figgis's avant-garde whirligig Time Code.

When he arrived in Britain to star in Kenneth Branagh's film of Love's Labours Lost, in which Emily Mortimer was also appearing, he already had her number in his pocket. It had been given to him by Leonard Cohen's son. Obviously. "He told me he'd met this amazing girl in London, but that he'd never called her." They were an item before rehearsals had finished. "There's this whole thing of relationships on a movie being forbidden, so ours involved all this clandestine activity. She'd come to my hotel wearing a hat, with her face wrapped in a scarf, then leave at 4am to go back to her flat to be picked up for the morning's shoot."

They were married at the start of this year. Mortimer is a great-looking woman, and very good recently in Young Adam. But even if she had leprosy or club feet, it might still be worth marrying her just so you could say that John Mortimer was your father-in-law. "He and I took a long time getting to know one another," explains Nivola. "But around the time of the wedding it finally happened. I had my suit made by the same tailor who had made all his suits since he was at Oxford. He said we'd bonded over the fact that we had the same trembling hand measuring our inside leg."

The couple's son, Sam, was born three weeks ago. Yes, he cut the cord. "It was more resistant than I expected. You can't just snip it." And no, he is not getting much sleep. The couple's live-in maternity nurse is moving out of their Notting Hill home this week. "I'm not sure what we're going to do," he jokes. "We were worried about having awkward silences with someone else there. But when she's not around we don't know what to say to each other."

As we walk through Notting Hill, Nivola chats about the future - a forthcoming thriller The Clearing, alongside Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe, which he describes as "a studio film, but an art film too."

"My performances up to now have been so varied, that I don't really have a clear profile. I'm proud of that. But it also makes things difficult. Nic Cage asked me what kind of actor I wanted to be. And I didn't ever know. I suppose I'm a bit clearer about it now. I want to play starring roles that are very different from myself, and from other roles I've played."

He sounds like he is summing up in a job interview. We say our goodbyes, and when I look back he has, predictably, blended into the crowd.