Asia Argento: Something wild

Her new film has just been savaged by the critics. But, as Asia Argento tells Geoffrey MacNab, she's always been a fighter
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Last week, the Italian actress Asia Argento finished work on the new Gus Van Sant film, Last Days, which is about the hours leading up to Kurt Cobain's suicide. "They wrote that I play Courtney Love, but I don't," she protests. Her character is actually part of Cobain's entourage, "just a dorky, weird-looking girl".

Last week, the Italian actress Asia Argento finished work on the new Gus Van Sant film, Last Days, which is about the hours leading up to Kurt Cobain's suicide. "They wrote that I play Courtney Love, but I don't," she protests. Her character is actually part of Cobain's entourage, "just a dorky, weird-looking girl".

You can't blame the journalists, though, who presumed that Argento was cast as Love: like Cobain's widow, this 28-year-old has something of a wild reputation. In the aptly named autobiographical 2000 feature Scarlet Diva (which she starred in, wrote and directed), she played a traumatised actress on a self-destructive booze-and-drugs odyssey.

Meanwhile, in her new feature, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, (which she also directed) she plays a character who actually looks like a cross between Love and Nancy Spungen: a truck-stop whore called Sarah, who is seldom seen without bright-red lipstick and a skewwhiff blonde wig.

That The Heart... has provoked fury seems par for the course. It was given a shockingly rough ride in Cannes. The Hollywood Reporter called it "a gruelling, cinematic excretion"; Variety dubbed it "madly self-indulgent"; and even one of the film's distributors labelled it "a catastrophe". It's unlikely to be released any time soon. Which may explain why Argento's so keen, now, to put her side of the story.

"There are a lot of people," she declares, speaking from New York, "who apparently despise me and don't want this movie to be seen." She says she wishes she'd realised who these "enemies" were at the time. "I don't think I would have slit their throats," she says with a laugh, "but at least I'd have known... These people came to the party, came to the premiere, and came to me with big smiles and said the movie was great, when behind my back they were saying it was the worst movie they have seen in the last 10 years.

"I try not to read the reviews," she continues wistfully, "but I can't help it. My friend Harmony [Korine] made fun of me, saying, 'You're still reading that stuff? You're still getting hurt? You have to build your muscles.'"

The Heart is Deceitful... is an intense, Oliver Twist-like tale about a boy, Jeremiah, stolen away from his kindly foster-parents by his mother Sarah (Argento). Jeremiah is forced to endure an impoverished existence on the road. He's beaten up and sexually abused by his mom's ever more oddball boyfriends. No one helps him: neither the religious zealots (played in memorably creepy fashion by Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti) who briefly pluck him from his life of vagabondage, nor his prissy, sadistic social worker (Winona Ryder in a fearsome pair of specs). So far, so grim.

The critics were clearly discomfited by the relentlessness of Argento's storytelling style. What they failed to notice was the sheer energy and ingenuity with which The Heart is Deceitful... was put together: the bravura animation sequences, and the luridly stylised set-pieces that wouldn't have looked out of place in one of the horror films made by Argento's father, the legendary Dario Argento.

Asia insists she was not simply using shock tactics for their own sake. She says of the JT LeRoy novel on which the film is based that the writing is "very visual. The images started chasing me, living inside of me. I guess childhoods are all pretty traumatic. At least, mine was."

Asia's father is one of Italian cinema's great names. Her mother, Daria Nicolodi, is a respected stage and screen actress. In material terms, at least, her childhood was very different from that of the impoverished LeRoy, growing up in the Deep South. "From the surface, you might perceive that I had a lucky background," she admits. "But I had to grow up really fast. I guess being a child is always a little violent. I'm not talking just about the extremes of JT's story, but when you're in somebody else's hands, it's pretty violent."

Argento started acting at the age of nine. "That year, when I was nine years old, was the biggest year of my life. That's the year my parents split. That's the year I started smoking." Her childhood, she says, was no childhood at all. "I wasn't allowed a childhood. We're going into territories that are very personal. But I have totally forgiven my parents, and I can't regret something I never had."

She went on to make several films with her father. These were invariably violent, embroiled tales about broken families. In Trauma (1993), for instance, she played an anorexic in search of her parents' killers. The film featured nudity. Appearing naked in front of her father was, she acknowledges, deeply disturbing: "Very weird, very painful. Something that I carried with me, but didn't really have the courage to have a conversation with him about... Definitely it hurt me and manipulated my personality."

In Scarlet Diva she enjoyed a measure of revenge against her parents by casting her mother as a methadone addict who died of an overdose. "I made her character really mean and debauched. I manipulated that because I had issues with her... Our relationship after that got much better."

In the summer of 2001, Argento became a mother herself. (Her daughter Anna Lou is named after her deceased sister Anna.) Shortly afterward, she embarked on her three-year quest to make The Heart is Deceitful.... What intrigued her most about LeRoy's novel, she says now, was its description of a woman ostensibly dedicated to her child, but with "no knowledge of motherhood... Society doesn't teach what motherhood means."

Though her budget was tiny, an array of big names, including Marilyn Manson, signed up for cameos. "It wasn't the money that attracted them," she says. "They understood the importance of telling a story about a kid that wasn't Disney." (Manson, she says, relished his role as a beer-guzzling, trailer-trash redneck with a penchant for country and western music and kinky sex.)

Whether or not the film is widely seen in the United States, Argento's acting career in Hollywood is burgeoning, thanks to her recent role opposite Vin Diesel in the high-grossing action movie, XXX. This is not a path, however, she seems keen to pursue. "I felt like a thief when they cast me for that. I pretended I was something I was not."

Argento is now living in Los Angeles, but wishes she wasn't. She only moved there to make her movie. "I have a rent in LA for another year, but I dread the idea of living there for a year."

The battle to finance and shoot The Heart is Deceitful... was tough in the extreme. Seeing it trashed by a claque of reviewers and distributors in Cannes wounded her deeply. But, as befits a red-blooded diva, she remains defiant.

"Making The Heart is Deceitful... was painful in every possible way that making a movie can be painful, but it was still the best and most fulfilling experience of my life."