Vincent Gallo: Crying games

The actor-director Vincent Gallo is still reeling from his reception at Cannes, where his film was labelled 'worst in competition'. Foul-mouthed and emotional, he tells Fiona Morrow why he feels betrayed
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The Independent Culture

Vincent Gallo is acting like a lunatic. And the press are eating it up. He's trashing famous names, pouring scorn upon himself and projecting an image that alternates wildly between raving psychopath and demented lover of bunnies and deer ("even in a carnivorous way").

When the actor/director walked into the room, there were boos. An hour later, he winds up his off-the-cuff, furious eruption, and the assembled hacks cheer. They may despise him, but he has made their day: Gallo has given the hungry hordes what they really, really want - a scandal.

Gallo's competition entry The Brown Bunny was the hot topic at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Two hours of interminable cross-country driving, punctuated by Gallo's character Bud Clay chatting up the odd girl, finished off with a graphic blow job and a gang rape, it was never going to be a popular choice. But, if I found it boring, it was in the same way Andy Warhol's movies bore me. It's part of a minimalist cinema tradition and, if as Gallo suggested, the fellatio was for real, it made a certain sense within the film's own logic.

But The Brown Bunny wasn't given a chance: a few critics at the first screening went in, minds apparently made up, and proceeded to snigger loudly from the opening credits. By the time the second show began, the film had already been labelled "the worst film ever screened in competition at Cannes". It was pathetic, brayed the naysayers. Inept. Yet Gallo isn't a bad film-maker - he directed the delightful indie curio Buffalo 66 - so, like it or loathe it, The Brown Bunny was made for more than shock value.

Getting hold of Gallo to discuss his intentions, however, isn't easy. If he was wired at the press conference, by the following day (after experiencing "the worst feeling I've ever had in my whole life" at the gala screening) Gallo is ready to pop. When I arrive to talk to him, he's sitting at a table studiously ignoring the two fried eggs congealing on the plate in front of him and poring over the morning's press coverage. Of course, he's reading the English language reviews, which almost universally trash his film. The French press, on the other hand, are generally more positive, with some critics absolutely entranced.

But he doesn't see this. The man who yesterday was demanding covers before agreeing to magazine interviews is now horrified at his front-page status. Half an hour later, the PR is still negotiating with Gallo - two steps forward, three back - before, finally, he agrees to talk.

One of the charges made against Gallo, is that he is insincere, that his film is a provocative sham. Five minutes in his company and you know that just isn't the case: he's so sincere, it hurts. He so sincere I wish I liked his film more.

Gallo is certainly neurotic: he appears pulled apart by the desire to be taken seriously and by a deep-rooted insecurity, which fills him with self-loathing. This conflict extends to every aspect of his being; for example, a former model, Gallo struts around, top-to-toe trendily scruffy, yet within minutes of our meeting, he's sneering at himself.

"This face," he spits. "Early in elementary school I had a very small moment where I had a different face - a little nose, straight, blond hair. I had a lot of response, from older women and little girls. But at some point when I transformed into a less [attractive] person, I decided to push away my feelings, to protect myself in order to avoid rejection."

I'm barely absorbing how screwed up that sounds, when he swaps vulnerability for egomania. He's explaining how, on first meeting Chloë Sevigny when she was 17, he thought her "the prettiest girl I had ever seen". He never stopped fantasising about her and, a decade later, cast her in The Brown Bunny as the object of his character's obsession, who performs the now notorious act of fellatio. Yikes.

"I don't want to be alone," whimpers Bud Clay over and over. And you just know that for all his ill-judged spikiness, deep down Gallo is screaming the same thing.

He began life on the wrong side of the tracks with parents who didn't read and thought little about education. Gallo says the parents and house in Buffalo 66 are a pretty good representation of his formative years. Perhaps then, it's not surprising that from an early age he wanted to make his mark on the world.

"When I was young," he recalls. "I thought that I needed to chronicle and create a record. I wanted to leave a music reference, a book of poems, writings or essays, some drawings and some photographs. That somehow, if I died - which at that point felt like it could be at any minute - these relics would represent my life."

This need to be noticed artistically was married with an equal and opposite desire to slip through life unnoticed by the state: "I wanted to live my whole life without having a bank account or a social security number in America. I wanted to live in the esoteric underground, free from the government's eye." And the underground, for its part, saw something in him: he collaborated with Jean-Michel Basquiat, shared a house with William Burroughs, is friends with Gaspar Noé...

So he sees himself as an outsider? "No, I don't," he replies, incredulous. "Other people do. I see myself as Mr Popularity." He breaks into a sardonic grin.

"My problem," he continues, serious again. "Is that what I think is beautiful doesn't match up with what the general population think is beautiful. And I have no idea how to figure out what it is they like. I don't know how to work out what somebody wants and how to give them it. I can barely give a birthday gift - they'll open it and say, 'What do I need a microphone for?' So, I'm disappointed that once again, what I like is unpopular. It doesn't give me happiness, I promise you."

He's fully engaged now, desperate to explain himself properly: "I thought that, like everything I've ever done, I was compelled to make something beautiful, aesthetic and conceptual that other people would respond to. I can only apologise to the people who feel they wasted their time. I think that if no one wants to see the movie, then it's a disastrous film, but I can assure you it was never my intention to make a pretentious film, a self-indulgent film, a useless film, an un-engaging film, a non-compelling film...

"The harsh reaction last night was not nice, and sure there'll be some French paper that'll say it's interesting but," he pauses, whipping out the smile full of sarcasm once more, "it almost adds salt on the wounds."

And then, seemingly aware that this self-flagellation is beginning to sound like a whine, Gallo picks up the pace and twists the tone, turning his anger outward, spitting his words like venom. "I'm American. Don't you think that I want myself to be successful in America? Do you really think I enjoy being insulted daily in the press? That I enjoy being personally attacked in the English language in my own country."

He pauses for a beat. "Do you think that with this face and the background that I have, I really have no feelings about stuff like that? It's not nice."

There's no interrupting him - Gallo is a person for whom emotion sits right on the surface, and when he blows, he blows. "I did not want to do the press conference yesterday because every time I do one, I talk without thinking. I have no press agent, no manager, no assistant, no friend. I speak openly, honestly - I tell everyone the most private details of my life. All the things the press complain that they don't get from other actors."

Deep breath: "And who the fuck do they punish the most? Me. Right? Isn't that beautiful? Isn't that beautiful? Fuck them, man. Fuck them. Fuck them. The whole fucking articles were about the one or two mean things I said [about other people] and character assassinations of me."

He has tears in his eyes, and he's struggling to control the tremor in his voice. "I go there open," he adds quietly, "and I answer every question honestly, without thinking in any way, and that's what I get. Fucked."

I'm tempted to give him a hug, but I'm not that crazy. I can't help liking him though. Back home I check out his website where, spookily, the two faces of Vincent Gallo (sweet and sour) stare at each other across the screen. On the message board page he writes: "Please forgive me and be nice. My mom was mean. She never liked me. So have a heart. With this all said, say whatever you want, but try to be productive and positive and friendly. It's nice to be friendly. I was friendly once. It felt real good."