Tag Archives: Alessandro Nivola

Chimerican dream

Alessandro Nivola talks to DQ about his starring role in Channel 4 political drama Chimerica, making the leap from film to television and his commitment to working with only the best directors.

It has been more than 20 years since Alessandro Nivola scored his big-screen break, starring opposite Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in director John Woo’s epic, balletic action movie Face/Off. In the intervening years, he has mostly focused on features, save for roles in Cold War miniseries The Company, comedy Doll & Em and HBO telemovie The Wizard of Lies.

But as talent in front of and behind the camera has migrated from film to television, particularly over the last five years, Nivola has started to shift too. First, he set up King Bee, the production company he founded with his wife, British actor Emily Mortimer (the Em in Doll & Em). Then he took the lead in Channel 4’s four-part miniseries Chimerica, which concludes in the UK this evening. The full series, produced by Playground (Wolf Hall) and distributed by All3Media International, is available on the broadcaster’s All4 catch-up service.

“When I was starting out as an actor and starting on movies, to do a TV show meant capitulation,” Nivola says bluntly. “That was your career done; you gave up the fight for having the most prestigious career you could have and you were just trying to pay the bills. Obviously that has completely changed.

“For people like me, just given how that had been drilled into me growing up in terms of what my ambitions were, I guess I’ve been slow on the draw in terms of being aware of how that playing field has changed. But I’ve definitely embraced it. That’s only going to continue.”

When he received the offer to join Chimerica, “it just seemed totally obvious it was a job I should do,” the actor says, describing the “incredible” role of Lee Berger, the topical subject matter at the heart of the story and the “great dialogue” written by Lucy Kirkwood, who has adapted and updated her 2013 stage play of the same name for television.

The story opens in Beijing in 1989, where photographer Berger captures an image of the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square, when a man carrying two shopping bags stood in front of a line of tanks during protests in the Chinese capital.

The series then moves to New York in 2016. Donald Trump is on the verge of becoming US president, while Berger’s career is in jeopardy when rumours swirl that he faked an award-winning image of a Syrian war victim. To salvage his reputation, he decides to find Tank Man.

The opportunity to star in the series “dropped into my lap,” Nivola recalls, with his agent sending him the script while he was on a ski trip. “When you get a straight offer that requires you not to do anything at all to get the job, it’s usually a piece of shit,” he says. “So it was kind of a shock it was as good as it was. I jumped in immediately.”

The actor describes his character as a “radical idealist” who feels passionately about injustices suffered by underprivileged people. But he’s so zealous that it leads him to make poor decisions, such as doctoring the photo – an act he carries out to bring more attention to the suffering of those in Syria but one that only ends up bringing himself under the spotlight.

“It really becomes a story about the complete disintegration of his reputation and sense of himself and how he tries to restore that,” Nivola says. “This obsession that grows in him, about trying to find that man whose picture he took 30 years ago, becomes a monomaniacal hunt that destroys a lot of people’s lives in its wake. One of the things I found interesting about the character was this is a man whose good intentions end up wreaking all kinds of havoc on the lives of the people who he cares about most.”

In Chimerica, Nivola plays war photographer Lee Berger

Nivola was hooked by the “nervous energy” of Kirkwood’s scripts, which chart Lee’s descent into madness as he tries to save himself — a journey hampered by his exacting and emotionally draining experiences as a war photographer.

“The personalities and people who are drawn to that line of work, there’s a real restlessness about them,” the actor observes. “They don’t have a lot tying them down and there’s an addictive quality to going back repeatedly into those danger zones. Of course, there are all different types of people who do that kind of journalism, and it’s so important that there are people who are willing to put themselves into that kind of situation. It definitely requires a certain personality and, from the people I spoke to, it does alter you in the same way that being a soldier does.”

As the son of a political science university professor, Nivola grew up discussing politics and surrounded by people in government. So he is also uniquely placed to recognise the political ramifications of Lee’s actions, taking place in Kirkwood’s updated storyline at a time when Trump is rallying against ‘fake news’ on his way to the White House.

“There’s real pressure on liberal America to be squeaky clean. Anybody who is guilty of this kind of move would have to be sacrificed by a newspaper like The New York Times because they can’t be seen to have a double standard, even if his intentions were pure,” he explains. “Photography in particular is something that is going to become more difficult to monitor because of the veracity of images and because digital doctoring is becoming so ubiquitous. It won’t be long before they can put my head on anybody’s body and put out a sex tape or who knows what. In the digital world of photojournalism, the rules are unbelievably strict in order to stave off that moment where there’s no way of telling. In these times where photojournalists have been caught out in this lie, the community really closes ranks on them because they don’t want to be associated with them.”

King Bee, and by extension Nivola, looks to make television that is driven by directors. Series, he notes, have always been writer-led, as it’s difficult for a director to make every episode of the type of open-ended series still being commissioned by US networks. With miniseries and limited series, which are now becoming more prominent stateside, single directors are able to work across every episode and ensure continuity of visual style.

The series opens in Beijing in 1989 amid mass protests

“That can allow for a more cinematic style to be imposed on the TV format,” he says. “That’s been our big goal with the company, and I feel the same way as an actor. I made a decision about six years ago that that was my main priority with choosing jobs – just following directors. It’s really changed my career. For a while, I was taking small roles just to work with directors. Even those more supporting performances got more attention than some of the stuff I’d done before, just because I was working with the top guys.”

In that time, Nivola has worked with directors including David O Russell (American Hustle), Sally Potter (Ginger & Rosa), Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive), Barry Levinson (The Wizard of Lies), JC Chandor (A Most Violent Year) and Ava DuVernay (Selma).

“I realised at this late date that movies and television really belong to directors, and I’ve relinquished any kind of control over it as an actor and just given myself over to directors in a way I hadn’t as a young actor,” he continues. “That’s why this changing format is so good for television, because it’s attracting [Boardwalk Empire’s Martin] Scorsese or whoever to be directing television.”

On Chimerica, Nivola worked alongside director Michael Keillor, whose credits include Critical, Line of Duty and Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling.

“Some of the people I’ve worked with early on may have been bright and good guys but just lacked something really particular or eccentric about them that made their style and vision original. Michael really has that,” the actor says. “He’s not like anybody else, and I felt that from the first time I met him. All of his inspiration for the show [came from the] kinds of movies that I have loved in the political thriller canon, so I totally put my trust in him.”

Nivola (right) alongside Nicolas Cage in John Woo’s Face/Off

Shooting took place in the UK, which doubled for New York, and Bulgaria’s Sofia, which stood in for China. Nivola was joined on set by a cast including F Murray Abraham, who plays Frank Sams, and Cherry Jones as Mel Kincaid – both longtime friends of Nivola, having appeared on Broadway at the same time he was acting in his first play.

The scripts called for Nivola, as Lee, to be run over by a car and thrown to the ground in a pile of rubble when a bomb explodes in a Syrian market. “Those were fun,” he jokes, praising the Bulgarian stunt team who were willing to put themselves on the line to get the shots required.

But while the series begins with a bang, it grows increasingly taut across its four episodes, with tension and mystery building to the final instalment. “The idea is that he’s brought so low by this whole event, and all of his closest relationships he slowly destroys,” the actor says of Berger. “He’s left a solitary figure by the end but is also redeemed in some way by the experience. There is a great final twist in the story that will have a profound effect on him.”

Away from producing duties, Nivola was free to focus on his character and performance to help Keillor tell the story the way he wanted. And now that he’s crossed the boundary between television and film, he says he wants to continue hunting down those opportunities to work with the best of the best behind the camera, no matter how big the role and regardless of the format the project takes.

“More and more, the best actors are working in both media and I certainly think there are great opportunities in both television and films,” he concludes. “Now there’s all these movies being made for Netflix, so the lines are completely blurred. For me, it’s all about directors.”

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Playing politics

DQ meets the main players in four-part Channel 4 drama Chimerica, based on the hit play but updated to include the uncertain global politics of the Donald Trump era.

Lucy Kirkwood’s award-winning 2013 play Chimerica examined the shifting balance of power between East and West through the personal struggles of an American photojournalist.

The title is a portmanteau of the world’s two superpowers, and given the unstable feel of current geopolitics, it seems there’s no better time for a revival. Kirkwood has expanded and updated her work to create a four-part TV drama for Channel 4, produced by Playground Entertainment and distributed globally by All3Media International.

Crucially, the writer has moved the action forward to the 2016 US presidential election to reflect what’s happened since Donald Trump became a major player in global politics.

“Lucy has brought an emotional story to a relevant political aspect,” explains producer Adrian Sturges. “Moving the action from 2012 to 2016 naturally felt like the right thing to do because, in the meantime, Trump was elected and all the accusations of fake news and attacks on journalists have come more to the fore. It was felt to be a useful thing to grapple with in the overall piece.”

Star Alessandro Nivola and writer Lucy Kirkwood on the Chimerica set

The story centres on fictional American photojournalist Lee Berger (Alessandro Nivola, pictured top), who is covering the war in Syria for a respected New York broadsheet. But when Lee doctors a photo in a bid to make the front page, he gets caught and exposed. He tries to salvage his reputation by searching out a new scoop – finding Tank Man, the lone protester who stood up to Chinese tanks during the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989. Back then, a young Lee had made his name by photographing Tank Man.

DQ meets cast members Nivola and Cherry Jones on set at Twickenham Studios in south-west London, where the characters’ New York apartments have been recreated. It’s Nivola’s first lead in a TV series after roles in films like Face/Off, Mansfield Park and American Hustle.

“I liked the idea of a character who became obsessed with one thing,” explains Nivola. “He’s got this singular focus about something that ended up really damaging the people who he felt this discovery would serve. That just seemed like a great paradox, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Nivola was also convinced Chimerica would have the directorial flair he looks for in projects under the stewardship of Michael Keillor (Line of Duty). “When you have one director directing all four episodes, you know there’s going to be some kind of continuity of the vision,” continues Nivola, who runs production company King Bee with his wife, British actor Emily Mortimer. He produced her comedy series Doll & Em for Sky Living and HBO and they currently have a production and distribution deal with Entertainment One.

Cherry Jones plays Mel Kincaid, ‘a salty dog, a war journalist’

Theatre legend Jones plays Lee’s long-time collaborator, Mel Kincaid. An Emmy and Tony Award winner most recently seen in Transparent and The Handmaid’s Tale, Jones describes her character as “a salty dog, a war journalist.” Mel has curtailed her career in war zones because she’s in treatment for alcoholism, so when Lee proposes she help him find Tank Man to lend credibility to any discovery he makes, she agrees.

Although Kincaid is male in the original play, Kirkwood turned her into a woman without altering the character or dialogue. For Jones, signing up was a no-brainer. “For one thing, you attach the name Lucy Kirkwood to anything and a theatre actress will jump up and come running,” she says with a chuckle. “And secondly, you say ‘London’ to me and I’ve already packed my bag. I would live here if I could.”

Jones consulted You Tube for tips on how to play a war correspondent. “I looked online at people like the great Kate Adie,” she says. “And there’s a great journalist called Deborah Amos who’s on NPR who I always love to follow – it seemed she was always crossing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, wearing brown contact lenses. It was so dangerous what these women were doing.”

The rest of the cast is equally as exalted: Sophie Okonedo plays Tessa Kendrick, a high-flying British market researcher who catches Lee’s eye, and F Murray Abraham plays the broadsheet’s news editor, Frank Sams.

Though set in New York and China, Chimerica was actually filmed in the UK and Bulgaria. Sofia’s Nu Boyana Studios has a New York City block that was dressed as Chinatown, and communist-era apartment blocks doubled for downtown Beijing.

Sophie Okonedo and Terry Chen also feature in the drama

Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey provided a decommissioned 747 for airplane scenes and, most impressively, served as the location of the series’ biggest set piece – recreating the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

New scenes are melded with archive footage to create the atmosphere of the Trump election and Tiananmen Square, explains Sturges. “We had a really good archive producer who searched high and low for real Tiananmen Square footage, and did a sort of archive edit in pre-production to make sure the Tiananmen scenes would all fit together – the burned-out bus and various bits of banners are copied from what was actually there, so although the original footage is pre-HD, we tried carefully to match what’s in the footage.”

Green screens and CGI were used at the airbase to suggest the scale of Tiananmen Square. “We managed to hire one of the Russian tanks the Chinese used in Tiananmen Square to stage the Tank Man moment,” continues Sturges. “It was terrifying – I hadn’t realised how loud they are. But it was fantastic to recreate that scene.”

A bonus was the crew discovering that two Chinese extras hired for the Tiananmen Square scenes had been at the original protests. “One said it was extraordinary how much it was like the original Tiananmen Square, which was great,” says Sturges. “We asked him what chants were being used. We had experts on set, but it was great to get that texture.”

Alongside telling a personal story against a global geopolitical backdrop, Sturges says Chimerica commemorates a pivotal moment in recent history.

“This summer it’s 30 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre and I haven’t heard of anything else that’s attempted to tackle that subject,” he says. “I hope people will find Chimerica thrilling and mysterious and illuminating on a subject they haven’t thought much about since it happened.”

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