Playing away

Playing away

By Michael Pickard
October 27, 2023


From the US to Australia, Italian actor Michela De Rossi is stepping out on the international stage. She speaks to DQ about starring in Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark and heading down under for wartime dramedy While the Men are Away.

Born and raised in Rome, Michela De Rossi didn’t grow up imagining she would one day work in the US or Australia. But that’s the way the stars have aligned for the Italian actor, who has taken on roles in projects as varied as a feature-length Sopranos prequel to a 1940s wartime dramedy.

De Rossi’s first TV role came in Squadra mobile, a series about Rome’s district police force, before a film role in 2018 crime drama La terra dell’abbastanza (Boys Cry). A leading part in two seasons of fugitive comedy I Topi (The Rats) then followed, paving the way for her to be cast in David Chase’s long-gestating Sopranos film The Many Saints of Newark.

Michela De Rossi in SBS period drama While the Men are Away

Her latest television role led the actor down under to star in While the Men are Away, an eight-part SBS series set in an exuberant, irreverent and wry reimagining of 1940s Australia. Produced by Arcadia and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International, it is pitched as a show that is “often (but not always) wildly historically inaccurate” as people who don’t normally hold the reins of power are thrust into the spotlight.

De Rossi plays Frankie, who is left in charge of her apple farm after her husband, like the rest of the town’s menfolk, is sent to war. She then enlists Gwen (Max McKenna) and Esther (Jana Zvedeniuk), two freshly enlisted, naïve city recruits from the Women’s Land Army, to help her, local Indigenous farmhand Kathleen (Phoebe Grainer) and “certified coward” Robert (Matt Testro) keep the business afloat.

An immigrant in a place where they were not always welcome, Frankie stands out from the crowd, not just because of her impeccable sense of fashion but because of her quick wits and sense of humour.

While the Men are Away is set on an Australian apple farm during WWII

“The amazing thing for me was that I saw this fascinating woman – she’s beautiful, cool and sexy – but at the same time, she was ironic,” De Rossi tells DQ about the character. “You never find someone like that because in Italy, you’re beautiful, you’re not funny. It’s so hard to find a character who is a beautiful woman, so fashionable, so cool and sexy, but at the same time she can also be ironic and funny. I was attracted by that.”

Early in the series, Frankie’s sexual promiscuity becomes clear, while she also seems to be hiding a number of secrets relating to her husband’s call-up to the war effort and the reasons behind her decision to restart her life in Australia. But in the heightened, effervescent world of While the Men are Away, humour leads the way in a series written by creator Alexandra Burke (Sissy), showrunner Kim Wilson (Deadloch), Monica Zanetti (Ellie & Abby (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)), Magda Wozniak, Enoch Mailangi, Sam Icklow and Jada Alberts.

Elissa Down (Ivy + Bean) is the lead director, with Zanetti also directing episode seven.

“The script was so well-written. When I read it for the first time, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is pure comedy, pure dramedy,’” De Rossi says. “The writers, they created this world where everything can happen. We are in the Second World War, we are in the 40s, there is this military call [for the men to enlist] and the women are alone. But we are also in a fantasy world.

The series features a disparate of farm workers brought in after the men are called up

“When I was shooting, I loved to imagine that, yes, we are in a conflict, but we can break the rules. We can bring everything to excess. That helped me a lot because I started from real feelings, real necessities and real things, but I had the right to push them further.”

De Rossi describes Frankie as someone who lives by her instincts, “which is so Italian,” she says. “She’s a survivor. That’s the word that I love to use to describe her – and as every survivor knows, she behaves using her instinct. She fell in love, she’s caring. And her past life and the pain that she suffered gives her courage. She’s not someone who thinks too much. She just follows her instincts. She needs to survive.

“Another thing that I love to say about her is that she’s an actress. This is what I think,” De Rossi continues. “She’s a great actress. We Italians, our story is so long and so heavy. We’ve been conquered, we’ve been attacked, we’ve had a lot of kings and other situations. Italians in general know how to face changes and so I think that it’s something that we have because of our history.”

With a love of comedy, De Rossi particularly loved the heightened world of While the Men are Away, which launched last month on SBS, and says some moments from the series are “the best scenes I have done in my career.”

Between scenes: (L-R) director Elissa Down, Phoebe Grainer, Michela De Rossi and Matt Testro

But it is the show’s queer perspective and the way it handles themes of sexuality, as well as race and gender, that the actor believes make the show a unique proposition in the crowded wartime genre.

“This is a queer show, which is not immediately obvious, and we need queer shows. People should feel recognised in someone, in something,” she says. “But I love this show because this is not a show about queerness. Even if there’s a lot of sex, a lot of intimate situations, that’s not what it’s about.

“In Italy, for example, if we do something queer, it is ‘a queer show.’ We’re doing this because we want to talk about queer people. But in While the Men are Away, we don’t put the accent on that. They’re just human beings. They’re just people who fall in love. It’s so good because it’s comedy, it’s queer, it’s a historical dramedy. It’s so delicate, even if it’s full of sex and love. We’ve done it in a delicate way with respect, where it’s love first and then all the rest. We need these kinds of shows set in this particular part of history. People need to feel recognised more.”

But before De Rossi headed to Australia, she found her career really taking off when she arrived in New York to audition for a role in The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel film to The Sopranos. Co-written by Sopranos creator Chase and directed by Alan Taylor, it centres on the teenage Tony Soprano growing up in 1960s New Jersey.

De Rossi’s US break came in Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark

De Rossi plays Giuseppina Moltisanti, the new Italian wife of ‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti (Ray Liotta). Dick is the father of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a soldier in the DiMeo crime family and a mentor to the young Tony (Michael Gandolfini). After her husband’s death, Giuseppina becomes Dickie’s mistress.

De Rossi originally recorded a self-taped audition for the role after spotting an appeal from studio Warner Bros for an Italian actress. “At the time I had a lot of friends that were more famous than me, and they spoke English better than me, so I was just, ‘OK, I’m going to self-tape myself for this, send it and just forget it.’”

Three months later, she attended an in-person callback in Rome, where the casting director was so impressed that she sent a recording of the audition straight to the studio. Another four months later, she was on a flight to New York to audition with Nivola in front of Chase and executives from Warner Bros and HBO.

“I was in the elevator after the audition ready to take my flight back to Rome and I remember Alan said, ‘What are you going to do now in Rome?’” she recalls. “I went, ‘I have a series that I have to shoot.’ I was not sure [if it was going ahead], but I just answered that I was busy. He was like, ‘OK, have a safe flight,’ and then 10 minutes later, he called me on my phone and said, ‘We want you to be her. So stop everything.’ They delayed my flight because they wanted me to do more rehearsals the day after, and then I came back with the news. It was the best flight ever.”

Matilda Lutz and De Rossi in upcoming Netflix series Briganti

But if there was any pressure on appearing in a prequel to one of the greatest television series of all time, De Rossi didn’t feel it. She just embraced the opportunity to star opposite a cast that included Liotta (Goodfellas).

“It was amazing. My husband was Ray Liotta,” she exclaims. “But I was not ready for it. I didn’t have all the steps that you have to have in your career to afford something like that. Of course I worked, but I’ve never done something like that.

“But the thing they said was, ‘We want you because of your experience you’re having now. Bring that feeling of your first time in New York, your first time out of Italy, your first time out of Europe. We want that. Use the way you feel to make the character.’ So that helped.”

De Rossi is now eagerly awaiting the release of her next project, Netflix series Briganti (Brigands: The Quest for Gold). The six-part Italian crime western, produced by Fabula Pictures (Zero, Baby), is set in the 19th century and sees the actor play Filomena in the story of a group of women who joined the Briganti, a band of outlaws that became a symbol of the peasant revolution in post-unification Italy.

“It’s a big deal,” De Rossi says. “It is going to come out all over the world, and I’m very excited because it’s my first lead series ever – and it’s a period drama. It’s so cool. I can’t wait for to people to watch it.”

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