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From ‘Supernova’ to a Viral Video, Stanley Tucci Is Having a Moment

Stanley Tucci has been a professional actor for nearly 40 years. He’s earned three Emmy Awards, been nominated for an Oscar and a Tony, held his own with Meryl Streep twice and stolen scenes in everything from tiny indies to giant blockbusters. And then, in his words, “I made a cocktail on the internet.”

It wasn’t meant to go viral; it wasn’t even intended for public consumption. It was about a month into lockdown, and Tucci’s wife, Felicity Blunt (sister of Tucci’s “The Devil Wears Prada” co-star Emily Blunt) suggested he make a video for her to share with her co-workers at the U.K. agency Curtis Brown. “It was just meant to be something in-house, to sort of cheer some people up,” Tucci says. So the actor called on the skills he developed bartending before he achieved fame and fortune, and mixed up the perfect Negroni. “Then my wife said, ‘Why don’t we put it on your Instagram, just for fun?’ And we did, and … you know, it sort of went crazy.”

Reports of Tucci breaking the internet abounded, perhaps because the three-minute video felt so uncalculated, so pure in its simplicity. “I thought, well I guess I have to keep doing them,” he notes. “Which is fun to do, even though I barely know how to use my phone.”

Tucci and his Negroni were a warm and familiar presence that helped ease nerves in the early stages of a global pandemic. But it feels like Tucci has always been there for us. It’s hard to remember a time when his solid, charismatic characters haven’t livened up our screens. When “Saturday Night Live” host Sam Rockwell and cast member Pete Davidson parodied the Lil Pump song “Gucci Gang” with “Tucci Gang” in 2018, it worked so well because Tucci is beloved without being mega-famous. Also, the lyrics were dead on: “He got my respect for his range / He should have been Doctor Strange.” (For the record, Tucci was given a heads-up that “SNL” would be doing something but had no idea what until he saw the final product; he couldn’t be more honored.)

Tucci is a true actor’s actor, with a C.V. that is a testament to his dazzling range. He can play villains both hateful (“The Terminal”) and hilarious (“The Hunger Games”). He’s equally believable as a billionaire industrialist (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”) and as a crusading attorney representing sexual abuse victims (“Spotlight”). This is a man who played a sadistic killer (“The Lovely Bones”) just a few months after making cute as the adoring spouse of Julia Child (“Julie & Julia”). If there is a Tao of Tucci, it rests in recognizing that there are no small parts, just opportunities to steal scenes. “I think I’m just very lucky to be in a lot of different movies with different genres, that touch a lot of different demographics,” Tucci says. “And I often have sort of strange, interesting, secondary or tertiary roles that are really fun to play.”

Almost a year after his mixology helped soothe our nerves, Tucci is about to be even more present in our lives — this time through food. “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” in which he travels the country highlighting its culture and history through food, will premiere on CNN on Feb. 14. In October, he will release a memoir, “Taste: My Life Through Food,” which reflects on his love of the culinary arts. But first up is his role in an acclaimed new film that is earning the actor Oscar buzz, and for which he also served as unofficial chef.

After breaking the internet, Tucci is set to break our hearts in “Supernova,” a quiet but powerful love story from British actor and filmmaker Harry Macqueen centering on the relationship between two men, Tusker (Tucci) and Sam (Colin Firth). It arrives in theaters Jan. 29 and on demand Feb. 16. The opening line of the film, “We’re not going back, you know,” is spoken by Sam as the duo embark on a road trip in an RV through England’s Lake District. But the meaning is double-edged, as Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and this is clearly their last trip before the illness takes its toll.

Tucci received the script through his agent, and his response was instant. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so beautiful. It’s so beautiful,’” he recalls. Tucci, a filmmaker himself, was also impressed to learn Macqueen’s previous movie, 2014’s “Hinterland,” was made for 10,000 pounds in 11 days. In his first meeting with Macqueen, Tucci suggested Firth for the role of Sam.

What Macqueen didn’t know at the time was that Tucci had slipped the script to Firth, a friend he had known since working together on the 2001 HBO film “Conspiracy.” The pair teamed again for 2012’s “Gambit,” a largely forgettable remake of the 1966 crime caper. “We’d always been friends,” Tucci notes. “But then [I moved to England], and we see each other all the time. Two of our kids ended up going to the same school.”

Firth says the two had tried to work together on other occasions, but it had never worked out. “I’ve relished the idea of working with Stanley since we met on ‘Conspiracy’ 20 years ago,” he says. “He sent me scripts for projects he was directing a few times, but the timing always made it impossible.” This time there was just one thing — Macqueen had originally asked Tucci to play Sam. It was Firth who suggested they trade parts. “On first reading, I didn’t know which role was intended for whom,” Firth reveals. “I found myself mentally switching roles as I read.”

According to Tucci, he had been thinking the same thing, though he jokes that Macqueen must have felt they were “torturing” him. While Macqueen says it took “a bit of recalibration” at first, he adds, “I don’t remember feeling tortured at all. Well, maybe for five minutes.” But as an actor himself, Macqueen says, “I know that intuition like this shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sometimes you just know when something is sitting more naturally for you — you have to listen to that instinct.”

They agreed to do a reading with the roles swapped, and Tucci says, “It was pretty obvious right away that that was the way it was supposed to be. There was something rhythmically that was more right. There was something about his humor, there was something about his teasing Sam, which is sort of the way I tease Colin.” Macqueen agrees: “Ultimately we made the right decision; the energies of both characters found their correct home.”

Jokes Firth, “As far as I’m concerned, Stan passed the audition … in both roles.”

In preparing to play Tusker, Tucci notes that Macqueen had done much of the research, and the character was there on the page. But Tucci met with a doctor who works with people suffering from early-onset dementia, and he shared footage of patients. The actor also watched documentaries and read articles, noting that the research could be tough, particularly because they looked so physically healthy. “It was very hard to watch, very hard to see,” he says, “because I don’t have any experience with that. I know what it’s like to see someone get older or someone get very ill from a terminal illness. I’ve experienced those things but not a loss of a seemingly incredibly healthy person.”

Macqueen says the friendship between Tucci and Firth proved invaluable on set and that he had hoped to cast two actors with a shared history. “That bond is incredibly helpful when you are bringing to life such a nuanced and intimate relationship,” he says. “Stan and Colin have been through quite a lot together in their own lives and have helped each other through some difficult times, just as any couple of 20 years has. They’ve doubtless cried on each other’s shoulders and laughed a great deal too, and I definitely think this adds to the level of authenticity and truthfulness in the performances. It was and is a beautiful thing to be part of.”

Though “Supernova” was a fast shoot on a small budget, often in cold and wet weather, Tucci says there was a lot of fun to be had. The cast and crew stayed at holiday camps — little bungalows in an area, usually next to a wooded stream. Because there was really no place to eat, Tucci would cook for the others in the evening. “It seemed we never got tired of each other,” he says.

Concurs Firth, “There were plenty of laughs. My driving skills provided some of them.” He adds, “During the emotional scenes at the end, the atmosphere was somewhat sober. But it’s hard to stay that way when Stan is the chef every night.”

Food has always been important to Tucci, who grew up in an Italian American family in New York state in the 1970s, and whose family lived for a summer in Florence, Italy. He co-wrote and co-directed the 1996 film “Big Night,” the tale of two immigrant brothers who run a restaurant, a love letter to the art of food. “That movie had a profound effect on people, particularly people who love food and chefs,” he says. “I’d walk into a restaurant, and no matter what it was — it could be an Egyptian restaurant — the owner would say, ‘How did you know my story?’”

Tucci thought making the film would cure him of his obsession, but the opposite happened: “I became more and more interested and wanted to learn more and more.” In 2012 “The Tucci Cookbook” was published, followed in 2014 by “The Tucci Table: Cooking With Family and Friends,” co-authored by Blunt.

The passion for food serves as a north star on “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” the actor’s daring attempt to make his way, dish by dish, through a country famed for its pizza, pasta and gelato. Amy Entelis, executive VP for talent and content development at CNN Worldwide, says they first met with Tucci in 2019 to “get to know him during a time when we were looking for new program concepts for CNN Original Series.” She adds, “During the meeting, he pitched the idea of exploring the 20 different regions of Italy, each with its singular cuisine, culture and history. We knew the popularity of Italian food around the world was something that would resonate with our audience, and Stanley’s passion behind it all made him a natural fit for CNN.”

Tucci says he’s had the idea for some time, noting that even neighboring cities can have wildly dissimilar cuisines. “It’s incredible,” he says. “I don’t think there’s another country in the world with that kind of diversity.”

While the actor makes for a natural host — genuinely curious and engaging with his subjects — he notes that the show was a challenge. “I’m not a journalist; I’m not an interviewer,” he says, though he’s played some pretty famous ones in his time. “I know it sounds funny, but it was actually a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”

Still, when one points out that it was a great excuse to travel the world, eating well, on CNN’s dime, he laughs. “Oh, sure,” he says. “I’m no dummy.”