Prior to becoming an actor, Giancarlo Giannini, who on March 6 will be getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, studied electronic engineering, a skill he’s been known to put to good use even on movie sets.
“I was meant to start working on the first artificial satellites, or on the first computers at IBM,” the Italian film and theater thesp recalls. But then Giannini enrolled in acting school and soon was given major roles, first by Franco Zeffirelli and then by Lina Wertmüller, with whom he went on to make nine movies that brought them both international fame.
“I owe it to Lina that I will be getting the star. The only other Italian actor who has one is Rudolph Valentino,” he notes.
Before traveling to Los Angeles, Giannini spoke to Variety about his career journey and what he learned from Anna Magnani, Marlon Brando and Marcello Mastroianni.
Let’s start with the present: did you enjoy working with Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton recently on “Book Club 2”?
It was fun, because they are very ‘simpatiche.’ We laughed a lot. Like me, they are of an age, of course. I was amazed that they held up so well while spending hours in their costumes in the sweltering summer heat. They really have this profession engrained in their DNA and they aren’t about to abandon it. Neither am I.
You got your big break in the theater when Franco Zeffirelli cast you in “Romeo and Juliet.” Then you got a smaller part with Anna Magnani in Giovanni Verga’s “La Lupa.” What was Anna Magnani like?
Magnani would whisper jokes to me on stage, when she wasn’t facing the audience. She was very playful on stage and she taught me that acting is a game. We became great friends. Once, for my birthday, she had five silk shirts sent to my dressing room. To give you a better idea of Magnani: one time we were by the seaside in Castiglioncello (Tuscany) and she asked me to go with her to the hairdresser. The hairdresser there was very shy. He asked her: ‘How would you like it cut?’ She replied: ‘Just give me a Magnani cut, asshole!’ That’s what she was like. Really funny!
You debuted in film with “Libido,” a thriller by Ernesto Gastaldi and Vittorio Salerno. What memory do you have of that “giallo” which has been praised by Quentin Tarantino?
I made it on the sly because I was still in acting school and was not allowed to take professional jobs. There is a musical puppet in that film. [Special effects master] Carlo Rambaldi was supposed to make it, but he asked for lots of money. Since I had the electrical engineering training, I said: ‘I’ll make it!’ So, besides acting in “Libido,” I also did the special effects.
Your collaboration with Lina Wertmüller spanned nine films. But you’ve repeatedly said the one closest to your heart is “Love and Anarchy.” Why?
I came across the story in a book and I proposed it to Lina. It was the story of a Sardinian anarchist who wanted to kill Mussolini. Lina read the book, and we spent hours working on the screenplay at Lina’s apartment. We would stay up until five or six in the morning writing, and then I would act out scenes. I was coming off the success of “The Seduction of Mimì,” where I played a dark Sicilian. But instead for this movie I was pale and freckled. I had to undergo eight hours of makeup. When Lina and I would see the dailies, for the first time ever I referred to my character as: ‘That Guy.’ It wasn’t me, it was somebody else. It’s probably the first time I entered a character in a Stanislavskian way.
How would you describe your acting method?
I once met Marlon Brando in New York, we were supposed to do a film together, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. We were in Central Park. He had seen ‘Love and Anarchy’ and he wanted to work with me. I asked Brando: ‘What’s your secret?’ He said: ‘I don’t read the script.’ He was right. I also asked Marcello Mastroianni if he read scripts. And he told me: ‘I read them before going to bed, they put me to sleep like a charm.’ That was a big contrast with me. Up until then I read scripts very meticulously, every syllable. But after meeting Brando and Mastroianni I changed my ways a bit. I figured if those guys are the masters, then the less you know, the more you know.
The character you are best known for outside Italy is René Mathis, the spy who intersects with James Bond in “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” Did you enjoy playing him and working with Daniel Craig?
When I read the screenplay for “Casino Royale” I didn’t fully understand if I was a spy on James Bond’s side, or against him. So I went and asked Michael [J.] Wilson, who was the producer with Barbara Broccoli. And their answer was: “We don’t know either. But we will, in a while. If you are on his side, then you will stay on for the next film. If you are not, then we will kill you off in this one.” A week later I asked the director [Martin Campbell], and he said the same thing, and nobody ever told me. So I said to myself: “I will play a spy that is so deeply a spy that even he doesn’t know what side he is on.” So it’s totally ambiguous up until the end. As for working with Craig, he told me some great jokes before the cameras started rolling, while everyone else was dead serious.