NECESSARILY AN ACTRESS. Alba Rohrwacher studied medicine before she identified her calling as an actress. Cinema is in the Rohrwacher blood. It has been said that Alba “radiates intelligence and sensuousness in all her performances”. She also provides the narration for the HBO series “My Brilliant Friend” – adapted from Italian author Elena Ferrante’s smash literary series known as the Neapolitan novels – and several episodes have been directed by her younger sister, Alice.
Alba, how did you spend these months during the pandemic?
They were strange months for everyone. Our entire existence underwent a profound revolution. I read, worked on future projects, and got rid of many superfluous things. In the autumn, I had a small part in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, and in January, I hope to be able to leave to work on a film. I am alternating Italian projects and foreign projects.
What’s it like for an actress not to be able to perform?
This is a time that can be used for research or study. Empty moments can be transformed into productive moments. That is what we are trying to do. Because I have been forced to isolate, I have been researching and trying to imagine future projects.
Do you think things will change?
We knew that the cinemas were in trouble even before. The pandemic brought to light the profound crisis that live forms of art – cinema, theatre, opera, ballet – are facing. It’s also true that now that the cinemas have been closed, we’ve realized how important streaming services and other platforms are. They’ve filled our lives, kept us company, helped us, supported us. But now we are missing that shared, collective experience of watching a film together. I truly hope that we can continue watching at home but with a renewed desire to return to the cinema and share in watching a film together in that dark theatre, the place for which the film was made. I really want to go to the cinema or to the theatre or to see a concert. The arts have really been put to the test, like a gravely wounded animal that we must take care of in some way. I would like to be optimistic. I would like to think that after times of crisis, there is always a rebirth.
“I would like to think that after times of crisis, there is always a rebirth.”
Alba Rohrwacher, haven’t young people got out of the habit of going to the cinema, and they tend to watch Netflix or other streaming services?
Yes, these services saved us in the lockdown but I think it’s very important, absolutely necessary, that they coexist with cinemas.
Have television shows replaced traditional films?
No, I don’t think so. They are two different options, but the cinema can’t be replaced.
When you were younger, you wanted to be a doctor and you studied medicine for two years. Why did you leave this behind to go to Rome and get into the cinema?
From the time I was a little girl, I was fascinated by street performers. I wanted to be a trapeze artist. I had this perhaps strange habit of running off to see the performers who came to the countryside near where I lived in Umbria (my family home). I was born in Florence, but my parents moved to Umbria when I was four.
What made you study medicine?
Out of the sense of obligation of being the first-born, I signed up for medical school because I believed that being a doctor was a necessary profession. I also find that there’s a funny similarity between a doctor, who studies the body, and an actor, who studies the body’s possibilities. I wanted to study genetics. I was interested in so many things.
Why did you quit medical school?
Because I was also was taking theatre courses at the time, and I realized that was my path. The theatre was the first place in my life where I felt truly at ease. I overcame those feelings of inadequacy I’d had my whole life. Suddenly, as I read scripts and stood on that stage rehearsing, I was at peace with myself.
Do you still have this same feeling today?
When I act, I find a balance, a sense of ease in my own skin. It’s not always like that, but all those times I’ve met with directors, I often feel like I’m in the right place. The place for me. In Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues, she has an essay at the end where she talks about how she hopes her children can find their vocation in life, their calling. As I read those pages, I thought about how, if she means a calling to be a place where tensions dissipate and there’s room for freedom, then that’s my place, and I subscribe to that idea. I feel very lucky to have found my calling and have it in my life. I understand that Ginsburg hopes her children find their vocation and have the courage to follow through with it.
“For Alice and I, cinema was a creative driver and a way to escape. Then it became our profession.”
Alba Rohrwacher, you found courage and a sense of peace, you had talent and were lucky enough to encounter talented young directors like Saverio Costanzo, Silvio Soldini, your sister Alice, Ginevra Elkann, Carlo Mazzacurati and Marco Bellocchio.
Yes, I owe a lot to the people I’ve encountered in my life. As I said, I felt restless and out of place. For me, work is a place of peace. When I was studying medicine, I realized it was a mistake, and I was courageous enough to apply to the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. They accepted me, and I embarked upon this new path with no guarantees but confident in my decision. Then I met and got to know the most intuitive and talented people, and I had the opportunity to begin a career I couldn’t have imagined, playing unimaginable characters, surprising myself first and foremost. And I’m talking about gratitude as well as luck.
Why did your sister Alice decide to become a director?
We took different paths but then landed on the same planet, supporting and encouraging one another along the way. Neither of us had a specific map to follow, but we shared a great deal of love and respect for the art form that is the cinema. For us, it was a creative driver and a way to escape. Then it became our profession.
Are there actresses who have served as role models for you?
Looking at the great actresses from the past, I think about Gena Rowlands and the work she did with John Cassavetes, or the amazing versatility of Monica Vitti. Inspiration comes from all over, so I could name many others. Actually, over these months, I’ve seen work by artists that I love and even works that I already knew that continue to surprise and amaze me.
Are the partners you work with important?
Very. This is a job made up of human encounters, in terms of having trust as well. There are solid relationships that form, and people you work with again and again.
You shot two films with Riccardo Scamarcio. Is he an actor that you work particularly well with?
I met Riccardo at the Centro Sperimentale. He’s a friend, an incredible actor that always creates a sense of danger around the scene. He brings a great deal of tension to the scene. He knows how to break things up while still keeping it all under control. He’s an actor I hold in high regard, and I really like working with him.
What are some of your favourite films?
One of the films near and dear to my heart, which I watch again and again, that always makes me feel something, is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The other film that takes me back to my childhood, which I happened upon by chance, perhaps a bit early, was Bernardo Bertolucci’s unforgettable epic Twentieth Century. Then the film of a lifetime, Federico Fellini’s 8 ½.
Why 8 ½?
It’s a film that never stops, a constant source of inspiration that I never get tired of. Marcello Mastroianni is incredible.
Do you regret never having worked with Bernardo Bertolucci?
I really would have liked to. His absence is greatly felt.
What is your impression of Italian cinema today?
I really believe in the voices that are out there today. I think it’s always great. In Italian cinema, I see a great deal of courage and the unpredictability of many directors. I often think, “Who knows what they will do?” I’m always curious to know what the directors that I love will do, impatient to see their new stories, and I think this is a good sign!
Alba Rohrwacher and Saverio Costanzo walk the red carpet ahead of the ‘Suspiria’ screening during the 75th Venice Film Festival at Sala Grande on September 1, 2018 in Venice, Italy.
“When I give myself over to a character, defenceless, trusting in the director’s vision, it’s as if it is my body.”
Alba Rohrwacher, aside from this important period of reflection during the pandemic, how do you experience your characters?
There are film characters that I’ve been sad to leave behind. When I give myself over to a character, defenceless, trusting in the director’s vision, it’s as if it is my body. My voice becomes the conduit so this character, this human different from me, can exist without judgement.
Do you grow fond of your characters? Do you watch yourself?
I don’t love to watch myself. I watch myself once, maybe twice, at film premieres. There are characters and work experiences that stay in my heart and that I have great respect for, and I have profound nostalgia for those characters and experiences. It’s the same feeling you have for a person or place, for example, that you are fond of. I feel a sense of grief, as if this were a person in flesh and blood co-existing in my body.
What is it like to have this blending of your character with your own life?
I am able to completely throw myself into a role without becoming pathological. In my everyday life I have this “presence” inside of me, but it has never cancelled out who I am. It accompanies me, but doesn’t take me over.
What is your daily life like when you aren’t on set?
A very simple daily life. I like to be with the people I love and share my life with them. I have a normal life. I do everything that normal people do.
Have you become a diva?
I really don’t know, but if I think about what it means to be a diva today, I feel like it’s all been turned upside down. In the past, being a diva meant a sense of mystery, unattainable, removed. Today, with so much being shared, everyone is within reach. In this upside-down world, I don’t know if one can be a diva today.