‘Great Beauty,’ ‘King of Laughter’ Actor Toni Servillo: ‘We Actors Are Empty Vases Filled and Emptied After Each Role’

Invited to speak about his profession of acting during a masterclass at the 40th Torino Film Festival, Toni Servillo – whose credits include Oscar winner “The Great Beauty,” Cannes Jury Prize winner “Il Divo” and “The King of Laughter,” which won him the best actor prize at Venice – brushed aside the cliché that actors kept in them, as stigmas, the characters they had played.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I kept none of them. We are just empty vases that fill and empty. I’m always afraid of the question: ‘How did you get into Pirandello?’ [he plays the writer Luigi Pirandello in Roberto Andò’s new film, ‘La Stranezza’] How did I get in? Well, through the door!,” he says.

Servillo believes that there are many myths around these roles that would later prevent the actor from being himself again. “To identify with the character, the actor tries to master a tumult that, if it does not possess you, does not allow you to do this work, this work that consists of filling and emptying yourself, losing yourself and finding yourself again. Once you have lost yourself in a character, you find yourself again and the character goes away.”

Cinema Romano, the oldest cinema in Turin, was packed, mostly with young adults, on Saturday night to listen to Servillo, considered one of the world’s greatest actors. In December 2021, the New York Times ranked him 7th on its 25 best actors of the 21st century list. A few minutes before the start of the event, the queue in front of the cinema seemed to be endless, the atmosphere became charged as some feared not being able to enter. “Without any false modesty, I really didn’t think I would get so much interest from people,” said Servillo, at the beginning of the masterclass, after having taken his place in front of the audience, next to Steve Della Casa, director of the festival.

The Italian actor seemed almost embarrassed by the name of the event, and was quick to correct it: It was not a masterclass, but rather a discussion with the public. “If I had to teach something to a young actor, I could not sit here. I would have to have a challenge first, that is to say, I would have to go on stage, face an audience with a text. Without that, I have nothing to teach him.”

Still, he was not stingy with good advice for the next generation: “Don’t wait for someone to put you on the market. You must put yourself out there. You have to be determined, to push, to bug. You can’t just sit back and wait.” It was by creating his own opportunity that Servillo began his career on the big screen: “The cinema came rather late in my life, but in a very beautiful way. It was an important human adventure because within our theater company was born the idea of making a film. So, the same way we made theater independently, our first film was also independent.”

For Servillo, theater is not the antechamber of cinematic success. Moreover, he said he considers himself more of a man of theater, even if he works in both disciplines. “I really think that an actor is able to illuminate a film, just like a director of photography or a music composer. But the one who puts the deep content of a film in the heart of a viewer, is the director. Whereas in theater, it’s the actor who can do that.”

Why did he want to do this job? “One chooses such a path because one has a problem with one’s being in the world. Some express it by writing poems, painting, or playing music. For me, it was through theater. Being part of a company, a community, was a response to an identity crisis that corresponded to post-puberty: You don’t know what you are doing in the world, you wonder about others, about the future, about your flaws.”

In the Servillo household, no one had been an actor before him. But the members of the large family were “great spectators.” And they would often gather to watch Eduardo De Filippo’s plays together on television: “One evening I remember very well looking around and feeling a wound, so close did real life and the life represented by the actors seem.” For him, this profession must above all be selfless, he reminds those who would like to follow in his footsteps, “You have to go for it without imagining that you will earn big. All these things come later, or even after a long period.”

Speaking passionately about his work, the artist also talked about music. He has directed a dozen operas, and was keen to point out the importance of rhythm in an actor’s game: “It allows you to know exactly where to place yourself in relation to the other characters. So, music is a fundamental discipline that you have to cultivate.” It is perhaps even the art he loves the most: “When I travel and arrive in a city, if I have a choice between a concert, a movie or an opening, I’ll go to the concert. I can’t be thankful enough to music for having this power to transport us into a state where your thoughts are sent in all directions.” He added: “I get more pleasure from reading the autobiographies of great conductors than that of actors. A conductor’s narcissism quotient is generally lower.”

For Servillo, acting also means knowing the script inside out. Preparing his scenes in such a way as to develop an automatism, training his “emotional muscles” to be able to deliver the text as naturally as possible when “Action!” echoes. “I always try to know exactly where I stand in the story. In film as in a play, it’s important to distinguish between character and role. The character is what you play, it’s someone with whom you have an intimate, very personal relationship. The role is what your character says or does with the other characters, even when they are not on stage. That’s why you need to know the script and the lines of the others. You also have to know the whole story line because sometimes we shoot the end of the movie before the beginning.”

While everyone has their own technique, he explained that he approaches his characters by looking at them from below: “At the beginning, my relationship with them is always one of great shyness. I have to make an effort to reach them, I have to rise to them.”

With rehearsals, this initial distance is gradually reduced: “And the ideal is when the energies that come from the complexity of this character and the energies that you put into interpreting it meet at the zenith.”

The masterclass ended with an emotional moment for Servillo, when a spectator, invited to ask the last question of the evening, preferred to speak from his heart: “You are one of those great actors, who when they play, both in the theater and in the cinema, always give the feeling of thinking first of others. And I think you are also like that in life.” Servillo thanked him deeply: “That’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me!” He thought this might come from his debut with a troupe, a community where “you take away some of the narcissism,” and from his family. “I also believe that an actor makes himself available to the public. He must ‘pulverize’ himself; that means, he breaks himself down into micro pieces so that he can reach as many viewers as possible. I learned this from seeing great actors perform and feeling grateful to them.”

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