Valeria Golino is quite something. Stunningly well-preserved at 47, the actor and now director has a refreshing diva-like quality that lights up a room. If anyone can direct a drama about euthanasia and make it palatable, this vivacious Italian can.
In her directing debut Honey (Miele), based on Mauro Covavich's novel A Nome Tuo, she lends a light touch to what could have been be a depressing scenario. Miele (Jasmine Trinca from The Best of Youth, The Son's Room) may be following her convictions by illegally travelling to Mexico to buy drugs for canines that she uses on humans—at a cost—though she has problems of her own. Certainly this punk angel-of-death wasn't banking on meeting, let alone connecting, with Carlo Cecchi's bored architect, who is keen to end his existential pain even if he is not ill. In a rare feat, Golino managed to lure Cecchi, one of Italy's top stage actors to the cinema and he doesn't disappoint.
I speak to Golino on a Cannes terrace following a deluge of rain, which has left everyone drenched. Golino is late as it was impossible to get through the traffic. She is cold and doesn't want to sit on the terrace. Yet today the actor, who had appeared in Rain Man, Frida and Respiro, has her director hat on and realises she has to rough it. She livens up, though, when just after our interview starts, she sees her old flame, Benicio del Toro, on a television perched above my head. They'd acted together in three films: Big Top Pee-wee (1988), Sean Penn's The Indian Runner (1991) and Submission (1995).
The daughter of an Italian Germanist father and a Greek painter mother, Golino speaks Italian, Greek, French and English. One of her grandmothers was Egyptian-French.
How do you handle these kinds of situations? You have so many nationalities in your body?
Which one rises to the top on such an occasion?
Today, my Greek one came up. At a certain point, I was screaming, like in a fury.
Why did you want to direct and why did you make a film on this theme?
I was smitten by the book and I thought that this argument could be treated in a different, more interesting way than I had seen. I thought it concerns us all even if we don't talk about it very much. I thought there was a female character that was very interesting, particularly in my country right now.
Were you concerned that this was such a controversial topic?
No, I am interested in it a lot. I think human beings have the right to decide on their lives; on their bodies. I am interested in the fact that our institutions don't address this issue in an ethical way—ethical, not moralistic—about something that is so dramatic and so urgent to be decided.
Did you want Miele to be androgynous?
I wanted her to be a contemporary female of a certain type. Not that we are not contemporary, but we are not that type, no? We are more female in a more traditional way. I wanted this new woman with this new body, this new way of moving around, but also a figure of great compassion to me. The controversial issue doesn't concern me, so I didn't want to make a movie as a thesis or a manifesto or a political movie. I think everything we do is political and my movie is too, but not directly, not in your face. It's about life and real people.
(This is when Golino spots Benicio del Toro on the television at the premiere of his Cannes movie, Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P. Her eyes are transfixed as he has gained weight and she can't believe how he has changed.)
He was my boyfriend for four years so my heart's pumping. It was 20 years ago when we were kids. I am just looking at him and it's like, “What's going on?”
You had him at the good time.
At the best! At 22, he was the most beautiful boy on earth. I haven't seen him today but I saw him a few months ago. He is a great person; I adore him.
How do you keep looking so young?
Medical procedures, you know nowadays! (Cackles) Talking about the new female!
You had been standing around on film sets for many years. At what point did you want to go behind the camera?
I've always been the kind of actor who goes around looking at lenses and what you are using and where the camera is. I've always been very, very interested. Also I've always made pictures, I've tortured my friends, him too [points at the TV]. I have a thousand pictures of people, filming them, making Polaroids constantly, all my friends posing, since I was 20 years old. This doesn't mean I would become a director, of course, but I've had this passion for images, besides being an actress. So slowly, slowly, this thing became a little bit more mature and it was also induced by others, who encouraged me to make a short movie first. Three years ago, when I was making my short movie (2010's Armandino e il Madre), the idea for this movie came up.
What was the hardest thing and what was the most satisfying thing about directing?
The hard thing for me was to avoid all the traps of being ideological or rhetorical or too sentimental or just using pain to make a show. I wanted to be there, to see this thing happen, this moment of suspension-or how I imagined it, but I didn't want to make a show out of pain. So deciding on the tone of the movie was the most difficult thing. The easiest was the relationship with actors, for obvious reasons, because I am an actress and I have a lot of empathy for them.
What kind of director are you? Very demanding?
I am very demanding, as I am in life. I think I am very tolerant and I always consider other people's ideas.
What have you learnt from the directors you've worked with?
Different directors taught me different things. I have worked with a director who was great with actors, then I've worked with somebody who is completely visual and has a distance from the actors and another one is about discipline. Everybody has their own approach and from each one of them I have got something out of them, whether they like it or not. I even stole from them.
How do you look back on your time in the US? You worked with Sean Penn.
He is one of my inspirations in the work with actors. He taught me as an actress not to always go for the easy things. Not the first thing that comes in your mind but the next one. He is a good friend and he is somebody I admire. I think he has a lot of talent and we talk about inspiration.
He was never a boyfriend?
He was never a boyfriend but a really good friend. He could have been! Ha-ha-ha!
How do you look on your time in Los Angeles?
That time was very, very interesting to me. I was there 10 years of which not all was good. I had a lot of meetings.
From modelling to acting, from acting to directing, do you feel a satisfaction with your life?
Satisfaction is not really my friend. Never met her. It doesn't belong to me as a feeling. Sometimes happiness, sometimes towards happiness, towards enchantment, but satisfaction, no. I am not satisfied today and everybody is telling me everything is going really, really well.
Where did you find Jasmine Trinca? (Interestingly, the mesmerising Trinca, 32, is currently playing Sean Penn's girlfriend in the Silver Productions spy blockbuster The Gunman, where Penn and Javier Bardem go head to head.)
I have known her for a long time as an actress and a little bit in a friendly way. I've always thought she was very vibrant, very unexpected in the way she acts and she doesn't act, her face. Her way to be is like she knows pain and how to act pain. So she was my first choice and then I saw a lot of other actresses, because I wanted to be sure. It was my first movie and I thought maybe I shouldn't just cast her because I have this instinctual thing. I saw some very good actresses; there are a lot of good actresses, gorgeous actresses, in their thirties in Italy. But then Jasmine came top, top, top in my head. Then I had to have Carlo Cecchi, as I basically wrote the part for him.
Do women filmmakers have a more difficult time in Italy?
Traditionally, yes. It's changing as everything else is changing. Slowly, but steadily, there are more and more. Yes, of course, it's more difficult; we know that.
How much was the budget?
€1.7 million. If you have to go to Mexico and to Istanbul then it's not much. My producer is my boyfriend (Riccardo Scamarcio, 33). He is an actor too and it's his first time as a producer and he really went out of his way to help me produce this movie. My executive producer, Viola Prestieri, is also the executive producer of Paolo Sorrentino's movies, like his gorgeous Cannes movie La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty, also in the Italian Film Festival). Viola knows how to make a little seem a lot. The great part of European filmmaking at its best is making movies with little money. In America this movie would have cost much, much more.
Is it true that you lost the role of Pretty Woman?
Yes, it's very damn true. I was second. It was awful. At least I wasn't 25th!
Was it your accent?
The fact that I am foreigner didn't help. It helped me get there because my accent was charming, but when it came to be between Julia Roberts and me, she was American. We did the last reading the same day. We had three scenes and I saw her a couple of times in the corridor coming towards me, I was dressed the same and we would be like, “Hey! Hi!” and in my head I was like, “Oh shit!” I knew I'd lost it when I saw her! I was beautiful too but she was perfect for that comedy. I always had more melancholia, something different.
But can she pop an olive out of her belly button into her mouth like you did (during a love scene with Charlie Sheen in Hot Shots!)?
No, nobody can!
When did you decide to come back to Europe?
Around 10 years ago, when I was doing Frida in Mexico with Julie Taymor and I had to start Respiro and then do another Italian movie. I was coming to Europe more and more and I thought maybe I should move back there for a while and then go back to America. I lived between the two countries for a while and eventually I came back home.
Would you return to America?
For work, definitely, but to live, no. Not any more. I liked it when I was there, but I've never done things for work. I always do things for private reasons. I had an Italian boyfriend and everything changed and eventually I came back.
Honey screens at the 2013 Italian Film Festival. Visit the official website for more details.