'Looking for Alibrandi' star and Emmy award-winning Italian-Australian dual national Greta Scacchi was 15 when her parents uprooted her from high school in Sussex, England to relocate to Perth. She wasn’t best pleased at the time.
“I was being dragged kicking and screaming from my small town, boring commuter belt, middle class life,” she chuckles as we perch on sofas in the foyer of Melbourne’s Como Hotel. “It was an absolute disaster for me, but the moment I set foot on the tarmac in Perth, I had this inkling that my life was just beginning, and it really did.”
The star of films including Robert Altman’s 'The Player' and Alan J. Pakula’s 'Presumed Innocent' opposite Harrison Ford, Scacchi is currently revisiting Australia as a guest of the Lavazza Italian Film Festival. A judge of the inaugural Bulgari Critics’ Choice Award, the jury recognised Roberto De Paolis’ coming-of-age drama Pure Hearts. Scacchi also stars in director Gianni Amelio’s multi-layered Tenderness, an adaptation of the Naples-set Lorenzo Marone novel The Temptation to be Happy.
Scacchi’s is a small but pivotal role as a complex mother figure who confounds expectations in the wake of a horrifying incident. Mutual fans, Amelio (The Stolen Children, Lamerica) approached Scacchi while they were both attending a film festival in Sicily.
Working with Amelio was exactly the rewarding experience she expected. “I love the way Italian auteurs are. There’s a great reverence for the directors. If anyone is going to be temperamental on set in Italy it’s the directors, not the actors. We are the colours on his canvas and I felt in very good hands.”
I wonder if it is difficult to join a film for a few days midway through the shoot, Scacchi insists the opposite is true. “People are exhausted, they’ve been doing a killer schedule, and you come in fresh,” she laughs again.
“You can see how you lighten up people’s days by just being accommodating. They haven’t had a chance to get to know you and become disenchanted.”
Sparky and eminently likeable, and also fond of a bit of celebrity gossip, it’s hard to imagine becoming disenchanted with Scacchi. Joking it was largely in service of her love of travel, she has managed to carve a career across continents and language barriers, from the UK to Europe, the US to Australia.
Indeed, her first manager worried she was spreading herself too thin, but Scacchi smartly ignored that advice.
“I managed to build the profile in the three countries that I was attached to, and they paid for my travel between them, so it was brilliant,” she says. “I spent the 80s zooming around doing exactly what I wanted to do.”
Being multilingual certainly helped, landing Scacchi one of her earliest roles in Melbourne-set TV miniseries Waterfront. The drama about striking dockyard workers was one of the first to feature subtitled Italian dialogue, but it was her role as single mum Christina in Alibrandi for which Australian audiences remember her most fondly.
“It's partly because it’s in the school curriculum, but it's also that it tells, very neatly, this story of the layers of traditional background and how young Australians want to actually detach from that and carve out their identity in the here and now, but still wear the badge of their provenance,” Scacchi offers.
It was during Friday night trips with her mother to an art-house cinema in Freemantle that inspired Scacchi’s passion for Italian cinema, and also opened up her own sense of cultural identity.
“I gradually got to map my course through all the Italian neo-realism and built a great pride of being Italian, which I didn’t have before.”
About that gossip session, Scacchi is fond of an exasperated eye roll when it comes to recent high-profile discussions of sexism and ageism in the movie industry. She’s particularly irked by what she jokingly dubs “geriatric love stories,” where the men, who will remain nameless, get to wear their craggy visages unmade while their female co-stars look like they’re encased behind ceramic.
“The idea that they have made a film about even old people can have sex, but she can’t look old,” Scacchi gesticulates. “It’s not what it proclaims to be. They are just confirming the same prejudices and I think Hollywood is really scary. What are they thinking?”
Leaning forward conspiratorially, Scacchi tells me about an encounter with an LA manager around 10 years ago. He arranged to have a coffee at her place before heading into meetings. “I put my hair in heated rollers and I’d done a little bit of shopping before coming over,” she says. “I like to wear trousers, but specifically because it was LA, I bought ones that were too long so I could wear high heels. You know that look, disgusting, but I knew I had to look slightly more like a Barbie doll. Extend the legs, flounce the hair in a timeless schmaltzy way.”
Raising an eyebrow, Scacchi pauses for a perfectly timed comic beat, then relays what her manager, coffee in hand, then asked: “Don’t you think you oughta get ready Greta?”
Scacchi laughs uproariously. “You do something totally artificial in order to play the game and they think you’ve gone not nearly far enough.”
The Lavazza Italian Film Festival presented by Palace screens in the following locations:
Sydney: until Oct 8, Palace Norton Street, Palace Verona, Chauvel Cinema
Melbourne: until Oct 8, Palace Cinema Como, Palace Westgarth, Palace Balwyn, Palace Brighton Bay, Kino Cinemas, The Astor Theatre
Canberra: until Oct 8, Palace Electric Cinemas
Brisbane: until Oct 8, Palace Barracks and Palace Centro
Perth: until Oct 11, Cinema Paradiso, Luna on SX
Hobart: Oct 19 - 25, The State Cinema