Vogue (Germany), October 2001, moderated by Kerstin Borner
Translation courtesy of Sue Raksnis
 
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Colin Firth enjoy Italy, love their children and analyze the failings of their fellow actors
 
 

Stars are Like Babies



 

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio feels like she did in her high school days in Illinois. She stands on the dusty street in front of her Umbrian vacation home and waits for Colin Firth. Finally in the car, she sits next to the tall Brit, and by the time the first kilometer goes by, they talk in enthusiastic Italian. The Italians! The food! Culture is still alive here. Last, but not least, the cuisine. “No one in this country would sprinkle Parmesan on spaghetti with clam sauce,” says adopted-Italian Colin Firth. We aren’t at dinner yet. First the conversation!

Colin Firth:  Vogue asked with whom I wanted to have this conversation and you were my first choice.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio: Yet, we have nothing more to talk about. (Firth acts astounded) We’ve known each other for so long, like an old married couple.

CF:  And we have a lot in common. Our careers bring us a nomadic life. Still we are family–oriented with the problems of balancing private life and career.

MEM:  Which industry gives consideration to the family? No employer cares about the fact that people with established relationships want to live, eat and be together. That is why I have a manager who is herself a mother—she knows from her own experience. One project a year is enough for me. I want to raise my sons.

CF:  That is something so seldom seen in the film industry. Raising children is considered secondary.


MEM:  Where did we actually get to know each other?

CF:  I have no idea, but in 1999, when we played a married couple, we’d already known each other for ten years.

MEM:  Good preparation for our roles.

CF:  I believe I first met you when your husband, Pat, introduced you to distinguished British society. (In a very British manner) Were we ever formally introduced, milady?

MEM:  Pat transplanted me to London. That was the simplest solution. You have to choose the dominant culture and the other must follow. There is always a leader and a follower—at home, at work, in society. It is only important that it is not always the same one who gives in. When it comes to where we live, Pat is the shepherd and I am the lamb. He has made a Londoner out of me.

CF:  And Livia has almost made an Italian out of me. I feel very comfortable with my wife’s family. Living in the US, Los Angeles, was never an option.

MEM:  One can live very comfortably in the United States, but when one leaves, it’s hard to return. I see the extremes in the country much more distinctly right now—in entertainment, in politics. This President! How can George W. Bush eliminate the Kyoto Treaty when he leads the nation that is the biggest polluter? Besides, you couldn’t pay me enough to live in an American suburb, talking current wallpaper patterns with my interior decorator all day.

CF:  Didn’t it hurt your career that you turned your back on America? You were an Oscar-nominated actress, worked with Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner…

MEM:  Professionally, it was perhaps a mistake to move to London, but I love the city. One has to choose. I cannot give everything 100 percent. Now when I work, I get more enjoyment out of our profession. Everything is so easy. Someone brings me coffee. I don’t have to do anything myself. In my trailer, I have my private space, where I can do my yoga exercises. Even so, I cannot wait to get home to my children. My sons, Declan and Jack, are eight and four.

CF:  Luca is now six months.


MEM:  Do you get any sleep these days?

CF:  He must have Chianti in his blood. We’re lucky; he’s slept through the night from the beginning. Everything gets taken care of for him except eating and sleeping. It’s the same with actors. The actor finds himself in a child-like position. Someone tells you when to get up…

MEM:  …you don’t even have to dress yourself!

CF:  True, you could actually stay naked because someone at work will dress you anyway.

MEM:  After you get up, you only have to pour some water over your head…
 

CF:   …so they can blow-dry your hair. Your face gets made up. Actually, it’s miserable. Someone even tells you when you should eat. Then you are shown where to stand, what to say and how. Then in the evening, it’s reversed.

MEM:  You’re not even supposed to hang your clothes in the closet yourself.

CF:  You could simply drop them.

MEM:  I come from the theater. There, everyone hangs up his or her own costumes. That’s the way it is in the Mastrantonio family.  It’s a matter of upbringing and courtesy. Actors are constantly praised for things that should be a matter of course “Oh, you are so refreshingly normal.” Sometimes you wonder if it’s perhaps abnormal to have good manners. Back in the real world, no one compliments you for just saying thank you. Who is the child and who is the adult? That is what I ask myself sometimes.

CF:  (with mock indignation) Why doesn’t my wife appreciate it when I throw my dirty laundry on the floor? When I call my agent, he drops everything. I’m not a person with airs, but those are the rules of the industry. They dance around you like the Golden Calf. When you come home and you have a hungry baby that is crying, then you are the one that must let everything else go. You can’t call your agent and say, “ My children are behaving obnoxiously, do something to make them stop.”

MEM:  Parents are the providers.

CF:  Nevertheless, I am at the point where my family and spare time are more important.

MEM: Family hardens resolve. After I had my second child, I was working on John Sayles’ Limbo, playing an high- strung former singer who settled in Alaska. In this grandiose setting, she has a nervous breakdown. Sayles never rehearses. He yells, “Action,” and I had to cry on cue with the crew’s 50 pairs of eyes looking at me expectantly. The only thing I could think was “Why doesn’t some slap this tootsie so she stops howling.” Clearly, I can cry at the push of a button. As a mother in real life, I find my emotions are mostly irrelevant, but in moments such as these, I have to bring my emotions to the forefront. Since then, I find working more difficult when I have to play fragile, sensitive women. The self-absorption required in this profession is not me. I often think, “ I can’t do this anymore. This is too laughable, too absurd.” A role like the female fisherman, Linda Greenlaw in The Perfect Storm, came at the right time. She is also a woman who keeps her emotions under control while enduring hardship.
 

CF:  Aren’t we always on the edge of absurdity?  Only a few actors like Laurence Olivier can raise this craft to an art.

MEM:  Unfortunately, unstable personalities are often drawn to the acting profession. Those who need therapy should get professional help and not go into acting. It is different in theater, where you rehearse everyday. It is like a pot roast. The longer you cook it, the easier it is to digest, whereas film work is a little like cooking in a microwave.

CF:  And that’s why you can better develop a character in theater. Would you like to have more than two children?

MEM:  If we had started earlier, yes. I came from an Italian-American family with six children. At any rate, we did not want an only child, which is like having a third spouse. Were you at Luca’s birth?

CF:  Yes. And your husband?

MEM:  He wiped the perspiration from me with a tiny, little handkerchief. (Wipes her brow dramatically and groans)— otherwise didn’t do anything. Not that there was anything he could do, but this shared experience brought us closer us together. He was allowed to cut the umbilical cord.

CF:  I was allowed to do that too—an unbelievable experience. Friends of mine who had been through the birth of a child warned me that there could be relationship problems afterward.

MEM:  Why would that be?

CF:  Because in your mind you have a picture of your wife in pain. However, I found the whole process from conception, pregnancy and birth to be an erotic experience. For me it was an erotic cycle that culminated with the birth of a child.

MEM:  Very nicely said!

CF:  Would you risk plastic surgery for your career?

MEM:  Do you mean because it’s not easy for a 42-year-old woman to find work in Hollywood?  I don’t have the market value I had ten years ago. In one way, it’s sad. In another way, it’s liberating. You can walk around unrecognized. A facelift is not an option for me. I take care of my skin and look after my teeth—that’s enough. And you?
 
CF:  A little dieting, which of course is difficult in Italy. The alternative is to give up the role of romantic hero, just eat for five years and come back to do fat character roles. Recently, I had a serious discussion with Rupert Everett about this—well, maybe, not so serious. Rupert wants to take ten years off and then take roles like Robert Morley, a fat British character actor. I too wouldn’t get a facelift. When my jowls start to sag—sorry, then I’ll look for roles with sagging jowls.

MEM:  Many of our fellow actors don’t develop themselves further. When you think about it, the time between “action” and “cut” accounts for only four hours out of their life. It’s like learning to cook when all you do is boil water. How can a person develop maturity in his career?

CF:  I have a minor theory about that: Actors who are in the spotlight early lose the power to develop further beyond the time they become famous. Almost every outstanding actor that I know is fixed in the public’s mind at the time they became a star. Take Marlon Brando, for instance. A 65-year-old who was at the peak of his stardom at 25. He is still like a youth and can be very entertaining. Or old pop bands that behave like they’re still living in the Sixties. On the other hand, people who endured hardship early in their careers matured because of it.

MEM:  Like Jimmy Carter.

CF:  What makes you think of him?

MEM:  He wasn’t a successful president because the public wouldn't let him be the president that he wanted to be. The political machine crushed him. He was always just “the peanut farmer,” not interested in becoming a prominent leader. Meanwhile, he is engaged in extremely successful work for the environment and has worked behind the scenes in diplomatic matters. As for the rest, he was always an outstanding negotiator. However, people weren’t interested in that because that wasn’t glamorous. You can only grow as a person when life becomes unpleasant.

CF: Warren Beatty once sketched for me another psychological profile of a president. He talked about Bill Clinton and his desire to please—which Warren certainly understood. As president, Clinton was always aware of his public image—the way he talked, if he was to be photographed. There were people who told him how many teeth he should show when he smiled, what tie appealed to his electorate. How does someone without self-confidence, like our gardener here for example, develop?  You have to be self-confident in all professions in which you have to think about your face, your body to get ahead. That can get very dangerous for them and their families.

MEM:  It’s good that we are so normal!

CF:  We have people in our lives that keep us grounded. Besides, I am blessed with friends like your husband who use every opportunity to laugh at my actor’s vanities. It’s good for character building.

CF:  How do you teach your children values (moral courage)?

MEM:  By example, by the way that we live. They only need to watch Pat. He is the most courageous person that I know. It shows in simple things like the ability to apologize for mistakes. When something goes wrong in America, everyone disappears like cockroaches once the light goes on.

CF:  And I always thought the biggest failing of Americans was their lack of irony. They are very serious there! Naturally, there are exceptions...the Jewish, Italian, and Irish humor of the East Coast. When you were young, did you experience any racism between the various immigrant groups?

MEM:  Certainly, as a good Italian girl, I wasn’t supposed to hang out with the Irish boys from three blocks away.

CF:  You are a trained soprano and opera singer. Why did you switch to acting, even though you were able to make your debut as Maria in West Side Story. 

MEM:  Because I saw freedom to express myself through words and to discover my personality through music. Other than that, the voice is a jealous lover. You can’t smoke, drink or stay out too late.

CF:  You mentioned earlier how you prefer black when everyone else switched to yellow. Is black your favorite color?

MEM:  Yes, because it’s practical. You can’t see dark spots and it’s a color that looks good on everyone.

CF: While doing an interview and photo shoot for Bridget Jones’s Diary, I felt the urge to wear something red. So I put on a red sweater. Today I find it obnoxious. Now I’ll probably have to see myself in the tomato-picture for the next ten years. 


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