Paul Risker chats with actor Stelio Savante…
The short film Once We Were Slaves to the upcoming docu-dramas American Genius and The Making of the Mob have seen actor Stelio Savante journey from the ancient world to the modern world. But time is not the only aspect to this journey as he steps into the shoes of two men who are world’s apart: pioneer of television and radio David Sarnoff and underworld mobster Joe Masseria. Speaking with Savante he explained: “Working is indeed a privilege and I’ve been blessed to do it for many years now, albeit in NY theatre for the first fifteen years.” Currently playing the festival circuit, Once We Were Slaves earned Savante the Marquee award for Best Actor at The American Movie Awards. His upcoming projects include: Windsor (Jury Award Winning Best Feature at The Garden State Film Festival), Selling Isobel that sees Savante reunite with his Where The Road Runs Out director Rudolf Buitendach, and the short film Check, Please! Meanwhile later this year will see the release of Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, a significant collaboration within Savante’s career to date.
In conversation with Flickering Myth, Savante reflected on creative time zones and the relationship between the artist and the spectator, as well as the privilege that storytelling and performance afford him. Mean the discussion of American Genius and The Making of the Mob offered an insight his personal process that took us behind the scenes of his creative and artistic perspective.
Paul Risker: When we last spoke we discussed Eisenstein in Guanajuato. With its theatrical release pending it makes me recall a recent observation in a piece I wrote for FilmInt: “The spectatorial experience of a film in one sense could be perceived as being located in the filmmaker’s past – the spectator always in pursuit of the artist, an inevitable state of this relationship whereby artist and audience are separated by creative time zones despite living in the collective present.” I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this observation.
Stelio Savante: Firstly to give you/Flickering Myth my thanks for all the support over the years. YES, Eisenstein was nominated for a Golden Bear at Berlin, and I’m so proud of my fellow cast, crew and of Peter Greenaway for making the film that he wanted to make. It is indeed being released by Strand later this year. I feel the spectator has always pursued the artist who actually sought him out first. The great artists have always given them reason to. They have in turn made other artists their own spectators. It is cyclical, and a filmmaker’s past and his/her struggle and inner conflict is the visual voice and muse of his creative convergence with other artists. Look at the great ones who’s films have transcended nations, religions, cultures, languages, social classes and inspired countless remakes. Whether it was John Cassavetes, Akira Kurosawa, Abbas Kiarostami, or pick anyone of the French New Wave or Italian Neorealism era. They have influenced so many. Film, characters, emotions, scenes…they are an international language that inspire a relationship between the artist and the spectator. In a sense the creative time zone has almost become less relevant as the timeless films live on in an age where artistic integrity has been greatly compromised for box office.
PR: American Genius, The Making of the Mob and Once We Were Slaves are three interesting projects that take you from the ancient world to the modern world. From your perspective, is the ability to connect in an interactive way with both different times and cultures one of the great privileges performance and storytelling offer you as an actor?
SS: There can be no doubt. But it is also more specific than that. I’ve lived in three continents, had life experiences in many different cultures and therefore I’ve been able to perceive, adapt and portray characters that I can access because of my life’s experiences. Working is indeed a privilege and I’ve been blessed to do it for many years now, albeit in NY theatre for the first fifteen years. I also owe a lot of my storytelling experiences to my late acting teacher: the great Robert Modica, who taught at Carnegie Hall for many decades. Simply because he taught me to embrace who I was. I wasn’t American but I wasn’t European either. I’m South African by birth. New York has shaped me more than any other city, and I don’t fit into one specific box. The life lived, the global experiences, they all prepared me to be a storyteller in some of these projects you’re highlighting. Mr Modica helped me embrace that in myself, and the day I did that, the offers started rolling in.
PR: While Making of the Mob and American Genius are seemingly about two different subjects of the modern world, is there a thread that connects them thematically, or allows for thematic comparisons to be drawn?
SS: To me the strongest thread between them is the promise and the reward of the American dream. Perhaps my being an immigrant that became a US citizen dominates my perspective. Out of hardship, difficult circumstances and the need to evolve and overcome, man has the ability to do amazing things. If you look at the characters in The Making of the Mob, it was primarily immigrants who implemented a wickedly controlling set of rules to make themselves almost untouchable. It was seductive genius. They had an inner fire that fueled their ambition, and they would stop at nothing. With American Genius I literally had to sit back and marvel at the outright brilliance of the some of the greatest minds, what they were able to invent, accomplish and influence etc. I strongly feel that all of the above are what make America such a special place to be. If you have a dream, a goal, fire in the belly and a desire to succeed at what you love to do, then there are opportunities to capitalize on your talents and capabilities.
PR: Playing Joe Masseria in The Making of the Mob and David Sarnoff in American Genius, how familiar were you with their individual stories before beginning work on each series?
SS: I was very familiar with Masseria as I had prepped him for Boardwalk Empire a few years ago – I got painfully close to booking the role (at least that’s what my reps told me). I knew that he was an only child and didn’t play well with others. I knew what drove him and I understood him very well. Sarnoff was not so familiar. I knew about the RCA Corporation, but I had no idea that he was responsible for bringing radio and television into our lives. He fascinated me because he too was an immigrant.
PR: Byron Mann told me recently that 75% of working out a character is understanding how he walks and talks. How does the process of discovering a character work for you personally, and how for example did your preparations for playing Masseria and Sarnoff compare and contrast?
SS: For me, it all starts with one very simple question. What drives the character at their core; what are they driven by? Everything stems from that. I then create a backstory and a character bible for every other character that enters my life in the role. I seek my truth and pursue conflict, and I hopefully become it. It carries me into my scenes which means that I don’t like to rehearse a lot (unless the director works that way), and sometimes other actors have an issue with that, but usually they are either green or very insecure. So I’m not worried about it because it has worked for me, and it indirectly forces the other actors in my scenes to be better listeners and to not anticipate. That doesn’t make me right, but that’s how I work, and that is my part of my prep and process. I already knew who Masseria was psychologically and emotionally. But physically I wanted to gain weight because he was a glutton, he was sloppy, horribly impulsive, never comfortable. Eating was his vice (look to give all my characters a vice that feels natural). Now I didn’t weigh myself to impress myself with how much weight I’d gained, but I know that my waist had been a size 36 on my prior shoot, and when I got to the wardrobe fitting for The Making of the Mob it was a 42. For weeks on end, I had enjoyed 3rd and 4th helpings at every meal. But losing it once the shoot was over was going to be a major uphill climb. For Sarnoff it was a very natural process, because the more I learned about him, his tendencies, his goals, his demons, his fears, his dedication, the more similarities I saw between us. I not only was passionate about what drove him, but they were many of the same inner passions that drive me. I truly felt his needs, his wants and his drive. The rest was simply showing up and being present.
PR: Having starred in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Liotta is a fitting choice to voiceover The Making of the Mob. His voice has a certain character and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what he brings to the series through his voice alone?
SS: I credit Stephen David (who won’t admit it, but he is an American Genius in his own right) for this choice. Not only did Liotta star in Goodfellas, but as Henry Hill he narrated the film, and it was therefore told from his perspective. So as an audience we’re already comfortable with him in this world; in this genre as a narrator, if you will. He is such an artistically natural choice for this series. He brings credibility, but I think more importantly he is someone who draws us in; he elicits our trust.
PR: Both The Making of the Mob and American Genius tell important stories respectively, although could one argue that the latter is less familiar. If so, what do you and the filmmakers of hope audiences take away from the experience of American Genius?
SS: Well both are docu-dramas, and so the intent is to provide historical context while bringing to life some of the most compelling figures in US and world history. We of course want to entertain, but don’t forget people know who Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are. These aren’t irrelevant or lesser known geniuses we’re bringing to life, and we can’t wait for the audience to really get to know these larger than life characters.
PR: The Making of the Mob is following hot on the heels of Boardwalk Empire. How do you think Boardwalk Empire will have shaped the audience’s impression of these characters and this chapter in American history, and as such how do you perceive this will impact the way they approach your series?
SS: Not an easy question to answer. Every audience member responds differently to each character, and some are more open minded than others, even if a mental stamp has been made. But in addition to performed scenes, The Making Of The Mob has commentary and features interviews with historians, family members of some of the characters and interviews with actors Joe Mantegna and Drea De Matteo. There’s never been anything like it before when it comes to these specific characters. We’ve either seen documentaries or dramatic narrative. This combines both. You’ve heard of ‘Must See TV’, well basically I’m now making you an offer you can’t refuse. Tune in!
PR: Looking back on the experiences of American Genius and The Making of the Mob, how did the expectations of each of these parts compare to the reality of the experience they offered? What did you take away professionally and personally from the experiences?
SS: I’m very grateful to Stephen David for giving me the opportunity to be a part of both these mini-series. Creatively they were outstanding pieces to work on: period pieces with well written, realistically flawed, conflicted characters and a chance to work with some special directors. Richard (Rick) Lopez (Directed me in American Genius) created such a wonderful environment on set. He truly trusts his actors and their instincts, while knowing exactly what he wants and he doesn’t make obvious choices, not even with his DP (another brilliant artist named Piero Basso who I’d worked with before). It was a dream working with him. I think I even told him on set: “Can you believe that we get to do this? I feel like we’re kids, just playing.” That’s the kind of set he ran, and when you’re free to create like that you catch lightning in a bottle. John Ealer (Directed me in The Making Of The Mob) is so talented. He overcame some massive challenges and impressed me at how well he worked under pressure. I couldn’t not thank casting director Chastity Thomas. Without her believing in me, Stephen wouldn’t have seen my reads. To the latter part of your question, I’ve been doing this for so long that I have disciplined myself to not have expectations. But I concern myself with just the pieces that I can control: my preparation, being disciplined and my commitment to truth.
Many thanks to Stelio Savante for taking the time for this interview.
Image courtsey of NationalGeographic.com.
American Genius premieres on the National Geographic Channel on Monday June 1st, with The Making of the Mob premiering on AMC on Monday June 15th.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Film International, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.