She walked the catwalk for Dolce & Gabbana and made Vogue covers in the 1980s and 1990s, she was a testimonial for Dior in the 2000s and worked in films with Mel Gibson and Morgan Freeman; she was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and Giuseppe Tornatore and was memorable in Malèna and The Matrix just to became a Bond girl at the age of 51 in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre: the one and only Monica Bellucci is a creature unlike any other.
After a terrific career in the fashion industry, the Italian model-turned-actress spent the latest 30-plus years starring in both blockbusters and films d’auteur across Europe and the U.S. and has been dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world countless times in countless territories including France, where she moved to from Italy decades ago: there are plenty of achievements and more than 60 films Monica Bellucci is famous for, and what an honour has it been to meet her on the occasion of her theatrical debut in Maria Callas: Letters & Memoirs as the one-woman show directed by Tom Volf went on stage at the Beacon Theater in New York in January 2023.
The stunning diva plays the legendary 20th-century Soprano Maria Callas in an interpretive performance of her autobiographical book; the project began in 2019 in Paris as a series of readings to celebrate the publication of the above-mentioned essay, and Monica Bellucci has since captivated international audiences in a plethora of worldwide theatres, performing everywhere from Rome to Athens, from London to Los Angeles and bringing into the world her passion, charisma and deep understanding of Maria Callas’s true story behind the legend.
Monica, how did you get involved in Maria Callas’ storytelling?
It all started when director Tom Volf made a beautiful documentary called Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words [in 2017]. He carried out such an incredibly extensive research about her life, and when he bumped into these beautiful letters and memoirs he had the idea of putting together a theatre show and asked me to be involved. I had never acted for the stage and I was so concerned at first, but the story of Maria Callas moved me so much that I couldn’t say no. Her femininity inspired me and I felt her so close to my heart, and even though we’re coming from completely different places in life, I could really feel her pain out of the public eye. She had been hurt consistently since she was a child, she had to deal with a difficult mother-daughter relationship, and she had conflictual relationships with her sister and all the men she fell for. Everybody says the saddest experience in her life was her relationship with Aristotle Onassis, but I believe the saddest thing at all was that she was familyless, she didn’t have children, and I think this was the biggest grief for her.
What should people expect from a theatrical performance starring Monica Bellucci? Is there a difference between acting for the stage and acting for the screen?
It’s not really up to me to say it, but I know this show wasn’t put together just as a piece of theatrical work. To me, it represents my desire to share with others the overwhelming feelings Maria Callas’ letters and memoirs gave me: the material is so full of emotions and vulnerability that I felt the need to share this sentiment with others, and if the way to do it was theatre, then I would go for it. Theatre offered the chance to express such feelings and I also learned a new way of communicating with an audience. Cinema is a completely different thing; the narrative will travel the world without you being personally involved, but when it comes to theatre, it’s you the one bringing out the story through your own self, and you forge a much more direct and sincere relationship with the audience. Some people believe theatre unveils your soul, and I think there is some truth in it: the audience can feel your fear through your vocal vibrations. The voice is a crucial element in this show; through voice, we recreate and explore Maria Callas’s different stages of life; we portray Maria rather than Callas, we focus on the woman behind the legend. What struck me the most was her dualism: she was doubtless one of the greatest Sopranos of all time to this very day and, at the same time, there was such a vulnerable and sensitive woman behind the diva façade, a woman who eventually died of sadness and a broken heart.
Is there a role you would love to play but haven’t had the chance to yet?
I love when projects come my way completely unexpected, I love to be surprised by roles and proposals that I wouldn’t think of at all. For example, I have no idea why Tom Volf could see me as Maria Callas, maybe it is because I’m a Mediterranean woman, or maybe because I travel so much that I feel like a foreigner wherever I go, which can be related to Maria Callas’s lifestyle. I recently made a movie titled The Girl in the Fountain about the life of Anita Ekberg, and I couldn’t say why they wanted me for the role; we look so different from each other! It is all about finding common ground between yourself and what you get offered, and it is really exciting. Recently, I also took part in an upcoming action comedy starring Toni Collette, Mafia Mamma. Not trying to control everything is a great part of the job; a career in the film industry cannot really be planned ahead; it’s made of yeses and noes, it’s made of the roles you take on and the roles you turn down.
How do you decide what to turn down? What is the main criteria to say no?
The thing is that to be able to say yes, it must be something that inspires you and moves you as soon as you read the script. It must be a yes without a doubt, and then it doesn’t even matter if the film will be successful or not. All you know is that you must take on that role because it has somewhat become part of your journey and self-development. When the Maria Callas project came my way I knew I was taking a huge risk but I couldn’t say no, and I could never have imagined to what extent this show would have travelled internationally and that it would go on stage in different languages, too. The journey of Maria Callas: Letters & Memoirs began in Paris in 2019, and the final show went on stage in New York in 2023, which is a terrific coincidence because Maria Callas was born in New York exactly 100 years ago, in 1923. We have toured extensively to end up just where she was born, one century later.
Which ones of the roles you played do you feel the closest to?
The past is a part of us, and if I reflect on all the roles I played I can certainly see a pattern regarding what sort of women I want to portray, even if I don’t know why I want to portray them. When I think of Irréversible, Malèna, The Passion of the Christ or On the Milky Road, I realise how different these films and the film directors are, but there is still one thing in common: I play the roles of women who must survive in a man’s word.
Is there any difference in the entertainment industry between yesterday and today?
You know, I often get asked by young girls how to become an actress and I never know what to say because it’s something extremely difficult to achieve, so the answer I give is pretty much the same I used to give 30 years ago: I think the key is passion. If you have passion for something and you believe in something and you fight hard for it, it’s impossible not to get some sort of external validation; at some point, something will happen.
What do you think of the current state of the film industry?
The film industry faced a crisis not so long ago, but this is being overcome now and I can feel the vibe of a great return to the movies. You know, television is kind of easier to make and there are some really great TV series out there, but I think this shouldn’t be to the detriment of cinema; cinema still has its magic, and I think the magic within should be respected.
What’s the best film of all time in your opinion?
Oh, this is difficult to say – how can I mention just one film? There are so many memorable films. However, if I have to say one director’s name, the name of somebody who has inspired the entire film industry internationally, that would certainly be Federico Fellini: he was so poetic and dreamlike and touched everybody’s heart.
In 2018, you were questioned about sexual harassment claims in the entertainment industry, and you were one of the very few – if not perhaps the only woman to say how much you love men and that a distinction between avances and harassment must be made. Since then, the lives and careers of countless male actors, directors and producers have been completely destroyed by allegations and accusations that have not always proved true or grounded. What do you think of the current state of things? Have you somewhat changed your mind about that?
I believe the fact that women have become less afraid to speak up for themselves is positive, but I think a war will get us nowhere. I think men and women should find common ground to grow together, which is a little bit of what is already happening right now. There is a significant evolution underway that will certainly take a long time to occur, but men are becoming increasingly more present in the female world, and vice-versa. Today, men push baby strollers and wear baby carriers. You wouldn’t see that at all a while ago, there was a sort of male shame in doing these things because perhaps they didn’t feel like manly enough if they changed nappies. Nowadays, we can finally speak freely about these things just like we speak freely about women in today’s society. When it comes to jobs and careers, you now have female pilots and you have male nail artists, and definitely new forms of freedom for both which are highly beneficial, especially for men, so they can rid themselves of stereotypes that were forced on them until not so long ago.
I heard you saying that you are a woman who ‘loves’ [meaning somebody who appreciates and is supportive of] other women. What advice would you give to women to survive in a world that obsessively raves about feminism but where female solidarity is often non-existent? How can women defend themselves from women who do not ‘love’ other women?
This is such a broad topic to discuss, and it’s not up to me to lecture anybody, it really isn’t my role so I can only speak for myself. I mean, if a woman doesn’t like other women it may be because she has had some terrible experiences – who knows? Everybody’s different, everybody knows what happened in their own lives. As for me, I come from a female and feminine world full of amazing women who have been a great inspiration for me, including in my own family; both my grandmothers were two beautifully strong women and I loved them so much. If I became an actress it’s also because other actresses greatly inspired me when I was a child and I would look at these stunning Italian actresses in awe; they gave me the desire to pursue an acting career, so in short – yes, my world is definitely female and feminine.
What would your destiny have been if you hadn’t left Italy for France many years ago?
I don’t know – what would I be without Italy? Everything in me is Italian: my looks, my features, my passport! And I made films that brought me to work with so many great Italian directors like Giuseppe Tornatore, Gabriele Muccino, Paolo Virzì, Giovanni Veronesi whom I greatly respect and from whom I have learned so much. Then, you know, working with international directors like Emir Kusturica [he is Serbian] and Sam Mendes [he is British] certainly brings you to open up your mind, both as an actor and as a person since you learn how to understand different cultures after all these years living abroad.
How have the years abroad affected your identity? It is often said that multilingual people develop different brains; is your Italian brain any different from your English and French brains?
I don’t think so. When you’re acting in front of the camera you’ve got just the same feelings, it’s just the way of expressing them that changes, but this is more of a technical thing because what really matters is what you do feel inside, whether you express it in Italian, in French or in English.
What are your plans for the future?
I star in two films being released in 2023: Mafia Mamma by Catherine Hardwicke and Diabolik 3 by Manetti Bros.
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