Interview with Vincenzo Salemme: the Neapolitan theatre explained

This story starts a long time ago, even before I was born. If you have a clue about what the theatrical tradition is like in Italy and how important the Neapolitan theatre and comedy has always been there, you must have heard about Eduardo De Filippo.

Italian actor, author, poet, playwright and screenwriter born in 1900, Eduardo De Filippo was the mind behind Neapolitan masterpieces such as Side Street Story and Filumena Marturano.
I was two months’ old when he passed away in 1984, and even if I’m not from Naples in any way, shape or form, I’ve always quite been into his theatre plays, to the point I know most of the Natale in casa Cupiello (Christmas at the Cupiello’s) script by heart.

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Vincenzo Salemme – © to the owners

The man I’m interviewing today started his own career as a stage actor in the 70s, aged 20 or less, mentored by Eduardo De Filippo himself in his stage company and – not because of that but in addition to that, he is one of the most talented Italian theatre actors of his generation, as well as an incredibly gentlemanlike, unpretentious and lively human being.

In addition to be a performer, playwright, screenwriter and director, Vincenzo Salemme is also a novelist and singer who has worked on stage, screen, cinema movies, TV films – and has taken part in amazingly amusing performances as well as in incredibly heartbreaking stuff.

His talents are way too many and too wide to fall into just one category, but when it comes to Vincenzo Salemme, there’s something you can be certain about: no matter what he does, he’ll always put all himself in it, he’ll always do his absolute best.
You can feel that passion, this is why the Italians love him so much.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, Vincenzo.

You’re welcome, Silvia. Thank you for asking.

So, first of all, you know I am a big fan of you. Really. You make me laugh out loud.

Oh, thank you.

And you know what, you make me laugh in a good way, in a clever way, it’s not just like ah-ah. You can tell there’s certain calibre in your comicality.

So you are not ashamed of laughing after I made you laugh…

Exactly! (I laugh) So, before becoming an actor you got your A-Levels* in Italian, Latin, Greek and Classical Civilisation (*Liceo Classico)… what was your dream job as a child?

When I was really really young I was dreaming of being a wall painter, as we were renovating our house and there was always a lot of them around… and this is something I still enjoy… I really like having workmen at my place! You know, my grandfather was a bricklayer, he used to bring me along on construction sites, and I enjoyed so much the smell of concrete mixed with the smell of those sandwiches we had for lunch… mostly sandwiches with aubergines and red peppers for our lunch break. This was a wonderful moment for me. I remember those whitewashed shirts workmen were wearing… it was the 60s, and it was great.

Did it happen in Bacoli, near Naples? How old were you?

Yes, this was in Bacoli. When I used to go on the construction sites with my grandpa I was about 5.

Weren’t you enrolled in a Catholic nuns’ nursery by then? I read somewhere that, aged 5, you fell in love with your nun teacher Sister Angelina

Sister Angelina was there when I was at the nursery school, and yes, I fell in love with her and I insisted on bringing her flowers when I was about to leave to go to primary school… I forced my mum to buy flowers for Sister Angelina whom I saw as an older (than me) lady… but then I thought she was like 16 or 17. She was a very young nun.

And before wanting to be a wall painter? What did you want to do as a very little kid?

Well, to be honest, I still would like to do actually any kind of jobs, even the astronaut. But I’ve always liked being an actor as since I was very little I was always kind of imitating and caricaturing people. At Christmas, I used to write letters, but instead of the typical Christmas letter for my parents, I would summarise what had happened over that year and I would play all the characters that were in my family, such as my mum and dad… all this happened after every Christmas Eve’s dinner. Theatre has always been my big passion.

Was there a plan B if you didn’t make it?

Mmm… I am not sure…

SSC Napoli Football Club‘s quarterback?

Hahaha, no, I used to play football but I was crap at it… mamma mia, I was a zero, but I insisted a lot on football… although I think I might have liked being a football coach, instead. I also loved Athletics… when I watched Pietro Mennea (late Italian sprinter, winner of a gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics –  Editor’s note) I would get excited… and when he set a world record in 1979, I cried… I cried in front of the telly. I like Athletics and I like sports in general… maybe I would have enjoyed my father’s job, he was a defence attorney.

You would have made the court laugh…

Eheh, yes, maybe… you know, at some point in the latest years I underwent some psychotherapy, and my very elderly psychiatrist just couldn’t stop laughing at me… he was over 80 and told me that this had never happened to him before… and that (unfortunately), I was making him really laugh.

Haha… I have a question about that. How do you protect your right to be sad or melancholy? I mean, I am not sure, but I suppose that being a comedy actor of this calibre also means that people would get surprised if you’re not always rolling in the aisles… so how do you protect your right to be whatever you want to be?

Well, I’ve got a house. And I can be whatever I want when I’m home.

What about outside the house?

When I am around… I try not to be melancholy.

Fair enough. What is the most important lesson you learned from Eduardo De Filippo?

Well… it’s more than a lesson, it’s a way of approaching our work… this is what I learned. I am not trying to be like him; instead, I try to approach this job in the way he seemed to be doing, in the most authentic way I can. I think people should be honest regarding this, they shouldn’t pretend they are something or someone they are not… I don’t want to appear smarter than I really am – or anything like that.

I think this is what really works when it comes to the audience: people can feel whether you’re authentic or a big fake.

Yes, I believe you can feel it, I believe theatre audiences can tell if you’re authentic or not… you know, a lot of children come to me and say they love me because they watched my movies… which are actually adult movies – I mean, not adult in the porn meaning of it –  but I think most of them suit an older audience… but in the end, children love these films as well.

But this doesn’t happen with anybody… I mean, I don’t know how to explain this, but there are many actors out there that are just… actors. They’re nothing more. They don’t behave as if they were real people.

But I think life is like that, in general. You’ve got people who decide to be… something or someone else. Well, maybe at some point in life all of us decide we want to be something, and then at the end in life you end up… well, not acting but you eventually pick a role for yourself. And maybe this is fair, as our unconscious self is that varied that we eventually have to make a decision. I believe the reason I am an actor is that I have never been able to choose what I wanted to be in life… so I told myself, OK, so I am just going to be myself, I am just going to say what I think, and then those who love me will accept that.

What should foreigners learn regarding Italian and Neapolitan theatre and plays?

I actually think that supporting the arts within Italy would already be a huge mission in itself, in my opinion. When it comes to politics, all the different premierships we had in Italy over the years – and I’m 61, so I witnessed a lot going on – only financed and supported a type of “upper-class” culture, perhaps forgetting about our popular culture heritage. So, getting the authentic regional theatre – not only the Neapolitan theatre – to be known within Italy, it’s already difficult and quite a big deal. I don’t know how you could promote this abroad, I think it would be even more complicated.

Do you think this has anything to do with the dialect thing? I mean, we’re not really promoting our dialects, in Italy; we even call them dialects, when actually they’re totally different languages with totally different grammars, vocabulary and pronunciations. If you look at Spain, they call “languages” dialects that are similar to ours… and languages there are much better protected…

Neapolitan for me is a language that is very, very important. Then, of course, we should speak in a language that everyone can understand. As Eduardo taught me, when I’m not in Naples, I have to italianise Neapolitan words to spread content… and then you know, you’ve got the comic-timings, the harmony among performers, there’s a load of stuff that actually makes a theatre play, it is not only the language you use. And after all, the language is not the thing that worries me the most; languages change and evolve, and this is normal. What I’m sorry for is that much of the cultural heritage when it comes to comedies is being lost, when that would still make people laugh, as comicality is tradition, is not avant-garde.

Do you know what it does really piss me off? It’s that – even in literature – and I know that because I got books published – comedy and comicality are never valued as much as tragedy and… depression. Do you write something about someone who committed suicide? Well, that will always be valued better than a funny but extremely clever book.

Exactly, it’s exactly this. But I really believe that you need to move people, it doesn’t matter whether you do it by making them laugh or… cry. You have to move them in a way or another, and both things should be considered equally useful and worthy of attention.

What do you think about the decline of Cinecittà Studios? There used to be times where directors like Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson chose Rome to shoot their movies. Now everything seems to be gone forever.

You know, this depends on the movie industry. The Cinecittà Studios were working well because it was cheap for US productions to come and shoot their movies in Rome, so this could be done again if it’s a good deal for them again. Nowadays, shooting movies in studios is considered a little bit old-fashioned… then I’m not an expert in the field, but here in Italy there’s a different type of financial investment in films, these days. A lot more money is spent for films by Giuseppe Sorrentino or Giuseppe Tornatore, or for other big productions made for the Academy Awards, but then the rest of the Italian film industry is made by quite low-cost and hand-made products that cannot really compete on an international scale; Italy should be competing on the basis of quality, of content and ideas, in my opinion.

You once said that it takes 40 years of life to return to childhood and to what we were as kids; I love this – do you want to add anything about that?

Yes, I think it’s actually like that. We search and search for the things that we used to be as kids. You know what, when I write down a new comedy theatre play, I usually write it straight away, in a single day, or so. Then, obviously I get to change and change and change it again when we make the rehearsals with the troupe… but in the end, the stronger idea was always the first and original one. So, maybe we’re a little bit like James Joyce’s Ulysses, and we need to travel and travel and see the mermaid… just to return to the starting point.

This makes me return to my original point and the following question: do you think comedians might be in a way more skilled than drama actors? I mean, if you can make people laugh, you can probably make them cry as well, and you should be able to also cover all the possible roles in between. But this doesn’t work vice-versa.

That would be a very long answer, as I think being an actor is something really, really rare.

What do you mean by “rare”?

I mean that, unfortunately, it’s hard to tell – and even to tell to myself in this case – what an actor is. I cannot always be free. Being an actor is a synonym of freedom, as actors are the only creatures that can repeat the same thing over and over again without being influenced, because that thing is not real. Life itself isn’t free because we are all influenced by everything… by the sun shifts position at birth, by winds, by wars… we are influenced all the time by everything. Freedom is utopia, is non-existent, we cannot do, every single day, whatever we want, because every single time something different happens and we have to change the route. But actors, if you really think about it, are the only ones that can actually take the same route every single day; however, this is quite impossible even for an actor. Many ask how we could act the same way, all days – but this is untrue, because you never ever do exactly the same thing. Even those who work on the most classical theatre plays and are supposed to read a line – and always the same line, with the same voice and intonation… well, I tell you that it’s never exactly the same. So I prefer breaking this taboo and let the play come into my life, into my days and my states of mind. For me, the “before” and “after” the show doesn’t really exist; what does exist is that now I’m talking with Silvia, then I’m finishing talking with Silvia, then I’m sitting there eating some chocolate, then I take a phone call and so on, and then when the time has come, I cross the curtain, I hear the audience and I start the show. So, every time I try to start the show as if I had never pronounced those words before.

It is like colours, isn’t it? It’s like if you’re normally… red, but you cannot always stay the same shade of red…

Yeah, that’s impossible…

So you are shifting all the time from a lighter to a darker shade or red, even if you do basically remain red.

Exactly, and I think it’s better if you let those influences come to you, especially if you’re an actor. Stage actors are the only that can be totally honest.

This is a paradox, isn’s it?

Yes, that’s paradoxical, indeed.

A basic question now: what are the pros and cons of the job of theatre actor?

The problem is that when you’re at the beginning of your career, it’s incredibly hard. You can attend an acting academy, you can see your name plus the word “actor” printed on some bulletin board… but it’s still extremely hard to find work because you need to pass a lot of auditions, and then nowadays you’ve got a lot of TV and cinema works but – alas – not enough theatre work is being produced. So it’s easier to break on the screen before you even start acting on stage… but for me, the real “pro” for a budding actor, actually is the theatre. And the cons is that there’s not enough theatre production out there. So, what I would suggest to young people interesting in a theatre acting career, is not to lose their strength of spirit, to carry on and to work a lot in the theatre before trying and do the rest.

As you mentioned the sun shift position at birth before, and I know you’re a Leo and I am a Leo too, I can perfectly see all our astronomy features here…

Hahaha, I wasn’t really talking the Zodiac!

I know, I know, but this is a girl thing. So, it seems you possess all of our typical Leo characteristics: vehemence, generosity, transparency and so on.  Have these characteristics helped (or maybe obstructed) your acting career?

Haha, well, I don’t believe in star signs but undoubtedly I am exuberant, and because of my own desire of being not a hypocrite, I sometimes overreacted, I provoked people, I provoked people’s reactions, and this didn’t help me much. However, sometimes they later found out some kind of sweetness into my aggressiveness, so even some people who maybe weren’t crazy for me in the past, end up appreciating me in the end.

So very Leo. But you turned the negativity of it into positivity…

Yes, but it took many many years… it took ages.

So maybe there’s still a chance for me to calm down… OK, just one more thing. The homepage of your official website says something like this: “be happy to love, but don’t love to be happy”. I found it brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

Haha, thank you!

Would you like to add anything else at all about your new projects?

I was scouted to make some films as an actor, I don’t know if and when this will be, and then I would like to make my own film as a director next year.

Great great. Thank you, Vincenzo, for your time and your wonderful insights!

★ If you are interested in Italian cinema, also have a look at our interviews with legendary Italian film director Lina Wertmüller and mainstream actor Nicolas Vaporidis

★ And if you are into theatre, you may also like our interviews with Academy Award nominee movie director Bruno Bozzetto, Back To The Future creator Bob Gale and Basil Brush 

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Vincenzo Salemme – © to the owners

About The Author

Founder of The Shortlisted Magazine

The one behind the wheel.