Marcello Mastroianni and Chiara Mastroianni
Marcello Mastroianni and daughter Chiara

Mention Marcello Mastroianni to Italians and they turn misty eyed. They recall the voice, the tenderness and the charm. After the global success of La Dolce Vita, Mastroianni became Federico Fellini’s preferred actor and alter ego. There were also his movies with Sophia Loren—Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow), Matrimonio all’italiana (Marriage, Italian Style), Una giornata particolare (A Special Day) and countless greats such as Antonioni’s La Notte, Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe and Mikhalkov’s Dark Eyes. Wonderful looking and naturally stylish—elements of a Latin Jack Nicholson—Mastroianni became catnip for the European paparazzi. His life was captured on lens—whether it was his extra-marital relationship with Catherine Deneuve, the birth of their daughter Chiara Mastroianni or simply being caught on set. Sitting in the garden of Hotel de l’Abbaye, an establishment frequented by her father, Chiara Mastroianni opens up about a cinematic genius who had his share of scandal—“After La Dolce Vita, my father was spat at, in the street.” [It was the 1960s and Italy, ruled by the Vatican, was readily shocked] she says—yet led a charmed life, relishing his role as a father, never forgetting his humble roots, living and breathing his craft and ignoring his numerous awards. “I discovered all his nominations—Oscar and Bafta—after he died,” the 50-year-old actress says.

NAF: I remember seeing you, your father and Sophia Loren—the magical movie couple—on the set of Robert Altman’s Prêt-A-Porter.

CM: It was an amazing set because there were so many film stars. But during lunch, Sophia preferred staying in her dressing room. She wanted to prepare. And knowing Sophia’s modus operandi and routine, my father would appear with his baguette sandwich and join her. Dad didn’t want her to be alone. Naturally, he suggested staying with them and I said, ‘Dad—there’s Lauren Bacall, Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts in the Canteen. You have to understand that I want to spend time with these people.’ 

NAF: Though panned by the critics, the film has improved. It captures a fashion world that no longer exists. Did your father have a favourite film?

CM: Yes, 8 ½ because it was Fellini and my father related to his character who was overwhelmed by the wife, the mistress, the complicated life. 8 ½ made sense after the extraordinary success of La Dolce Vita. It suggested what happened to the man and the director.

NAF: Professionally, Mastroianni didn’t stop but he had this reputation for being indifferent and even lazy. 

CM: I think the laziness legend came from my Dad except that he wasn’t. I’m sure that he said that in order for people to think, ‘don’t even bother asking him anything because he’s lazy.’ He wanted to be left alone and work. My father hated holidays. It was much easier spending time with him when he was working. Each time, it was school holidays, I was sent to him and he was usually on set. It was wonderful.

NAF: You ended up being an extra on Fellini’s La Città di Donna (City of Women).

CM: I was six or seven and Fellini said, “If you want, I have a scene where we have kids and you can join them.” And then he said, “I’ll stand in because they’re making rude faces at your father and it would be a lack of respect if you did that.” The film was quite olé, olé and my father felt that I was too young to see. But when I did, I realised that I was cut from the scene. And it was a good lesson: because when you’re an actor, you’re not sure that you’re in the film until it’s finished. 

NAF: What was Fellini like?

CM: Until I became a teenager, I had no idea who Fellini was. He was my Dad’s friend. They were always working and laughing together. They felt like alter-egos.

NAF: Describe your father when he was working.

CM: You would imagine that an actor on set would be very concentrated on his work and not have time for his daughter. But, in fact, I saw the best of my father on set. Surrounded by his film family—his makeup artist, his hairdresser, his stand-in—he felt safe. Work was his salvation.

NAF: In what way?

CM: Growing up, I pictured him as this huge sun. He was always very joyful. But little by little, I understood that there was stuff that he didn’t want me to notice, that occasional melancholia that he felt. I guess as parents you always want to show the best side because you don’t want your kids to worry. But I do remember when arriving in Italy and being told, “you’re going on holiday” I would think, “oh no” and when hearing, “you’re going to be on set,” thinking “yay” because being on set, it was different. Everything was like a little miracle, all the time. Until the end, his profession excited him. I never saw my Dad, blasé. He was always childlike.

NAF: Marcello Mastroianni also had a sly sense of humour. Do share the Vittorio Gassman anecdote.

CM: One time, a fan and autograph collector came up and said, “Oh you’re Mr. Vittorio Gassman” and my father signed Vittorio Gassman. Afterwards, I said, “why didn’t you tell the truth?” and he replied, “I didn’t want to disappoint the guy.”

NAF: You often use the adjective humble to describe your father.

CM: Ever aware of his roots, he came from a very poor family—his father was a carpenter in a little village lost between Rome and Naples. Then there was the war. I found a letter that Dad wrote when he was a young acting student. He was in Luchino Visconti’s theatre for ten years. And he says, “Tonight, there was a producer who thought that maybe I could have a career in cinema.” He then added, “I’m bringing back a piece of fabric that you use to make pants.” Money was short in their household. But I loved this idea: “Maybe I could work in the cinema.”

NAF: Was your father close to his family? 

CM: His father died when he was quite young. But my dad was very close to his mother and his own brother, Ruggero, who was a reputed film editor for a key selection of Italian directors like Fellini, Scola and Elio Petri. He and my father acted in one film together—Scipione detto anche L’Africano (1971)—and my grandmother who could be a real Italian mama, pain in the arse, used to say, “Ruggero is a much better actor than Marcello.” It was meant to piss off my Dad but it actually made him laugh. 

NAF: Mothers of famous kids can do that. Did you watch films together?

CM: He didn’t watch so many and avoided his own films. So on television, we saw Laurel & Hardy in Italian, which he imitated very well. Dad was also crazy about Hanna Barbera cartoons—Tom & Jerry, all of that…He liked Formula 1 racing on Sunday TV. I remember the afternoon heat and the noise of the engines. He also liked the Olympics, particularly ice-skating and diving. Dad never pretended to be an intellectual; that idea that he was reading Chekhov before he went to sleep. But on stage, he knew how to interpret Chekhov. 

NAF: Which Hollywood actors did he admire?

CM: Cary Grant, James Stewart…I think he related to the anti-hero and irony of James Stewart. He was crazy about Fred Astaire. He’d say, “look at him, he dances like a feather.” And he also liked everything about Jack Nicholson—it was the irony and edgy cool. 

NAF: There’s a similarity between Nicholson and Mastroianni. But Jack Lemmon also jumps to mind. 

CM: My father and Jack Lemmon worked together in Ettore Scola’s Macaroni in Naples. He was such a gentle person and my father had a lot of fun with him. Dad was also crazy about Danny di Vito. His dream was to make a movie, playing an old Tarzan character who’s lost his voice and can no longer yell “ah, ah, ahhhh.” He wanted to be married to Kathy Bates, a sweet, sweet woman and have Danny di Vito chasing him.

NAF: But unlike Lemmon, your father was hailed as the Latin lover. 

CM: There’s an interview on David Letterman where he’s introduced as the Latin Lover and Dad said, “it’s unbearable because when you describe me as the Latin Lover, I can only be a disappointment to women. It puts me on a too high pedestal.”

NAF: Letterman was promoting his film, Dark Eyes. What’s striking is how continental and elegant your father was. 

CM: Dad had his own tailor in Rome and would fly to London for his shoes. (I still have them.) But although he had that big sense of style, it felt innate and unconscious. 

NAF: Did you keep his sunglasses?

CM: I have the Ray Bans. The sunglasses were always the same—a gold, metal frame and green glass. 

NAF: He loved his food.

CM: Food was sacred. Dad was very patient about signing autographs but the one place that he couldn’t be disturbed was in a restaurant. When people came up to the table, he’d say, “ask me before or afterwards but not when I’m eating.” When he was shooting a film and it was very cold outside, my Dad didn’t complain. Instead, he’d say, “tonight, I’m going to eat this, this and that.” At two in the afternoon, he was already thinking about dinner.

NAF: He never had a weight problem.

CM: A diet would never work for him, he’d hide a ham under his bed. His love of food was transmitted to me. It’s an important subject. Also, my father was from that generation who went through the war and experienced hunger. Besides, it was not just food for food. If alone, he barely ate. It was all the ceremony that went with food: the anticipation, the friends and the sharing.

NAF: Both your parents are beyond famous—your mother represents France and your father Italy—what’s the secret to your being so even-keeled? 

CM: Both my parents had incredible careers—each was a phenomenon—but neither of them lost sight of the fact that they’d been very lucky. Both had been able to work with great, great directors and I remember my Dad saying, “it’s absurd to say that someone is the best actor because probably the best actor in the world is living in a little town, in the middle of nowhere, and we’ll never know about him.” Luck has so much to do with it.

NAF: Both had luck and a grounded attitude. 

CM: Their relationship with fame wasn’t distorted. They never had private jets or bodyguards. It’s a choice and an attitude. Away from the film set, my mother always does her own food shopping. When my father was doing a play in Paris, he always took the bus. Going from one limo to another limo doesn’t necessarily stimulate the brain, the imagination and the spirit.

NAF: But during your childhood, you and your father were hounded by the paparazzi?

CM: The Italian Paparazzi were a pretty violent experience because they don’t hide, they jump on you. But I have to confess that even though they made me cry when I was little—their big, white flash was scary—those childhood photographs that I find on the internet were taken by the Paparazzi. My father never used a camera in his life. So it’s odd to admit that even though the experience was unpleasant, my compensation is having images that I wouldn’t have otherwise. 

NAF: Every strobe flash has a silver lining.

CM: My father was not at all sporty but he’d take me to an Italian ski resort, organise a ski teacher and then wait all morning, drinking 50 coffees and reading the newspapers. When I was crazy about ice-skating, we used this beautiful rink. Totally by chance but he’d met my skating teacher during the war. Named Toni, she was very muscular, very thin, very tanned, very blond and a big smoker too. But typically, the one morning that he decided to skate with me, the Paparazzi caught him. He later said, “gripping onto my dignity, I was so afraid of falling.”

NAF: Can we delve into E.T.?

CM: Sure, I must have been eleven when my mother was invited to this French film festival in Los Angeles and she took me along. It was my childhood dream to go to America. Since my father was making a movie in Brazil, the idea was to meet in L.A., go to Disneyland and see a movie. So I’m there with my Mum and my Dad and I’m not used to being with them together. They split when I was two.

NAF: And you decided to see E.T., presumably at the large Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. 

CM: It was a very touristy cinema. The movie starts and I’m so upset by the chase and what’s happening to E.T., the poor creature, that I burst out crying. And my father freaks. He says, “we cannot stay. It’s breaking my heart to see her so upset. We have to leave.” And my mother says, “no, no, no, you’re too weak and she’s got to deal with this. We came and we’re not going to leave until the end.” I just wanted to hush them up and stop them being so noisy. 

NAF: In general, your parents got on very well.

CM: They remained great friends until the end. We spent every Christmas together. My mother was there with me when my father died. 

NAF: Initially, your mother was against the idea of your acting. How did your father react? 

CM: He immediately said, “as long as you’re happy, I’m happy.” But I think he was pleased to share his craft with me. He did say two things: “you have to be very patient. It can take a long time. And you have to learn to cross the camera tracks without looking at your feet.” 

NAF: At your father’s last Cannes Film Festival in 1996, you told him that you were pregnant.

CM: It was a strange time, six months before he died and he was very, very sick. And although I was so proud to walk up the steps with him, I didn’t want to throw him off with my news. But once I told him, he said “ok but you have to put on a sweater because you’re going to get cold.” I was wearing this lovely dress with a décolleté. Suddenly it became all about my health. He said, “you’re like me, your nose is short and when you have a short nose, you can catch a cold very easily.” The rest of the evening, he treated me like this fragile creature. He wanted me to find a sweater and cover myself. But I put my foot down. It would have hidden and ruined my dress. 

NAF: That sounds so sweet and paternal.

CM: He was very paternal. He’d had another daughter before me, Barbara. My late sister was twenty years older. Resembling my father, she was a brilliant raconteur. And I really adored her. But when Barbara was born, my father was younger and working, working, working. I arrived when he was established and he was able to do stuff with me that he hadn’t done with her. He didn’t want to miss out on anything. 

NAF: Nevertheless, he was an actor to the end, who died with his boots on.

CM: It’s true. Those weeks before my father died, he was still reading scripts, believing that he could do them. That last play that he did, he finished his final weeks using a wheelchair. My father didn’t want to stop. His survival depended on working.