It’s never easy trying to capture the essence of someone in a few lines of introduction, especially when they are a person of such extraordinary personal and professional character that they defy simple description. Valeria Golino, my friend of over thirty-years, is such a person. She has both the radiance and beauty, the sensuality of baring and fortitude of spirit that is irresistible to all that meet her. It was this way when we met her during her first visit to Los Angeles after she won the David di Donetella best actress award for her first starring performance in Francesco Maselli’s A Tale of Love in 1986, and decided to try her way in Hollywood. It is still this way today.
A woman of enormous intelligence and charm, Valeria has crafted a career in both her native Italy and in the United States. She has won three Golden Lion awards for acting and her first and second films as a film director, Miele and Euphoria both received rave critical reviews and awards. In my opinion, she is one of the most interesting and original filmmakers working today. There is a profound wisdom to Valeria’s work. A knowledge of the human spirit and complexity that combines in her storytelling, to show a most original and rich portrait of her leading characters, and of life.
I spent time with Valeria in the summer. We both love the mediterranean sea and the summer of meandering afternoons and long swims and even longer discussions. It may surprise you but a most resonant characteristic of this most accomplished woman is her humour and mischievousness. The cocktail of her Italian and Greek blood are wonderfully intoxicating in her work and in her friendship. We spent an hour this summer talking, with my daughter Oona asking some questions of her own.
Charles: Valeria Golino. Where does it come from?
Valeria: From Naples I guess. It’s not a very common name, there’s not many Golinos. There’s few, but that’s where it comes from.
Charles: At this point in your life, you’re greatly admired in Italy and around the world. What is happening now, in your life that the Golino name represents?
Valeria: For me, less and less. To myself, my name doesn’t represent anything. I do know that if you resist enough in the industry, as I have, eventually you will get some authority in what you do.
Charles: How does it show itself? The authority.
Valeria: People listen to you. More than before. They listen to your opinion. They listen to your decisions, if you are in the position to make it. Maybe there is something good about getting older, which is this. You have more authority, because you know more than you knew before.
Charles: In my personal case, people are confused constantly with what I do. It’s a magazine, it’s a movie, it’s business.
Valeria: Well, you keep it elusive too…you never want to be defined.
Charles: Tilda Swinton likes to say she regards herself as an artist rather than as an actor.
Valeria: If I was Tilda Swinton I would tell you the same.
Charles: Tell me about the connection between Greece and Naples and your childhood. Your father was Greek and your mother is Nepolitan?
Valeria: My mum was very young when she had both me and my brother, by the time she was 28, she was already separated. She didn’t work when she was married to my dad, but she was a painter. And she had a good family behind her, so for the first few years that we were back she took us from Naples—where I was born and where my dad was a young professor there at the time—to Greece.
Charles: Why Greece?
Valeria: My mum is Greek. My lovely grandmother was in Greece, in Athens. So, when she broke up with my dad she had no more reason to be in Naples. My father was a communist, very political, very intellectual, and extremely abstract as a person. My mother, instead, was just a young girl. twenty-seven with two kids.
Charles: How long did you stay in Athens?
Valeria: We stayed for four or five years. They were incredibly happy years. We missed our dad, but he used to write long letters. Every time he sent some money, which was not much. Once a month, he would also send, for example, a Brothers Grimm fable/soap opera that he started for me and my brothers.
Charles: Do you still have the letters?
Valeria: No I don’t, but I’m sure there are some. Does my mother have them? She is not attached to memories, so maybe she doesn’t.
Charles: Did she marry again?
Valeria: She married again around ten years ago when she was sixty-nine. She’s very happy.
Charles: And your father passed?
Valeria: My father died fifteen years ago, yes, to my painful atonement. I was not ready to lose him. He was seventy-two when he died. He had never been sick, until he was sick. And then one year he was gone. This very natural thing of losing a parent, when it happens, as natural as it is, is totally devastating.
Charles: Because there are unsaid things.
Valeria: Yes, exactly. But, at eight I came back to live with my father who had moved from Naples to nearby Sorrento, on a rock.
Charles: That we have sometimes sailed by, haven’t we?
Valeria: We have sometimes sailed there, and everytime I say “that’s my father’s house,” in front of Capri. The most beautiful place that you can imagine. As an adult I understood why my father said that he would never leave. It was just exquisite. Rocks, sea, Capri in front of you. There were citrus fruits everywhere, olive trees, and this house. But, saying that, it was totally isolated. It was me, my brother, my father, his pregnant wife.
Charles: Why did you leave your mum to go there?
Valeria: My father eventually said to my mum “you’ve had them for four years. Now I want them back for a while” which also eventually became four years. We left the most happy, Greek, chaotic, south of mediterranean life, my mum with her friends taking us anywhere, taking us to the movies three times a week. My mum loved the movies, and she took us there all the time. And we always ate in restaurants. For kids, this is like heaven.
Charles: Tell me about the first movie. How did it happen?
Valeria: It started in Athens. I went to do a photoshoot in Italy for bathing suits, for Greek Vogue. I stayed at my uncle’s house in Parioli, in Roma. I have school two days later, and my uncle is taking me to the airport to go back to Greece. My aunt comes to the terrace and shouts “Valeria, Valeria, come back! Listen Valeria. Lina Wertmüller is on the phone, do you know who she is?” Lina Wertmüller, who was a very big female director at a time when female directors didn’t exist, was a friend of my aunt. I said “Of course, I know who she is.” I was a cinephile. So, my uncle and I went to Lina Wertmüller’s house, And that’s how everything started. She was making a movie called A Joke Of Destiny.
Charles: When you made the movie, what did you think of the whole thing?
Valeria: Lina was a pain in the ass on the set. She was one of the meanest directors that you can come across. So I thought “Oh my god…this isn’t so cool.” and then I had a car accident. I couldn’t finish the movie. Half of my part was gone. I went to the hospital. Ugo Tognazzi came to visit me with flowers—in my house, we loved Ugo Tognazzi. It was Robert De Niro in America and Ugo Tognazzi in Italy. He was so sweet with me.
Later, Lina suggested I come and do a Peroni advert so they can pay me. And almost a year later, I started working with really good directors. Boom! Boom! Boom! I did three movies. Very good movies. I did the last one, then my back started killing me a year after. So I did this movie: Storia d’amore. Then I have an operation and am in bed for six months. As soon as I take off the cast, it’s August and the movie is in-competition in Venice…
I arrived in Venice and I won Best Actress at nineteen. I was the youngest that ever won the Golden Lion. Why am I saying this? Because in my head, somewhere I started putting the struggle of my body, the struggle of my family into something like “Before you get something really good, before you get the Golden Lion at nineteen, you first have to be in bed [broken].
And then I won it again, six years ago, thirty years later, when I was forty-nine. I am one of the only people to have won it twice. This one is called—strange, again, love is in the title—Per Amor Vostro. For your love.
Charles: When did you realise in the evolution of your career that directing would become vital to you?
Valeria: I think the death of my father had to do with me starting directing. The death of my father was such an astonishing situation because of—like you said before—things that are left unsaid. Unspoken things. I did my first movie a few years after he died and it was about a girl who put people to sleep. Miele. I adapted it from a book.
Charles: How difficult is it to get a movie made as a director?
Valeria: Being an actress and a women [contributed to that] in a way, but it was difficult mainly because of what the movie talked about, which was euthanasia, and this was illegal in Italy. It was very difficult because of this to put the money up, so Viola and Riccardo started looking for money—Riccardo put in some of his own money—and we eventually found enough to do it. I have to thank them for how much faith they had in me, my two very good friends. Even when I complained that nobody was going to let us make this movie, they said “This movie’s going to be made. You’re going to do it.” It’s other people who give you strength. I was very lucky to find, in different moments of my life, people who believed in something in me.
Charles: And now do you enjoy acting as much as directing or do you enjoy less?
Valeria: Well, I still like to act. It tires me a lot, because actors use their bodies. And my body being fragile is tiring, but I’m a better actor now than ever.
Charles: Do you feel more confident?
Valeria: It’s not a matter of confidence. I think I was very confident when I started. What I hate the most about me as an actress is that I’m always kind of believable, but I hate when I’m opaque. There are certain movies where you’re vivid—certain periods of your life. It’s about how you look—and who’s looking at you.
Charles: Do you feel that it’s challenging as an actor to continue to be stimulated by the work?
Valeria: As an actress, I try to do things that still scare me, still challenge me, that I don’t feel comfortable with. Otherwise, it would be very boring for me to do. And sometimes it is, because sometimes you make money from doing the boring. It’s work.
Charles: You’re about to direct a very big series for Sky, which is being produced, again, by Viola and Nicolas. Tell me the story of this and how it happened.
Valeria: This is an adaptation of a book. My second movie Euphoria was an original idea. This one is based on a book called The Art of Joy which is about a young girl in the 1900s who was born under Etna, a big volcano in Sicily. She’s a poor girl in the rural part of Sicily. In the book, it’s her story from when she was born until she’s sixty. My series is just the first part of the book, which tells her story from when she’s nine to twenty-one. That’s the first six episodes.
Charles: How did you find the book?
Valeria: This is a book and character that for years and years has followed me around. She is an unworthy hero. She’s a criminal. But not because she’s ambitious, she just adapts to the moment and to the present. She does whatever she can to survive and not go back to her poverty. She’s a survivor.
Charles: The future for you…what does it look like?
Valeria: I have a lot to say.
Charles: What are some movies that have moved you?
Valeria: Bambi. One of the first movies in my memory. I saw that with my mum, in Greece. King Kong…It’s always about animals! The first, the second, the third, the fourth—all the King Kongs, no matter what. Breaking The Waves moved me. The Tree Of Life moved me.
Charles: Which of the great filmmakers now, as a director, do you look to in Italian cinema [for inspiration]. Is it Rosselini, is it Pasolini, is it De Sica?
Valeria: All of these people had very specific personalities, they brought points of view that were so strong. For example, Pasolini for me as a poet is immense. As a filmmaker, he’s not my cup of tea. But Fellini is my cup of tea. Antonioni was an immense filmmaker but he’s not necessarily my cup of tea.
Charles: Which Fellini movie do you love the most?
Valeria: 8 ½ is the movie of all movies.
Charles: Pasta pomodoro or Cacio e Pepe
Valeria: Hm. Pepe…No. I’ll say Pasta Pomodoro.
Oona Finch: Cigarettes or alcohol?
Valeria: Both. My friend Isabella Ferrari says she can condense who I am because when she asks me if I want tea or cafe, I say both.
Oona: What was it like going to America as an Italian actress? Were you nervous?
Valeria: In those years I was not nervous. I’ve been nervous later, when I had to make choices. When you have success early, then you need something to keep you going…
Oona: It’s hard to keep going. It’s hard to keep motivated. Also you don’t know if you can do it again. It’s the great fear.
Valeria: Today, I’m starting this thing and I look at everyone who is asking me questions, want my decisions, who expect me to find solutions and I think to myself “they don’t know I’m an imposter.” But I am.
Charles: All great actors feel like imposters. And all great directors feel like imposters. It’s the ones who know what they’re doing that we have to be most careful of.
Valeria: It is the least poetic of all sentiments…to be satisfied with what you do.