Stylish gangs fight the law to a draw
Kim Rossi Stuart's film career began when he was picked up hitchhiking, but it exploded when he played a real-life villain, says Evan Fanning
KIM Rossi Stuart comes in from a seedy Soho street, where he has just been photographed, and flops into a deep sofa. The chances are that anyone passing the 41-year-old outside may have wondered exactly who he is and what all the fuss is about, but in his native Italy, Stuart is every bit the star.
Not that there is much or, indeed, any evidence of that as he sits in the couch talking at length in a laconic and lazy manner about a role that pushed him to the brink, both physically and mentally.
In fact, in his smart V-neck jumper and tanned cords, Stuart could pass for a hill-walker out getting some fresh air, albeit one who, with his sandy hair, unshaven face and piercing blue eyes, looks like a rugged Brad Pitt.
Stuart is here to talk about Angels of Evil, where he plays Renato Vallanzasca, a notorious Italian gangster, whose robberies, murders, kidnappings and jailbreaks (not to mention his public taunting of the authorities) in the 1970s made him a household name across the country. "I'm never completely satisfied, but I think we did a good job," Stuart says modestly of the finished product. "It was difficult material to manage."
That the material is "difficult" may be obvious when you are dealing with a character as volatile and as polarising as Vallanzasca. "I met him many times," Stuart explains.
I'm curious as to whether a man who, in Stuart's portrayal at least, believes himself to be an honourable criminal -- who is merely grabbing his piece of the pie, just like so many corrupt politicians -- feels any sense of regret at his actions?
"He says it's clear that he wasted his life because he spent 40 years in jail, so he cannot say that he's a winner," says Stuart. "But in a certain way, he feels he is, because they tried to break him but they couldn't. He says, 'I have some beliefs and I still believe in those, and in this sense I've won because I've always had integrity and I've been consistent with my own self.' That's his way of dealing with it."
Despite his lengthy incarceration (he is serving four consecutive life sentences), Vallanzasca showed that he has not lost the sense of adventure that led to his notoriety by going above and beyond what is normally expected from "research" meetings between an actor and the real-life person they are due to portray.
"In one of our meetings, he confessed to a murder and it was the first time he had revealed he was responsible for that killing," Stuart explains. "It went straight into the screenplay."
There was probably no real need to go to the authorities. The 260-year sentence should probably cover it. But the film has been a controversial project in Italy, where the families of the victims of Vallanzasca's crimes are angry about a movie that they feel glorifies his life.
Stuart agrees that the families have a right to object, but feels the Italian media's orchestration of the controversy was somewhat hysterical. "The problem is that Renato Vallanzasca is still alive, so the people who were angry with him then feel that same anger today. He made a kind of war with the forces of law and order, so that's why they are still so angry with him -- and, as a result, they're angry with the movie.
"On the one hand, you have the families of the victims and it's perfectly understandable that they have an open wound, and it's quite understandable they would want to protect and defend and protest against the film.
"On the other hand, you have a whole media world lacking the courage to focus their attention on the ills of our country and they prefer instead to point at and accuse or criticise somebody who has already paid a heavy price."
Stuart's performance is the high point of the film by some distance. He's in practically every scene. "I really crossed the desert," he says of an experience that left him physically and emotionally shattered.
I wonder if his devotion to his work has been the reason he has never decided to marry or have children. "No, that's just part of my personality," he responds. But it's clear from speaking with him that he has chosen his career ahead of many of the parts of what we may consider to be a normal life. "I'm afraid that the people who really succeed in this job are people who really sacrifice the rest of their life for this," he explains, before correcting himself. "Sacrifice is a strong world -- you do it with pleasure. This job has saved my life, somehow. It gave me the opportunity to put all my problems and my joy and all sorts of sentiments into it.
"But it's a field that needs a lot of water. When you work on a character or write a story, if you don't take that into bed when you go to sleep, then it's really difficult to go deep into that material.
"When I did Hamlet, for example, for the first time, I was 29 and it was such a tough and difficult experience that I was going to face that I had to sleep with him for six months to try to really understand what Shakespeare meant."
Angels of Evil was even more demanding. He jokes he felt like he wanted to retire after he finished making it. I wonder if he feels this sort of life is sustainable as he gets older? "In my future, I see much more directing than acting. [He released his debut feature Along the Ridge in 2006.] As an actor, when you finish a film there is always the sense that you have helped, you have been part of a collective project, but it's really someone else's project. A director always has much more of a sense of gestation and always has much more of a maternal or paternal feel."
With a name like Stuart, along with his slightly fair complexion, I'm curious as to whether or not he has any Celtic origins. The answer is "no", but the story of his name is every bit as intriguing.
"My father was an actor in the Seventies. Often in Italy, the B-movie actors and directors used give themselves an Anglo-Saxon name because it was trendy. My father did the same, even though he was half-English, but from his mother's side."
So it's a sort of inherited nom de plume? "Well, until I was 30 years old I was sure that it was my grandmother's name, so I was sure it was my real name somehow, but then I found out it wasn't true."
With his family background -- his mother was a model -- it might seem like he was destined for a career in show business. Not so, he insists, and were it not for a chance encounter in his youth, he has no real idea what would have become of his life.
"When I was 12, I was hitchhiking and I was picked up by an assistant director, who asked me if I wanted to do a screen test. That was when I started acting. If I wasn't hitchhiking, I would never have been an actor. I would have been a carpenter or athlete. Or maybe even a thief."
Stuart may not have fully left Renato Vallanzasca behind just yet.
'Angels of Evil' is showing in Cineworld Dublin
Sunday Indo Living