One of the most empathetic and charismatic actors of his generation, Stanley Tucci is also rarely a leading player. He’s content to hang around in the background, bringing intense and highly relatable characters to vibrant life. One gets the impression that he thinks often about scale and proportion. And if you believe that, then it’s only natural that he became fixated by James Lord’s 1965 memoir A Giacometti Portrait. After Lord ran into Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti in Paris in the early ’60s, he agreed to sit down for the artist and have his portrait drawn. Across 18 days of sitting for Giacometti, Lord had more than enough time to peer intensely at the great artist’s ritualistic process, and his memoir is a profound testament to the complicated relationship between artist and subject.
I had the chance to sit down with Tucci last year at Berlinale, where his fifth film as a director, Final Portrait, made its world premiere. Our conversation ranged from his own artistic process, to working with the great Geoffrey Rush, to carrying Giacometti and Lord with him for the better part of his life.
Do you own any works by Giacometti?
I do, I have some prints.
No, but believe me, if I did, I’d be a completely different person! [laughs]
What’s your relationship with art? Your father was an art teacher, and you draw yourself. How important is that for you in your everyday life?
It’s really important. It clears my head, drawing. Also going to museums. I find it very relaxing. I’d always choose going to a museum over going to the theater or to the cinema. I draw whenever I can. I used to do it more at night but not so much anymore because I have a small child at home, a three-year-old.
How did your adventure with the life and art of Alberto Giacometti begin?
I simply love his work. From the moment I first saw a few of his pieces I knew that was it. Later I read a lot about his life and work and the more I read about him, the more fascinated I was. He’s incredibly articulate about the creative process. I think one of the turning points in me deciding to make a film about Giacometti was reading James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait. That’s one of the most crucial books about the creative process itself. As a young person, I carried that book around with me all the time. Much later, I thought about adapting it into a film. Some 13, maybe 14 years ago I wrote a letter to James Lord which started a chain of correspondence. He was very reluctant at first. Eventually he gave me the rights to the option and it took me a couple of years to write the script, later some 10 years to finally make it into a film. Getting the money was the biggest challenge of it all, no doubt.
And for you personally?
The most difficult part for me was finishing the script, really. Once I had it, I knew it would work. Of course, there were some changes introduced later, some more when we were rehearsing. I cut a lot of dialogue in the meantime, some voiceover too. Eventually I thought we didn’t need as much words. [laughs] It was a painful process, it always is, but that way it just feels right. On screen you simply work with different tools.
You’ve said that getting money to make this film was a challenge, which seems almost paradoxical considering Giacometti disinterest in money.
That’s exactly true. It’s been documented in books, that’s what he did. Giacometti lived his life and didn’t care about what people thought of him, didn’t care about the money, he really had it stashed around the house in paper bags. And gave it to whoever came and asked for it. Or to prostitutes. He also didn’t take baths. Sadly, it’s a little disgusting. And yet he was selling his drawings for a lot of money. He loved the idea that people find the work that he did very valuable although he didn’t pay too much attention to any of that. Hence that relationship with money, I think.
His relationship to money was of a peculiar sort, but so was his relationship to cars and to food. He usually ate in rush and didn’t really care about it.
When it comes to food, Giacometti ate the same thing every single day. He showed up at the restaurant, was given the same dish, ate it, and went away. Without any consideration. He also liked wine, but didn’t care for it either! [laughs] He enjoyed strong espresso too, and it’s a kind of a miracle he lived as long as he did, with that kind of lifestyle.
Apart from his many everyday quirks, Giacometti was also known for his temper. He openly disapproved of the work of some of his contemporaries, like Chagall, but you decided to use to show a different side of Giacometti.
For the most part, he was incredibly supportive of other artists. He had certain friends that he really took care of, and he was great friends with Balthus. He definitely wasn’t fond of Picasso. He said Picasso was full of shit, actually. He also thought Chagall was just a house painter.
Giacometti often talked about fellow artists, but he also frequently grappled with feelings of self-doubt. For him, it was more difficult to be out there after he succeeded. Would you say you relate to that feeling?
To some extent I do, yes. The line that he says goes: “What better breeding ground to doubt then success.” It’s true. When people become successful, there’s a certain cockiness about them. What does the trick for me is that I always think I’m never going to work again. It’s actually quite a healthy way to approach it. Otherwise it’s easy to get into trouble. Show business is a very fickle deal. It’s changing all the time. We never have any idea what’s going to happen next. Believe me, I think it’s nice to be heralded. It’s nice to know people think you’re good at what you do. You want to be able to continue to do that. But the bottom line is that you just don’t want to repeat yourself. You should doubt yourself more. Sometimes I look at myself and I just think I’m doing the same thing over and over again, and it’s boring. Obviously, people don’t find it boring for whatever reason. But I look at it and I can’t take it.
An artist as yourself surely understands how challenging it is not to be able to finish a piece of work, like Giacometti did with The Final Portrait.
The thing is it has to be done. There’s no other way. You have to finish the film. Sometimes you just get sick of it or you go and think that you can’t look at it anymore. The other thing is, maybe the crucial one is that somebody put money into the film and you have to deliver. I mean, you’re legally obligated to do it. Of course, if it were my own money, I’d probably redo it all again. [laughs] Well, not all of it. But most of it, surely. I keep asking myself the same questions like “Is it a perfect film?” No! “Am I completely happy with it?” No! But you know what? That’s okay. I’m okay with that.
I’m sure you also struggle with insecurities, such as over the various choices you’ve made throughout your acting career.
Sometimes I have a feeling that I’m not ready, especially when I get thrust into something very quickly and unexpectedly. But these things can also be very good, creatively. I do occasionally go back to the things I’ve done in the past and think I could have done them differently.
Anything in particular?
That concerns almost everything I’ve done, really. I think that if you want to be good at something you can never be completely satisfied with what you do. For me, the second film I directed was the most difficult one, The Impostors. After all these years, I still feel like I didn’t make use of all the options that were available to me. But Final Portrait was also very challenging, although I had more freedom and was much more conscious about that.
How much freedom do you give your actors when you direct?
A lot. But I’m also very specific about what I want. And the thing is that, because I’m an actor, I’d never ask anybody to do anything that I wouldn’t or couldn’t do myself. I also don’t believe in indulging actors. When you show up, you should know what you’re doing. You should know your lines for the most part. And then we get on with it. But within that we should be able to go everywhere. I’m frequently giving specific directions like “Let’s try this one like this,” “Let’s try one angry,” or “Let’s try one sad.” Sometimes I’d direct very technically and I’ll say, “Look out the window, count to three and turn around,” or “Look at him, put your head down and then walk out.” So that we have this whole range of stuff we can later use.
Now that you said it, it’s particularly interesting to see how you present the faces of your protagonists, in a very detailed and tender way.
I think it was all because I wanted to deconstruct them in a way, through their facial features. I wanted to see different elements in different light. All of the pieces of that puzzle come together on screen. We recreated Giacometti’s face on Geoffrey as much as we could. I was also fascinated with his gaze, him always staring and looking all the time. Hunting for things that interested him and were out of the ordinary.
How did Geoffrey Rush get into this character?
He was attached to Final Portrait for two years. He had all of the information that I sent him: the book, the documentaries, images, other books, everything. He lived with that for two years and then he came in, we rehearsed for a week, like you rehearse a play, and altered the script together. And then we went straight into shooting. And we shot as much in sequence as possible, in the studio for two and a half weeks first and then we shot for a week and a half on location all over London.
But there was also this great physical transformation involved.
Geoffrey’s quite thin and lanky, with his tiny shoulders. Giacometti was built like one of the Marx brothers. He was also quite thick. So we made Rush’s cheeks plumper. The heavy clothing did a lot of work for us too. He had something like a padding on his back and shoulders. Also, Geoffrey was in makeup for almost two hours every day. We added fake teeth, darker eyes, changed the hair. It was quite a process. And only he can tell you about his daily psychological ritual before the makeover. I think he also smoked a lot.
As did Giacometti. You must have put a lot of effort into researching, as did your cast and crew. Does it look the same when you prepare your own roles?
It depends on the role, of course. Some roles you research a lot for, for some not as much. For something like Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia, I researched a lot, and for Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones as well. When I played Adolf Eichmann in Frank Pierson’s Conspiracy I did a lot of research. That was extremely well prepared, for obvious reasons. But sometimes you’re also doing other films at the same time, on a certain schedule and there’s just so much an actor can do. As for Giacometti’s story, the book was with me my whole adult life so I practically researched it without even knowing it. I read a lot about him, talked to James Lord, looked at documents over and over again. I think I read his biography at least three times, many other books as well. He’s been with me for over two decades now, you know? And of course there’s all the visual documentation of him and the studio, same spaces and faces.
And how did you recreate the works?
There were three young sculptors who worked on the sculptures. And we also had Roan Harris, who recreated all the paintings. To prepare Giacometti’s studio, we looked at the descriptions from the book by Michael Peppiatt. Before we started shooting, we sent him some black-and-white photos of the studio we recreated. His reply was: “Why are you sending me photos of Giacometti’s studio?” [laughs] He thought it was the original studio, which felt pretty good. Of course, we introduced some changes. For instance, we made the windows longer so there was a little more light inside.
Do you believe that in these difficult times we can find solace in art?
Yes, but the artist has no obligation other than to himself or herself. And if hope is a result of art then that’s a good thing. Frankly, I don’t think I should say anything about the difficulty of the times we live in. We all see it too well.
Another version of contemporary hunger games?
Almost. Sadly, we’re getting there. It’s incredible how we just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I simply don’t know how on earth that’s even possible. We keep making the same mistakes, but the periods between them just keep getting shorter. People say that all immigrants are terrorists. It’s like saying that all Jews are evil, all Italians are criminals, and all Irish are drunks. I mean, that’s what it goes back to. How can these things be said? It’s simply astounding. And people buy it! And it’s in my own country! It’s insane.
Is there a need for a Katniss Everdeen character then?
I don’t know. I’d probably go for Melissa McCarthy!