Alessandro Nivola stars in Sebastian Lelio’s new film, Disobedience. Lelio takes us into a world we so rarely see, the insular Jewish Orthodox community. Set in North London, Disobedience stars Nivola, Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz as Ronit, who long ago abandoned her community but has returned after her father’s death. Much like his previous films, Lelio creates extraordinary character arcs. He does so here as Ronit and Esti (McAdams) find their childhood lust and passions reignited, and their sexuality is explored. Esti is married to Dovid who wants to take over as rabbi. Faith, community, loyalties, sacrifice and secretive passion are at the heart of this beautiful story.
I caught up with Nivola to talk about the conflicts of his character Dovid and his plans to return to Broadway.
What struck you about your character when you first heard about Disobedience?
I think the thing that I felt drawn to, apart from the obvious opportunity to play somebody from a different background and experience and behavior as my own, was the fact that there was no villain in the story. The movie was about three really good people who really loved each other and were thrust into this impossible situation just because of the nature of love and life. I felt that it made the story much more complex than if this character was a real antagonist and was set up as a kind of man for the audience to hate in order for them to long for this extra-marital affair to be consummated.
That just tipped me off that this would be a movie that was going to deal with these situations in a subtle and complex way that would be surprising.
It was also the chance to play someone from such a particular world that I was totally unfamiliar with that was a major challenge and that’s something as an actor I totally long for.
You live in Brooklyn where there’s a large Orthodox community. They’re such a hidden community, but what did you learn about them and how did your perception change?
I really knew nothing about it prior to the research I did. My grandmother was German-Jewish from Frankfurt and she ended up being a Holocaust refugee. She moved to Milan in the 1930s and went to art school. She was a Bohemian type who married an Italian-Catholic guy. None were religious and when I came along there was no Hebrew being spoken at the dinner table. [laughs].
As far as the ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn, my own experience had been walking through those neighborhoods and feeling that I wasn’t seen at all and that I was completely on another planet and they had no interest in me at all.
Once I was offered the job, I was determined to find a way in. I started hanging around this hat shop in Crown Heights called Primo, this was a place where everybody in the neighborhood, and was renowned worldwide. It had every kind of hat for different sects. I got to know the guys who knew the shop and explained what I was doing.
At first, they laughed in my face, but then it became clear that they were worried that I was going to fuck it up and do it badly. They started to coach me. I became really good friends with this one guy and he started teaching me Hebrew and all the blessings that I had to say. He’d make sure that I was pronouncing things correctly and teaching me about behavioral things around certain situations. He started inviting me to Shabbat dinners with his family.
It was a real eye-opener because I’ve always had this impression that it was this really austere culture and everyone was incredibly serious. Of course, it was the opposite. These dinners were raucous, people drank and talked a lot. There were no cellphones at the dinner table and the young people were very engaged because they weren’t playing video games on their iPhones. There’s something amazing about our technology, adult, modern world to have this one day a week where everybody was there to just be together and talk.
It was a really profound experience for me and I was grateful to them. I felt the burden of wanting to represent them accurately. My character is the spokesperson for the religion in the film and I felt determined to get it right.
It’s heaven when you sit at a dinner table and everyone is engaged without cellphones. It’s such a rare thing.
You don’t experience it anymore. My kids are constantly checking their snapchats.
Taking photos of their food.
The film opens with the rabbi talking about freedom is impossible without accepting a degree of loss and that comes through to your character in the film. Talk about your character in that sense.
What I thought was interesting was that Dovid, within the confines of the religious law and that community, he was actually and seemingly, it’s not overtly spoken, but he appears to be liberal-minded and open-minded because he’s so welcoming to Ronit, Rachel Weisz’s character, even though the rest of the community is skeptical of her return. I like the idea that there’s this character who is naturally open-minded was then forced to contend with the reality of what that meant when it was going to affect him personally in a way that was really threatening. His marriage, his future, his family and his career is suddenly jeopardized because of his own willingness to embrace Ronit back into the fold. The way he’s forced to grapple with terror, rage, panic, and resentment that comes gurgling up in the heart of someone who is generous, that to me was a really interesting character study. That’s so human to me.
Even the most liberal of us have this idea of acceptance, but when things come butting up against your own life in a way that’s threatening, it becomes much harder to live by those ideals and that I think was happening with him.
What was it like working with Sebastian in creating this character with so much depth to him?
He was interested in sitting around for long stretches. Initially, we were skyping. He lived in Berlin and I was in New York. Over two or three months, we’d sit on skype talking about the character, the story and what his experience had been. We’d talk about what their childhood would have been like because obviously, they had a complicated and long history. They were so close, almost romantically close back when they were teenagers and you’re starting to go through puberty. You’d imagine there might have been some flirtatiousness between all three of them and little details like that were discussed to establish what the relationships were like specifically in the past and in the present.
He was willing to sit and talk about it for hours and he really enjoyed getting into the details. He’s very compassionate and sensitive, but also mischievous and funny. He’s very collaborative and very curious to know what our ideas were. The script evolved a little bit based on some of those suggestions. It was very encouraging for the actors and it’s always nice to have that.
I love the stare you give Esti, the one at the end. (No spoilers). How did you tap into the character aside from the time spent with your friend from the hat shop?
For me, beyond the behavioral stuff and what was specific to the Orthodox community, these were human situations, it was about imagining yourself in that situation and how it would make you feel if you were losing the person that you loved and what emotions that would bring up in you. It’s a really scary thing.
I think the character goes through a series of ways of grappling with it. First, he’s in denial about it. Then he’s apprehensive, nervous and frightened and then he spirals out of control a bit. We shot some scenes that didn’t end up in the movie when he gets drunk and he goes off the deep end a bit. He verges on madness I think. Once he’s in the synagogue, the weight of that decision he’s facing starts to have physical manifestations of hyperventilating and just feeling like his head is going to explode. It was just letting my imagination run into those places of what kind of feelings I’d be having.
Are there any plans for you to return to Broadway?
I would love to. I had started my career on Broadway, but then I had this long hiatus from it where I didn’t do any plays. I moved back to New York and since then every couple of years I’ve been consistent and done a play. I did the Winslow Boy and a Lie of The Mind with Ethan Hawke that he directed. I did The Elephant Man. I hope that sometime in the next year something great comes along. Theater is major commitment because it’s a long period and it’s really demanding, but it’s scary too. [laughs]. I’ve been lucky that these roles came up and felt that I absolutely had to do. Every couple of years I’m looking, and I’m looking now.
Disobedience is out this Friday