Alessandro Nivola

Alessandro Nivola's Big Experiment Just Paid Off

Two decades after launching his film career, the Many Saints of Newark star is finally having his moment.

You've seen Alessandro Nivola's face before, you just might not remember where. The prolific actor has been in dozens of films over the last 25 years, always ready for a breakout moment that never seemed to arrive. 

Hopping on Zoom to chat with me over Labor Day weekend, he greets me with a grin and a genial "How're you doing?" We chatted two summers ago when he was promoting 2019's The Red Sea Diving Resort, just after filming had wrapped on The Many Saints of Newark. Little did we know, it would be nearly two years before the fruits of that labor would make it to the big screen.

Despite his splashy film debut in John Woo's 1997 action classic Face/Off as Nicolas Cage's villainous baby brother, Pollux Troy, Nivola kicked around Hollywood for a dozen years afterward — with a brief stint making films in England, where he met his wife, actress-filmmaker Emily Mortimer. However, his career languished with lead roles in films that never seemed to break through.

Alessandro Nivola
Credit: Andy Jackson

But Nivola's trajectory as an actor changed about a decade ago when he decided to try an experiment. The Boston-born actor decided he would take any role — no matter the size — if he thought the director had an original vision.  

When he stopped butting heads with directors, he says, he found himself having a better time at work, more open to collaboration and full of positive energy. During this time he worked with a wide range of auteurs like Sally Potter, Ava DuVernay, Nicolas Winding Refn, Barry Levinson, Lynne Ramsay, and Sebastián Lelio.

The experiment paid off big time when The Sopranos creator, David Chase, impressed by Nivola's stunning supporting work in David O. Russell's American Hustle and J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year, cast him as the lead in the groundbreaking show's big screen prequel, The Many Saints of Newark.

"The fact that David wanted to cast me because of two fairly minor roles in good movies definitely is the proof in the pudding of the experiment," he recalls over Zoom with a coy smile and shrug.

Alessandro Nivola
Credit: Andy Jackson

Co-written by Chase with longtime Sopranos writer Lawrence Konner and directed by Alan Taylor, who won an Emmy for his direction on the original series, The Many Saints of Newark traces the origins of the crime family patriarch Tony Soprano (the late James Gandolfini) from rambunctious teenager to bloodthirsty mobster. Newark centers on Dickie Moltisanti (Nivola), whose legacy haunts the entire series.

Because Dickie's death precedes the show, Nivola harnessed the freedom to craft a character wholly his own. As Nivola built the interiority of Dickie, Chase told him to ignore, "everything that was said about [Dickie] in the series" — by any character — "because they're all liars."

Dickie is an idol to those around him, especially his nephew Tony, played through the second half of the film by Gandolfini's son Michael. He's well-dressed, charming, and brimming with self-confidence — a perfect match for the affable actor, who is quick to laugh and full of easy charm himself. But Dickie's outward presentation is a front "hiding complete emotional chaos," according to Nivola, which allowed the actor to stretch his muscles on screen, oscillating from tender moments to absolute rage, often within seconds. To Nivola, this contradiction — "the love and the idolatry, the rage and the disgust, and this shock of what he does" — is the central tragedy of his character.

Alessandro Nivola
Credit: Andy Jackson

A descendant of Italian sculptor Costantino Nivola, the chameleonic actor grew up in Boston and Vermont, studying at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University. His Broadway debut opposite Helen Mirren in A Month in the Country earned him a Drama Desk Award nomination, and he's balanced his work in theater with film and television ever since. While the challenge of theater is to make a performance fresh every time, he notes that no matter the medium, "really good actors are just alive in the moment and feel very spontaneous and unpredictable." 

That's not to say, however, that he didn't put in the work. In preparation for Newark, Nivola worked with a dialect coach for six months in order to craft an authentic vocal pattern. He also spent time with men who'd grown up in the crime world in which the film is set, noticing that many of them had been amateur boxers. This added "a roundedness to their back and shoulders." He demonstrates this physicality as he recalls translating this keen observation into how Dickie's posture changes depending on the power dynamics at play in any given scene.  

Alessandro Nivola Polaroids
Credit: Alessandro Nivola

Nivola's office is cluttered and homey. Framed pictures of his family fill the frame of his Zoom square. He moves off-screen for a moment to pull from his shelf the books he read to get into the psyche of a complex man like Dickie — Gay Talese's Honor Thy Father, inspired by the tense relationship between father and son in the Bonanno crime family, and Al DeMeo's memoir about his dad, Roy DeMeo, a notorious Gambino crime family member. He insists this research was the key to unlocking what lies at the heart of The Many Saints of Newark

He discovered that "in all these father son relationships, there seems to be this paradox." Many sons raised by fathers working in crime families were caught between idolizing their father's power and despising their penchant towards physical abuse. Caught up in this same tension with his own father, Dickie attempts to put an end to this cycle of abuse through his relationship with Tony. Of course, we all know what they say about best laid plans.

So what's next for Nivola? The Brooklyn-based actor spent the summer in Cleveland where his kids, Sam, 18 and May, 11, have been filming alongside Adam Driver for Noah Baumbach's latest movie, an adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, for Netflix. It's been a change of pace for Nivola and wife Mortimer, who wrote, directed, and acted in Amazon's The Pursuit of Love which debuted over the summer. "We've been sitting at home in Cleveland waiting for our kids to come home from work," he quips. 

Alessandro Nivola
Credit: Andy Jackson

And his experiment? Regardless of the size of the roles offered, Nivola plans to continue prioritizing visionary directors, sharing he's still convinced "that's the more interesting path." With his formidable turn in The Many Saints of Newark, Nivola's breakout moment has finally arrived, with the next 25 years poised to be even more artistically rewarding than the last.  

As our chat ends, Nivola once again flashes his warm smile, signing off with a wave and a cheery "Until next time!" I, for one, cannot wait to see what's to come. 

Read on for the pickup line he learned from Michael Gandolfini, his favorite Hollywood Chris, and most, importantly, his bagel order. 

Who is your celebrity crush? 

Robert DeNiro.

What's the last thing you do before you fall asleep?

Worry. 

Who is your favorite villain?

Jabba The Hutt. 

What is the first album you ever owned?

The 45 of "Centerfold" by the J Geils Band.

What is your favorite cheesy pickup line?

"Are you a fart cuz you just blew me away". I've got to give credit to Michael Gandolfini for this. 

Alessandro Nivola Polaroids
Credit: Alessandro Nivola

If you were required to spend $1,000 today, what would you buy and why? 

50 tickets to "The Many Saints of Newark"! Is that all 1k gets you?

Name one place you've never been but have always wanted to go.

The Magic Castle in Hollywood .

Is there an outfit you regret wearing? 

Everything I've ever worn in a fashion shoot. Basically, any clothes that aren't mine.

Tell us your favorite joke.

Have you ever read "The Tiger's Revenge" by Claude Balls? 

Who is your favorite Hollywood Chris?

Walken. 

When was the last time you cried?

When I got the part I'm promoting in this magazine. 

Lastly, what is your favorite bagel?

The Rainbow bagel. 

Photographs Andy Jackson. Polaroid photos by Alessandro Nivola. Styling by Michael Fisher. Jeans and jacket: Bruno Cucinelli; T-shirt: Truth Alone. Special thanks to Polaroid. Booking by Isabel Jones. Production by Kelly Chiello.