Giancarlo Giannini Remembers Groundbreaking Director and Collaborator Lina Wertmüller: ‘She Opened My Mind’

Actor Giancarlo Giannini’s collaboration with writer-director Lina Wertmüller, who died Dec. 9 at age 93, spans nine films, including raucous sex comedy and social satire “The Seduction of Mimì” — his first leading role in a Wertmüller movie — which brought them both their first taste of international fame. Giannini spoke to Variety by phone from Rome about their symbiotic relationship and unique rapport.

How did you and Lina first intersect?

I was studying acting at the National Academy in Rome. She came to see two plays I was in — one was by Molière — and offered me parts in two musical movies with the great pop singer Rita Pavone. Then when Lina had the idea for “The Seduction of Mimì” [1972], no other Italian actor wanted to play the lead. She had offered it to Marcello Mastroianni, among others, but he turned it down. So, she offered it to me, and I leaped at it.

What was it like working with Lina?

Lina was a volcano. She knew everything. She knew dance, acting, the camera, lighting, writing, editing. She had been Fellini’s assistant director; her imagination was boundless. And she opened my mind. In those days in Italy, Italian comedy dominated. So she latched on to that but took it further. She made it more grotesque, more extreme, and even more ironic, but with very well-defined characters. Since I am an actor who has fun changing constantly, in Lina I found just what I needed. And vice versa. We had lots of fun; we took our stories to extremes. The stories were fun, but underneath the surface they were also very political.

Your collaboration went beyond just acting on set.

We were a very tight team. We would work feverishly on screenplays together at Lina’s apartment and stay up until 5 or 6 in the morning writing, and then I would act out scenes. We germinated ideas, movies. We worked day and night. But we laughed a lot. Lina liked to play, and that’s exactly what we did. I also produced her films with her, including “Seven Beauties.” We had lots of creative control. She was very bold, and so was I.

I heard Lina was very demanding and aggressive on set.

Yes, but that’s because she was a great psychologist. She understood how to get the best performances out of actors, sometimes even by insulting them. Or making them cry if they had to cry in a scene. But she could also be gentle. She could have gotten a great performance even out of a stone.

Was she brash with you?

She was tough with me at times. When she wanted something, she was relentless. But we were creating together. Also, I always did everything she asked me; maybe I just improved on it. I owe everything I’ve accomplished in my performances in her films to her.

How did “Swept Away” come about?

I was working with her husband Enrico Job [a production designer] on a Dino Risi movie. Lina wanted us to do another movie together. So I told her: “Let’s do a movie on an island, so this summer we can also get a holiday out of it.” She wrote the screenplay in a week, sent it to me, and it was impossible to turn down, it was so outrageous. I decided we would produce it together as well.

Was it harder for women in those days to get respect on a movie set?

Keeping control of a set is tough enough for a man.For a woman it was harder. But Lina had such a strong personality and was often quite brash, so she kept things in check. She also had this great ability to really get everyone involved, captivated and fascinated by what was going on.

How much did Lina care about getting an Oscar?

We didn’t think much about prizes. But of course when we got four Oscar nominations for “Seven Beauties” [making Wertmüller the first woman director ever nominated for an Academy Award], we thought it was great.

Lina didn’t win for “Seven Beauties” but did get an honorary Oscar.

Yes, she would have deserved it for “Seven Beauties.” But luckily she got that recognition later. Lina never got lots of awards in Italy, for some reason. But in the U.S. she had enormous success. She has been compared by U.S. critics to Fellini and Bergman. I owe it to her that in February I will be getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The only other Italian actor who has one is Rudolph Valentino.

Do you consider Lina a feminist?

She was certainly someone who knew a lot about the male and female psyche. When we made “Swept Away,” which is a very political movie, she got attacked in the U.S. for all the slapping that Mariangela [Melato]’s character gets from the character I play. But what was overlooked is the scene in which he seduces her and she says, “Go ahead,” and he says, “No. If you are not in love with me, I’m not going to make love to you.” That’s not a male chauvinist scene.

When was the last time you heard Lina’s voice?

The last time we spoke was three or four months ago. She called me and said, “Giancarlo, I’m writing a movie. Will you do it with me?” I said: “Sure, Lina.” I knew it would have been very tough, but I would have done it.

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