Franco Nero is like the Robbie Williams or Kylie Minogue of the movie industry—a superstar everywhere else in the world, but still a cult figure in America even after decades of great work. Italian-born Nero clenched his breakthrough role early in his career with Django, a Sergio Leone-inspired western that became one of the biggest hits in the world. (And is now getting remade by Quentin Tarantino.) The mustachioed manly man went on to appear in movies from directors and countries all over the globe: Spain (Luis Bunuel), France (Claude Chabrol), Germany (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and of course his native Italy (Elio Petri, Lucio Fulci), to name just a few. After appearing as the senior seducer in last year’s Letters to Juliet against real-life wife Vanessa Redgrave, Nero scored a small role in Pixar’s Cars 2, playing (appropriately) an Italian patriarch named Uncle Topolino. Boxoffice recently caught up with Nero to discuss over-the-top Italian accents, the weirdest movie he ever made and how his long and illustrious list of accomplishments is about to get longer with his new friend, Tarantino.
How did you get the role of Uncle Topolino? Did you have to audition or did somebody from the movie track you down?
I was just asked to do it. I was asked by the producer of Pixar and the director, John Lasseter. They sent me a script and I liked it. It was a lot of fun so I said, "I will do it," and then we did it. It was very nice. With the director, first I tried to do normal English, but then I said, "Do you want me to do the strong Italian accent? Why not? Let's try that." So we tried and we chose that strong Italian accent. Instead of saying "Ferrari," you say "FERRARI!" with some lines in Italian, you know.
How much work in the past have you done playing animated characters?
I've never done it before. It was a new experience. I was very curious. And then we did also the video game, and they said, "Can you come to Los Angeles to do it?" I said I'm in Brazil now shooting a movie. They said, "No problem. We will do it in Brazil." So I did the video game in Rio De Janeiro.
We always hear that the process can be a little isolating because you're not actually there with the other actors. How easy was that to adjust to?
Well, actually when I did Uncle Topolino for the movie, my wife [Vanessa Redgrave] was there. She did it, too. She did Mama Topolino. I was in good company. For the video game it was, yes, by myself, but that was so quick. We did two or three different versions each time. So they liked the way I did it.
How do you feel about them hiring Tony Shalhoub or John Turturro to play these Italian characters as opposed to actually hiring Italian actors to play them? It's funny that you were happy to sort of exaggerate your Italian accent, but of course they get these Italian American actors for other roles.
I don't see them, so I can't judge them. I haven't seen the movie. Because Vanessa did it with a strong Italian accent too and it was nice because she speaks wonderful Italian. I think that was the best way to do it. It's important to be different from the American actors doing the American cars. These are Italian cars in an Italian village, you know?
Am I correct in assuming that you were also able to do your own character’s voice in Italian as well for the Italian version of the movie?
Yeah. I did the Italian version. And in the Italian version I did it with an accent from the North, from Parma (laughs). Parma is my hometown. I'm sure you know Parma is the town where Giuseppe Verdi was born and with the best opera house in the world. They say Parma is metropolitan like New York. But it of course it’s great because we speak with a little bit of an "rrr," like the Spanish, because in Parma was the wife of Napoleon, Maria Luisa. All the people from Parma speak with the French "r." Parma, of course, is very popular because of all of the food like the Parmesan, the ham of Parma, the cheese of Parma, and the perfume of Parma. In Parma there is the oldest newspaper in Europe.
How important are those sort of regional specificities? As an American we're accustomed to hearing maybe a southern accent and a Brooklyn accent and then everything else is just kind of normal.
I haven't seen the Italian version, but I know that the actors do an accent from Naples. You know, in Italy every region has a different accent. You know, from the South, from Milan, from Venice, from Rome, from Florence, they are all different languages actually. In Italy many years ago, each region had their own state and this is why there has been the 150 years of the unification of Italy. Giuseppe Garibaldi was the one who managed to unify Italy and I played Giuseppe Garibaldi a few years ago. It's very important that everyone is unified 150 years ago, because before there were different states. And in Italy there are actors like Sophia Loren, with an accent from Naples. Another one plays with an accent from Rome. I think they started to do it with a Roman accent and it was good.
You have always sort of enjoyed this flirtation with Hollywood, but you obviously have a huge career in Italy.
I’ve been doing movies all over the world. I've done movies with 30 different countries with directors from 30 different countries. I've been very lucky to work with everybody.
Have you ever felt limited at all? Do you feel like Hollywood has been as attentive as they should be to your work? Have they given you the sort of opportunities you feel like you deserved?
I felt that I could have had more chances in America, but that was my choice. When I went to America for the first time I did Camelot, the musical, I had a contract with Jack Warner to do five movies. I said to Jack after Camelot, "I'm homesick. I need to go back to Europe." He said I was crazy and that I was going to be a big Hollywood star. I said, "No. I want to be in Italy and Europe where I feel more comfortable." He said, “I think you’re crazy,” but he canceled the contract. And I think that it’s a question of choice. I could have stayed in America and done American movies, but that was my choice. I still managed to work with all the top European directors from all the countries. In Italy I worked with the top Italian directors, in Spain I worked with Luis Bunuel, in Germany with Fassbinder, in Russia with Sergei Bondarchuk, who won the Oscar for War & Peace, in France with Claude Chabrol. I managed to work with all of the best directors in the world. Once in a while I did a few American movies. Recently I did Letters to Juliet and everybody loved it and it was quite successful. And I'm sure that Disney decided to hire me after Letters to Juliet with Vanessa, where we’re playing together. But now I have a few offers and maybe I will do some more American movies.
When Django first came out, did you have a sense at the time that it was going to become a phenomenon?
No. We had no idea. We just did the movie, and then after the movie opened in Italy, it was a huge success. In a few months, all over the world, it was an incredible success. I remember that in many countries, instead of Franco Nero, they put Django in the hotels when you go to check in. I just said, "Okay." Actually in Germany they went crazy about Django. They started to call all of my movies that were shown in Japan, “Django.” It was like an obsession. People always ask me why I think Django was such a success. I don't know. Maybe it's because he was a representation of male, young workers and they wanted to be Django. They wanted to go to their bosses and say, "Hey man! From now on, the situation is different." Because he was cool and so different from the American westerns. It was like a samurai-Japanese movie.
Quentin Tarantino has his Django movie in the works. Have you already signed up to do that? What can you tell me about it?
It is a very funny story. It's a very incredible story. Tarantino has always been a great friend of mine. Two years ago, I was doing a movie in Spain for Miramax with Penelope Cruz. She played my daughter in this movie called Talk of Angels and she went one day to San Sebastian to the festival and when she came back the next day, she said, "Franco, there was Quentin Tarantino and when I said to him that I was doing this movie with you he said, 'Bring him here! I want to meet him!'" So that was the first time I knew he really loved my work and followed my work. So he did a few interviews in the newspaper and television and kept saying, "Franco Nero! Franco Nero! He's my idol." Finally, he came to Italy for Kill Bill and Harvey Weinstein went on this speech to present the movie and said [Tarantino] was sick and he couldn't come, but he said "He begged me to say if Franco Nero was in the audience please say, 'Hello.'" So finally, about two years ago, he came to Rome and he said to the production, "I need to meet Franco." Finally they got a hold of me and we had lunch together. He told me the story. He said, "Franco, when I was 14, I started doing movies and videos." He knew the lines of my movies and also he started to do the music too. So he said, "We're doing a Western. Would you be so kind to cameo?" and I said, "Oh yeah!" I know about the Western he is trying to do. I was sure, very sure, I would do it. Then I was in Berlin with Vanessa and Harvey Weinstein was there and he said, "Oh, Franco! You're going to be in Tarantino's movie?" I didn't know anything, so I came to America and some newspaper wanted to know. I said I don't know. So this story said "Franco Nero will be in a Tarantino movie." I know he [Tarantino] saw Django. I did Django many years ago before I came to America and Django was the most successful movie around the world along with A Fistful of Dollars. So every time Tarantino and I spoke, he wanted to know everything about Corbucci, the director of Django. And then I said to him, ‘Quentin, we are going to do a Western. It would be an homage to Sergio Leone and John Huston, the director that discovered me, and would you be so kind to play a cameo?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah! What do I have to do?’ I said, actually there are three bandits, and I have to kill them all, and he said, ‘Oh, great, so I can come with Robert Rodriguez and my friends to play them.’ I said, yeah! That would be great! He said, ‘But how are you going to kill me?’ I said, “I’ll tell you: with a shotgun, and inside, instead of having bullets, it will be gold coins. He said, ‘I love it!’”
Do you come to the United States very often?
I was there in February because we do a week of Italian cinema at the Egyptian theater the week before the Oscars. I'm one of the organizers of these festivals. We do it every year and we've been doing it for the last five years so that's the reason why I come during that period. I go to New York quite often because I have grandchildren there and Vanessa's been doing Broadway. She's been doing Driving Miss Daisy.
You've done so many Italian movies. Is there a movie that you think people should go see which you are the most proud of?
Django was a very commercial movie, but I've done fantastic Italian movies with the top directors like Elio Petri, who won an Oscar for Investigation of a Private Citizen. I did all the best movies in the '70s, '80s, and late '60s. Now the Italian cinema is not the same anymore because now there is no industry. In the '60s we had the best industry in the world, you know? We were producing like 400 movies a year and there was space for everybody. The producers were making a lot of money with commercial movies and had money to do quality movies with the top directors. Now it's not the same. There's a lot of TV. They do a lot of these miniseries or series that I don’t like—I like cinema. So in Italy, I try to do good movies with young directors. I directed a movie myself about three years ago called Forever Blues and it showed at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. I was there four days and I went with my band and we did a concert and they showed my movie. They liked the movie very much. They don't really show movies there so it was very, very interesting. It was very nice. So it was a movie that I directed, I wrote, I produced, and I acted in. But I'm very privileged because in recent years in Italy there are very few movies. I have offers. I do movies in Hungary. I played the hero of Hungary a few years ago. I played the hero of Yugoslavia. Like I said, recently I just finished a movie in Brazil called Lucia Murat, a really great director. I do movies in England, Germany. I'm lucky I have so many offers from different countries, so I'm very privileged.
A weird film of yours I recently saw was La Stridulum, or The Visitor, from 1979. That movie is crazy. You're playing Jesus, there's an 8-year-old little girl that gets a handgun for her birthday and Shelley Winters plays a psychic nanny.
Yes. They put my name on that movie. [Laughs] Because I'll tell you. You know why I did that movie? I wanted to meet the director that discovered me, John Huston. I play this sort of Jesus Christ of the future, you know? I did this cameo just for fun because it was a scene with John Huston, and I owe him everything. He's the one who suggested me for Camelot and he's the one who taught me English. John Huston, for me, I really owe him a lot. So I just did it for fun.
Do you remember the making of it at all?
Well, it’s like last year—I'll tell you this funny story. Last year, they wanted me to play a cameo in The Rite with Anthony Hopkins. They needed an actor who spoke good English and I had to really do like six pages of script. A long monologue teaching at the Vatican. It was a long scene and I accepted and said, "On one condition, that you don't put my name under any billing." They accepted, so I did the scene and they loved the scene. But then I was in New York and I said to Vanessa, "Lets go see this movie. I have a cameo." We went to see the movie with a few friends, and of course, I wasn't there. The entire scene was cut! But it happens sometimes in movies.