“It’s kind of like a Jackson Pollock splatter painting,” is how Alessandro Nivola describes the films he’s worked on throughout his career. The 46-year-old, Brooklyn-based actor has starred alongside Sam Neill in Jurassic Park III, as well as Audrey Tautou in Coco Before Chanel. He was in star-studded blockbusters Selma and American Hustle. What’s his secret? “I made a big change to the way I went about picking the roles,” he said.
Nivola, who’s now 46 and married to actress Emily Mortimer, wears many hats. He’s also a producer and a father, working in both TV and film. His latest project to hit theatres, Weightless, involves him playing a PTSD-riddled landfill worker trying to bond with the son he’s just found out exists. “The character I’m playing is somebody who is deeply uncomfortable in his own skin, and so is the character of my son for different reasons,” he says. “Mine are to do with psychological things and his are to do with the body that he’s trapped in.”
With such a director-heavy focus on his roles, Nivola’s decision to take the project on (director Jaron Albertin’s debut behind the camera) wasn’t lightly weighted. “As I started looking to work with good directors, I didn’t really want to work with first-time directors very much,” he says. “But I really loved him, and his commercials, and his photography, and there was something about the story, and the way that he wanted to tell it, and the way that he talked about it when we met that just got me curious.”
The decision turned out to bear fruit: the week of its release, it became a New York Times Critic’s Pick. The film was lauded for its depiction of the working-class, exploring themes of mental health and a hunt for an actor’s most realistic emotional expression. Nivola talks about the film as having a really distinct aesthetic—“it doesn’t look like other films”—and the experience of filming it. Boarding in farmhouses with co-star Julianne Nicholson and working on a small, low-budget team had its fair share of plusses and a few pitfalls. “You’re roughing it all the time, and you’re always sort of fighting the clock,” he says. “But the upside is that it becomes kind of a little family, it’s very intimate experience to be working together. And you really feel that everyone is invested in the project itself, for itself.”
As with any other creative profession, there’s always the question of the next step, the following project. “I can’t say what it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be announced in a week,” he begins. “[But] after all this time, I just got the lead role in this huge studio movie that is so exciting. I’m 46 and have been waiting for this kind of a role for 20 years.” In the meantime, he stars alongside Jesse Eisenberg in The Art of Self-Defense out later this year, and he’s off across the pond for the British Independent Film Awards at the beginning of December, where 46-year-old nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Disobedience. After taking on such a director-centric view of the projects he liked, he couldn’t be the lead in every film, after all. “It meant taking some smaller roles to work with top guys,” he says. “But they were still being noticed more than the work that I was doing before that, in a lot of cases, because the movies were making a bigger impact and were better.”