Alessandro Nivola On the Record

Alessandro Nivola On the Record (photo)

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Roguish 37-year-old actor Alessandro Nivola may not be a household name yet, perhaps because he gets so lost in the diverse roles he’s claimed, whether he’s the blithe English businessman wooed by Audrey Tautou in “Coco Before Chanel,” the paleontology protégé who redeems his thieving ways in “Jurassic Park III,” the metropolitan husband who can’t lose his Southern roots in “Junebug,” or the only actor to ever out-nutty Nicolas Cage as the schizophrenic brother in “Face/Off.”

In director Jerry Zaks’s new biopic “Who Do You Love,” Nivola steps into the shoes of legendary Chicago record producer Leonard Chess, whose Chess Records (co-run with brother Phil, here played by Jon Abrahams) launched the careers of countless blues and early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers in the ’50s and ’60s, including Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. Calling Nivola from the same Brooklyn neighborhood where he lives with his wife, actress Emily Mortimer, we discussed his newfound encyclopedic knowledge of Leonard Chess, playing in blues bands when he was younger, and the cultural significance of the word “motherfucker.”

Leonard Chess is such a mysterious figure in music history, so the most important question I could ask is how deep did you get in your research for this film?

I’m an encyclopedia of information about him now. The research period of a film is the most exciting part of the process, and filming is sometimes a letdown because when you’re dealing with biopic material, the real thing is always much more intricate than the story told in the film. What was most useful to me was a series of audio recordings that his son, Marshall Chess, gave to me — which have not been released in any way — of Leonard, in the studio, in various recording sessions. One was with Sonny Boy Williamson, one was Howlin’ Wolf. Leonard was not interested in the spotlight, so there’s no archival footage of him. There aren’t even that many photographs of him. But these recordings really told the whole story to me.

That’s amazing. What did you glean from these rare recordings?

I was trying to figure out how this man talked. Having been a Polish-Jewish immigrant who came to Chicago when he was about ten years old, and who spent a lot of his life hanging around black people, he had a particular accent, which I tried to imitate in a subtle way. Jerry Zaks, the director, didn’t want me to push it too hard because he didn’t want it to be distracting, but I tried to get across a little bit of what he sounded like. The first impression you had is that he had a working-class Chicago accent, with a tiny Yiddish inflection here and there, and then the African-American lexicon of that era. He said “motherfucker” every two words.

These recordings were late, probably around 1960, and by that time, he actually knew something about music. When he started as a record producer, I don’t think he knew anything. He just wanted to make a buck and saw an opportunity, but he got a musical education from Muddy Waters, and you can tell from these recordings because he’s directing the musicians like some of the best producers do. He’s dealing with rhythm and he created a sound for Chess Records that’s consistent through all the recordings and artists. It has a really raw, gritty sound that even the Rolling Stones wanted to capture, and that’s why they came to Chess Records to record.

04082010_AlessandroNivolaWhoDoYouLove3.jpgHow would you describe the rapport between Leonard and his studio artists?

They give each other shit. They have a back-and-forth, which could only be shared by people who know each other well. On the other hand, you get a sense of Leonard’s insecurity. He was trying to sound a little bit black and it might not have been totally natural, the way that you hear a foreign person trying to make jokes in American slang. And there are moments where it shifts quickly between him sharing a joke, and then actually being an authority figure, and that was one of the complicated elements of his relationship with the musicians. He was on the road, hanging out and getting drunk with these guys, and on the other hand, he was their producer and making business contracts with them. There were no precedents at that time, so it was a confusing economic situation.

He was their producer, their business manager and a paternal figure. When Muddy Waters wanted a new car or house, Leonard would arrange it, and sometimes it was unclear whether it was coming out of his accounts or whether it was a gift. Some of that, later on down the line, resulted in acrimony between him and the musicians, although when he died, there were 500 musicians and people he’d known from that community who were there to wish his family well. It was definitely a complex relationship he had with the black community. Having been a poor immigrant, I think he felt like a second-class citizen when he grew up in the ’20s and ’30s in Chicago, and felt more comfortable around black people than he did around white people.

You touched earlier on one of my favorite Leonard Chess eccentricities, which was his overuse of the word “motherfucker” as a greeting. Was that widely known?

04082010_ChiMcBrideWhoDoYouLove.jpgWhen I first read the script, it was very noticeable, and I didn’t know if it was some affectation that the writers had put in there. But when I listened to these recordings, it was all over the place. Then I met Marshall. I imagine he talks a bit like his dad, a mixture of a kind of Jewish thing but then a hepcat. His dad was one of the first cool guys who wanted to hang out in the black clubs and tried to talk like and be accepted by them: “Motherfuck this,” and “Fuck you, I’ll kick your ass.” Part of it may have been wishful thinking, of trying to be in that community, and part of it was because he’d spent so much time with them that you’d inevitably take on what’s around you.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.