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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.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.