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.
How 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?
When 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.