the gentlewoman

The Reader

The recipient of the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival last summer for her best-actress-winning performance in Hungry Hearts, Alba Rohrwacher is the fine-featured Italian actress with the extraordinary emotional presence. Perhaps it’s all those classes she took. Alba learned gymnastics as a girl, studied medicine as a teenager and then acting in her 20s. Now at 35, she’s putting all those skills to use on the film set, launching no less than three movies this year. Most recent is De Djess – a delightful short for the Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales series, directed by her sister Alice. Cinema, you see, is in the Rohrwacher blood.

Alba Rohrwacher

Penny: Hello Alba, where are you calling from?

Alba: I’m at home in Rome shooting Viva la Sposa, a comedy directed by Ascanio Celestini. I only started filming today because I’ve been in Berlin promoting a film called Sworn Virgin.

P: That’s got an extraordinary plotline, hasn’t it?

A: Yes, it’s set in the mountains between Albania and Kosovo where the societies are very primitive — the women have no rights at all. Either they escape, or they can follow a medieval tradition and pledge: “I will remain a virgin forever and live as a man.” They think they’ll be free, but their new life and male persona imprison them in another way.

P: Do sworn virgins still exist?

A: Fortunately they’re disappearing; there are around 50 left. So it’s a very extreme story. When the director, Laura Bispuri, gave me the script, I immediately wanted to do it.

P: I understand your childhood ambition was to be a doctor.

A: Well, my dream was to become an acrobat, but when I was 17, I moved to Florence to study medicine. Around that time, I also began to act, but it was only when I was accepted by the National School of Cinema at 21 that I became serious about it. In a way, though, I think medicine and acting are similar. With one, you try to understand what goes on inside the body, and with the other, you try to express it.

P: I noticed you’ve worked on several films with female directors at the start of their careers. What is it about working with them that appeals to you? Is it a case of learning together?

A: In my experience, they are very focused and strong, and their relationship with the actors is symbiotic.

P: I guess most people know you from Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love from 2010.

A: Yes, though it was an Italian language film, it was really successful outside of Italy. When I met Luca on his previous film, a short called Part Deux in 2007, he said, “You really remind me of Tilda Swinton. I will put you two together.” Then, when he wrote I Am Love, he called me. It was one of my first movies.

P: Had you always made films with your sister Alice?

A: No, the first one we did together was The Wonders, last year.

P: I believe many people assumed it was autobiographical?

A: The movie’s not about our life; it’s about where we grew up. De Djess, Alice’s new short for Miu Miu, is also far away from our lives, but I think you can still tell from it that Alice and I are very close.

P: She wrote you a fabulous character.

A: Yes, Divina’s quite different from me; she’s an icon of beauty and craziness – completely fantastical.

P: To the extent that you’re also speaking a fantasy language…

A: Yes, we invented that for the film.

P: A special Miu Miu language!

A: Even though it’s not real, you still understand everything: like how the agent is from Italy, whereas Divina seems more Anglo-Saxon.

P: Ha, so you reserve the difficult characters for the Anglo-Saxons, do you? The dress also plays a sort of character. What made you choose that one?

A: You remember when we met in Paris at the Spring/Summer Miu Miu show last October? Well, Alice brought her costume designer Loredana Buscemi and they imagined a new dress together, inspired by one from that défilé.

P: I found the use of stop-frame animation to bring it to life really charming.

A: Alice worked with the last stop-frame animator left in Italy, Michelangelo Fornaro – it was her first time using that technique. It was a fun way to put fashion into a storyline I think. But time-consuming. You know that shot of the dress caressing my leg? I had to stand still for a whole hour for that.

P: Well, there are some things you can only ask of your sister! The films you do with Alice seem very humorous and personal, whereas your films with other directors like, say, Sworn Virgin or Hungry Hearts, which I saw you’re currently promoting with Adam Driver, are much more psychologically extreme. Do you notice that difference?

A: All directors are different. But I suppose Alice is quite poetic; she’s interested in relationships and tries to create an atmosphere rather than looking deeply into characters. In other films I’ve done, my roles are very strong, with a lot of emotion.

P: Which do you prefer?

A: It’s difficult to find the right balance, but I find my medical studies were a good preparation for this career. I’m so fastidious, I get something out of everything.

Interview by Penny Martin. Edit by Ianthe Fry. Photograph courtesy of Alba Rohrwacher. To see Alba in action in De Djess, please visit miumiu.com. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!