Crime as an art form
Corruption and murder on the Riviera: the concept was enough to hook actress Julia Stiles
BEHIND every great fortune is a great crime. That quote, attributed to Honoré de Balzac, and made famous in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather, is the central premise of the lavish crime thriller Riviera.
Those words were central to co-creator Neil Jordan’s pitch to the 10-part drama’s star Julia Stiles, who plays an American art curator for the super-wealthy.
“That concept was enough to sustain my interest and an audience’s interest for more than just a few episodes,” Julia tells Weekend.
“There’s a lot to explore there. I just felt the setting – this beautiful, cinematic setting – as a backdrop for all this corruption was interesting to me.”
But it wasn’t just Neil’s pitch, or even living in the French Riviera for seven months, that sealed the deal for Julia. It was the fact that her then fiance, now husband, cameraman Preston J Cook – whom she wed in Seattle last month – would also work on the series.
“Before I knew he was going to work on it, I was panicking quite a bit about being away from home for that long and that far away,” she says.
“But the fact that we could be there together was just a delight. The location was even more romantic because we got to share the experience. You spend so much time at work, so to be able to share that with your spouse is a dream come true.”
In Riviera, Julia plays Georgina Clios, whose blissful life of luxury is torn apart when her billionaire husband of one year, Constantine Clios (Anthony LaPaglia), is suddenly killed in a yacht explosion.
Georgina finds herself intertwined in the art world, the last unregulated frontier for money laundering, and in the messy relationships of the Clios family: Constantine’s first wife Irina (Lena Olin), moody eldest son Adam (Iwan Rheon), playboy and heir to the family fortune Christos (Dimitri Leonidas) and troubled teenage daughter Adriana (Roxane Duran).
“The rest of the family wants to get rid of her – there’s a lot of animosity there – and Iwan’s character seems to be the only one Georgina can trust,” Julia says.
“But he’s mysterious and also has his own baggage. Georgina doesn’t quite know what to do with him.
“There’s the possibility he has a bit of an infatuation with her that could be quite dangerous.”
While she only has a few key scenes with him, Julia is full of praise for her Australian co-star Anthony LaPaglia.
“Anthony was great to work with,” she says. “He was such a trooper. It’s hard to come in to a set where everyone’s been working together and you’re kind of the guest.
“The cameo he came to shoot was supposed to be his only scene in the first episode, but we wanted him to come back so they wrote some more flashbacks. I really loved the way that her memory changes over the course of the show based on new information that she’s given.”
As well as contending with things like Constantine’s funeral and the reading of his will, Georgina sets about piecing together the mysterious details of her husband’s death and secret life as local authorities carry out their own investigations.
She is filled with self-doubt as she discovers she was completely naive about her husband’s true business dealings and that paintings she bought or sold on his behalf may have been forgeries.
“I was struck in my reading of the pilot episode that she does come across as naive, but she’s got to go somewhere,” Julia says. “I made sure in my discussions with the producers and writers that she was going to evolve into somebody who would rise to this occasion and become ruthless and cunning.
“She questions herself, you know, was she wilfully ignorant? What’s more devastating for her is how she could have been so blind to it all.”
Behind the designer sunglasses, Georgina is also a woman trying to cope with grief.
“In the first version of the script when she finds out her husband died, she immediately breaks down sobbing. That didn’t ring true to me,” Julia says.
That scene was subsequently changed, as were others. Jordan, best known for directing Interview With The Vampire and more recently as the creator of The Borgias, has publicly distanced himself from the Sky Atlantic series, which he says is “quite different’’ from his original vision. Still, Riviera is something Julia is proud of.
“Even with all the script changes, the first episode really stayed the same largely,” she says. “The later episodes changed, but I think the show is still focused on that central idea. By episode five it starts to get really good and all the wheels are in motion.”
Julia has some familiarity with the art world, although not at the same mind-boggling heights as depicted in Riviera. Her mother is an artist (specialising in ceramics), she grew up in the arty enclave of Greenwich Village in New York City and graduated from New York’s Professional Children’s School.
“I do have an interest in art, not just a pure interest in beautiful visual art but also an interest in the business side of it,” she says.
“I think that comes from growing up in New York City, surrounded by artists for most of my life.
“I’ve always had this background of a consideration about trying to fulfil your creative drive but also making your living as an artist. How do you put a price on art? It’s something really interesting to explore through the show.”
A second season of Riviera has not been officially confirmed yet, although Julia believes it’s highly likely.
“I’m really excited at the possibility of a second season,” she says.
“Where we leave Georgina at the end of the first season opens up a whole world of possibilities in terms of where you could go.”
Her next role, though, is that of a new mum. Julia and Preston are expecting their first child any day now.
“It’s all going to be new to me,” she says. “It would be lovely to bring my newborn to the south of France.
“I have no experience being a working mother, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m lucky that I have options. I’m happy I’m going to be a mother and have a job.” Riviera airs Wednesdays at 8.30pm on SBS and is available to stream on SBS On Demand.
Julia Stiles stars as Georgina Clios in the TV series Riviera and, below, she is expecting her first child any day now.