On the release of his latest film, veteran Italian actor Franco Nero talks Philippa Hawker through a selection of his back pages
Says Franco Nero: “I’m very busy. I’m very much in demand.” He’s lucky, he adds quickly, to have so many opportunities, so much variety. “I am the only actor to play more than 30 nationalities,” he says proudly. At 76, he is looking forwards as much as backwards, quick to reminisce but also to talk about future roles and plans to direct again.
In his new film, The Time of Their Lives, the tale of two women looking for a second chance late in life, Nero is a figure of romance. It’s a road movie of sorts. Joan Collins plays Helen, a former Hollywood star still ready for her closeup, even though she’s on her uppers and has been out of circulation for years. Pauline Collins is Priscilla, a downtrodden fan constrained by loss, and by a peevish husband who blames her for everything.
Helen is on her way to a funeral that might also be a networking opportunity. Ever the hustler, she inveigles Priscilla into joining her. Along the way they meet Alberto (Nero), a millionaire living quietly in the French countryside. It’s an encounter with unexpected consequences for all.
Nero says he took the role because he liked the script, written by the film’s director, Roger Goldby. “I thought, why not? I had a great time with the director, very funny, and the two lovely young actors.”
Nero brought more than his presence to the movie: he also contributed many of the photographs of “Alberto” and his famous friends that adorn the character’s country house.
“I have thousands and thousands,” Nero says, “taken with princes, presidents, artists.” So many, he says, that it wasn’t easy to find the ones he was looking for. He wanted to include a shot with Picasso, but couldn’t track it down. Another that eluded him, he says, was “a photo that I had with Andy Warhol, he was on the set every day when I was doing Querelle with [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, but I couldn’t find any.”
Photography was a starting point for Nero’s movie career: he was a set photographer before becoming an actor. One of his friends from the early days was the famous cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Storaro has shot many films with him; he’s also helped Nero make videos to raise money for a charity he supports.
Nero was on set as a photographer when he was spotted by John Huston and cast as Abel in Huston’s 1966 epic The Bible ... In the Beginning. A year later he starred as Lancelot in the musical Camelot, opposite Vanessa Redgrave. They began a relationship and had a son, Carlo Gabriel Nero, now a film producer and director who works with both his parents.
Redgrave and Nero split up, but years later, in the 1990s, got back together. They married in 2006, half a century after they had first met.
Before Hollywood, Nero had played minor film roles in Italy; his breakthrough came with Sergio Corbucci’s Django, a western in which he plays a gunfighter who drags a coffin with him everywhere he goes. It was a cult film whose legend lingers — Quentin Tarantino named Django Unchained in its memory, and cast Nero in a cameo in the film.
Nero says he had a choice when Hollywood took an interest in him, but it was career advice from Laurence Olivier that helped him decide which path to take. “He told me, ‘You know, you remind me of me when I was young.’ My face, he meant. ‘ You have the physique to be a hero in movies,’ he said, ‘ good-looking, a good body. You could be a star in the American way.
“‘You could be the hero all the time. You know, like American actors who play the same role all the time. You have to do a movie a year, and be sure that it will be a hit. But what a bore, what a monotonous career.’
“Or, he said, ‘be an actor and take risks. Change your roles all the time. And in your career you will go up and you will go down. But in the long run, you will get the fruits.’ I followed his advice.”
Nero remembers one of their last encounters, when he and Olivier worked on a miniseries called The Last Days of Pompeii (1984).
“We were shooting in Pinewood, in London, and Laurence Olivier was already sick at the time, he was not in great shape. When he finished the scene, there was a break for lunch, and he sat there, he didn’t move from his chair.
“He said to me, ‘Franco, can you do me a favour? I would like to go to another sound stage, to say hello to a friend who is working there. Can you help me walk?’ And do you know what I did? I took him on my shoulders.
“And for the first time, I said to myself: why is there not a photographer around? I have the greatest actor of all time on my shoulders, and there was no one there.”
Following Olivier’s advice, he says, “I worked in different countries” — including Australia, where he starred in the miniseries The Magistrate. “I did musicals, political movies, movies for children, thrillers, westerns, action movies.”
There are times when being in demand can be frustrating, however. In the recent John Wick: Chapter 2, for example, he was cast as the proprietor of a Rome hotel for hired assassins. Having the actor who played the legendary
Joan Collins, Pauline Collins and Nero in The Time of Their Lives,