Fancy French or Ital­ian? Well, we’ve got Fanny Ar­dant and Vin­cent Pi­azza for starters

Al­ready shin­ing in TV’s Board­walk Em­pire, Ital­ian-Amer­i­can ac­tor Vin­cent Pi­azza moves to the big screen in Clint East­wood’s Four Sea­sons mu­si­cal, Jersey Boys. ‘I’ve never felt more at home,’ he tells Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

You know how it is for ac­tors. If your agent phones you up with news of an au­di­tion for a high­way­man drama then, even if you’ve never sat on a horse in your life, you’ll say you can ride like Bob Cham­pion. Of course, you can do an Ar­me­nian ac­cent. Sail a yacht? No prob­lem.

So, when Vin­cent Pi­azza, hitherto best know­nas Lucky Lu­ciano in the TV se­ries Board­walk Em­pire, was cast as Tommy DeVito, one of the Four Sea­sons, in Clint East­wood’s film of the hit mu­si­cal Jersey Boys, he could have been for­given for nod­ding along com­pli­antly. It seems that Vin­cent has a bit more in­tegrity.

“I had never sang or danced be­fore for money,” he laughs. “I hadn’t re­ally done that out­side a Karaoke bar.”

His ner­vous­ness was in­creased when he learnt that the other prin­ci­pals had all ap­peared in the Broad­way pro­duc­tion of Jersey Boys. He be­gan to feel that some sort of dread­ful mis­take had been made.

“I phoned up my agent,” he re­mem­bers. “I asked her to let them know I wasn’t re­ally a singer or a dancer. Word came back that I would be in good hands. I felt that was re­as­sur­ing. I then de­cided to work on those skills in the 45 or so days I had and make sure they were cam­era-ready.”

Pi­azza demon­strated a quite im­pres­sive amount of hon­esty on that oc­ca­sion. More than a few ac­tors would have taken a deep breath and ploughed for­wards with­out re­veal­ing their con­cerns.

“Ha ha! Well, if it hadn’t in­volved a re­la­tion­ship with a great di­rec­tor and a film that Warner Broth­ers were in­vest­ing mil­lions in then I might have,” he says. “If it was some small thing I’d have said: ‘Oh who’s go­ing to see this, any­way?’”

He needn’t have wor­ried. His turn is the strong­est in the film. As Jersey Boys tells it, Tommy DeVito was the rough di­a­mond in the group headed by the im­mor­tal Frankie Valli. He con­sorted with hood­lums. He got the band in debt. He fought con­stantly with his col­leagues. You couldn’t quite say that Pi­azza makes a lov­able rogue of Mr DeVito – the char­ac­ter is too fright­ful for that – but he does man­age to flesh him out in be­liev­able fash­ion. Of course, Pi­azza has some ex­pe­ri­ence of DeVito’s mi­lieu. As the film’s ti­tle sug­gests, Frankie Valli and the Four Sea­sons, all blue-col­lar Ital­ian-Amer­i­cans, grew up on the streets of New Jersey. Pi­azza was raised in a sim­i­lar com­mu­nity on the other side of Man­hat­tan.

“Across the river in Queens,” he says in a voice still flavoured with the bor­oughs. “The sweet smell of the sub­way em­a­nat­ing from the ground. Ha ha! I do recog­nise that world. I grew up with many re­ally marginalis­ed per­son­al­i­ties. You went to school with Ital­ians, Puerto Ri­cans, Ir­ish. The people I grew up with have been an in­spi­ra­tion to me in the work that I have done.”

Fair enough. But Jersey Boys does, once again, of­fer a slightly un­com­fort­able de­pic­tion of the Ital­ian-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. DeVito is the sort of guy who lives to re­cover goods that fall from the back of trucks. The mob is yet again shown to be an im­mov­able part of the so­ci­ety. Hav­ing ap­peared in The So­pra­nos and Board­walk Em­pire, Pi­azza must be aware of the sen­si­tiv­i­ties aroused here.

“I do un­der­stand it,” he says. “I am from an

“I grew up with many re­ally marginalis­ed per­son­al­i­ties. You went to school with Ital­ians, Puerto Ri­cans, Ir­ish. The people I grew up with have been an in­spi­ra­tion”

Ital­ian and Ger­man back­ground. I guess if you are do­ing it in a story like Good­fel­las or Board­walk Em­pire there is a po­etic li­cence. We­un­der­stand that. Re­al­ity shows such as Jersey Shore are a dif­fer­ent thing. That’s not mov­ing things for­ward. But, you know, it’s nice to see a com­mu­nity em­braced that wears its pas­sion on its sleeve.”

As you may have de­tected from his con­sid­ered an­swers, Pi­azza is no cal­low youth. Now in his late 30s, he has taken a con­vo­luted route to the movie busi­ness. The son of a builder, he ex­celled at ice hockey as a kid and spent some years play­ing for Vil­lanova Univer­sity in Penn­syl­va­nia. Few sports are tougher on the body and Pi­azza even­tu­ally suf­fered a de­bil­i­tat­ing in­jury.

“It was both a phys­i­cal and an emo­tional thing,” he re­mem­bers. “I had a chronic shoul­der sep­a­ra­tion. That dashed my spir­its. I sud­denly got the re­al­ity of it. On the bright side it al­lowed me to ex­plore other things, such as act­ing. And that’s gone quite well so far.”

Af­ter suf­fer­ing his in­jury, Vin­cent drifted into the fi­nan­cial sec­tor. He trav­elled the world and earned pretty good money. But some sup­pressed urge to per­form was burst­ing to get out. Af­ter each meet­ing, he would put on a sketch satiris­ing the events. Even­tu­ally, his col­leagues per­suaded him to face the in­evitable.

“I had a men­tor, who was groom­ing me. He was a very funny, very sup­port­ive guy,” he re­mem­bers. “Even­tu­ally, he said: ‘You are wast­ing your time in this busi­ness. You should be an ac­tor. That left an im­pres­sion in me. Years on, he sud­denly passed away in a car ac­ci­dent. I was young enough that it re­ally hit me. I thought: I love do­ing this and, as homage to Jimmy, I re­ally should try it. I did and I’ve never felt more at home.”

He didn’t ex­actly leap straight into the spot­light. Pi­azza spent some time in a theatre group in Man­hat­tan. Like so many Ital­ian-Amer­i­can ac­tors, he se­cured a small recurring role on The So­pra­nos. He tagged a lead part in Jef­frey Blitz’s well-re­ceived in­de­pen­dent film Rocket Sci­ence. But it was Board­walk Em­pire that re­ally se­cured Pi­azza’s place inthe fir­ma­ment. From 2010, he has played Lucky Lu­ciano, the hood­lum who helped found mod­ern or­gan­ised crime, in HBO’s sprawl­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of pre-war At­lantic City.

“You know, I’d say that, play­ing Lucky in Board­walk Em­pire, I am forced to serve two masters,” he says. “There are a great many his­tor­i­cal mile­stones that we fol­low. We know the life arcs they went through. We take a li­cence with how the char­ac­ters in­ter­act with fic­tional char­ac­ters to ar­rive at those mile­stones. Again, it’s an­other cir­cum­stance where I feel I am in re­ally great hands. It is a very well re­searched show.”

He was, once again, play­ing a real per­son in Jersey Boys. Tommy DeVito is still above ground and, in re­cent years, has smoked the peace pipe with his old pals from the band. He turned up at the Broad­way open­ing of the mu­si­cal and was on hand for the Four Sea­sons’ in­duc­tion into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But DeVito was not in­volved in the prepa­ra­tion of the film.

“I was blessed and cursed with a lack of time,” Vin­cent ex­plains. “I had about 30 days to pre­pare for the role. I didn’t get to meet him. And it’s tricky be­cause the mu­si­cal is now so suc­cess­ful that, when you look up “Tommy DeVito” on the in­ter­net, you end up with sto­ries about Jersey Boys. So, again, I mostly ex­plore the char­ac­ter through the re­la­tion­ship in the script.”

If ru­mours are to be be­lieved Clint must have been of only limited help in dis­en­tan­gling fact from fic­tion. The story is that East­wood says al­most noth­ing on set. As long as the cam­era doesn’t fall over, he is happy with the shot. Ev­ery­one gets to go home at five o’clock.

“In some ways that is a com­pli­ment to his ac­tors,” he says. “He feels he can hire people who he can get some­thing out of in one take. I will say this: he is an ac­tors’ di­rec­tor. If I wanted to ex­plore some­thing and do it dif­fer­ently he’d hap­pily al­low that. You never felt rushed. You never felt like say­ing: ‘What do you mean we are done?’”

As is of­ten the case with East­wood’s work, the film ends up be­ing lu­cid, fluid and un­com­pli­cated. You never much get the sense of an au­tho­rial stamp from his work. Mind you, as Pi­azza con­firms, he does seem happy to del­e­gate where pos­si­ble.

“I had never met him be­fore,” he says. “I met him very briefly the day be­fore we be­gan shoot­ing and then, when the cam­era was about to roll, be­fore the first shot. But the man ex­udes a cer­tain type of en­ergy. You feel that. For the di­rec­tors that have that there’s a fear­less­ness in their work.”

Jus­tas well Pi­azza-man­aged to hit his notes af­ter all. I’ve seen Gran Torino. Clint is not a fel­low you’d like to see with a tem­per on him.

Jersey Boys is out now on gen­eral re­lease and is re­viewed on page 11

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