Italian actor Franco Nero has a very impressive list of movies (over 200) to his belt. Coming up from time to time in that list is the name ‘Django’. He has talked to Diplomacy&Trade in an exclusive interview at a recent visit to Budapest.
Franco Nero recalls that “it was in a very funny way that I first heard from the producers and the director, Sergio Corbucci, about Django. They were looking for an actor who would be able to perform in the leading role. Corbucci told me that he loved my face while the producers had two other actors in mind. Eventually, our photos were shown to the head of the distribution company, I’ll never forget his name: Fulvio Frizzi, and he pointed his finger to my face – that is how I got the role of Django. When I heard the news, I happened to be travelling in a car with a great director Elio Petri, who, for me, was the best Italian director – even ahead of Fellini or Antonioni. Petri won an Academy Award for the movie ‘Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion’ and he was the only Italian director who did something like ten movies but each film was completely different from the others. I always considered him the ‘Stanley Kubrick of Italy’. So, I was travelling with him and when I told him that they offered a western to me, to an actor who comes from a ‘piccolo teatro’ in Milano, he said to me: ‘who knows you? Nobody. So, you have nothing to lose, just do it!’, thus, I accepted the role.”
Django returns – twice
Then, two decades later, there came another Django movie for Franco Nero. “There was this director, Nello Rossati who came to me one day and said he wanted to do a western movie in his native Colombia and he wanted to call it ‘Django’. I asked for the script, which was not that bad. He convinced me and we went to Cartagena in Colombia to do the movie,” he remembers.
The third Django movie premiered five years ago. In the second half of the 1990s, Franco Nero was doing an American movie, the ‘Talk of Angels’ in Spain, with a very young actress, Penélope Cruz. In between the shooting, she went to the San Sebastian film festival and when she returned, she told Franco that she had met a young director called Quentin Tarantino to whom she mentioned that she was doing a movie with Franco Nero. “Upon hearing that, the American director went crazy and said he wanted to meet me, ‘meet me absolutely’. That was the first time I heard of Tarantino. After that, I saw interviews with Quentin where he said things like ‘Franco Nero was my idol’, so, he was speaking very highly of me. In 2009, he came to Rome for the local premiere of ‘Inglorious Bastards’ and said ‘I'm not going to leave for home without meeting Franco Nero’. When he saw me, he embraced me, we had lunch and he told me that he first saw Django at the age of 14 when he was working in a video store. He knew practically all my work, he was even saying the lines from my movies - and the music, too. It was unbelievable, he apparently knew them by heart - that is how our cooperation started.”
Working with Tarantino
Later, when Franco Nero was filming an episode in New York City of the series ‘Law and Order’, the writer of that episode told him he had a script from Quentin Tarantino and it was called ‘Django Unchained’. “I read it but I figured there was nothing for me in that movie. The only part I could imagine myself in was that of the German dentist that was played by Christoph Waltz. Later, of course, I discovered that he wrote that part for Christoph Waltz. That was it until one day I was in Rome and I received a phone call from Quentin who said ‘Franco, I'm doing this Django movie like as an homage to you and Sergio Corbucci. I would love you to play a cameo role’. He told me he would like me to be in a club scene with Leonardo DiCaprio and a scene with Jamie Foxx who would play the black Django. I suggested the black Django has a flash in which he sees a horseman dressed in black, including a black hat, galloping towards the camera in slow motion. This flash would happen four or five times throughout the movie until, in the end, the horseman stops in front of the camera and before him, there is a black woman and a black boy and the woman says to the boy: ‘that's your father!’ That would be the young Django and then, I could say a line like ‘Fight for freedom, my son!’ There was a moment of silence from Quentin and then, he said he would get back to me. I didn’t hear from him for two months when he called and said my idea would not work but I should still be in that movie ‘Django unchained’. When I was filming in Los Angeles, he flew there and he was trying to convince me for three hours before I said OK.”
A changing actor
Franco Nero works in movies all over the world. He says he likes to accept work in different countries to get to know the cinema in those countries, not just American and Italian film making. “I think I played characters of more than 30 different nationalities. I don't think there is another actor who has done that. I played Russian, German and other roles. I worked even here in Hungary several times to perform the role of Father Julianus, or that of Árpád, the leader of the Magyars conquering the Carpathian Basin. I also played a Hungarian king in the Czech movie about the bloodthirsty countess Báthory.”
He also recalls meeting many years ago the British actor Laurence Olivier whom he calls ‘the greatest actor in the world’. “We were doing a movie together and he said to me ‘you know you remind me of when I was young’, to which I said OK, thank you and he said ‘oh, you have a physique to always play a hero like the American star actors. When you make a movie you make sure it is a commercial success but many times it is very boring’. He suggested I change all the time, ‘take risks in your career! There may be moments when you're up or when you're down but in the long run, you will get the truth’. So, I followed his advice. That is the reason why I am changing all the time and taking risks. Until now, I have done all different kinds of movies and characters, political movies, social movies, thrillers, musicals, westerns, action movies, movies for children, everything, and I am quite happy about that!”
As for Hungary and the people here, Franco Nero says it is “a great country, Budapest is a wonderful and beautiful city. I enjoy being in this country. I can see that there are many Italian restaurants here. I remember that when we were shooting ‘Mario, the magician’ about 8-9 years ago, we were staying in a castle in the northeastern part of the country and in the morning when I opened the window, I could see so many squirrels - they were beautiful. Also during that shooting, in the Tokaj wine region, I was invited to see the local wine museum with wines from all over the world. We had a wine tasting there and they gave me a wonderful wine of 1941! I still keep it in my house. In return, I sent them a ‘Franco Nero wine’ produced by a friend of mine.”
At the age of 75, Franco Nero is still full of spirit and full of plans. He is currently playing in several movies. He recently came back from Hamilton, Canada where he was working on one. “Now, I'm finishing an American movie, a thriller called ‘Executrix’ in Italy. Then, according to plans, I will go to Spain to do a western and then to Cuba to do a movie there. In the meantime, I am preparing a movie that I would like to direct because I also like to direct. So, you see, many, many things are in the pipeline,” he concludes.