Exclusive: Italy's 'most extreme actress' reveals all
ROME -- Désirée Giorgetti is a Milanese, French-Italian actress who came screaming and fighting onto the international stage after her debut film, Raffaele Picchio’s Morituris (2011), became the first film in Italy to be censored in 14 years, gaining a heady mix of fame and notoriety along the way. The film is based on the true-life 1976 Circeo rape-murder, with additional zombie legionaries, and its sexual violence and torture scenes were seen by some as gratuitous, if not downright offensive.
The film launched Ms Giorgetti’s career though, and in performing in a dazzling array of languages (Italian, French, German, English, Russian, Albanian and Romanian to date) she has accessed a European film market in a way that few have managed. Critically-acclaimed films have followed, most notably psychological horror Ritual: A Psychomagic Story(2011) and surrealist thriller Awful Wars (2018).
Dubbed “the most extreme Italian actress” by Il Cineocchio, Ms Giorgetti, 36, told the Italian Insider that this was a fair attribution, talking about everything from her actor-family and classical training to her most challenging scenes. From Buddhism to naked crucifixions to the Me Too movement, she combines a refreshing honesty with an impassioned but sharp insight into what makes actors tick. Above all it becomes clear that her raw hunger for artistic expression is not diminished by success. If anything, it’s increasing.
Italian Insider: So you live in Rome at the moment? Are you currently acting in anything?
Désirée Giorgetti: Yes, I moved here to attend the acting Accademia from 2003 to 2006, and then spent two years touring Italy in theatre productions.
A month ago I did a play in Naples which I really loved, Nick Payne’s Incognito. The play examines the brain, what you remember and the sense of memory. There were four actors for 21 characters, so it was challenging, and fun. We didn’t change costumes, just accents, so the audience has to be really alert. Everything is quick, with flashbacks and flash-forwards.
There are four stories. One is the true story of Albert Einstein and the pathologist who, stealing his brain during autopsy, cut it into several pieces. Right now his brain is spread all over the world. The pathologist was obsessed with searching for that genius something. In the meantime, the daughter of Einstein’s son is looking for his brain for a DNA test, to see if she is the biological daughter or adopted.
There is also the story of this piano player, who has a seven second memory. Every seven seconds his memory is erased. The only thing he remembers is music, and the only person he can recognise is his wife. One of my many characters is his wife.
I.I.: Is it fair to say you’ve had a pretty consistent interest in psychology?
D.G. Yes, I studied psychology at university and wanted to become a criminologist since I was 14. But at university I had a sort of breakdown: I felt stuck, not creative at all, and left university for more than 3 months. One day I opened a newspaper and saw this play called 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane. She committed suicide after writing it, and in the article they explained that 4:48 a.m. is the time you’re most likely to think about suicide. I suffer from insomnia and was curious, so I went to see the production.
I was sitting there and I realised that I wanted to be the one saying those things: my interest in psychology was not in solving the problem. I wanted to be the problem. To live those kinds of emotions and craziness. I discovered the stage as a safe place where I could do so without real-life consequences. That night, I wrote myself a letter saying that I wanted to be an actress.
I.I.: Did the training you had at the Academy prepare you for your subsequent career?
D.G: I’m happy I did the Academy because now I know exactly what I don’t want to do. The years that I did the academy were oppressive. It’s changed now, but it was old style. I had to let my hair grow and dress in black. Of course, I learned how to be on stage and project my voice in a theatre, so I had a technical training, but it was like being a little acting soldier. You had to do what the director wanted. There was no work from the inside to the outside, it always came from the outside: you put on the character’s clothes and become them.
I.I.: Does your acting come from the inside then?
D.G: Yes. I eventually quit theatre and did my first movie. It was like a catharsis. I also met an acting coach, June Jasmine Davis. She’s a life member of the Actors Studio in New York, so I started to get in touch with method acting where everything comes from the inside, from your memory. What you can bring to the character is important and it’s always different.
It made me feel special. I understood that we can all give something from our own humanity and sensitivity. You have colours that no one else has, and it’s great. It’s linked to the psychological interest that I had, but it also deals with emotions.
I.I.: Does everyone have this raw material to express?
D.G: I think everyone has it, but your richness is different. Acting doesn’t come from the brain: the more relaxed you are, and the more willing you are to express intimacy, the more the character comes alive. You have to give yourself the permission to expose your inner life.
I.I.: Some actors have little quirks or habits to help them express themselves. Do you?
D.G: I always have the voice of my acting coach in my head.
I also The Chair Relaxation technique developed by Lee Strasberg, not much known in Italy. You sit on a chair, check the tension in different parts of your body, and free yourself from it. I spend hours on the chair crying, laughing, checking all my tensions, doing sensory exercises and going back to memories and emotions. I remember once other actors had great fun watching as I acted out an exorcism. But it works for me: I can feel the difference since I started doing it.
I.I.: What about if you have to perform in another language? Can you be so natural and instinctive?
D.G: It’s strange, I can work in different languages, even if I don’t know them. Something goes beyond the language I’m using: the raw material of the emotions. It’s about what I want to express on the inside: the language doesn’t matter.
When I was acting in Russian, I didn’t understand what the other actor was saying. I would learn the sound of the end of their lines before I delivered mine. It was more animal.
I.I.: That animal instinct certainly recalls some of the more extreme films you’ve done. Did you enjoy acting in Morituris?
D.G: Yes. At that point, I was very inexperienced. I didn’t have the method, but I was so full of this energy and my body really needed to do something extreme. I was fed up of acting like a little soldier. I loved to run in the woods. And I also loved that I was naked. It was like a big ‘f*** off’ to the armour that I used to have to wear.
Morituris was also good because we rehearsed – though didn’t plan – for a month beforehand. The director [Raffaele Picchio], who was making his first film, was concerned about some of the violent scenes, the rape. He wanted us to be prepared so we wouldn’t hurt ourselves. To have the time to get in touch and become friends was great. I’m still friends with the actor who had to torture me in the film. We got our bodies comfortable and trusted each other
The little artistic girl in me also loved it: there was blood everywhere (which was jam) and we were always dirty.
I.I.: But the themes are not for children. Did you have reservations about the film?
D.G: No. It was fun! And I wanted a break from all the things I had done before.
I heard about the project through a friend, who knew I was a big horror movie fan. I didn’t know about the story of the movie, I just knew that I had to act with a Romanian accent: I had recently learnt some words from a friend who was playing a Romanian girl in a play, so it was like the universe wanted me to do it.
They wrote to me just after my audition to tell me that I had been chosen, but they were worried about giving me the script. They stood next to me as I read it, looking over my shoulder. They wanted to show me the story board, to show that everything explicit about the rape scene was not shown on screen. I felt protected and safe.
I.I.: What about the reaction the film received publicly? Some people were very critical of it, of its gratuitous violence.
D.G: Yes, that’s right – it got censored. If you read the official reason, it doesn’t make sense. This is just my opinion, but I think it was censored because of the crucifixion scene. Another movie which got censored [Daniele Ciprì and Franco Maresco’s 1998 Totò che visse due volte] also has a crucifixion scene.
But of course many - even horror fans - were critical. It was a big success in Germany though, and they started to call me for films there, like German Angst (2015) and Sky Sharks (2018). I’m really grateful to Morituris. It allowed me to break onto an international scene. And if I survived that…
I.I.: What was the hardest scene you had to do?
D.G: The crucifixion scene, which was delayed for technical reasons, ended up being shot when it was really cold. I was naked, hanging on the cross, and I remember my body was freezing.
I.I.: Does doing these scenes make you, as some have said, an “extreme actress”?
D.G: Yes, I think so. But not just because I do extreme things, but because I’m extremely ‘in’ the film. When I’m doing a film, I want to give everything that I can. I’m always very strict with myself. It’s about expressing and giving to the character, to the project, to the movie, everything. Even in Ritual, my next film, it’s extreme for the emotions. Everything is under the surface.
I.I.: Does filming that sort of things take a physical or mental toll?
D.G: If I don’t do this, I die. I was dead before [I started acting]. No really, I was in danger. I’m an artist, and I need to express myself. I have a strong emotional life, and if I’m not acting or singing or writing… It’s like a need. I really need to feed artistically. It’s a sort of craving for art.
I.I.: What about Awful Wars, does that fulfil the same need?
D.G: Yes. The need is really to be in front of a camera and to live in another dimension. I’m not good at doing ordinary things, simple things, like cooking or laundry or whatever. I feel like my greatness is in doing these sorts of things and exposing these emotions. It’s my vocation.
I.I.: Is it fair to say that all your work explores an inner process and its outer manifestation? What do you look for when you’re deciding what to do?
D.G: I ask myself what in the material needs to be expressed. What is the message? And I need to feel the urge of the screenwriter or director to express something to an audience. As soon as I read something which seems like an ego trip, I don’t take it. I want to be a service for expression. I need to feel this urgency.
I.I.: Does that aim remain expressed in the same way? Or do you want to do other things in your career too?
D.G: Yes. I’m grateful for the horror films I’ve done, but at a certain point I felt like I was restricting myself to one thing. I’m fascinated by black comedies, and I would love to explore this.
I would also like to act in French, which is my mother tongue. My acting coach too tells me that I’m a great comedian… Well, I’d like to explore this. Not in flat comedies, but in something grotesque, exploring the same things in different ways and in making fun of it.
I recently saw a British TV series, [Ricky Gervais’] Afterlife, and I said to myself ‘this is the kind of things I’d like to do.’ It’s complete. The story is genius.
I.I.: And you’ve started singing again. When did that restart?
D.G: Yes, two years ago. Singing was my first love. I started when I was three and by the age of 15 I was singing at least three hours a day. I sang everything: cartoon themes, things I heard at school, even religious things. I remember at nine singing. [Here, Désirée sings what sounds like Gregorian chant.] I couldn’t live without singing. At 15 I had a bad experience at the audition for the Conservatoire: I wasn’t prepared. I went and didn’t have an aria ready. And I didn’t fit it: everyone was wearing long dresses and I had short spiky hair and chains. I started to cry.
In the room, I had to reproduce notes on the piano. My voice just didn’t work. They said, ‘Do you think you have a great voice?’ It’s a small thing, but it’s important when you’re 15.
The need to do horror movies and scream was like the need to sing, to let my voice out. I’m a good screamer. I screamed so much during the rehearsals for Morituris. The director told me would tell me to stop and I just screamed at him.
Two years ago, my acting coach heard me singing a bit. She told me to prepare a Sally Bowles song from the film Cabaret. It made me realise how ‘blocked’ I was. For me, singing was the big failure of my life and it was really hurting me.
I’m also Buddhist, so I’m trying to live to my full potential and I needed to face up to this failure. I had to admit to myself that I wanted to sing again. I went to see Trainspotting 2, and after that I listened to a song from it, sang along, and realised that I liked by voice.
I searched online for an electronic band to sing in. There was a lawyer who was looking for a singer and he sent me all the music. I fell in love with his music. I said I wanted to write and sing in French and English. He told me to write whatever I liked, so I wrote my first song, La Légende Noire, taken from the poem Par Deux by Paul Éluard. As a teenager, I wanted a tattoo of this poem. It’s about hope.
I write songs on psychological themes: emotional dependency, regressive hypnosis… All my world.
I.I.: For you, are the stage and cinema and singing and writing all part of the same artistic project?
D.G: Yes. I’m not good at dancing, so I can’t do that! But I’ve always loved to write. I remember my psychologist, aged 15, telling me to write. So I do, every morning when I wake up.
My gift is my voice, which I love to use. It’s also a Buddhist thing: the voice is the tool of Buddha. You use your voice to create a dialogue and express an emotion.
I.I.: Some people might be surprised to learn you’re a Buddhist. You don’t seem very “detached” from the suffering of the world.
D.G: The Buddhism I practice is Japanese, Nichiren Buddhism, which is very practical. I chant ‘Nam myoho renge kyo’ which means something like ‘I dedicate my life to the law of cause and effect.’ It teaches that cause and effect are simultaneous. And it’s a practical activity, a Buddhism of the concrete. So we’re not detached, we’re in society. You don’t have to isolate yourself in order to achieve a kind of enlightenment. The symbol of this type of Buddhism is the lotus flower: it has its roots in the mud, and the more it’s rooted in this mud, the more beautiful it is.
I.I.: So, on analogy, does film and art which explores terrible and tragic themes also explain what makes the world beautiful?
D.G: Yes. People who work on horror movies are some of the most calm people. There’s something very cathartic in giving yourself the permission to look at your dark side. For light, there must be darkness.
I.I.: Well, is there a role for censorship of art? Should society face up to dark things, or should people be protected from them?
D.G: I don’t believe in censorship. I don’t think it’s useful to protect people. What is useful is to trust the audience. You should give the audience the opportunity to grow and ask themselves hard questions, and trust that they can do it. Otherwise people’s thinking is restrained.
I have a conflict with this when people say, ‘this won’t sell because people don’t want to see it.’ If you give the audience shit, they will start to think shit is good. But if you give the audience the opportunity to see good art, they will come to like it. I saw a film, Miss Violence, which won in Venice but it was only screened for a week in two places in Rome, and they were giving away tickets outside because people wanted to stop the movie because no one was seeing it. I’m scared about this: it’s a great movie, the only problem is the audience isn’t used to it. There is a sort of restriction.
I.I.: So are you worried that cinema is becoming more homogenous and commercialised.
D.G: Independent cinema is still important, but it’s becoming more and more difficult, especially in Italy. All the horror movies I did and even others like Ritual or Awful Wars don’t have a big distribution. But it’s a vicious circle: it’s about expectation and people buy what they’re used to.
Italian movies are always the same: always comedies, and now increasingly political or crime films. I can see the logic: that movie was a success so we should do the same. But there should be more variety.
I.I.: What about the relation between Italian cinema and the Hollywood introspective crisis, summed up in the Me Too movement? What’s it like being an actress nowadays?
D.G: It’s hard, especially in Italy, especially if you don’t look like an Italian. Part of the problem is about scripts – they’re all written for men. Think about the crime and politics themes of current productions. But there is also prejudice. When I was starting out, an agent said to me: ‘To tell you the truth, your eyes are okay but the rest is…’ I was told I would never be a commercial success in films or on TV, but maybe I could get some adverts.
I.I.: But you were a success?
D.G: Well, thank you. But not especially in a purely commercial way. But anyway, I now think it’s less about what I look like and more about how we as women are presented and portrayed.
I.I.: So where does that leave us with films which have lots of nudity for female characters, as some of yours do? Is that a problem? Are women overly sexualised?
D.G: Of course, women sell films very effectively. But for me, there is a big difference between films which use nudity for commercial reasons and those which use it for artistic reasons. I’m quite childish, perhaps naïve, when it comes to the use of nudity, but I tend to think that if it is not used for malicious reasons then it is fine. I have always felt safe in the films I’ve done, and I think the nudity has been for artistic reasons.
I.I.: And what piece of advice would you give to young actresses?
D.G: Be yourself and trust yourself. Trust in your knowledge of why you’re doing what you are doing.
Acting is a commitment – everything you do contributes to it, everything you see and everything you experience. You are always drawing on your life, so acting becomes a way of life. It is a matter of life or death.
So you can be different and you can be yourself, however you are, because all actors are different and unique. That is part of expressing yourself and finding your inner voice, and putting yourself into your character. You must be yourself.
I.I.: What would 18-year-old Désirée have said if she heard that speech?
D.G: She would have been pleased.
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