A dreary London evening is surely a world away from sunshine of the Hollywood hills, but if the light is going to shine anywhere, then along the red carpet is usually a pretty safe bet. In London, the carpet was awash with stars for the premiere of Angelina Jolie’s latest role as director of the movie Unbroken. It was her second directorial role following 2011’s In The Land of Blood And Honey.
Whilst the charismatic actress/director invariably attracts attention wherever she goes, it was in fact her film’s Italian leading lady who was also turning heads. Largely unknown (until now), Maddalena Ischiale was a revelation in red, but it’s her on-screen portrayal as protagonist Louis Zamperini’s mother that has been garnering much acclaim. I meet her the day after the premiere in a coffee shop in Hampstead Heath, to talk about her role in the film and her relationship with its superstar director.
“As an [Italian actress], I had this crazy idea to go to America because I love the movies, I love the way they work. I love Italy, but I never really found my place there” she says. Los Angeles, however, didn’t reap the overnight rewards she had been expecting. “I wanted to give up so many times,” she confesses. “I spent three years thinking, ‘what am I doing?!’” She relates her determination to Louis Zamperini, the former Olympian sent to a Japanese POW camp whose story the film is based upon. “He was a really strong person. I love his quote, ‘I always finish the race.’ I believe that is what I have to do. But I have these two role models now. On one side, I have Louis Zamperini, who lived an incredible life, and I play the mother who gave birth to him, the origin of that life [and] who gave him his strength. Then I have Angelina Jolie, who is a brilliant role model. How can I give up?”
This determination to succeed has surely paid off and Ischiale’s casting in the film is almost something of a Hollywood tale in itself. After receiving a breakdown of the film from a friend, she was immediately drawn to the character of Louis’ mother, Louise. “I loved this character!” she enthuses. “The character sold me. I was so drawn to the story of an American hero with Italian origins and the character of the mother, that I knew somehow I had to get a part in it.” Although that in itself wasn’t so straightforward. “Getting the audition was the hard part,” Ischiale reveals.
“I didn’t have an agent, so what I did, I called Sony, I called one of the biggest casting directors in America and was like, ‘hi, I’m Maddalena! I’m Italian and how can I pitch myself for the role, because I don’t have an agent but I think I can help you guys.’” One phone call later saw her sending over some head shots and a video reel that happened to include Ischiale playing the part of the perfect Italian mother. So perfect, as it happens, that it landed her the audition that would change her life, with the resulting tape sent straight to Ms. Jolie herself. “[Angelina] told me that after she saw my tape, she started screaming, ‘I found her! I found Mama!’ So that was good,” Ischiale tells me. “But she cast me because I am curvaceous, because I had the accent, and because I am very direct and authentic, so [I could] bring real humanity into that character.”
I ask her what was it like working with one of Hollywood’s most famed actresses. “You want to work with great directors and great human beings, and Angie is an amazing human being,” Ischiale tells me. “She doesn’t compromise. Being such a great actor, she knows how to talk with actors, she knows how to relate to them. In my experience, she let me be completely free. I naturally went on set and she was like, ‘okay, here is your space, let’s see what you’ve got.’ Then she was giving her interpretation, so she’d say, let’s do this scene again completely internal; now let’s do it Italian and super outgoing. Or, now talk like you’re a person who is troubled. Now you have the power; now you don’t have any power. So every take was very different. As an actor, it was a lot of fun. But she knows what she wants and she’s completely supportive. Every day, she would tell me, ‘come and look at yourself here [on screen], it’s amazing; look how beautiful you are!’ How many times do you have Angelina Jolie say, look how beautiful you are?!”
It’s clearly a well-deserved compliment, but Ischiale politely shrugs it off. “I wanted to give this colour to the character for the time that I have on screen,” she says simply. “I worked so hard on every aspect of the character. So it was very meaningful and I hope I did a good job!” It would seem she did, given the attention heaped on her at the moment, with the film’s director leading the charge of compliments. “Angie has that kind of mother quality,” Ishchiale says, “like everyone [on set] becomes her children. She didn’t bring the kids on set, but they were with her. She’s a great mum. It’s so important to her. She had a wonderful relationship with her mother, and she always talks about her mother, like her mother was the most incredible human being.”
That emotional connection was also present during filming, particularly when it came to creating the war camp scenes. “I entered the camp and there was screaming and there were all these kids, and it was like it was real, like you were really there, and I started crying. We cried a lot, me and Angie, we cried a lot,” Ischiale admits. “After a scene, there were moments when she’d say, ‘cut,’ and she’d be coming to me, and she’d have one tissue for her and one tissue for me. We were silent afterwards, everyone was. It was heavy. But you believe it, you think it’s real. But it is real, because somewhere in the world, someone is being tortured.”
By now, after one strong coffee too many, we’re both on the verge of tears, so the conversation moves on to a far lighter topic, as I ask Ischiale what her favourite luxury is. “Oh my God!” she giggles infectiously. “I love so many things – I’m Italian! I love Gucci, for sure. I could say my Gucci bag, but we’re talking about Unbroken!”
Ischiale is assuredly bright, bubbly and warmly engaging. She had me welling up with emotion one minute and then crying with laughter the next (although that might be the Italian in her, as “we can cry like crazy people but then after, we’re gonna make you laugh with a joke, because that’s how we are.”) Her role in Unbroken is surely only the start of an incredible career in Hollywood. Oh yes, and if nothing else, she’s got killer taste in handbags!