Full "Steam" ahead

Alessandro Gassman, the Italian star of last year's award-winning film "Steam," is poised to become the next European heartthrob to find an American audience.

Published March 4, 1999 1:52PM (EST)

A kiss is just a kiss, or so the song goes. But it was just a kiss between two male actors in the beautifully shot film "Steam: The Turkish Bath" that led the Turkish government to ban the film from entering last year's Oscar competition. A joint international production between Italy, Turkey and Spain, "Steam" is, at its center, a love story that speaks volumes about the cultural differences between Italy and Turkey.

Despite the odds, "Steam," the directorial debut by Italian-Turkish
director Ferzan Ozpetek, went on to play in 45 countries, sweeping
numerous awards in Italy. In particular, critics praised the film's lead actor, Alessandro Gassman.

Gassman, son of Italian actor Vittorio Gassman ("Profumo di Donna: Scent of a Woman," "Riso Amaro: Bitter Rice," Robert Altman's "A Wedding") plays the part of Francesco, a married, successful yet restless Italian designer who travels to Istanbul after his recently deceased aunt bequeaths him a Turkish bath, an "hamam." Deciding to stay in Istanbul to restore the bathhouse, Francesco's encounters with Turkish culture lead to his own self-examination as he becomes increasingly drawn to the simplicities of Turkish life.

After years of acting onstage and appearing in European films such as "Uomini Sneza Donne" ("Men Without Women") and "A Month by the Lake," the 33-year old Gassman, largely known for his comedic roles, is on the verge of becoming the next big European actor to find an American audience. He recently completed the film "L'Bomba," an Italian production directed by Giulio Base, which will open the Los Angeles film festival in April. And he's currently "in talks" with Madonna to star opposite her in a series of Max Factor advertisements.

Salon caught up with Gassman in Modena, Italy, where he runs his own theater company and is currently starring in his company's production of "K2," written by American playwright Patrick Meyers.

How did you become involved in this film?

It was a really small movie, no one wanted to produce it -- then the producers [Paolo Buzzi and Ozan Ergun] decided that they could produce it, but only if they had a well-known actor. I'd just come out of a big success in the Italian box office with a comedy, "Uomini Senza Donne." Other actors refused the movie before me, because they were scared of the homosexual character. I was the only one who accepted the role. I did it free, I wasn't paid, but in the end it was very good for me, because the movie came out in 45 countries. So the money, I got it after. The profits from the film were much more than what I had expected.

What was the experience of working with Ferzan Ozpetek like?

When I play in comedies, I generally propose to the director many different ways of playing the role. But with "Hamam" [the European title for "Steam"], I just let myself be directed by Ferzan. I just followed directly what he wanted to reach, and we were always on the same mood, on the same idea. It was very easy, we never had discussions, everything came very naturally. And the kiss scene -- which for me was the toughest one, because Ferzan, and me, we're both not homosexuals -- in the end it came very naturally for me, it was very easy.

Several American film critics have labeled this film "homoerotic." Is Francesco's discovery that he is homosexual
crucial to the film?

I don't think it's that important. If Francesco fell in love with the
mother, or the sister, it would have been exactly the same story. It's the story of a man who discovers himself, and while he discovers himself
[to be] homosexual, that's not the center of the story. It's the story of a man who becomes better than he was before. And it's also the story of an encounter between two different cultures.

What was the reaction from the cast and crew after Turkey banned the film from the Oscars?

What can I say? The movie was not sent to the Oscars -- not because no one liked the movie, only because of the homosexual content. We're reaching the year 2000, and it's like a joke! But you're speaking of a Muslim country. It's a problem that they have to solve by themselves, it's not our business. But it's a pity for our movie.

Nor is Italy the most progressive country when it comes to
homosexuality; how did your fans in Italy react to seeing you kiss a man

Here the movie had a big, big success. We won the all the prizes possible, we won Golden Globes -- all of them. I was pleased because not only people that are used to going to the movies liked it, but people who generally just go see action movies -- movies with Bruce Willis -- appreciated it very much. So this means the homosexual content of the movie wasn't the center of the story, but really it was just a love story, a simple and touching love story.

How difficult is it for Italian actors, who get a smattering of
attention every now and then in the U.S. press, to cross over and become film stars in America?

It's quite difficult because the United States is always simplifying
Italo-Americans in movies. Even when Italian actors succeed in the United States, it's generally playing Mafioso roles, more or less the same characters. There's not much chance for Italian or European actors to do much else. [Antonio] Banderas is the newest example, he is very famous, but I don't think he's doing exactly what he wanted to do when he started being an actor. I don't know if you saw the first movies he did in Spain ["Matador," "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!"] -- certainly those were the best things he did in his acting career. So, if you're very interested in money and becoming famous, all over the world, why not? But it depends on what you're looking for.

A generation ago, actors like your father, as well as Italian directors, could easily become international stars. What do you think has changed about Italian cinema?

It's only because we lost the elders in the cinema, the ones who made our movies in the '50s and '60s internationally appreciated -- like Fellini, De Sica, Rossellini. They left a big hole, which has not been replaced yet. But, I must say, we have now very good young directors and new authors that are keeping to our cinema. It's a new jump, I believe Italian cinema in the next years will have good results.

You've acted in three films with your father, most recently in New York City in "L'Bomba." What's that experience been like? What have you learned from watching his career?

It was cool for me. The problem would have been to be compared with him, but as an actor I'm completely different from my father. So that's never happened, I never had that problem. The only thing I really got from my father is to be straight on your work -- it's not a joke. It looks like a joke, but in fact it's tough work and you have to be precise. That's the most important thing.

Can you talk about the film you just did, "L'Bomba"?

It's the story of two young Italian actors who come to New York, trying to get into the Actor's Studio. One of the two succeeds, which is me, the other one doesn't. He starts working in a Chinese restaurant as a dishwasher. And they discover that, as Italians, if you move, dress, speak like Italo-Americans, like in Scorsese's and Coppola's movies, then people will believe you are real Mafioso. And then they will start respecting you and treating you very well. And doing this, they become a real Mafioso family, and they become the most powerful family in New York. They make a lot of money, until the moment the real Mafioso, played by my father, who plays the head of the Mafioso, gets pissed off that this family came and took the money they used to get. From there on, the story changes, and it becomes a real comedy. Shelley Winters is also in the film, playing practically herself -- a teacher in the Actor's Studio, as she is in real life. It speaks about stereotypes that become real.

What, beyond the Mafioso, do you think American stereotypes of Italians are?

I was in the United States, living there, and I used to follow the news, and I discovered that in the three months that I was living in the States, I never heard about my country. So I can imagine people who don't read books, who are not interested in history or geography, they don't know much about my country. So we came to the conclusion that the only thing they know is through the movies, made by American directors, big directors, like Scorsese, Coppola, De Niro and Turturro. I love those movies, and they did speak about our country when our country really was like that -- it's not their fault, we were exactly like that! But that was almost 50 years ago.

Are there any American film directors you'd like to work with?

Yes, definitely. I'm a big fan of Quentin Tarantino, so that would be a big dream for me to work with him.

How did Madonna contact you to appear with her in these Max Factor

Madonna saw the film in Los Angeles, and she liked it very much. She was looking for a young man to be with her in the advertisements, and she called me. So we are trying to see if we can arrange with my theater for me to come for a couple of days to Los Angeles. But I'm very happy she saw the movie and she liked it. It's an honor for me. I'm a big fan of Madonna.

By Dakota Smith

Dakota Smith is a New York writer.

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