Matteo Garrone’s latest film Dogman, which screened in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Special Presentation section, is an involving morality tale about an everyman along the Neapolitan coast who tries to maintain his good name in town while also appeasing a brutal thug. This everyman could not, however, have been played by just any man.
Marcello Fonte imbues his character, also named Marcello, with a world-weary sense of shaky nobility. He tries to be a good father and help his community by taking care of dogs, yet he falls prey to bad impulses when in the company of people who exploit his goodness for nefarious ends. At 5’3” but looking a bit like a grizzled young Al Pacino, Fonte embodies both elements of his character’s duality and brings plenty of soul to the interpretation. Don’t just take my word for it — Cate Blanchett’s Cannes jury awarded him their prize for Best Actor at this year’s festival.
Fonte has had an amazing journey from living inside a social center for former prisoners to becoming an internationally lauded thespian. When I sat down with him for a brief chat before a screening of Dogman at TIFF, however, we chose to talk mostly about the work itself and how he collaborated with Garrone to create such an indelible performance.
This interview was conducted through an interpreter. Thanks to Aspasia Dassios for her translation assistance.
I understand you have a history with being an extra on some pretty prominent movie sets like Gangs of New York — did you get the acting bug then?
No. Truly, the acting bug I got through [the] time I moved to Rome. I became impassioned with the acting trade, and that’s the path I took.
How did that happen?
It happened when I first went to Cinecittà, the film studio in Rome, and saw the magic of the sets. They were false, and yet they created this kind of reality; the artificiality of that which they constructed is all false, and the truth is all within the actor. If the actor is false, then everything is over. The actor has to be true.
How did you come to be involved with Dogman?
I entered through the main door — via rehearsals. I did an audition, another one, the third one I was taken.
Was it just an open casting call?
Garrone was actually asking actors from different theatrical companies to come to the audition, and one of them happened to be one of the ex-prisoners that I happened to be involved [with] at the time.
What is Garrone’s process like for letting you be authentic and natural while also getting the performance he needs?
He makes you live the situation and observes your reaction to it — and guides you to the juice of the scene.
Did you all work on a backstory? It feels like there’s so much history informing the narrative, but it doesn’t need to be spoken.
No, in fact the character of Marcello allows the public to fill him in. It’s a freedom that people can interpret the way they want. The interpretation of Marcello allows each person to view him with his or her own eyes.
Do you feel sympathy for Marcello? Not that it necessarily matters, but do you think he does the right thing in the end?
Who knows what is the right thing in life? Who is the judge of life? One has to feel what one experiences in one’s life. Surely Marcello tried to defend his dignity.
Talk me through the process of creating the final shot — how much of it is technical vs. just something you feel? Did you have much guidance in terms of what needed to happen in that moment?
Yes, it wasn’t technical at all, it was really just trying to live in that moment. We actually improvised a lot of that, both Garrone and [me]. We were looking for sensations and feelings.
Is there anything about Italian masculinity or class that you think might not be so obvious to audiences overseas?
Truly, the character of Marcello is not masculine. He’s very feminine. In fact, in many audiences, it’s the women who tend to appreciate the character of Marcello. He’s a character that defends animals. He has a female soul.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to open different paths for myself, paths that didn’t exist before. My next role is actually being the person who opens these opportunities and [has] people understand that these opportunities exist. One should not remain closed in his or her own garden.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).