In conversation with actor Edoardo Ballerini

Josh Elliott

NEW YORK - Edoardo Ballerini is an actor, writer and director.   He has appeared in over 40 films and television series, and is best known for his on-screen work in The Sopranos, Romeo Must Die and the indie hit Dinner Rush. He recently completed filming No God, No Master opposite Academy Award Nominee David Strathairn. His directorial debut Good Night Valentino premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and is part of the permanent archive of the Academy of Motion Pictures.

Iain: Where did you learn your acting methods?

Edoardo: I came to acting later than most. It wasn't until after I graduated college that I got interested in it. Before that I wanted to be a writer, but the leap from wanting to write the words to wanting to speak the words wasn't too great. I started with some classes at HB Studios in New York, basic scene study kinds of things. From there I went over to the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, where I studied for a couple of years, and the work was more involved. I also became an observer at The Actor's Studio, where I got to watch people put up scenes and listen to the critiques. Now I'm studying with the brilliant director and actor Austin Pendleton. But the study of acting is all around. You can learn by sitting in a diner and observing people's behavior as well as from any formal class, if you pay attention. I like to think I'm always studying.

Iain: How do you decide what role to take on?

Edoardo: Ideally you take a role because you believe you can do something unique with it, and you can use it to get people thinking and feeling.That's what I believe acting is, at its best. It's a chance for us to think and feel, both for performer and audience. We get to share a space outside of going to work, paying bills, standing in line at the supermarket, and experience joy, sorrow and everything in between. It's a chance to tap into something in our hearts and minds. For me, a role should have the possibility of eliciting a reaction of some kind. I won't deny that actors take on work for other reasons - money, chief among them - but we should always be working towards the higher aspects of the craft.

Iain: What are your greatest on screen moments you can remember?

Edoardo: My proudest acting moment is very distinct. We were filming a scene in The Sopranos, and we were hit by a torrential downpour.   A foot of water fell in a few hours. The scene was in a car, out in a parking lot under an overpass, and it was miserable.   The crew had been at it for twelve hours already, and nobody was having a good time. They had to keep moving the set to avoid the water. When it finally came time to shoot, Michael Imperioli and I dashed into the car. I knew there wouldn't be much time to shoot, despite it being an important scene. But I remembered being aware of everything going on - the conditions outside, the story we were telling, the fact that it was a big show and a nice break for me - and telling myself that I was going to have to deliver.   I ended up getting only one take, but it was all that was needed. It came out beautifully. I'm as proud of how I stayed focused as the work itself. For me, success is measured in the experience more than anything else.

Iain: What would you say are the important qualities needed to gain a reputation?

Edoardo: Talent, certainly. But beyond that there has to be professionalism.  I've seen countless actors behave like spoiled children - they aren't prepared, they complain, they're inconsiderate of other actors and crew - and it boggles my mind. Acting professionally is a privilege, and should be counted as one of the greatest blessings a person could ever have. Being a pro, and being mindful of your good fortune, will stand you in good stead over the long run.

Iain: Are you looking to do bigger roles?

Edoardo: Of course. But I don't mean that they have to be bigger in terms of screen time or the size of my name on a poster. I'm looking to do "bigger" roles in that they have more substance to them, more depth, more layering. I would be as happy with a cameo as a lead role if there was something "big" about it. That being said, it's an actor's job to bring that substance, depth and layering to the part. It may not be as obvious with some roles, but that shouldn't stop the effort. What is appealing about "bigger" roles, in the traditional sense, is the collaborative effort. If your role is a lead, you'll get more time with the director, the costumer, the cinematographer, and so on. And that can be very exciting. One of the reasons I got into acting was that it was a collaborative art, unlike writing.

Iain: From the perspective of nationality, how have you applied yourself when playing Italian-American roles? How do you make your characters authentic?

Edoardo: Nearly half my work has had some kind of Italian-American connection, it's true.   It may be inevitable given my name, but it always makes me laugh. I'm not a typical Italian-American in the Goodfellas mold. My parents are academics, and I spent my childhood on campuses and in libraries and museums, back and forth between New York and Milan. I'm a dual citizen. My natural speech is trans-Atlantic. I think of myself as Italian and American, but not Italian-American. I'm convinced that if my name weren't Italian I would never be called for these parts.

But this distinction may have served me well for these roles. People often tell me that they like my work in these parts because there is, in fact, something atypical about it.   When I played Danny Aiello's son in Dinner Rush, it worked precisely because he and I seemed to come from different universes. My character in The Sopranos benefited from the same idea. There was something off about him, and it made him more interesting.   People were a bit puzzled by him. If there's an authenticity to my work in these parts, it might be in embracing the fact that I don't quite fit them, and making that the authenticity.

Edoardo - The actor's chair

Iain: Having played two Italian historical figures (Rudolph Valentino and Carlo Tresca), what would you say had attracted you to these roles, and how did you research them?

Edoardo: It is different when it comes to Italians, though there I have a similar issue, just from the other side. I didn't grow up full-time in Italy, and there are some cultural and behavioral traits that I certainly lack. But playing Valentino or Tresca does feel like a closer fit, especially as both these men had to endure the burdens of being misplaced. These were two Italians who made their way in America, and had to navigate the world as strangers in a strange land. I felt a strong kinship to both for their sense of "otherness," if that's a word.

The research part was a joy for me, given my own academic leanings. Any chance for me to spend my days in a library is a gift. But once beyond the basic facts and figures, I tried to find something about them that I can then bring to daily life.   For Valentino it was in charming everybody, so I spent my days acting like a romantic, paying compliments, lingering with a stare and a smile, and seeing how that felt. For Tresca it was being jovial and boisterous, coming up with a quip and a joke, slapping people on the back, that sort of thing. And it is remarkable to see how differently people react to you depending on what you're offering. But again, the research and the study has to find its way into the world as action. It can't remain in classrooms and libraries. Ultimately, the world at large becomes your research lab, and that is quite thrilling.

Iain: What made you decide to begin directing films?

Edoardo: I don't think of myself as a director. I directed my short on Valentino, but directing is not a huge pursuit. I would still like to direct, but acting and writing are where my passions lie. Having said that, I have a feature that I wrote last summer that I would want to make myself. This particular project is very dear to me. I can't imagine anybody else doing it.

Iain: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?

Edoardo: On the acting front I have the feature No God, No Master with David Strathairn due out in 2010, and I've been doing some work on an HBO series that should start airing this year as well. And of course, there are always a handful of possibilities, but I don't count anything until it's actually underway. As to my own projects, I have a feature on Valentino that I'm putting together with producers. This has been a difficult project to get off the ground, but it seems to be on surer footing now. And I have the feature I just mentioned. It's an exciting time. There are a lot of unknowns in the industry, and the landscape is shifting constantly, but there are so many opportunities. I look forward to them all.

Check out Edoardo's website for more information :

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