The following is abridged from the forthcoming book Profondo Argento by Alan Jones to be published by FAB Press early 2004.
Asia Argento says she must have been delivered in a cinema because that’s all she can remember of her earliest memories. In fact, her famous horror director father, Dario, was at a rep screening of Gone with the Wind when she was born in Rome on September 20, 1975. But it wasn’t until she was five that she learnt what papa did for a living. “He showed me Deep Red (1975)! I vividly recall thinking it was amazing and how clever he was. And how beautiful my mother (Daria Nicolodi) looked in it. It was scary and I kept flashing back to the beheading in the lift. Friends have always said my father’s films gave them nightmares, but they never have me. I don’t share the same fears as my father. Insects, grasshoppers especially, are my phobia. Strangely, the horror movie that’s scared me the most is my mother’s Shock (director Mario Bava’s last movie in 1977). That scene where the hand with the syringe strikes! My favorite Dario movies are Deep Red, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980)”. Nor did Asia realize just how famous her father was “Until the day he picked me up from school. I was six. The other kids went crazy and kept asking for his autograph. Oh, I thought, people know who he is. But friends would never come over to my house. I asked them once why not and they honestly said because they didn’t want to see severed heads and corpses lying around the rooms. Quite where they got that idea from?”
“I can’t remember too much about my father until I was eight. Up until that point he used to tell me that all kids smelt of shit and so he couldn’t be bothered with them. I think our halting relationship started in earnest when Daria moved me away from him so he became much more important to me. I only ever remember one family holiday we all took together. My grandfather, grandmother, sisters, mother, father and uncle all went to Haiti and I recall it being one of the best times of my life. My father and mother never read me fairytales to put me to sleep at night or ever sung lullabies. I used to get my nose pushed in books on art and culture instead. That gave me the desire to read voraciously though so it was ultimately a good thing. It was only when I started working with my father that a strong bond formed between us. That’s when I really got to know him. But my unusual childhood did make me a strong character so I’m not complaining”.
Asia never intentionally embarked on an acting career. It happened by accident. “I was nine and living with Daria and my half-sister Anna (from Nicolodi’s previous relationship). I wanted to be a writer and wrote loads of weird poetry. I was convinced I was going to be a child prodigy in the literary arena. Although Daria appeared in my father’s movies, she was more famous at the time for her brilliant stage work. One day, director Sergio Citti called round wanting Daria to star in his new TV miniseries. And when he saw me, he said there was a part for me too if I thought I could do it. Because I knew my mother would help and protect me, I said yes. It was that simple and no big deal”. That miniseries was Sogni e Bisogni/Dreams and Needs (1984) and because it turned out to be such a pleasant and relatively comfortable experience, Asia was open to other offers.
After small parts in her father’s productions, Demons 2 (1986) and The Church (1989), and more high profile roles in Nanni Moretti’s Palombella Rossa (1989), Asia starred in one of her personal best roles in Michele Placido’s L’Amiche del Cuore/Close Friends (1992). As Simona, a young girl sexually abused by her physiotherapist father, Asia’s compelling, moving and often improvisational performance in the Cannes Festival entry garnered her the best reviews of her career. It was L’Amiche del Cuore that made the Italian film industry realize Asia was a serious actress in her own right and she wasn’t being cast because of her father’s behind-the-scenes machinations. Then Asia won the coveted David Di Donatello Award (Italy’s Oscar) for her paraplegic role in Carlo Verdone’s Perdiamoci Di Vista!/Let’s Not Keep In Touch! (1994) and was voted Italy’s most popular and desirable actress – an accolade she retains to this day.
Deciding to spread her wings and see if she had a shelf life outside of Italy, Asia’s first foray into foreign film was playing Charlotte de Sauve in Patrice Chereau’s costume drama La Reine Margot (1994). “I had fun making it despite having a few problems with a couple of the older stars. They seemed quite jealous of me. And it was interesting to work in another industry where I was unknown. It used to annoy me that people thought I only got parts in Italy because of my father’s influence. But would anyone really cast me in anything based purely on that? Of course not! There’s far too much money at stake. That attitude can be upsetting because for years I was never sure if I really was any good as an actress. I’m still not certain even though I’ve learnt not to care what people say anymore”.
Hot on the heels of La Reine Margot, Asia turned her hand to directing the short film Prospettive which eventually became part of the nine segment Slacker-style youth culture anthology DeGenerazione (1994). Then she was offered a role that looked as if it could propel her into the international big time. B. Monkey (Michael Radford, 1998) was a dark and dangerous love story, based on the best-selling novel by Andrew Davies, which also featured Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Rupert Everett. By the time Asia was cast as the aggressively sexy B(eatrice) Monkey, a tattooed head-case torn between a desire for security and an urge for drug-induced excitement, the Miramax project was already a poisoned chalice. Michael Caton-Jones had been fired as director because of his insistence Thandie Newton play the lead. Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein felt a new face would be a better fit and when director Michael (Il Postino) Radford took over he wholeheartedly agreed that Asia had the exact amount of touching vulnerability. “B. Monkey wasn’t about pursuing global stardom as such, I just wanted to have the choice of the best scripts out there. I get offered ten shitty scripts a month in Italy and if I do want to be taken as a serious actress – I wasn’t sure I wanted that at first – I don’t want to end up making movies only for the money. B. Monkey was the best experience of my life because it made me grow as a person. I got scared again – I’m not frightened in Italy anymore when I tackle a role. It was like starting my career over”.
And that’s precisely what Asia desperately wanted to do for highly personal reasons also. “I fought off the stiff competition like the Mad Fuck Beatrice is supposed to be because I had to get away from Rome. I needed to leave a complicated love story behind [a four year roller-coaster romance with Nirvana actor Sergio Rubini, the Italian Al Pacino]. It was the choice of two pains: the heartbreak Sergio was causing me, or the problems posed by the movie. I chose hard work over sex. I didn’t need that sort of distraction. I wanted to be on my own and take proper charge of my life. I hate all the PR bollocks that goes with promoting filmmaking but I can honestly say I’ve never played a character so close to myself before. It was like the two of us merged into one. I became very confident as a person after forcing myself to act that way as Beatrice. B. Monkey was the first time I didn’t think of acting as a stupid profession. I’ve spent the last 16 years of my life worried I’d be found out and anxious over why I couldn’t explain my ‘Art’ like all the other actresses I’d read about in the movie magazines. But then I’m not like most of them anyway – always worrying about cellulite, perfect hair and make-up. I’ve since realized I don’t have to define myself to anybody or act in any special way as long as I’m being true to myself and following my heart”.
After spending two years on the shelf, B. Monkey was finally given a major theatrical release in Italy only in 1999. By that time Asia had already appeared in another American-financed critical and box-office catastrophe – Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel (1998). Asia had been an admirer of Ferrara’s work for many years and had based her Anna Manni role in her father’s neo-giallo The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) on Zoë Tamerlis’ head-turning performance as a mute rape victim in the director’s Ms. 45 (1981). In the screen adaptation of William Gibson’s cult short story, Asia played Sandii, a hooker and part-time singer in a lesbian bar, hired by corporate head-hunters Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken, ‘five minutes in the future’, to seduce a brilliant Japanese scientist away from the rival company employing him to create new genetic viruses for the good of mankind. “It was strange because I’d been thinking of Abel a lot, and had been watching all his movies on video, in the month the offer came to star as Sandii. What I loved the most was Abel had never seen any of my movies. He still hasn’t. Yet he cast me on faith because he thought I was right for the part. I wanted to do it because I was sick of all these American films telling you when to laugh and when to cry with every part of one’s character explained in simple terms and sadly B. Monkey ended up like that after years of post-production and endless previews. That was the beauty of New Rose Hotel. The audience was left to make up their own conclusions. All the details should form in the viewer’s mind and that makes for powerful and interesting cinema. When I decided to direct Scarlet Diva I very much wanted to be the female Ferrara”.
Asia is first seen in New Rose Hotel draped over semi-naked girls and she happily disrobed for her stark love scenes. “I don’t have problems with showing my body if I feel it’s un-exploitative. Abel wanted an intimate reality between Willem and I, which is why we even shoved our tongues down each other’s throats! When I go to bed I take my clothes off. When I make love I take my clothes off. I was in love with this movie so I took my clothes off! No big deal. Even Abel’s legendary mood swings and gruff direction were all part of what was an overwhelming experience for me. I’ve never known anything like it. The mobile phone calls at three in the morning from Abel asking my opinion of his directorial skills were amazing. Unlike my father who divides each sequence into little pieces, Abel rolls two cameras continuously and you do the whole scene in one take. If you make a mistake, you continue. You can do whatever you like because you know his camera will always be following you. Abel got really mad if I acknowledged the camera and I learnt a whole new acting discipline in the process”.
During this time, Asia had also appeared in three of her father’s movies, Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome and The Phantom of the Opera (1998). “I found an old diary recently from when I was 13 and one angry entry said, why isn’t my father hiring me for any of his movies? I think he deliberately let me forge my career away from his so I would find my own identity and sense of self-expression. The day he offered me the role of Aura Petrescu in Trauma was one of the happiest days of my life. I do think Dario is very courageous in what he does and I do admire him more than any other director I’ve worked with. And I’m not saying that just because he’s my father. He acknowledges his fears and is brave enough to show them to the world. I never thought it was weird that my father would have me naked and raped in his movies until a friend pointed it out to me. I was just making movies and never even thought about the possible subtext going on. Nor do I have the psychological tools to decode his latent feelings. Perhaps I haven’t wanted to either because it might reveal something I have no desire to discover. Is Dario reliving his relationship with Daria through me? I did think at one time I was only born so my father had an actress in the family he could work with in the future.”
After turning down the role of the Cigar Girl in the James Bond adventure The World Is Not Enough (Michael Apted 1999), Asia did some soul-searching and decided to take her future in both hands. The result was her feature-directing debut Scarlet Diva (2000). “After all the depressing problems with B. Monkey, I almost lost interest in being an actress so I decided to write Scarlet Diva to save myself from death. I knew if I didn’t write it, I would die creatively. I was obsessed and all I wanted to do was write this movie. I was so unhappy as an actress. I needed to change. I couldn’t go on as before because I had no inspiration. I still didn’t know until the last second whether I was able to direct a feature or if I could keep the set together. But the moment I arrived on set on the first day, I knew it was going to be fine. I was doing exactly what I wanted. Directing gave me back my self-esteem and confidence. When I was just acting I’d go home and be unhappy and not be able to focus on anything positive. On Scarlet Diva, I went home, I drew to relax and was thrilled to bits over the whole experience”.
Scarlet Diva is an erotic and neurotic odyssey that follows the trials and tribulations of feted fictional Italian superstar, Anna Battista (played by Asia), as she makes public appearances to promote her latest release, acts in the epic ‘Cleopatra’s Death’, attends award ceremonies, has screen tests for American blockbusters and gets relentlessly followed around by the paparazzi. But while Anna’s public persona is all glamour and glitz, her personal life is a romantic disaster area and she finds herself caught up in an emotional vortex of sexual experimentation, heavy drug abuse, self-destruction and ultimate disillusionment with the rock star lover who abandons her during pregnancy. “It was always meant to be a celebrity odyssey fuelled by sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. There was no real message as such – it was just about all the trappings and highs of fame and fortune. It’s all there; producers wanting to eat my pussy in return for a film role, photographer monsters who give me the Special K amphetamine to ensure I’ll provide great tabloid pictures and all that horrible shit. I’m not saying everything happened to me personally, but it’s stuff I knew all about. My life is much more interesting than anything I describe in Scarlet Diva. I can’t say the script was based on everything I’ve done or I’d ruin my life and destroy my reputation. All I’ll say is that it’s a personal voyage through the world of cinema because that’s what I know about. I grew up in film and this film is about movies, moviemaking and life behind the camera. The film enabled me to get rid of a lot of bullshit in my life and I will admit to it exorcising many demons. But I don’t want people for one second to think Anna’s story was my own disguised”.
Asia enjoyed the power of being a director. “I became a real totalitarian on set. I even surprised myself over how in control I felt. It was great – I screamed ‘Silence’ and everyone stopped. It was fabulous. No one ever took any notice of me as an actress when I did that! I was clearly meant to do this in my life and I suppose it’s in my blood. It’s one thing to work with my father or Abel, but otherwise acting is a stupid profession. I’ve seen my father work for years on a project and sweat blood over it. And that’s how it should be”. Unfortunately, the reviews for Scarlet Diva were hardly noteworthy and the box-office take disappointing in Italy but Asia expected the bad reviews. “Critics were waiting for me to fail. I’ve led a charmed life and people seem jealous of my success. They couldn’t wait for it to be shit. I believed in what I was doing and if they didn’t understand that it was a work of truth, then there’s nothing I can do about it”.
Since Scarlet Diva, Asia has starred in Olivier Megaton’s La Sirene Rouge (2001) and directed rock videos for the bands Royalize (La Tua Lingua Sul Mio Cuore) and Bluvertigo (L’Assenzio). The latter clip had a profound impact on her personal life because she began an affair with Bluvertigo’s pink-haired lead singer, Marco Castoldi, that resulted in the birth of their daughter, Anna Lou, on June 20, 2001. While pregnant she also hosted the top-rated TV series 125 Milioni Di Caz.te with Italian showbiz personality, Adriano Celentano, the star of her father’s wonky costume drama The Five Days of Milan (1973). Her new responsibility as a mother has meant some necessary changes to her life. After years of purposely avoiding entering the American mainstream (she also turned down a role in Mission: Impossible 2), Asia finally accepted an offer to co-star alongside Vin Diesel in the high-octane action adventure xXx (2002). “Straight after directing Scarlet Diva I did a series of commercials for the Renault Max car in Italy to earn money. If I have to do things like that then so be it. I now have to prioritize for the sake of my daughter. Rather high paid commercials and guaranteed blockbuster hits than remain in the ‘titty titty gang bang’ Italian ghetto for the rest of my life. And I never expected I’d ever say that. Making xXx was more fun than doing little European movies. If the movie makes me an international star, I’ll use that fame to raise money for the projects I want to direct. I do want to direct more (her next film will be an adaptation of male hustler/drug dealer J. T. Leroy’s autobiography “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things”) but I’m not solely striving for that. I’m not an ambitious actress, my ambition is to do whatever I choose to do well and not embarrass myself”.