https://www.theguardian.com-Viva la diva: Monica Belucci performs Maria Callas (in Callas’s YSL frock) in the Ancient Herodus Atticus Odeon at the steps of the Acropolis last October. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images
She studied law, became a model, and then starred in everything from arthouse films to blockbusters. Now the multilingual Italian actor is overcoming a lifetime of stage fright to play opera diva Maria Callas
Monica Bellucci has been asked about her beauty for close on four decades. The Italian-born actor – who started out as a model and holds the somewhat ambiguous distinction of becoming the oldest Bond girl – has caused many male journalists to overheat. In 2004, one interviewer called her “a distillation of every Italian perfection”, dwelling on the way “she brushes the cappuccino foam from her lips with the long, unpainted nails of her perfect fingers.”
Sitting opposite me in a quiet corner of a hotel bar in Paris, Bellucci appears to drink her coffee like a regular person (and sweetly worries when I don’t order any). When I ask her about these breathless accounts, she pauses before saying: “It’s funny. It’s just a fantasy that keeps going for no reason, because nobody believes it. I don’t believe it. The other person doesn’t, either.” Does she even read them? “No. It can be very boring,” she says drily.
Unusually, Bellucci, whose career spans Italian and French arthouse films in addition to blockbusters such as the Matrix sequels and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, isn’t here to talk about a film. Instead, she has recently added a new string to her bow, making her stage debut in Maria Callas: Letters and Memoirs, directed by Tom Volf. After opening in Paris, it toured to Italy, Greece and Turkey. Bellucci was due to perform it at Her Majesty’s theatre in London in December, but Omicron struck. It has now been rescheduled for April.
The show is based on Volf’s 2019 book of the same name, which featured 350 of Callas’s letters alongside her unfinished memoirs. Such was her desire to perform the great soprano’s writings, Bellucci overcame a lifetime of stage fright. Over the years, she has said no to numerous offers to appear in plays. “I wouldn’t have dreamt of it,” she says. When I ask how she felt in the run-up to the 2020 premiere, she lets out a staccato laugh. “Bad. You have all those people in front of you, and you have to deal with all these energies – even now, I’m always scared.”
Volf was introduced to Bellucci by a friend, he explains by phone, and visited her at home in Paris to convince her to take the role. A photographer and film-maker, he has made a career as something of a Callas diehard since 2013. Alongside three books about the singer, he directed the 2017 documentary Maria by Callas, which told the opera star’s story in her own words. “You know how love at first sight happens?” Volf says, of hearing Bellucci read Callas’s letters for the first time. “It felt like she immediately got a sense of her emotion and state of mind. There was a window letting daylight shine on Monica’s face and I could see some of Callas in there.”
Maria Callas: Letters and Memoirs covers both the influential opera singer’s passion for her work and her troubled personal life, including her long love affair with the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (who ostensibly left her to marry Jackie Kennedy). The show also delves into her lonely final years: “You feel that in the end, all she has is the music,” Bellucci says. “All the rest is gone.”
Ultimately, the key to Bellucci overcoming her stage anxiety came from Callas’s wardrobe: a 1960s black Yves Saint Laurent dress, borrowed from a Milan collection. Did it have to be adjusted? “No, it was perfect,” Bellucci says, her voice sinking to a whisper. She is considering having a replica made to avoid damaging it, but resisted such an idea for a long time for one simple reason: “I was scared to perform without that dress.”
Depending on the location, Bellucci delivers the show in French, Italian or English, a feat she shrugs off, pointing out that Callas spoke all three languages too, and “had an accent whenever she was speaking”. Bellucci often dubs her own scenes, so that Italian and French viewers will still hear her voice in English-language films. “When you want to express something, if you’re into it, it just comes naturally.”
Callas isn’t the only adopted Italian Bellucci is currently playing. She donned a blond wig for Antongiulio Panizzi’s The Girl in the Fountain, shown in the autumn at the Torino film festival. The title refers to Anita Ekberg’s famous scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Bellucci plays an actor tasked with portraying Swedish-born Ekberg. “She stayed in Rome but she should have left,” Bellucci says of Ekberg’s life post-Dolce Vita. “Everything looked so beautiful and dreamy, but in reality, life in Rome destroyed her.” Ekberg met, she adds, “the wrong man” – presumably a reference to the actor Anthony Steel, whom Ekberg married and later described as terribly jealous.
“The funny thing is, there is a picture of Callas at the premiere of La Dolce Vita,” Bellucci says. Ekberg and Callas had a lot in common, she thinks. “They’re both women who tried to be free at a time when it was so difficult. They were independent through their work, but still prisoners through their heart.”
Bellucci, who was born in Umbria and briefly studied law, rarely speaks publicly about her own starry marriage, with the French actor Vincent Cassel, which lasted from 1999 to 2013. The two met while filming a French film, The Apartment, and worked on several projects together, most notably Gaspar Noé’s uber-violent Irréversible.
When she mentions Callas’s ability to live life “with strong emotions”, I ask if she relates to this passion. “Not like that,” she says with a laugh. “I have two kids, I have slowed down!” Although her turn as Persephone in the Matrix sequels (steamy kiss with Keanu Reeves included) helped to establish her reputation in Hollywood in the early 00s, Bellucci says she is glad she stayed in Europe. “The concept of VIP is different in America. In Europe, even in London, actors live more normally. I take my kids to school. I go and buy things at the supermarket.”
The pandemic brought some family worries, when her parents became ill with Covid in 2020. Bellucci was away from Italy then, sheltering with her daughters in Biarritz to remain close to Cassel, who spends part of the year there. The pandemic was hardest on her elder daughter Deva, now 17, who had just started a modelling career. “It’s more complicated,” says Bellucci, “when you’re very young and you want to see your friends.”
Deva was first noticed at the age of 14, while attending a shoot with her mother. “They saw her and said, ‘Oh my God, we would like to do something with her.’ But she was too young, so we waited a bit.” They didn’t wait long: that same year, Deva became the face of a Dolce & Gabbana perfume and has gone on to grace catwalks and magazine covers. Her love life is already the subject of much attention in the French press.
“She has one foot in school and normal life,” says Bellucci, and the other in “the world of adults. She knows what it means to work.” On Instagram, 600,000 followers observe Deva’s every move, and Bellucci believes social media have helped her daughter’s generation bypass gatekeepers. “She says it’s easier for them than it was for us, because when you have talent, you can show your talent right away.” Being the daughter of two wildly famous actors may help bring your talent to the fore, too.
Still, Bellucci remains protective, and was glad to find the industry had grown less catty since her days as a full-time model. “The young people are not in competition like in the past, they’re more responsible,” she says. “Categories were also more closed: modelling and acting – they couldn’t go together. It’s not like that any more.”
Bellucci applauds models such as Emily Ratajkowski who are now speaking more freely about what it was like to be objectified as young women. Bellucci feels she was lucky. “I started when I was very young, but at the same time, I was going to school. Then, when I moved into film, I was already 25 and independent. I got into the world of cinema already protected.”
She recalls appearing in a Harvey Weinstein-produced film, 2000’s Malèna, in which she played the object of everyone’s lust in a small Sicilian town. She only dealt with Giuseppe Tornatore, the film’s Italian director. “It was Tornatore who chose me. I think Miramax wanted another actress – more famous than me.” As so often, Bellucci had the last laugh, pulling off one of her many acclaimed performances. “We are in a world of image,” she says, “but the work isn’t about beauty. If it’s just about beauty, you can’t work more than five minutes.”
- Maria Callas: Letters and Memoirs is at Her Majesty’s theatre, London, on 24 April.