Nearly ten years ago, Catherine Hardwicke directed Toni Collette in Miss You Already. In the film, Colette plays a woman undergoing breast cancer treatment while her best friend (Drew Barrymore) tries to get pregnant.
Despite the heaviness of the story, the experience was enough for Hardwicke to know Collette would dominate the role of meek mom-turned-mafia-boss Kristen in Mafia Mamma.
“Reading the scripts, imagining Toni as playing this part and I think almost from the beginning… I was just down for the cause,” Hardwicke tells Los Angeles Confidential.
The Mafia Mamma shoot took 32 days in Italy. Based in Rome, most locations were within about a 45-minute drive, including the two wineries featured in the film (one was used for its interior and the other was used for its actual vineyard).
In Mafia Mamma, Kristen is suddenly summoned to Italy in the wake of her grandfather’s death. With her teen son gone for college and her marriage in shambles, she jumps at the opportunity for some fun while settling the family estate. She comes to learn the grandfather she never really knew was more than just a vineyard owner and must find her own bravado to inherit her role as the new family don.
But the shoot was more than just to tell the Mafia Mamma story. While on set, Hardwicke learned astounding real-life stories too.
“The guy that owned the winery, his family had been making wine for like 300 years,” Hardwicke shared about one of the vineyard locations. “They found an elephant tusk that was 18,000 years old when they were excavating and making them wider. And then the Nazis stole it when they occupied Italy. They stole the elephant tusk. So everything had like 10 stories. And the cow on that winery property [back then,] they wanted to save it from the Nazis. So the Pope took it into the Vatican and protected the cow and that cow gave the Pope milk. So they have the head of the cow on the wall. And you're just like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Super fun. Everywhere I went, people were telling me all their interesting stories.”
Read more from Hardwicke about working with Collette, finding the funny in all the action and more.
Let’s talk about Toni Collette. You’ve worked together before, but Miss You Already is a pretty different project from Mafia Mamma. Why did she make for the perfect Kristin?
[Toni] can play any character. Even in Miss You Already, she's lively and fun, but we've seen her a lot lately in a lot of serious roles, like The Staircase and all that. And then knowing Toni personally, I just knew she would bring all of that bubbly, enthusiastic, but the motherly [nature]. She’s a mom with two kids and there’s the motherly people pleaser thing, and then to be able to find that strength to finally stand up and say, “No, that's an order” and actually kick butt, but with humanity and still with her heart. I've just seen Toni to be able to have every layer.
Alongside Collette’s Kristen, you have Bianca, played by Monica Bellucci. Why was Monica your perfect Bianca?
I had met Monica once, I believe in New York, for another project. And she's very alluring. She's very magnetic. And so when she talks, you just lean in because she whispers and she basically hypnotizes you. And she has these beautiful phrases and turns of phrase, so I'm thinking having this extremely elegant consigliere would be quite amazing. And she's teaching, she's shaping, she's My Fair Lady-turning Toni into a more polished and elegant Italian version. So who could be better really than Monica?
This movie has lots of mob action, but is also very funny. How do you direct a film to capture humor amidst all that violence?
I immediately just loved that challenge. And Toni is such a good partner because as you can see, Toni's face is extremely expressive. I think she has maybe twice as many muscles as most people or something and you could just see all these different emotions trickling over her face, so she makes it fun. I've frozen different frames in a sequence and I'm just laughing out loud just looking at her, even though the stakes are very high.
What do you hope audiences take away from watching Mafia Mamma?
I think it's a great story to imagine that whatever your life circumstances are now, you could change them and take control of your life and just be more yourself and find yourself in another way and take that leap. And you never know when taking a risk that something amazing will probably happen from it one way or the other.
What else is important to know about Mafia Mamma?
We love our cast, like Sophia Nomvete, Jenny the lawyer. You might have seen her in the new Lord of the Rings. She's the elf queen in there. She's just a dynamic force. And then all the rest of the cast are all Italians. We found the two bodyguards on Zoom. And they did their chemistry read on Zoom and now they're literally best friends. They’re almost inseparable, they're always going everywhere together. They really had a lot of heart, I thought, in the movie. And then Eduardo Scarpetta, who plays cousin Fabrizio. He's outrageous. He just won a David de Donatello Daveed award, the top acting award in Italy. He's really a rising star too. You can see him in My Brilliant Friend. So it was fun to find all these very interesting Italian actors and then let them play with the dialogue. They helped us a lot, and so that was a real treat for me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Courtesy of Bleecker Street