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Original 'Django' Franco Nero on His Iconic Character and the Film's Legacy (Q&A)

Django Unchained's' Jamie Foxx Left Off
Jamie Foxx and Franco Nero in "Django Unchained"

The Italian actor who inspired Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" discusses the role that defined his career and speculates on who would win if the two Djangos fought.

CAPRI, Italy -- Franco Nero had no inkling that when he started filming the original Django movie nearly 50 years ago that he’d be making history. There was no real script, the budget was at first big enough to finance only a single scene. “When we started, I really wasn’t sure if we’d ever even finish the film,” Nero says.

Instead, Nero’s interpretation of a brooding, mostly silent and unflappable cowboy drifter made Sergio Corbucci’s ultra-violent film a spaghetti Western classic that spawned at least 30 sequels -- Nero reprised Django in only one of them, 1987’s Django Strikes Again, directed by Nello Rossati -- and inspired minions of dedicated fans. One of them was director Quentin Tarantino.

In Tarantino’s film, Django Unchained, which opened Christmas Day in the U.S. and Canada and will premiere in Europe on Friday in Rome, Jamie Foxx plays the title role; Nero appears in a cameo.

Nero, 71, has acted in nearly 200 films including the role of Sir Lancelot in Joshua Logan’s Camelot, Horacio in Tristana from Luis Bunuel and Gianni Versace in Menahem Golan’s The Versace Murder. He even provided the voice for Uncle Topolino in Pixar’s Cars 2. But he remains best known as Django.

Nero was at the Capri, Hollywood Film Festival as part of a special tribute to Django, featuring a screening of Corbucci’s 1966 classic, an extended trailer of Django Unchained and the Capri Legends Award, the festival’s top honor. He spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on the sidelines of the festival.

The Hollywood Reporter: After you finished making Django, what was the first sign you had that it was something more extraordinary than you might have guessed?
Franco Nero
: I think it was a few months later, when I was in the U.S. to make Camelot, the Warner Bros film. I had a print of Django with me, and one day I decided to do a screening for the crew and some people there. They all said it was such an original movie, that it was not at all like an American Western. They loved it so much I had to do three more screenings, and I remember actors like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, who were shooting their own films in that area, they all came. And Terence Young, the film director, saw it three times. That’s when it started to strike me that the film was something special.

THR: What do you attribute this to, that almost 50 years later the film is still resonating with people, many of whom weren't alive when it came out?
Nero
: It’s a good question. I have done many, many interviews, especially in the last year, with Quentin’s movie. I almost always get asked that question, and I really don’t know the answer. It’s one of the things that cannot be explained.

THR: Tarantino was only 3 when Django when it first came out, but it obviously made an impression on him.
Nero: That’s right. During the shooting, he wanted everyone to see the original Django film.

THR: At what point did you first hear about Tarantino’s fascination with the film?
Nero
: It’s a long story that goes back almost 15 years. I was doing a movie in Spain, called Talk of Angels, for Miramax [in 1998]. It’s a story set during the Spanish Civil War, in 1934, and the actress Penelope Cruz played my daughter. One day, she had to leave the set to fly to San Sebastian, for the film festival, and when she came back she said, “You know, Franco, I met this young director named Quentin Tarantino, and when I told him I was doing this movie with you, he was crazy about it. He said: ‘Oh! Bring him here, bring him here. I have to meet him!’” That was the first time I heard of Tarantino. After that, I saw interviews with Tarantino where he talked about me.

THR: When did you finally meet? And when the idea of a new film based on Django emerge?
Nero
: Well, several years later he came to Rome for the local premiere of Inglourious Basterds [in 2009], and he said to the production that he wanted to meet me. We had lunch in Rome and he told me all the story, that he first saw Django when he was 14, when he was working in a video store. He knew practically all my work, he recited lines from my movies, and the music from my movies. He knew almost all of them.

THR: So that’s when you first discussed the movie?
Nero
: No, sorry, no. It didn’t come up until [2011] when I was in Berlin for the festival and I saw [producer] Harvey Weinstein and he mentioned it to me. He just said, “Oh, Franco, you’re going to be in Quentin’s new movie.” That was it. I hadn’t heard anything about it. All of a sudden people started saying to me, “Oh, I hear you’re going to be in Tarantino’s movie.” But still nothing official until, finally, around October 2011, a call from Tarantino and he said he was doing the movie, Django Unchained. He told me the idea for the film, and I said I had an idea for the script. Do you want to hear it?

THR: Yes, yes, of course.
Nero
: My idea is that Jamie Foxx [who plays Django], through the movie, had a vision of a horseman dressed in black, coming toward the camera. It haunted him. Until the very end, then there’s the horseman -- that is me -- and the camera pulls back and there’s a young black boy, and a black mother, who looks up and says “That’s your father,” and I would give him some advice, like "Fight for freedom," or something like that. Quentin said he would think about it, but in the end he didn’t go for the idea. He said I should be an Italian character with a cameo role. I was hesitant, but he said, “Trust me!” So I did, we shook hands, and I loved working with him.

THR:  What are the biggest similarities and differences between your version of Django and Foxx’s version?
Nero
: Well, both are men of few words; both are very skilled with the guns. They are men of action. My Django was seeking revenge for his wife, Mercedes, but Jamie Foxx’s version’s wife is still alive, and he succeeds to reunite with her. I betray my partner, but Jamie Foxx is a much better partner to his former slave owner [played by Christoph Waltz].

THR: Could the two Djangos have become friends if had they met?
Nero
: Well, I became friends with Jamie Foxx in real life. But I’m not sure the Djangos would have gotten along. 

THR: In that case, if they were enemies, which Django would win a fight between them? You’re a pretty good shot in the original.
Nero
: [Laughs] Well, I don’t know. In the new movie, this Django knows how to shoot as well. But, well, I think I would have won. The difference is that in the new movie, his partner is the one who teaches him how to shoot. But in the original, I already knew.