Claudia Cardinale Talks Fellini, Visconti and Klaus Kinski (Q&A)

Courtesy of MPRM
Claudia Cardinale in 'Effie Gray'

The Italian screen siren comments on Visconti, '8 1/2' and saying no to Brando.

It seems like Claudia Cardinale, star of such classics as , Once Upon a Time in The West and Fitzcarraldo, was destined for stardom.

It all began at a beauty contest. This one happened to be a quest for the title of most beautiful Italian woman in Tunisia, her birthplace. While it’s not unusual for an actor or a model to get discovered at a beauty contest, it’s customary to at least enter one before winning. “I didn’t present myself,” Cardinale tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There were all the girls on the stage and someone arrived and he took me and he put me there and he said you are the most beautiful.”

First prize was a trip to the Venice Film Festival where she was 16 when she arrived, with her mother as chaperone, and was immediately inundated with film offers. “The funny thing is I was in a bikini on the beach and in Italy the bikinis hadn’t arrived,” she smiles. “The photographers were stopping me and asking me to do cinema but I refused, no, no, no! And when I arrived on the plane on the newspaper it was written ‘The Girl Who Refused To Do Cinema!”

One hundred and forty movies later the 76-year-old ‘girl who refused to do cinema’ can be seen in Effie Gray starring Dakota Fanning and Emma Thompson. The new movie focuses on the wife of 19th century art historian John Ruskin who tries to get an annulment from their loveless marriage. Cardinale appears in the Venice sequence, chaperoning Effie on outings with a young artist.

Here Cardinale recalls some of her career high points, comparing Fellini with Visconti, surviving Fitzcarraldo and getting hit on by Marlon Brando.

You’ve said the set of was chaotic. How do you work under such conditions?

It was incredible because I did The Leopard with Visconti at the same time. He was like doing theater, very serious, and the other one with Fellini, no script, just improvisation all the time. All the other actors, they just have to count, one, two, three, four, five, it was just numbers. And then in dubbing, he would put in what he wanted, Federico.

It wasn’t your first time working with co-star Marcello Mastroianni.

Three times, the first one, (Mario) Monicelli’s (Big Deal on Madonna Street), it was incredible. And at that time, I didn’t speak Italian because my first language is French. When we were shooting (on ), Federico was talking to me, I would answer, and after, Marcello would repeat what Federico asked me. Marcello used to say, "I’m just clowning around and they pay me!"

On The Leopard you worked with an icon like Burt Lancaster at the peak of his career.

At the beginning they said Burt is a cowboy, he can’t do a Prince. And in the film he is fantastic. At that time it wasn’t direct (synch) sound and I was speaking English with Burt, Italian with the other, French with another. And Visconti, you could speak with him of everything. He knew every song, music, theater, I had a marvelous relationship with him because we’d been everywhere, in London to see the last show of Marlene Dietrich. We did a lot together.

And you’ve called Fitzcarraldo the best time you ever had on a film set.

Fitzcarraldo is the best adventure of my life. In the beginning, Klaus (Kinski) was a bit difficult and then he changed. All the Indians, I had to dance for them all naked. During the scene, all the Indians said to Werner (Herzog), "We’ll kill him (Kinski)." And he said, "No, we’re doing a movie. Don’t kill him!"

You were on the movie before Herzog changed out the cast?

The problem is we started with Mick Jagger and Jason (Robards) and suddenly Jason, because we had nothing to eat, he went on top of a tree and he wanted a New York steak and then he got dysentery and we have to interrupt that movie. And then we start with Klaus Kinski.

You never worked with Brando but I understand he made a pass at you.  

Yes, I met him in Hollywood. I said that for me he was the most beautiful actor and the most brilliant. He tried, but I didn’t accept.