Italy's Box-Office Champ Checco Zalone on His Rapid Rise to Fame (Q&A)

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Checco Zalone

The 36-year-old comic is little known outside Italy, but soon he will be the star of the two highest-grossing Italian films in history.

ROME – Checco Zalone is little known beyond Italy's borders. But here he's the hottest ticket in cinema.

Zalone has made only three feature films, but his latest, Sun in Buckets (Sole a catinelle), set an all-time record for the biggest opening weekend in Italian cinema history -- whether for a domestic film or a foreign production -- earlier this month. It raked in more than $25 million in four days. Now, just two weeks into its release, it's climbed to fourth on the all-time list for Italian box-office receipts with an estimated $52 million in ticket sales. It's an unprecedented result for a well-made but ultimately silly film about a penniless father (Zalone) who tries to organize a dream vacation for his son (Robert Dancs) without spending much money.

STORY: Italian Comedy 'Sun in Buckets' Sets New Opening Weekend Sales Record

Italy's beleaguered box office hasn't seen anything like this in almost three years -- since Zalone's previous film, What a Beautiful Day (Che bella giornata), unseated Roberto Benigni's three-time Oscar winner Life Is Beautiful (La vita e' bella) to become the country's all-time domestic box-office champ. If interest remains high, it's likely that Sun in Buckets will beat the old record over the next two weeks.

That means that in the country that produced iconic cinema maestros like Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti, the resident of the top two spots on Italy's all-time box-office list will be a fast-talking, balding and energetic musician and comic from Apulia (the heel of Italy's boot-shaped peninsula) who didn't even make his first film until he was 32.

Zalone, now 36, is naturally funny in a "class clown" kind of way. He enjoyed good but not extraordinary reviews on television. But there was nothing in his background to predict this kind of success.

Zalone spoke with The Hollywood Reporter, in Italian, on the sidelines of the Rome Film Festival from the offices of Taodue, the production company he helped put on the map. In the meandering conversation that followed, he touched on his dramatic rise to fame, how the opinion of a 15-year-old boy helped change his life and why he might have some of Italy's cinema greats turning over in their graves.

Yours is an amazing story. How did it start? 

Back in the early 2000s, I was on a television program called Zelig, which helped promote comics, and one day I get a call from some guy who says, "Ciao, I'm Valsecchi," and I was thinking, "Who is Valsecchi?" I really didn't know who he was. He was well known in Italian cinema, but I didn't know him. He told me to come meet him, that he wanted to talk to me. When I realized who he was, I convinced my friend, director and screenwriter Gennaro Nunziante [who has directed all three of Zalone's films] to come with me, and we all met together and drank some great wine and eventually  we sketched out an idea for what became my first film, Fall From the Clouds (Cado dalle nubi)

Pietro Valsecchi [the producer happened to pass by at that moment]: It was my son who told me to call him. My 15-year-old son, Filippo, showed me a video on YouTube and said, "Dad, if you make a film with this guy, you'll make barrels full of money." And he was right!

Yes, that's really what happened. My life was changed because a 15-year-old saw a video on YouTube. What a world.

What are some of the ways your life has changed the most after these successful films?

I never had a dream of becoming an actor. I like music. I like making people laugh. I was happy with what I was doing before. I'm happy now as well. But I could have never imagined this. Now everyone wants to take my photo! Every cellular telephone has a camera in it and I can't do anything without my picture being taken. I'm pleased people like my work, and the first few times that kind of thing happened, it was flattering. But sometimes it's difficult. If I could, I'd ban those kinds of telephones! That said, I know that one day people won't care any more, and when that happens I'll be sad.

Do you think of yourself more as an actor? A comic? A musician?

That's a good question. I don't know. Maybe I'm just now starting to believe I'm an actor. I mean, here I am, talking to The Hollywood Reporter, right? 

You quickly reached the pinnacle, at least in box-office terms. Do you have a next step in mind?

I'd like to make a film that would be successful abroad. What Italian comedy has had success outside of Italy? There's Roberto Benigni and that's it. That would be a dream for me. The challenge would be to find a common, universal theme to communicate. Something that would resonate outside of Italy as well as in this country. American films do it all the time -- capture themes that work in and outside their native country. But it's harder to do that for an Italian film.

Are you friends with Benigni?

No, not really. We met once and shook hands. I'm naturally shy, so I don't go to a lot of events. And I live down in Bari and he's up here in Rome. I can't say we're friends, but I have a great deal of respect for what he's done. 

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Would you act in English? On a scale of 1 to 10, how well would you say you speak English? 

Maybe 5. No, less. Say 4.5. It should be better. Something I'd like to do is spend some time abroad, in England or the United States, to improve my English. My fiancee, Mariangela Eboli, lived for five years in the United States working as a volunteer in evangelical churches. Her English is very strong. If I could speak as well as she does, I'd be working on an English-language film now. 

What is the secret of your success? Dozens of Italian comedies are released every year, but they usually play in the cinemas for a couple of weeks and then disappear. But yours take off. What's the difference?

I think it's around 20 percent luck, 40, no, let's say 45 percent, talent. Think of the luck involved. If I hadn't been home that day Pietro called and my aunt would have given me a message saying, "Valsecchi called," and I would have said, "Who the hell is that?" and thrown it in the trash. So it was lucky I was home.

Valsecchi [passing through again]: I would have called back until I reached you.

And the rest? You only accounted for 65 percent.

The last 35 percent is doing things the right way. Respecting the public. I'll explain: Many times, as soon as someone becomes famous it's as if they're afraid it won't last. You see them everywhere: in television commercials, in the gossip pages, magazine covers. It's too much. When I finished the last film [What a Beautiful Day] I disappeared afterward. I stayed out of the spotlight and then eventually started work on the new film.

Also, when you make a film, you have to tap into the right themes, into ideas that mean something to people. My films are most popular with young people, but I've also heard stories from friends who said they took their grandparents to the cinema to see it. People in their 80s who have not seen a movie in 30 or 40 years and they enjoyed it. That is rewarding. My comedy is also just comedy. There's no moral message behind them ... those kinds of films can quickly become dated. Because of that, my films can be lighter. And I think my films are well grounded in reality. Filmgoers see the country they know on the screen.

Would you be interested in making a completely different kind of film? Would you ever be attracted to a dramatic role?

No, no. I'm a comedian. That's what I do. I don't have any pretensions about being able to pull off a dramatic role. I couldn't do it.

Do you have your next film project planned?

Not really. I have a young daughter, Gaia. She's nine months old, and I hardly saw her for five or six months. So I want us to spend time together.

The top box-office attraction in Italian history isn't a great actor like Marcello Mastroianni or Vittorio Gassman, or a great director like Fellini or Rossellini -- it's you. How does that feel?

All I can say is it's fortunate they're all dead. Otherwise they'd be furious.

Twitter: @EricJLyman