Stars, director of nostalgic Italian-American comedy talk about typecasting and 'Two Family House'
Writer-director Raymond de Felitta used his own determined Italian-American uncle as the inspiration for Buddy Visalo, the luckless blue-collar dreamer who takes one last shot at following his heart in the life-affirming, Americana-lite comedy "Two Family House."
"About the first of the movie is a true story about my Uncle Buddy," the filmmaker says, "then it kind of goes off in its own direction."
That direction finds the movie's fictional Buddy (Michael Rispoli) buying a near-condemned fixer-upper house with an apartment upstairs so he can turn the downstairs into friendly neighborhood bar (where, by the way, Buddy intends to be a lounge singer). But the tenant he inherits with the place (Kelly MacDonald) is a new mother whose useless husband has left her to fend for herself. She becomes a complication in Buddy's life -- first by refusing to leave and later by becoming the only person who believes in him -- which, of course, leads to something more.
The film has a very nostalgic Staten Island ambiance to it (the story is set in the 1950s) and undeniably Italian-American characters, played with an authenticity that overcomes cliché by Rispoli ("Summer of Sam") and Katherine Narducci (Charmaine on "The Sopranos"), who finds the humanity within Buddy's harpy of a disapproving wife.
Rispoli, Narducci and de Felitta are all proudly New York Italian-Americans themselves ("My motha was from da Bronx. My fatha was from Brooklyn," Rispoli says, equally proud of his accent). They were in San Francisco recently to talk about "Two Family House." The cultural clichés they see in scripts every day quickly became the topic of conversation when I sat down with them for a short chat.
Q:Michael and Katherine, do either of you have trouble breaking out of the Italian-American stereotypes?
Rispoli: I like that I'm working. Sometimes you have to get stereotyped to get exposure. It gets frustrating sometimes, but the thing is, you get exposure and then you can hope a role comes along where you have an opportunity to show your other colors. When something like this comes along, this film has a lot more colors than I generally get to play, I was really happy for the opportunity.
Narducci: (Stereotypes) can be fun. Like this role was a lot of fun and it was quality. It was beautifully written. So I enjoyed this role. On "The Sopranos," I enjoy my Charmaine Bucco character I play because the writing is fabulous, again, on that show. But, I mean, some of the stuff they come up with! I was just offered a film, a lead, where I open the first page: Gina Machiovato walks into a diner looking for her boyfriend. She spots him and hits him over the head with a loaf of Italian bread! I flung it across the room. Give me a break!
de Felitta: You know Spike Lee just did that movie ("Bamboozled") about minstrel shows? They're still writing that for Italians. You still see "Whassamatta wit youse?" all the time.
Q:Does that make it harder to break into film and television when you're working out of New York?
Rispoli: I wouldn't say it was harder, because it's hard no matter where the hell you are. But I come from the stage, I have a theater company, and that's where I got my agent. They saw me in a play. The first audition I had with an agent was for a film and I got it, so that's the way it happened for me.
Narducci: Last year I went out to L.A. for pilot season. I think there's a lot, a lot, a lot more opportunity as an actor being in L.A. In New York you sort of get thrown the scraps. There's not a lot going on.
Rispoli: But you were out there during pilot season, Katherine. My thing is this: I think seven out of 10 things come to New York. If you cast a film in L.A. ... [Narducci sticks her tongue out at him] ... she thinks I'm being uppity. [Laughs]
Narducci: I definitely feel there's a lot more opportunity in L.A. I feel like I'm a hot commodity when I'm in L.A. A true New Yorker with an accent like mine? I'm a diamond in the rough out there! I was feeling it. In New York, I'm a dime a dozen! [Cackling laughter]
Rispoli: In L.A. they're casting everything -- cable monster shows and sh** -- if you wanna do that, in L.A. you'll have more opportunity!
Narducci: [Shoots Rispoli a dirty look then rolls back in her chair laughing] This is fun!
Q:On the subject of casting -- in a manner of speaking -- tell me about that dilapidated old Staten Island house, which is practically a character itself in the movie. Is that something you messed up yourselves or did you find it that way?
de Felitta: We had to find a house that was not just a wreck, but looked like it was in pain.
de Felitta: We found that house, and it was actually such a wreck that we couldn't shoot in it. So we almost couldn't use it. But then we found another house that had basically the same layout, so we married the exterior of the house in Staten Island with the interior of a house in Jersey City. [Laughs] The house in Staten Island is no longer there. It was demolished after we finished filming! I went back with this TV crew (who) did a piece on us, and they wanted to go to all these locations. It was a vacant lot! I was so embarrassed! I was like, "No, really! It was here!"