Claudia Cardinale

The Italian new wave bombshell on how to live 138 lives in one

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

“They don’t make bodies like yours any more,” laments Jean Rochefort to Claudia Cardinale in their new film, Fernando Trueba’s The Artist and the Model. In the 60s, Cardinale was the paradigm of a Mediterranean bombshell, all heavy black eyeliner, big hair and rollercoaster curves. She arrived in Venice from Tunisia in 1957, just in time to become the luminous face of the Italian new wave. Launched as Italy’s answer to Brigitte Bardot (“After ‘BB’ comes ‘CC’, no?” quipped Bardot), she found her feet in 1963, when she starred in two classics of the era: Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Luchino Visconti’s sweeping Sicilian epic The Leopard. Soon Cardinale was sufficiently famous to be invited for an audience with the Pope, for which she chose to wear the tiniest of miniskirts – weeks later the Vatican banned the garment from St Peter’s. The now 75-year-old has worked almost every year since her discovery, travelling the world making films with everyone from Sergio Leone to Werner Herzog

Dazed Digital: You grew up in a Sicilian family in Tunisia. How did you break into the movie business?

Claudia Cardinale: Well, it was an accident. I was in the crowd at the Most Beautiful Italian Girl in Tunisia contest, watching all the girls onstage. Suddenly a man took me up there and put the ribbon on me! The prize was a trip to the Venice Film Festival. At the time the bikini was not common in Italy, and I arrived in a bikini with a djellaba robe on top. All the paparazzi were photographing me. I was with my mother, very young – we couldn’t understand what was happening! It was all because I had a bikini on. Then they asked me to do cinema and I said no. When I got on the plane home, there was a picture of me in the newspaper, and the headline was ‘The Girl Who Refuses Cinema’. 

DD: But you changed your mind?

Claudia Cardinale: They started sending all these telegrams to my father with offers. It’s like if a man chases you and you say yes immediately, he’s not interested. But if you say no, he’s always following you. Cinema was like that for me. Finally I said yes. 

DD: It was great timing – you arrived in Italy at a magical moment in cinema. 

Claudia Cardinale: Yes. I didn’t speak a word of Italian. In my first movies everyone was shouting and I couldn’t understand anything. Then I had a small part in a Visconti film, in a very violent fight scene. Visconti took a megaphone and said, ‘Don’t kill my la Cardinale!’ I realised, my God, he’s noticed me! Then he cast me in The Leopard with Burt Lancaster. With Visconti it was like theatre, every movement had to be perfect. But that dress, my God! Everything was antique. When I finished the movie, I had blood all round my waist. Visconti said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

It’s like if a man chases you and you say yes immediately, he’s not interested. But if you say no, he’s always following you. Cinema was like that for me

DD: Do you watch your old films now?

Claudia Cardinale: I’m not nostalgic. I was with Alain Delon at Cannes recently, watching Martin Scorsese’s (restoration of) The Leopard, and Alain began crying. He said, ‘Claudia, we’re the only ones alive, they’re all dead.’ And then he said, ‘Claudia, I didn’t remember how much we kissed in this movie. We kissed a lot.’ When we had to kiss, do you know what Visconti was telling me? ‘Claudia, I want to see your tongue.’ 

DD: Wasn’t there some rivalry between Visconti and Fellini over you?

Claudia Cardinale: They were complete opposites. With Fellini it was no script, everything improvised, chaos, anarchy. I was making The Leopard in Sicily and 8 1/2 in Rome, commuting between the sets of these two great films. Fellini wanted my hair blond, Visconti wanted my hair dark – I was dying my hair every week!

DD: Fellini let you use your own voice for the first time, right? Before him, directors dubbed you...

Claudia Cardinale: Yes. I have this strange voice because when I was young, I didn’t speak. I was always fighting with boys – I wanted to prove that women were stronger. I was terrible, a real tomboy. But I never spoke. When I started doing movies, the doctor said, ‘You have this voice because you never used it when you were young.’ It’s funny, when I was called at home, boys would say, ‘Hi mister, can I speak to Claudia?’ They’d think I was a man! 

DD: Did those fights with boys help you stand up for yourself in such a male-dominated industry?

Claudia Cardinale: I wasn’t intimidated! To do this kind of work you have to be tough. You live many lives. If you’re not strong, you lose your personality. In fact, I think it’s important to be someone very different in front of the camera. 
To separate yourself. Now, lots of girls come but they disappear. At first I was under strict contract: I couldn’t cut my hair; I was paid by month, not by film. When the contract finally ended, I decided to be independent for good.

DD: There are lots of photos of you and Rock Hudson in the 60s. Was he a good friend?

Claudia Cardinale: A very good friend. At that time if you were homosexual in America it was box-office poison. So Rock and me, we’d make believe that we were together. He was always in my house, we’d eat together, go out walking. Because you couldn’t say that publicly in America then, it was really terrible. 

DD: Who else did you meet in Hollywood?

Claudia Cardinale: I stayed in Paul Newman’s house when I was there. Steve McQueen would always come see me in Rome. He came to test out the Ferraris, and he’d drive like a crazy man!

DD: But you didn’t take to Hollywood?

Claudia Cardinale: The problem was, I like to be independent and I’d walk in the street in Los Angeles and the police would say, you can’t walk, get in a car. They wanted to give me bodyguards. So when they asked me to sign a contract in America I refused, I decided to live in Europe. Can you imagine, everybody with a bodyguard – how ridiculous!

DD: There’s A great clip online of you and Brigitte Bardot practicing your fight scenes in Les Petroleuses

Claudia Cardinale: She’s a good friend! Everyone wanted us to be rivals. They were disappointed we didn’t kill each other. But I’m a bit crazy, I loved to do my own stunts. One of the first movies I did with John Wayne and Rita Hayworth, I was horseriding in the mountains with bombs exploding around me and the producer said, ‘Claudia, it’s impossible, we’ll use a stuntman!’ But I insisted. John Wayne was fantastic. So tall. When I would walk with him, his hand was triple the size of mine. 

DD: You worked on another great western, Once Upon a Time in the West...

With Sergio Leone, and Ennio Morricone’s music! Before we started a scene, Sergio would blast the music – he was the only director who did that. On set, Charlie Bronson never talked to anybody. And Henry Fonda, we started shooting that love scene in the hammock and he told me he’d never done a love scene before. 

DD: How did it go?

Claudia Cardinale: Well, it was difficult. His wife was sitting next to the camera, staring at me the whole time.

DD: What’s the greatest adventure you’ve had making a film?

Claudia Cardinale: I remember shooting with Sean Connery in Russia and it was so cold we actually went for a walk on the sea. The sea had turned to ice, it was 40 degrees below! But the greatest adventure was with Werner Herzog, making Fitzcarraldo in Peru. I don’t know how I survived! We were in the middle of the jungle. Wild animals. You didn’t know what to eat. All the Indians were naked. My costume was this white dress, and they thought I was a goddess, so I had to be on set all the time otherwise the Indians would leave. When we finished, they came to the airport and brought me gifts. I was crying so much! I love Werner Herzog, but for some of the crew, the experience was so powerful they actually went insane. 

DD: What keeps you so passionate about working now?

Claudia Cardinale: I love to work with young directors on their first movies, to help them. I’m doing a movie in Sicily next about a young transsexual. 

DD: So If you hadn’t won that beauty contest, what do you think you’d be doing now?

Claudia Cardinale: My dream as a child was to be an explorer and travel the world. But you know, usually you only live one life. I’ve lived 138 lives for 138 films. I’m 75 years old and I continue to work. I’m always travelling. I’m always shooting. I’m an ambassadress for Unesco, I combat Aids in Avignon, fight for children in Cambodia. I’ve worked everywhere – Australia, Russia, America, Peru. So I guess in the end, my dream turned out okay, no?

The Artist and the Model is out on September 13

Image courtesy of Alamy

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