“I could have made her larger than life and lovable and fabulous and beautiful, and you would have clapped at the end because maybe she was stereotypically exactly the happy meal that you wanted for your fast food that day.”
Actors love “House of Gucci.” That was clear at a recent Academy Museum screening packed with Screen Actors Guild members. As the credits rolled, they cheered lustily for scene-stealers Lady Gaga and Jared Leto. Count on those two Oscar nominations, at least, for the Ridley Scott fashion murder saga, the rare pandemic adult drama to score both decent reviews (Metascore: 59) and box office ($106 million worldwide) for MGM/UA.
Lady Gaga has transferred her canny pop-star aura to movies and delivered on the publicity trail with a non-stop barrage of breathy interviews revealing her degree of commitment to her craft. No one has ever tried harder. She suffered so much “anxiety, fatigue, and trauma,” throwing up before going to the set, enduring hours in hair and makeup, that she needed a psychiatric nurse on call, she said, even if she never saw fit to meet her real-life subject, Gucci family murderer Patrizia Reggiani, who served 18 years for ordering a hit on her ex-husband Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver). Having mastered what she considers to be an impeccable Italian accent — which she never broke out of for nine months — Lady Gaga brilliantly ad-libbed on Scott’s free-wheeling set, including the meme-worthy “Father, Son, and House of Gucci.”
While the Gucci family decries the film for degrading their legacy (it’s based on Sara Gay Forden’s 2001 book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed”), Lady Gaga insists that her character is based on thorough research. After we spoke over Zoom about her road to an inevitable second acting Oscar nod (after winning Best Song for “Shallow” for “A Star is Born”), Lady Gaga has nabbed the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Actress, as well as nominations from both the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Association. During our interview, Gaga wore no makeup and a pink sweatshirt, sitting in a walk-in white closet with wig stands on the shelves.
IndieWire: “A Star is Born” and “House of Gucci” called on different parts of you as an actress. Which role was easier for you?
Lady Gaga: With “A Star is Born,” because I’ve been a musician my whole life and have had a career in music, the amazing actor and director Bradley Cooper empowered me to take the helm of that soundtrack and to create music for my character and work with him on the creation of two musicians that were going to fall in love. For me, this was a story that was close to home. And also, it was unlike the way I started my career, at the inflection point of when I started to take off, meaning Allie reminded me more of who I was before I became Lady Gaga. And that in a lot of ways was incredibly painful. And I can’t even watch that movie without crying.
You were asked to be natural and to dress down, not dress up, which is part of your arsenal.
Listen, I have lots of faculties that I’m grateful for. And one thing has always been the ability to transform. And in a way Allie Main was a transformation, and I was taking things off. And I had to become comfortable with that. It freed me as an actor, because I don’t watch my dailies, and I don’t watch my takes. I work based on an intense study of the script as well as specific behaviors and actions that are essential to the scene, while also throwing all the work out the window and being in the circumstances with my fellow actors and just speaking. So that’s Allie.
Patrizia Reggiani is an entirely different beast, because this is a real human being that’s still on the planet. And I read everything about her. I watched everything that I could possibly find about her. And then I dug through the script to study that religiously to figure out at what point was I able to find evidence of Patrizia in the world. The script actually starts a little earlier than when you can find anything about her. So I had to reverse the car about who she was when she was younger. But I was able to find just enough to find the socialite Patrizia.
©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection
The social climber?
Yeah, she was desperately trying to go to the It parties.
And class up?
What I believe about the real Patrizia is that she was in survival mode for most of her life. And her relationship, even with the Guccis, was her surviving in a man’s world. And she thought to herself, “I would take this on, of course, I would want to be a part of this.” She never had this growing up. This was not a part of her life. And I wish to draw that distinction in the spirit of celebrating women that do all sorts of things to survive in the world. Was it opportunism? Or was it that she was surviving or embracing? Was she becoming a new animal as she was surviving her life?
My favorite part of the movie is the first hour, the romance, when she goes after the young, innocent Maurizio (Adam Driver). Do you believe that she was really in love with him?
I believe that she was in love with him. I believe he was in love with her. I spoke to people that were close to him. I said, “What did you love about her?” I wanted to understand what there was to love about this woman, because if you ask anybody that knew her, nobody has glowing remarks. But they only spoke about her later in her life. That’s when she became more known. And they said, “Maurizio loved Patrizia’s strength.” So I wanted to bake strength into her as a character. So if you notice, even when she’s very young, the second she gets out of that car when she’s at her father’s work, she is a strong Italian woman that’s on a mission to matter, on a mission to do better for her family.
What do you feel about her?
She fell in love with Maurizio. And she said, “Well, your father runs half of Gucci. Certainly, you will inherit this one day, you have to get ready. Embrace your family, your ancestors, everything that came before you. Because not everybody gets this type of privilege in their life.”
She was not born this way, right? When she met Maurizio, she saw all that he had at his disposal. She used her strength. She used her intelligence. And she used her survival techniques to say, “You matter, take control of the company and celebrate yourself and celebrate your family.” I don’t believe that she had this master plan. Because look, when they got married, he had no money and he had no control of the company. And when she had him murdered, they were no longer together. They had had a divorce. So there was never any money at stake for those landmark moments.
Why did you not want to interview Patrizia?
To be vulnerable about it. I noticed something in her interviews. I watched so many about her and I looked at the ones of her now in her life. And she seems to want to control the narrative about who she is. And she seems to also want to be seen as this dangerous boss lady. And to be fair, I tried to hide my hurt and my trauma for most of my career outside of the persona. My name Lady Gaga, the way that I dressed, the way that I made music, the art that I created, so much of it was designed to celebrate my hurt and hide it at the same time. And when I saw her interviews, I thought to myself, “Well, I know somebody like that.”
Which means most of what she was saying was lies. So I had to dig into the dates. What happened in her life, in Maurizio’s life? What was Aldo really like, what was Paolo really like? What was around her, what was happening in the company? How were things being distributed? When did she matter? When was she disposed of? This is how I created the character, because I believe the truth about Patrizia Gucci was going to be what I discovered about her by investigating, not by hearing what she had to say.
MGM / courtesy Everett Collection
You seem to go through a bonding experience with your leading men. What was that like for you and Cooper, and then Driver?
It’s always so important to me that there is a true camaraderie with my fellow actor. Leading actors are designed to support each other in the same ways that supporting actors are designed to support leading actors. So you discover what you love about the person and you get to know them. And Adam is my buddy. We created a love story and I did that with Bradley as well. One of my biggest pet peeves watching any movies that involve romance is when I don’t believe it that they really love each other — a lot of heart is missing. The soul connection, the fire, the primal energy between her and Maurizio: something felt real. And that realness is a part of being Italian.
You spoke Italian as a kid at home?
We spoke a little bit here and there with Grandma and Grandpa. But no, it was not fashionable to teach your kids Italian. Like, my family came over from Italy and they assimilated. So we ate Italian food and didn’t speak Italian. But I had to entirely erase my accent from the way that I speak Italian with my family and I had to start from scratch because she’s Northern Italian. That first hour her voice is higher, she’s younger, and then later in life her voice is lower, she smoked a lot.
When you prepare for a role like this, do you immerse yourself to such a degree that you become the character? Why did you need to go to that level?
I tend to do that with my work. I believe in the artistic immersive experience. I studied at Lee Strasberg when I was young. I wanted to be an actor since I was a young girl. So I went to Circle in the Square, I have studied many different techniques. And one of my favorites is combining all of them together into many different methods that become your own and immersing yourself fully in the character. I didn’t believe that I could speak like her well if I didn’t speak like her all the time, and [goes into accent] have conversations like the one we’re having right now, where the accent is not taking total control of the way that I’m talking to you, it’s just there [ends accent]. But that’s just what I need as an actress. It may not be what everybody needs and what everybody wants.
How did your immersion impact your life?
I spoke like her all the time, but as me, and then slowly, as I put all the things that I needed into the cauldron of magic spells to create Patrizia, and studied more and more, read the script, and worked with Susan Batson, my incredible acting teacher, more and more every day, slowly the accent and the persona came together.
In this movie, you and Jared Leto and the other actors are all doing your own thing, on a different wavelength, comedically and dramatically. How did your director calibrate the different performances? You and Adam Driver are incredible together, but different. He’s giving a more naturalistic performance.
I felt like we were living in the spirit of this family at all times. Especially during a [pandemic] red zone in Italy, it was remarkable to be around everybody who was seemingly always in character. Ridley Scott’s an amazing director in the way that he’s a conductor. And we’re all different instruments in the symphony. What makes this film work so well, is there’s different sections. You have the woodwinds, the horn section, you have the strings. And he’s the conductor making it all sing and making the music.
Was there a runthrough where you’re all together? Or does he believe in having you be on set surprising people for the first time?
We did both. We had some rehearsal. I spent two weeks with Adam and read before we even started.
So Leto didn’t do that part of it?
He came in and out because he worked less days. But we did rehearsals together for scenes. And sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t, [but] we always blocked it out. But Ridley likes to get it fresh. And when he sees that it’s there, he’ll go, “Stop! I want cameras here.” And it’s all geometry, and he moves his hands like this, and he places the cameras and depending on what we’re doing, it’s 20 minutes or it’s two hours and then we get back to set and we go and he decides the momentum. Because he’s conducting us.
Do you give him different colors with every take the way Jack Nicholson does? Because it seems like you prepare something so meticulously with such detail. And then you have to throw it out a bit.
I am never going to compare myself to Jack Nicholson. One of the greatest actors of all time.
Every take is different.
But every take is always different, because there’s always going to be some different way that the energy is flinging between me and the other actors. I call it alchemy. It’s the chemistry, it’s truly listening when you’re working, it’s truly being in the circumstances. It’s not trying to control the scene with a preconceived notion of what it’s supposed to be. So yeah, I do it different every time and love spontaneity. Sometimes you ad lib as well. And you create moments that were not in the script.
I understand some of the great lines in Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegnato’s script came from you: “Father, Son, and House of Gucci?”
That was something that I used to say all the time, just in character as her while I was living in Rome, and then when I was doing the scene with Jared that day, I did it.
MGM / courtesy Everett Collection
So let’s talk about the turn. You’re in love, you’re in a marriage, you’re in sync, you’re driving forward, you and Maurizio. Why does that break occur?
At this point in their marriage, Maurizio became excessive. And he started to spend — a lot of this is from my research — a lot of money. To Patrizia, he was changing, he was less concerned with her and their family and more concerned with now running half of Gucci. [Their house is raided] because of inheritance tax evasion. He leaves out the back and Patrizia is left there to protect the house with her life. And before you know it, he’s partying with a bunch of friends. And he cares not about the fact that the police are running after him. And he has no desire to be held accountable to anyone. He simply falls in love with privilege and wealth to the point that all the things that mattered to him when they were young and in love just don’t matter anymore.
And she’s left out.
Yeah, she’s left. And isn’t that how it goes? This is very relatable to the way that women, we age, right? And then our looks start to go. I say this as a 35-year-old pop star that’s like, I’m essentially a grandma and pop star. Something that I cared about in this script, because of the true story about how she was so close with Maurizio and with the family, and then she was completely shut out. I mean, the woman couldn’t get into a Gucci store, she couldn’t get near anybody! And what happened to her as a result of that. Her daughter said how their mother went crazy. And I believe that to be true.
She might have had some medical, clinical diagnosis?
She did. She actually had a brain tumor. It’s not in the film, but she had a brain tumor and the family turned their back on her and she had the tumor surgically removed. What I’ve read is her children thought that their mother was deeply traumatized by this experience. Even when Maurizio was getting killed at the end of the film, you see her hold herself underwater, and you don’t see her come up. That’s because the minute he died, she did too. If you put a hit out on somebody, when you kill somebody, your life goes with theirs. That’s what I learned playing this role.
Did you feel a conflict between the urge to humanize her and the urge to make her larger than life and hugely entertaining? You actually did both.
I was never excited about making something larger than life that had no soul or heart in it at all. That would have been a real glorification of a woman who was a murderer. Some people might protest and say that by humanizing her, you’re making this okay, but I actually disagree. I could have made her just larger than life and lovable and fabulous and beautiful, and you would have just clapped at the end because maybe she was stereotypically exactly the happy meal that you wanted for your fast food that day. And instead, I said, “What happened to this woman? Something happened to this woman, and I’m going to find out what it was, what happened to her that happens to all women. And I’m going to tie it all together to give the character some heart.” But I do believe that is the true Patrizia’s heart. I did the work and related it always back to the character, the true woman.
Do you care if the audience is rooting for her and cares about her? Whether she’s likable or relatable?
I never care about being likable. But relatable only in that if you’re watching the film, and something happens to her that you feel resonates with you, then that’s what you feel. I’m sure many people will watch this film and none of it will resonate with them. What happens to her for me as an Italian-American woman, and a family that has a family business, I could relate to a lot of what she went through. I used my own trauma [a sexual assault as a teenager that left her pregnant], I put it inside this story because it matched up. It’s going, “Okay, what about Patrizia and I is the same?” and I took all those things and I put them in my witch’s cauldron. And then I said, “What about Patrizia and I is not the same?” And I took that out of my body and I burned it in a fireplace somewhere and I said, “I don’t need you.” And then you drink the pot that has the poison. I just played her as truthfully and as accurately as I felt that I could.