She went to law school, became a model, and then went on to star in everything from indie flicks to blockbusters. Now, the multilingual Italian actor is overcoming a lifelong fear of performing on stage to play an opera diva. Callas, Maria
For nearly four decades, Monica Bellucci has been questioned about her looks. Many male journalists have become overheated as a result of the Italian-born actor, who began her career as a model and boasts the somewhat ambiguous distinction of being the oldest Bond girl. In a 2004 interview, she was described as “a distillation of every Italian perfection,” with one interviewer praising the way she “brushes the cappuccino froth from her lips with the long, unpainted nails of her exquisite fingers.”
Bellucci, who sits next from me in a quiet corner of a Paris hotel bar, looks to sip her coffee like a regular person (and gently worries when I don’t). She pauses before adding, “It’s funny.” when I ask her about these breathless reports. It’s merely a fictitious story that continues repeating itself because no one believes it. I don’t think so. “Neither does the other guy.” Is it possible that she doesn’t even read them? “No. “It can be quite boring,” she grumbles.
Bellucci, whose filmography includes Italian and French arthouse films as well as blockbusters like The Matrix sequels and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, isn’t here to discuss a movie. Instead, she recently added a new string to her bow, debuting on stage in Tom Volf’s Maria Callas: Letters and Memoirs. It toured Italy, Greece, and Turkey after its premiere in Paris. Bellucci was scheduled to perform it in December at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, but Omicron intervened. It has now been postponed until April.
The performance is based on Volf’s book of the same name, published in 2019, which included 350 of Callas’ letters as well as her unfinished memoirs. Bellucci endured a lifetime of stage fear in order to perform the great soprano’s works. She has turned down countless opportunities to appear in plays throughout the years. She says, “I wouldn’t have dreamed of it.” When I ask how she felt in the months leading up to the 2020 premiere, she laughs staccato. “Bad. You’ve got all those people in front of you, and you’ve got to deal with all these energies — I’m still afraid.”
Volf was introduced to Bellucci by a friend and visited her at home in Paris to persuade her to take the part, as he says over the phone. Since 2013, he has made a living as a Callas aficionado as a photographer and filmmaker. He directed the 2017 documentary Maria by Callas, which told the opera star’s story in her own words, in addition to three books about her. “Are you familiar with the phenomenon of love at first sight?” Hearing Bellucci read Callas’ letters for the first time, Volf says. “It was as though she sensed her feeling and state of mind right away.” I could see some of Callas through a glass that allowed daylight shine on Monica’s face.”
Maria Callas: Letters and Memoirs delves into the passionate opera singer’s career as well as her turbulent personal life, which includes her long love affair with shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis (who ostensibly left her to marry Jackie Kennedy). Her lonely final years are also explored in the show: “You get the impression that at the end of the day, all she has is the music,” Bellucci says. “Everything else has vanished.”
Callas’ outfit, a 1960s black Yves Saint Laurent garment acquired from a Milan collection, was ultimately the key to Bellucci overcoming her stage fright. Was it necessary to make any changes? Bellucci’s voice falls to a whisper as she responds, “No, it was wonderful.” She’s thinking of having a replica created to avoid ruining it, but she’s been putting off the thought for a long time since “I was frightened to perform without that outfit.”
Bellucci presents the presentation in French, Italian, or English, depending on the venue, a feat she shrugs off, noting that Callas knew all three languages and “had an accent wherever she was speaking.” Bellucci frequently dubs her own scenes in English-language films so that Italian and French audiences can hear her voice. “If you’re into something, it just comes naturally when you want to express yourself.”
Bellucci isn’t the only adopted Italian in the spotlight right now. For Antongiulio Panizzi’s The Girl in the Fountain, which premiered at the Torino Film Festival in the autumn, she wore a blond wig. The title alludes to the iconic moment in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita with Anita Ekberg. Bellucci plays a character who is entrusted with portraying Ekberg, who was born in Sweden. Bellucci says of Ekberg’s post-Dolce Vita life, “She stayed in Rome but she should have fled.” “Everything appeared to be so lovely and magical, but living in Rome ruined her.” Ekberg met “the wrong man,” she continues, likely referring to actor Anthony Steel, whom Ekberg married and later regarded as a tyrant.
“It’s interesting, there’s a picture of Callas at the premiere of La Dolce Vita,” Bellucci says. She believes Ekberg and Callas have a lot in common. “They’re both women who attempted to be free at a period when it was really difficult to do so.” They were self-sufficient in their work, but remained prisoners in their hearts.”
Bellucci, who was born in Umbria and briefly studied law, rarely speaks publicly about her own famous marriage, which lasted from 1999 to 2013, with French actor Vincent Cassel. They met while filming The Apartment in France, and went on to collaborate on other films, including Gaspar Noé’s ultra-violent Irréversible.
I wonder if she understands Callas’ ability to live life “with powerful emotions” when she cites her idol. She laughs and says, “Not like that.” “I’ve slowed down because I have two children!” Despite the fact that her role as Persephone in the Matrix sequels (including a sensual kiss with Keanu Reeves) helped to build her Hollywood image in the early 2000s, Bellucci says she is glad she stayed in Europe. “In America, the concept of VIP is different. Actors live more routinely in Europe, including London. I drive my children to school. I go to the grocery to get some groceries.”
When her parents were ill with Covid in 2020, the pandemic caused some family concerns. Bellucci was away from Italy at the time, residing in Biarritz with her girls to be close to Cassel, who spends part of the year there. Deva, her older daughter, who had recently begun a modeling career, was hit the worst by the pandemic. “When you’re very young and want to visit your buddies,” Bellucci recalls, “it’s more complicated.”
Deva was first recognized when she was 14 years old and attending a photo shoot with her mother. “When they saw her, they said, ‘Oh my God, we want to do something with her.’ We waited a while since she was too young.” They didn’t have to wait long: Deva was named the face of a Dolce & Gabbana perfume the following year, and she has since graced catwalks and magazine covers. Her love life has already sparked a lot of interest in the French press.
“She has one foot in school and normal life,” Bellucci explains, and the other in “adulthood.” She understands what it’s like to work.” Deva has 600,000 Instagram followers who watch her every move, and Bellucci believes that social media has aided her daughter’s generation in bypassing gatekeepers. “She claims it’s easier for them than it was for us because when you have talent, you can demonstrate it immediately away,” she explains. Being the daughter of two well-known actors may also assist in bringing your ability to the fore.
Bellucci is protective, however, and was relieved to see that the industry had become less catty since her days as a full-time model. “Unlike in the past, young people nowadays are less competitive and more responsible,” she says. “Categories were also more restricted: modeling and acting were incompatible. That’s no longer the case.”
Bellucci applauds models like Emily Ratajkowski, who are now openly discussing their experiences of being objectified as young women. Bellucci considers herself fortunate. “I started when I was very little, but I was also attending school.” Then, when I decided to pursue a career in film, I was already 25 and self-sufficient. I was already protected when I entered the world of film.”
She recalls playing the target of everyone’s passion in a little Sicilian hamlet in a Harvey Weinstein-produced film called Malèna, released in 2000. She solely dealt with the film’s Italian director, Giuseppe Tornatore. “Tornatore was the one who chose me.” Miramax, I believe, was looking for another actress who was more well-known than me.” Bellucci, as always, had the final laugh, delivering one of her many praised performances. “We live in an image-driven world,” she explains, “yet the work isn’t about beauty.” You can’t work for more than five minutes if it’s just about aesthetics.”