Let’s begin with Green Book. It was one of the favorite films of 2018. Was it easy for you to play the character Tony Lip? He was a unique character, and you got lost in him.
I was nervous at first. I was nervous because I am not an Italian or an Italian-American, and I didn’t want to do a caricature or disrespect people who were that. I am also aware, as an actor, that there are some really good Italian-American actors and characters on television and in the movies in recent years. I was nervous about that. But there was no question the first time I read the script. I was just blown away.
What is really fascinating in this story is that it’s about two people who may have never met in life, who may seem like polar opposites, yet we are given the chance to see them for who they really are. It’s a nice message to give the world today.
I have been fortunate to have had a few good movies with good scripts. But I don’t think I ever read an original screenplay that was that solid, that was that strong, that was that entertaining, well-structured, and whose dialogue was so sparkling. It was also a profound story and made me think seriously about history and about where we are at now. One of its strengths is that it doesn’t tell you that you have to feel or think a certain way. It’s just a great story about two people that existed. You walk out of the theater, I have heard this from many people, feeling differently than when you walked in -feeling a lot more positive, with a little hope for the possibility that individuals can make changes in society. It starts from just each encounter, how you behave with people and you don’t have to be afraid to just look at someone and say hello just because you have a feeling that they are different, and you may not like them. It’s that kind of story. And that doesn’t come along often, and, in our times, I think it’s valuable on that level too.
Have you ever met somebody who has changed your perspective on life?
I have met lots of people who have changed my perspective and not just authority figures -whether it’s directors, movies, or politicians I have heard speak, but also people on the street. Cab drivers or people I have stood in line with and in the supermarket or at the post office. There are conversations you can have where you go, “Oh really? I never knew that.” And all of a sudden, you learn something that you didn’t know. That can happen every day if you want on some level.
Have you ever been treated to nice presents in life? It doesn’t have to be material things.
Good friends, companionship. That is important. I enjoy that as much as anything. It’s nice to get a good book or something. But, there was a night in terms of the presentation so far of Green Book when we showed it at an African-American Studies class with Professor Skip Gates, a very important, very intelligent person, very respected authority in the area. He had seen the movie and it could have gone either way, he might not have liked it and he might have felt, “Well this is not accurate in my opinion,” or it’s not enough, or something. He was so in love with the movie that he asked us to bring it and show it in Boston to his class at the university. And the president of Harvard University came in and Skip Gates moderated the Q&A. It was a fantastic conversation, a kind of wide-ranging Q&A session with students from the area. It was a mixed crowd and it was really encouraging in terms of what we have accomplished and how accurate we have been with our story. That was a big deal and that, to me, was one of the most important screenings and Q&As and interactions with a crowd.
Green Book teaches us about overcoming prejudice. The '60s were divisive times, and the problem may not have been completely solved but we’ve come a long way. Can you talk about the artistic community at this divisive time and what it feels it wants to put out into the world in order to speak to its fellow citizens?
I don’t know, I wouldn’t presume to know what other people want to do. I think good stories are always important. The idea of discrimination and prejudice is a tricky thing and it has a life of its own. It’s smart and it’s intelligent and it changes. Stories like this, that are getting past the limitations of first impressions, understanding others, and being interested in others who are different than ourselves, are always going to be timely. To say it’s unfortunate that things haven’t changed as much as we hoped, that’s unfortunate, but it’s human nature. That’s like saying death is bad. Well, death is for all of us sooner or later, so rather than pretending it’s not happening or just think of it as this black, dark thing, we should accept that it’s a part of life. The answer for me is to make the most of life because that is coming. And human nature is such that each generation needs to learn some of the lessons in this story. Each generation has to go through that process of learning and unlearning, that’s part of being a human being. The moment where you stop being open minded, you calcify.
I always see you as a healthy man, drinking your tea or water. So it’s an absolute surprise to see you eat all this food in the film. How much weight did you gain for this film and did you actually enjoy eating all this food?
At first, I really enjoyed it. It was great, it was fun. On the set as well, the food that we had to eat in the scenes was really good. After a while, I got tired of it because I realized I had to keep eating that amount just to maintain the weight. We started the shoot and sometimes I would come back after a weekend and I had just sort of gone back to eating normal for two days and Monday morning the costume people would say, “Your pants are a little loose, you need to pick up the pace and have a couple of more doughnuts or whatever, have an extra pizza this time.” So, my technique, which is a horrible thing to do health-wise, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, was to have a big meal just before going to bed, you are not supposed to do that. But that was the only way I could keep it to that level. It depended on the day, it was like 40, 45 pounds. But that was just one part. I wasn’t just eating, but also lifting weights and being a certain type of bulky body as much as I could be because it was right for the character.
It seems it was easy to gain weight. Was it also easy to lose it?
No. That was a lot harder and a lot less fun, actually. Not much fun at all because I had got accustomed to not just eating a lot but eating things that tasted good. For the longest time, nothing happened, and I was like, “Oh my God, am I stuck?” In fact, our director Peter Farrelly wrote me an email saying, “You must have lost all the weight by now,” and I said, “No.” And he said, “How much did you lose?” and I said, “Four pounds maybe.”