The Marvelous Stanley Tucci on His Storied Career and Nicknaming Ving Rhames

The beloved character actor opens up about his directorial effort ‘Final Portrait,’ the state of Hollywood, and much more.

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Everyone loves Stanley Tucci.

Or, at least, everyone who loves movies does, given that the accomplished 57-year-old actor is never less than captivating, be it in demanding dramas, loopy comedies, or larger-than-life enterprises that require him to sport outrageous blue hair and giant chompers (The Hunger Games) or to act opposite three-story-tall alien robots (Transformers: Age of Extinction). He’s the scientist who made a scrawny Brooklyn kid a superhero in Captain America: The First Avenger, the art director who told Anne Hathaway to stop whining in The Devil Wears Prada, and the serial killer who took the life of a young Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely Bones—a monstrous performance that earned him a 2009 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

While those high-profile roles have made Tucci one of Hollywood’s favorite character actors, there’s far more to the artist’s career than just blockbusters. His 1996 directorial debut Big Night (co-helmed with Campbell Scott), in which he and frequent collaborator Tony Shalhoub co-star as 1950s New Jersey brothers trying to keep their Italian restaurant afloat, is one of that decade’s unsung greats. And he recently returned to similar chamber-piece terrain with Final Portrait. A small-scale story about the protracted efforts of illustrious painter/sculptor Alberto Giacommetti (Geoffrey Rush) to complete a portrait of American author James Lord (Armie Hammer) in his messy Paris studio, it’s a nuanced and fascinating based-on-real-events saga about the process of creation. As such, it’s further confirmation of Tucci’s gift for crafting and staging intimate, incisive dramas elevated by fully formed (and alternately amusing and moving) three-dimensional performances.

Recently released on DVD and digital HD following a limited theatrical run earlier this year, Final Portrait is a subtle, inspired film that deserves a larger audience. For Tucci, it’s merely one of many 2018 big-screen endeavors, which also include March’s Submission (about a teacher who enters into a relationship with a younger student), September’s Patient Zero (about a man with the ability to communicate with zombies), and this fall’s A Private War (about celebrated war correspondent Marie Colvin).

In the midst of that busy slate, we chatted with the always charming Tucci about his many recent and upcoming movies, his humanitarian work with the United Nations, his fondness for seguing between projects of various sizes, and whether he makes any money from Ving Rhames—the college roommate to whom he gave his famous nickname.

What was it that drew you to Alberto Giacometti? And why this particular story—which, like Big Night, has a strong sense of a very particular, confined setting?

I really like intimate pieces—and pieces that end up being very detailed, and that are driven by character. I can certainly act in films that are the opposite of that. But as a filmmaker, it’s what I feel most comfortable with. There’s an intimacy to the creative act, and particularly in the way Lord wrote about Giacometti’s process [in Giacometti: A Biography], that I found so intriguing that I just felt that I had to try to make this film. It was a book that I had found many, many years ago, when I was in my twenties, and I finally got up the guts to get the rights from James Lord. I ended up writing it fifteen years ago, and then it took quite a while to bring it to the screen. But I just find that creative process so interesting, and Lord’s book expressed it so beautifully.

In Final Portrait, Giacometti talks at length about how paintings—and, by extension, all works of art—are never truly finished. Do you also feel that way, about your performances and films?

Without question, yes. They end only because they have to end. Sometimes, you really want them to end, even though you know that you’ll look at that thing six months later, or however many years later, and go, “Oh my god, why didn’t I do this? This should have been done.” Sometimes things are finished because you’ve exhausted everything that you can give to them at the time. If you were to try to do more, you might end up just wrecking it, or overthinking it, or over-intellectualizing it. And that’s not good. So in that sense, everything really is unfinished, even though it’s done. [laughs]

Does it help to be an actor when you’re directing the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer and your long-time collaborator, Tony Shalhoub?

Sure. Because they know that you’ve been where they are. So I think they have faith in you. They trust you. You know when they’re trying to get away with certain things. And you know how to get them to where you need them to be.

You also had Submission out in theaters earlier this year, and many drew parallels between its story and #MeToo and #TimesUp. How did you feel about the film arriving in the midst of those burgeoning movements?

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No, no, no. When I wrote this film and when I made this film, the #MeToo stuff hadn’t even happened. Or it was just maybe starting to happen. So there’s really no correlation at all.

You’ve done some work with the United Nations. In light of Donald Trump’s presidency, do you feel that such humanitarian efforts are even more important today?

Yes. I think it’s important in any climate. There are always people suffering. And I think if you can use your notoriety to make things a little bit better for people, then I think that’s a good thing.

You have A Private War—about war correspondent Marie Colvin—coming out this fall, directed by Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land). What’s it like working with a director who comes from a non-fiction background?

It was wonderful. He’s a wonderful guy. I’ve seen the film and I think it’s just great. It’s very hard to go from making a documentary to making a narrative, and vice versa, and I think Matthew did a more than admirable job. It’s very impressive. I think he’s going to make a really wonderful director.

Do you prefer working in smaller projects like Final Portrait and Submission, versus blockbuster-style efforts such as The Hunger Games and Transformers?

I like to go back and forth. You know, it’s fun to make the really big Transformers movies, or The Hunger Games. They’re really fun, and you get to play these great roles that you get to sink your teeth into, and you get to make money. [laughs] Those other movies, you don’t really make money, but you’re telling a story on a different scale—they’re more intimate, they’re more character-driven. I don’t think a steady diet of either of those things is ideal. I think a mix of them is wonderful, and that’s what we’re supposed to do.

Is it now tougher for smaller movies to get into theaters, or to reach an audience? And are streaming platforms maybe the solution to that problem?

I think it’s always hard for small movies—I think it always has been hard, and I think it always will be hard, because you’re telling stories that aren’t maybe as popular, or maybe they’re darker, or maybe they’re more intimate. They’re off the beaten track. But I think that streaming, and on demand, and what Netflix is doing and HBO has been doing for a long time—I think that those platforms and those venues are really, really great for filmmakers. If you can get your movie out into theater, that’s great. And if you can’t and it goes on Netflix straight-away, I think that’s really wonderful. Because so many people are going to see that film; so many people are going to have access to it. I just think it’s great.

While at SUNY Purchase, you gave Ving Rhames (born “Irving Rhames”) his nickname. Does this mean you get royalties whenever anyone calls him “Ving?”

[laughs] I should. It’s an outrage!

Perhaps you need to get into the business of giving other people nicknames?

I know. I know. Then I could patent them, or whatever you do—copyright them! Gosh, I could retire!