Coming to America America: Actor Stathis Giallelis on Making Elia Kazan’s Immigrant Epic at 2017 TCM Film Festival
Forgotten in recent memory, Elia Kazan’s immigrant epic America America burst back to the big screen at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, accompanied by an introductory Q&A with lead actor Stathis Giallelis, moderated by film reporter and Filmstruck host Alicia Malone.
An immigrant from Greece, Giallelis was a rarity in 1960s Hollywood just as he would be now—an immigrant fresh off the boat and ready to star in a big screen epic from one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood. Now, 54 years later, America America remains a stirring epic about that which makes us all American. Gratefully, 76-year-old Giallelis is still around to share stories about the unique audition process, the personalities of legendary director Elia Kazan as well as legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler and explain to us how his performance and career are exemplary of the immigrant’s role in American culture.
Here are some of the most fascinating pieces of information that Giallelis relayed to his audience of classic film buffs.
On the Auditioning Process
My grandmother’s school in Greece was actually where Elia Kazan found me. He would often say that he found me in a producer’s office sweeping the floor. He used to change the story a lot. He’d say, “The older you get the more the story changes.” He and I remained friends until the very end. In fact, the last few years of life, he was a recluse but we still managed to see each other every once in a while.
When I first got to New York to audition, I stayed in a run-down apartment. I would go to restaurants and point to things on the menu and say ‘I want that.’ I couldn’t even say hamburger nor did I have the money to pay. I was forced to rely on credit and goodwill. Every day, I would sit in with Kazan. He gave me a young lady who would help teach me the language. He would see me every day and we would do some work. But he would never say I had the part. One day he walked up to me and said, “I want you to meet somebody.” It was a French actor. Kazan said to me, “He’s also for the part.” I was very suprised, especially because I thought he would be in the same condition I was. He was staying in a fancy hotel being treated very nicely while I was in some random place on 5th Street.
Kazan was very elusive as to who would get the part. One day, he came to me and gave me a red book, which was the script. He said, “Read this and tell me what you think.” So I read it and I said “I love it.” Kazan then says, “I want you for this part,” referring to a side character. I said “No, I want to play Stavos. Is it time for me to try for Stavos?” Kazan said yes but then we went on to do the same thing we had been doing. Actors would come in and continue to read—always improvisation.
One day, we were walking on the street and he says, “The French actor went back to France.” Then, we went to his office and it was packed differently. A lot of suits, glasses. In the midst of them was a famous actor—I won’t mention who he was—so I thought “Oh, he’s going to get the part.” But, as you can tell, he didn’t. I had gotten the part.
On Representing the Immigrant Spirit
As an immigrant, you have to give up everything. Now, as I think what new immigrants have to go through to enter this country, my trip looks like an easy journey. Always, they bring hope with them. America is immigrants. All of us are immigrants. I know there are people who don’t believe that—I don’t know where their parents or grandparents came from but all of us are from somewhere else.
I very much like the scene in the boat where Stavos talks about whether, if he could do the trip again, he would do it the same way. If he comes to America, he will be “washed clean.” It’s a very powerful, relevant moment.
On the Filmmaking Process
[Elia Kazan] was a man who would always say, “I want you to give me this emotion.” He would never tell you what to do or show you how to get this emotion, he would let you do that yourself. He knew his actors. He knew about our lives. Sometimes, he would talk to us privately about our personal lives and, of course, we’d let him do that because it would lead to a better performance.
[Cinematographer] Haskell Wexler was my best friend, a very special man. I actually came and stayed with him just before he died. Not only was he a great talent, a great cinematographer but he was also a really great human being. His political views were very hopeful for everybody. Some people thought he was too far to the left but he was always fighting for justice, for the underdog. He was always fighting. He did a little documentary called The Bus about immigrants who had no means of travelling because the public transit service in Los Angeles was so bad. And, eventually, I think it became much better.
I’ll tell you a funny story about my relationship with Haskell. He came to New York for Kazan to introduce us. Elia asked Haskell to shoot my face to see how he was going to photograph me so Haskell decided to take me to the Staten Island ferry. You see, at this time, I had a mustache. We shot for a bit and then he asked me to go to the bathroom and shave my mustache. I opened the door to see a huge bathroom full of people. They were all women. They immediately started screaming and chasing me. I said, “I made a mistake. They sent me to the wrong bathroom!”
On How America America Affected his Career
After [I won the Golden Globe for Best Newcomer], I did a film in Argentina with the best South American director at that time, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson (El ojo de la cerradura aka The Eavesdropper). The producer of that film was Paul Heller, who produced David and Lisa and the actress was Janet Margolin who was also in David and Lisa. After that, I did a war film, a big production with John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas (Cast a Giant Shadow). Then, I did two small political films. After those, I did a film with Jules Dassin (The Rehearsal), which was a great experience, very much like working with Kazan. They were of the same school of directors.
The most interesting thing I did was an Italian special called Panagulis Vive about a great political figure who was assassinated by the right wing government. I played the titular figure and I felt that was a great work. Plus, I looked a lot like him. MM