Fame is often an ill fit, but there are some who
manage to appear as if they wear it well. giovanni ribisi is not
one of those people.
Despite the fact that he has been languishing
in the camera’s eye since the tender age of nine, he is rarely,
if ever, at ease in the spotlight. He is an actor unusually uncomfortable
with the trappings of celebrity success—a willing participant
in everything that accompanies his craft (dedication, hard work,
inner exploration) save the media scrutiny.
“It’s nerve-wracking to do interviews” admits Ribisi over coffee
at a small cafe in LA’s Koreatown. “It can really be frustrating.
One of the things that I’m going through right now in my life is
trying to understand why that is. I’ve been a professional actor
for 20 years now and I think that can be trying on one’s psychology.
So many people want to assign a certain identity to you. That’s
sort of what being an actor is all about. You go to acting school,
you listen to your agent, your directors, your press. And when
you’re younger, you get into that desperation of trying to sell
yourself—of trying to sell this ‘identity’ you’ve created, which
is rarely who you really are. Then you layer that with the characters
Ribisi pauses and shakes his head.
|“You do your best, but sometimes you
look at what you did in a film and in retrospect it’s
like watching a video of yourself dancing drunk at a wedding.
It can be jarring.”—Giovanni Ribisi
“It sounds like I’m complaining,” he says, sighing, “but
I’m not. I’m just trying to understand it all.”
Ironically, Ribisi’s reservations regarding
the media do not inhibit his
in-person eloquence and a remarkable willingness to reveal himself.
Ribisi likes his talk straight, and in the course of one conversation
with him you can expect to discuss a range of topics as varied
and as fascinating as politics, philosophy and the innate flaws
of the capitalist system.
“When I was growing up there was this myth that happiness would
come with your first million,” says Ribisi with obvious frustration. “This
idea that an unstoppable quest for financial success should eclipse
everything else. And that was drummed into you like a mantra from
the media and the government—everywhere. I think it was probably
particularly loud here in LA, where you’re surrounded by the media,
by this cultural output and where that dictates everything you
do. There was a moment in my life where I felt like everything
that anyone said should be accompanied by canned laughter.”
Ribisi is a native Angeleno, raised amid smog, exhaust and the
meteorological monotone of blue sky and flawless weather.
“Perfect weather isn’t necessarily an attribute,” says Ribisi
firmly “A brutal winter can be psychologically fortifying.”
Any East Coast transplant would agree. While
California’s eternal summer is certainly seductive, there is
something about this cloudless perfection that is less than conducive
to quiet contemplation. LA is a place in which you float, not
think—clear days and warm
sun producing a kind of blissful trance and negating the need for
|Top to Bottom: Anna Faris and Scarlett Johansson
with Ribisi in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003);
as Jeff in Richard Linklater’s SubUrbia (1996);
with Cate Blanchett in Tom Tykwer’s Heaven (2002).
There are however, exceptions. Among them Ribisi,
whose intense seriousness seems, in part, a response to his hometown’s
mellowed-out stereotype. He is the “Thinking Californian,” an
Angeleno possessed of a New Yorker’s analytical anxiety and a
European’s fondness for cultural critique. And while this sort
of psyche is not exactly a prerequisite for great acting (there
are, of course, plenty of performers who work innately, relying
on visceral reaction rather than cerebral analysis), it is certainly
a quality which can enhance the medium and bring unprecedented
depth to a role. An actor like Ribisi, capable of combining instinct
with intellect, can deliver performances that are staggering
in their multi-dimensionality and brute honesty.
This particular talent for immersion is one of the primary reasons
for Ribisi’s success. Now 28 years old, the veteran actor is about
to appear in Anthony Minghella’s highly-anticipated Cold Mountain,
alongside Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger
and Donald Sutherland.
Ribisi first came to prominence on the late
’80s television series “My
Two Dads,” which was followed by big screen roles in Tom Hanks’ That
Thing You Do! and David Lynch’s Lost Highway. It was
his participation in Richard Linklater’s SubUrbia,
however, that elevated him to star status. His role as Jeff was perfectly suited
to his talents, a superbly written (the script was adapted by Eric Bogosian
from his hit play of the same name) deconstruction of suburban ennui and teen
angst, with Ribisi playing its troubled and questioning anti-hero. Ribisi’s
experience with Linklater would also lead to an introduction to fellow actors
Nicky Katt and Adam Goldberg, both of whom Ribisi has collaborated with on
a number of projects since, the most recent of which is I Love Your Work,
a film directed and penned by Goldberg (with a cameo from Katt).
It is the second of the young actor’s features in
which Ribisi has starred (the first being 1998’s Scotch and
Milk), a psychological drama about a successful
actor (Ribisi) who, in a reversal of roles, begins to obsessively stalk a fan.
In many ways, Goldberg’s film explores the same topics Ribisi himself seems
obsessed by, particularly the struggle to maintain one’s identity amid the
harsh scrutiny of the public eye.
“I think part of what Adam’s movie touches on, to some degree,
is what I’ve been talking about today,” explains Ribisi. “The character
I play loses himself. There was a moment in his life when he did
have innocence, but then he buys into his own myth. What’s sad
is that there is an addictive quality to that, to believing your
own hype; to allowing yourself to become validated by others and
no longer by yourself. That’s the danger of celebrity.”
Ribisi has a point. While we are all forced
to find a definition of ourselves amid a barrage of reflections—mirrors held by friends,
family and co-workers—for an actor, particularly a successful one,
these reflections are innumerable. The viewing public and the media
often providing a definition which suits themselves rather than
the subject of their scrutiny.
“After a while,” admits Ribisi, “it becomes impossible to actually
look at yourself on a spiritual and philosophical level. There
are only reflections of yourself through other people’s eyes. The
innate desire is to be outward, to put yourself out. But I think
what happens with a lot of actors is they turn in on themselves.
They become smaller, they become self-obsessed and turn inward
partly for self-protection. But you can defy that; you can refuse
to become a victim. You can go out and say, ‘screw it’ and expand
The fact is, Ribisi has done just that. He
has proven himself to be a performer insistent on defining his
own destiny. Despite his self-professed shyness, he carries himself
with determined backbone offset by an uneasy charm. As if he
is reluctant to admit to his own success because acceptance would
somehow mean failure—or
at least lack of continued growth and “expansion.”
Ribisi’s talent comes, in part, from his refusal to fall prey
to his own worst fears; to submit to shallowness, vanity or vapidity.
Instead, he’s formed his own unique identity in an industry anxious
to rob him of it, and he has carefully revealed himself, not through
his personal life, but through the exploration of his characters.
Each of them are similar in that they carry a streak of vulnerability
which echoes Ribisi’s own.
“You do your best,” he says, smiling wearily, “but sometimes you
look at what you did in a film in retrospect and it’s like watching
a video of yourself dancing drunk at a wedding. It can be jarring.
And if you do have success, attention is put on you and who you
are and what you do and suddenly every action becomes significant—even
if it’s just getting caught picking your nose in some car!”
He laughs and shakes his head again.
“Ultimately though, I think I’ve been fortunate
in terms of the media. Sometimes you grow out of something and
yet you’re stuck because of other people’s assumptions. But I
think I’ve been allowed to grow over the last 20 years. I’ve
managed to avoid being trapped in one moment of my career and
for that, I’m very thankful.” MM