Alessandro Nivola‘s new film is a cunning twist on the karate movie. In dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense, the American Hustle actor plumbed the depths of the masculine martial arts world. He recently sat down with uInterview to discuss his latest project.
“The Art of Self-Defense is a movie about a kind of wimpy guy who chooses the wrong person to teach him how to man up,” Nivola explained. The guy, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), “feels kind of uncomfortable in his own skin and kind of impotent in the world and decides that he wants to do something about it.”
That “something” takes the form of karate lessons taught by Nivola’s character, Sensei. The actor classifies him as a “charismatic, mysterious and seductive teacher” whose true colors come to light slowly but surely. Though he “appears at first to be the answer to Casey’s dreams,” Nivola hints at Sensei’s dangerous and “totally unhinged” nature.
Nivola identified his son’s former hapkido dojo as the basis for Sensei’s character. “I mean, he wasn’t a sociopathic murderer or anything,” Nivola clarified. “But he’d set himself up as the lord of a very small manor, and he had all these little kids in his throes and kind of talked to them in this super-intense and kind of hushed-tone voice, and I just used him as my inspiration for the role.”
Nivola admitted that he needed some karate coaching before taking his moves to the big screen. “I definitely had no martial arts training at all,” he said. “I had 48 hours, I think, to try and pull it together.” He told uInterview that immediately upon arriving at his hotel, he heard a knock at his door. “This amazing woman named Mindy just pushed me away and came storming into my room,” he said. “And the next thing I knew, I was doing these high leg kicks.”
The Art of Self-Defense is playing in theaters nationwide starting on July 12.
Full interview transcript below:
Q: What’s the plot of the movie?
The Art of Self-Defense is a movie written by Riley Stearns about a kind of wimpy guy who chooses the wrong person to teach him how to man up. And Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey Davies, who is somebody who feels kind of uncomfortable in his own skin and kind of impotent in the world and decides that he wants to do something about it. And he starts going to this karate dojo that’s run by a guy referred to as Sensei, which is the role that I play in it. Sensei is kind of a charismatic, mysterious and seductive teacher who appears at first to be the answer to Casey’s dreams and proves slowly over the course of the film to be totally unhinged. And the movie is kind of a satire about our emotions of how to be a man.
Q: How does your character tie in?
I think the character is probably somebody who was like Casey and had been a bit of a loser, really, and kind of a lonely sort of lost soul who found this one arena where he could kind of lord it over everybody, feel power. What’s great about the character is that he’s both frightening, cunning, but also idiotic and spouting all kinds of BS philosophy, and so the writer/director Riley is constantly shifting that tone back and forth between something that’s really frightening and something that’s just absurd.
Q: Did you base your character on anyone?
On my son when he was little. I mean, he’s now 15, but when he was a little kid – seven years old or something – was taking some hapkido class in Brooklyn. The guy who was there, who ran that dojo, was definitely one of these types. I mean, he wasn’t a sociopathic murderer or anything, but … he’d set himself up as the lord of a very small manor, and he had all these little kids in his throes and kind talked to them in this super-intense and kind of hushed-tone voice, and I just used him as my inspiration for the role.
Q: What was it like working with Jesse Eisenberg?
We just got along instantly. We’d never before. He’s incredibly bright and has a very original and quick with … He’s very politically active – he was a fascinating guy to be around and talk to, and so from the very start, we kind of hit it off. And then, I don’t know, I think we both just enjoyed the fact that … our characters were so mismatched and that we were this unlikely pairing sort of comedy duo. And the scenes between us are so well-written, especially the scenes in my office where I’m signing him up for the classes. We have a series of scenes in my office which we shot over just a couple of days and I think those were the most enjoyable scenes of the movie to shoot.
Q: Did you know karate before filming?
I definitely had no martial arts training at all. And in fact, I was offered this job really late in the casting process. I think somebody probably dropped out, I got the call … But I was off doing a movie in Libya and I had a week to go on that film, and then I was just going to literally fly from there straight to Louisville, Kentucky where we shot it and get started. I had just no time to prepare; I really had to hit the ground running. The first day of filming … I speechify throughout the whole movie, and I speak in these long, drawn-out sentences and monologues. So it was a huge volume of text that I had to learn, and then on top of it … The very first day, I think there were two physical routines I had to do in the movie. One was a little fight with Jesse, and then the other one was this introduction to my character, where somebody in the dojo – one of my students asked me a question. And I have to do this karate routine while also talking about what my daily routine is – like, going to the market, watching a home video or whatever. And it all has to be coordinated together with these moves, and … I had 48 hours, I think, to try and pull it together. I showed up in my hotel room, and I’d just dropped my bags, and there was a knock at the door, and I opened the door and the stunt coordinator was standing there. This amazing woman named Mindy who just pushed me away and came storming into my room. And the next thing I knew, I was doing these high leg kicks … Yeah, she whipped me into shape.
Q: What’s your favorite scene?
My favorite scene is that first scene in the office where Jesse has come to officially sign up and I’m entering him into the computer. And I start asking all these questions about him and his life and his reasons for wanting to do karate … We just had a lot of fun with it, and the way Sensei is so opaque and difficult to read, the dialogue is hilarious. It just sets the tone for the movie.