Alessandro Nivola’s Cinematic Orthodox Adventure

By Regina Weinreich
Alessandro Nivola has top billing and rave reviews for his performance in “Disobedience,” above. He spent much of his childhood in Springs (and is seen below at Louse Point).

“Let’s talk Orthodox.” The actor Alessandro Nivola wanted to talk about the back story of his recent film successes, two of which involve Judaism. 

One that he produced, “To Dust,” won two awards at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival — best new narrative director for Shawn Snyder and the Audience Award for narrative feature. And “Disobedience,” in which Mr. Nivola stars, opened to great reviews and strong box office after its Tribeca premiere. 

“Tribeca’s been good. Last year, I won best actor,” he said on the phone the other day as he arrived in London to film his latest project, a four-part television adaptation of Lucy Kirkwood’s “Chimerica.” He plays the American photojournalist who took the famous picture of the lone protester with a shopping bag in front of a tank during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

He would be in London for a few days, then come home to Brooklyn for another few to see his family — that would be his wife and producing partner, the actress Emily Mortimer, and their two children, Sam, who is 14, and May Rose, who is 8 — before returning to London for several months. 

“It’s like going to Amagansett,” he said about the back and forth, “except it’s on Virgin Atlantic.”

It is a glimpse into the day-to-day of a working actor, whose “moment” is no accident, but the result of strategizing that paid off in acting roles and in producing his first feature.

Having taken on parts he liked in a dozen films that “no one ever saw,” Mr. Nivola got smart. He would work only with great directors, even if the parts were smaller. Think of him in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” or J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year.” 

His latest, “Disobedience,” was released nationwide on Friday and is playing in Southampton after being screened in East Hampton earlier this month. He accepted the role after reading the script by the film’s Brazilian director, Sebastian Lelio, and noting that there were no villains in the nuanced portrait of forbidden love in London’s Orthodox Jewish community. The film does not pit religion against sexual freedom. 

Mr. Nivola plays Dovid, a Hasidic disciple to a rabbi, capturing the prayers’ intonations, the modest gestures, the downcast glances. With his chiseled Italian chin hidden beneath a beard, Dovid might be the pivotal character, as he’s both married to Rachel McAdams’s pious Esti, and a childhood pal of the woman she has a relationship with, the rabbi’s daughter, Rachel Weisz’s Ronit, a defector from Orthodoxy. 

Meanwhile, the film he was producing, “To Dust,” was also informed by Hasidism.

At the 2017 premiere of HBO’s “Wizard of Lies,” directed by Barry Levinson, Mr. Nivola, who played Bernie Madoff’s son Mark, the one who hangs himself, spoke about the difficulties he was having shooting a film in New York and literally digging up dirt. That film was “To Dust,” a folklorish drama about a religious man, Shmuel — played by Geza Rohrig of “Son of Saul” — who just lost his wife and struggles with the philosophical, theological, and ethical issues regarding her decaying corpse and burial.

For relief from nightmares in which he imagines his wife’s toenail erupting, he seeks out Albert, a scientist — well, science teacher — played by Matthew Broderick, to investigate the process of decomposition. In a surreal leap, a pig becomes a surrogate. An interred body is dug up. Irreverent, the film will disturb many, maybe because it is at times hilarious. 

While “Disobedience” and “To Dust” could not be more different tonally, each required Mr. Nivola to immerse himself in the ways of Orthodox Judaism, and it’s not so easy to penetrate this cloistered community, to get it right.

Mr. Nivola insists that the community let him in because otherwise they were convinced “I was going to fuck it up.” Cast in “Disobedience” with lots of lead time, “I knew I had to make an extreme transformation, so I went about it meticulously, with real focus, the situation heightened.” At the time, his father, Pietro Nivola, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who grew up in Springs, was dying. “Every minute was borrowed time. He begged me not to drop the movie.”

An English major at Yale, Mr. Nivola studied Shakespeare with Harold Bloom, but he credits his father with his becoming an actor: “My father was great at impressions and would entertain everyone at the dinner table. I inherited a facility with voices and facial expressions. That’s part of my process: studying people’s behavior. It affects you psychologically; if you hold yourself a certain way it can affect the way you think and feel.”

With “Disobedience,” “When you have a group of people that is this specific, it is a goldmine.”

Help came from a woman he knew who had left Orthodoxy. She took him to Crown Heights to meet her Lubavitcher siblings. Zalman Raskin, the husband of one of her sisters, ran a package mailing shop, and Mr. Nivola started hanging around with him.

“He went through the script and guided my behavior. I recorded Hebrew blessings on my iPhone. I went to Shabbat dinners. I was in the heart of the community.” When he went to London for the shoot, Mr. Raskin put him in touch with his relatives there.

Then he returned to prep for “To Dust,” a first feature for King Bee Productions, the Mortimer-Nivola company founded when Ms. Mortimer and her friend Dolly Wells created the HBO series “Doll & Em.” 

“I called Zalman to consult,” Mr. Nivola said, “and then hired him to act, and his son Aaron too.”

Mr. Nivola and Ms. Mortimer divide their time between a townhouse in Brooklyn, which is also the home of King Bee on the ground floor, and a house near the ocean in Amagansett. The family has been out east since the late 1940s, when the sculptor Costantino Nivola, Mr. Nivola’s grandfather, bought a place in Springs, not far from Jackson Pollock’s house. 

In one of the couple’s more personal celebrations here, in 2016 after a show of sculptures by Mr. Nivola’s younger brother, Adrian Nivola, at the Drawing Room in East Hampton, they held a party at the family’s Springs house, where once Le Corbusier, upon seeing empty white walls, painted colorful modernist figures directly on them. Blythe Danner stopped by on her way to a birthday party, as did Dominic West, in town shooting his Showtime series, “The Affair.” And Damian Lewis, now starring in the series “Billions,” assured someone mourning for his “Homeland” character that, yes, “Brody is dead!” 

Mr. Nivola credits the area with nurturing another part of his career, the theater. His first professional experience came at the East Hampton Town Marine Museum’s Summer Solstice Theater Company in the early 1980s, when he was an intern doing lighting and serving wine and cheese and for one reading they needed a teenager. 

Fast-forward to Scott Ellis’s 1995 production of Chekhov’s “A Month in the Country,” opposite Helen Mirren. Ethan Hawke cast him in his revival of Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind” in 2010, and a game-changer was the 2014 Broadway production of “The Elephant Man” with Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson. He was nominated for a Tony Award for that role; in 2015, the show went on to London’s West End. 

“I’ve done a play every two years,” he said, asserting what he’d like to be his next great moment: “Now when I go back to Broadway, I want a leading role.”

Regina Weinreich co-produced and co-directed the documentary “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider.” She lives in Manhattan and Montauk.

With his wife, Emily Mortimer, above, and their two children, he now has a house in Amagansett, where he isn’t above taking a New Year’s Day polar bear plunge, as he did this year at Atlantic Avenue Beach.
Alessandro Nivola as a child with his grandfather Costantino Nivola, an Abstract Expressionist sculptor who settled in Springs in the 1940s.