hristian De Sica has appeared in more than 90 films, making him one of Italy’s most prolific and recognizable actors. The son of acclaimed Neorealist director and actor Vittorio de Sica, who died in 1974, Christian De Sica has worked in all genres, with comedy in the forefront. For a more than a decade, he’s been the face of the profitable “Natale in…” franchise, road movie comedies released annually in December (the last three entries have been titled “Natale a Rio,” “Natale a Beverly Hills” and “Natale in Sud Africa“). Most have been box office hits.
A singer and dancer by training, De Sica began his career in variety shows. He sang at Italy’s San Remo festival in 1973, moving to acting when theatrical variety shows, long a staple in Italy, began losing their sway. His autobiographical musical “Parlami di me” opened in 2006 and toured nationwide for two years. “I’m one of the few people who is able to do musicals in Italy,” says the 60-year-old De Sica. “But it costs a lot. It’s a luxury.” The musical was later made into a film directed by De Sica’s son Brando.
More recently, De Sica appeared in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2010 film “The Tourist,” a Venice-based thriller with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in which he played an Italian detective. He’s also a recurring figure in Telecom Italia’s mobile phone TV ad campaigns.
De Sica has show business in his blood. A plaque outside his apartment building pays homage to his renowned father, who directed the landmark 1948 film “Ladri di biciclette” (“The Bicycle Thief”). His wife is the sister of Italian comedian Carlo Verdone.
De Sica spoke to Katie McGovern. These are excerpts from their conversation.
Has having cinema in your family affected your life and career?
Absolutely, yes. This is a profession that gets handed down father to son. When a son was born, he was put on stage. I really believe in the family of actors. But while France and America love their family dynasties – look at Minnelli, Douglas, Barrymore – Italy doesn’t have much love for the “son of…”. They think, “What does this guy want?… he’s standing in the way.”
So the beginning was tough. Not with the public, but with employers. It’s not that they didn’t like me but that I reminded them of the past, when they worked under my father, who was very powerful. Maybe they had been a chauffeur or the secretary and then went on to be a film director or a producer. They looked at me uncomfortably. I was inconvenient. It was strange. I see this with my son Brando.
Did you feel the weight of your father’s success?
No. I was very unaware. Or my father was very good in not letting me feel the weight. I only realized his importance when I heard that there was a treasure chest buried in Belgium that contained some essential works of the 20th century, and one of the things in it was a copy of “The Bicycle Thief,” which had won a special award at the Oscars. Before that, I saw him as a normal middle-class father. He watched soccer on TV; he played with us; he was very humble. He was never a divo. Also, the newspapers were more discrete back then. They talked about Hollywood stars, but not like today.
You’re well known for your roles in Christmas comedies that have their own word, Cinepannetone (“Christmas cake moviemaking”). Why the appeal?
It’s popular cinema. This is the 28th year of the Christmas movie. Since it’s a national sport to destroy the things that do well, some people have started talking them down. It could be that the time has come to change the [Christmas] formula, to renew it, but then again, last year’s film was still Italy’s third top grossing movie. So it’s still working.
What are your thoughts on L.A., which you recently visited?
It’s a really tough city and it’s not even America. America is Phoenix or Detroit. That’s America. New York City is the world. New York is beautiful because it includes Italy, England, America, France, China. It’s multi-ethnic, which I like because it opens your brain.
My wife really likes L.A. but I see it as a city that’s not a city. Either you’re beautiful, or rich, or a star. If you’re not one of these three, you’d better leave. You’ll get fat. Everything’s based on showing off. It’s a bit of dream world, and cruel. Because in reality not everybody is beautiful; not everyone looks like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie.
How do you compare Europe and the United States culturally?
I was recently in Capri as a guest on Diego Della Valle’s yacht. He’s the Italian billionaire who owns Tod’s. One of the people there was Lee Radziwill, Jackie Kennedy’s sister. She’s a venerable eighty-something woman who still smokes.
She gave me a present, a book about her life. Flipping through it, I saw photos of her with Truman Capote, Francis Bacon, Leonard Bernstein, on John Kennedy’s boat, with Ron Howard. It was basically a vision of the aristocratic America in the 1960s and 1970s that doesn’t exist anymore. She told me New York City had changed a lot. She asked me if I had any idea why.
September 11th played a role. Americans were not used to having war in their own backyard. Whereas Europeans grew up with war and had always had it, Americans lived in a kind of fairy tale. Now there’s more fear. The U.S. is a young country with pros and cons. The enthusiasm of the young is a pro. The con is the lack of experience that Europeans possess.
One thing that saddens me is the extent to which America is a country without cultural references. Yes, a fortunate few have studied. But if you ask most Americans to tell you who Dante Alighieri is, they don’t know. Ask an Italian who Mark Twain is, and you’ll get an answer. Americans have lived in a shell. The masses are ignorant. Why isn’t Woody Allen well-liked? Because Woody Allen is a very cultured Jew. Too much so. Like Thornton Wilder. America wants its special effects.
Has the Obama presidency changed your view of the U.S?
My sense is that not much has changed and that people are a little disappointed. The fact that Osama Bin Laden was killed showed resolve. It gave hope. But it’s hard to judge a country like America. It’s too complex. Here’s a country that until yesterday — in historical terms — was racist, and the next day it elects a black president. It’s fantastic. It shows the possibilities. That people who are worth it can be recognized.
Not the case in Italy?
No. Young people are invisible in the eyes of the older generation. Italy is in the hands of the elderly. America is in the hands of 30-year-olds. Or at least it gives great opportunities to young people. That’s what’s great about America. That’s what I like most. Americans are informal. They call you by your name. That’s also good sign. They’re not like the French.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. Do you see the country better off now than it was, say, 20 years ago? Are you nostalgic?
Look, if you say, “It was better before,” you’re getting old. You need to marvel at what life has given you and at what you have now. You have to stay young in your head.
That said, the quality of life, both in Italy and the in the U.S., has deteriorated. It’s a global thing. Politics, climate, the ozone layer, poverty, hunger. Countries have also become more vulgar. Think of what New York was like in 1930s, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, getting out of a black Cadillac singing “Top Hat,” in white feathers; think what New York must have been like then! The men all wore hats. Elegance mattered.
So the world has changed. In some cases for the better — you don’t die from tuberculosis anymore, for example. But the idea that everyone can own a Bentley just by getting a loan is crazy. People were duped into thinking they could live like Donald Trump. But it’s not true. Humility suffers. People think, “If others have nice things, I should be able to, too.”
What does musical work mean to you?
I started out singing and dancing on TV shows. At 18 I went to Caracas and was on TV there. I had a lot of success, after which I came back [to Italy]. When I’m sad or I have to pay taxes, I put on Frank Sinatra and sing along with him: “You make me feel so young. You make me feel like spring has sprung!” It immediately makes me happy. I love American swing. It puts me in a good mood.
It once seemed like a film commonplace to have an American woman fall for an Italian man. That seems to have vanished. Why do you think?
Maybe before we knew each other less well. There was also the myth of the macho man. The last real Latin lover myth was embodied by John Travolta. People came to realize that Italians are the same as Americans. Men are the same everywhere. And women have a lot of patience because they put up with us.
What was it like working with Depp and Jolie in “The Tourist”?
I only said hi to Angelina Jolie, when she was with Brad Pitt. But Depp was incredible. He’s a star, but also humble and professional. We had a scene together and he did it 10 different ways, each one extraordinary. My lines were in English, not my first language, and at a certain point I forgot them. Johnny saved me. He kicked me and fed me the line, so that we didn’t have to cut. It was great. Jolie had lots of bodyguards. Depp had only one. We’d go off and smoke with the extras.
Do you like doing commercials?
A lot. I’ve been doing them for a long time. Before Telecom I did “Parmacotto” [Italian cooked ham]. People warned me that commercials would take away from movie work, but I found out that a good ad is better than a bad film. Commercials have given me a lot of visibility, and people like them.
It’s also a great practice because you’ve got 15 or 30 seconds to make people laugh. Quick comedy is hard. Even harder than soap opera work, which is also good training. Look at Eddie Murphy. Look at Will Smith. Everyone who does ad work is amazingly quick. It’s like Jewish humor. Rapid-fire. You have to be on your toes. A commercial can be harder than a two-minute skit. Sometimes just a look can do the trick.
What’s your relationship to the Internet and social networking?
I’m on Facebook. I have a lot of fun. My wife makes fun of me. I have 15 official fan clubs. One of them has 37,000 friends. My personal one has only 4,000. But that also means I have to respond to all the messages. It’s overwhelming. They get angry if I don’t answer. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll stay on Facebook.
Do you have an unrealized dream as a performer?
To make a film called “Porta del Cielo” for my Mom and Dad. Basically it’s the love story between my father and my mother. It’s set in 1944, when they were in St. Paul’s Basilica, awaiting the arrival of American troops. My father helped save more than 300 Jews, who were also inside, but he did it by chance. I see it as a beautiful story of friendship and love. My mother was Spanish but didn’t seem Spanish. She was very light-skinned. I was supposed to do the film five years ago but we didn’t have the funding.
Another thing I’d like to do is a singing tour of Europe with a 40-strong orchestra: wind, strings and horns. So far I’ve only done it with a big band, which is 20. I’d want the kind of orchestras American singers use at Carnegie Hall.
What is your idea of a good meal?
Right now I can’t say because I’m on a diet. I’d live off of gelato or cheese if I could.