The Mare Fuori star chats with the artist and archer, born Sofia Ginevra Giannì.
Fellow countrymen explore and analyze each other. The actor has just finished filming a new series called Uonderbois for Disney+ in which he stars as Tonino Uonderboi, a one-of-a-kind superhero and cross between the traditional Neapolitan ‘Munaciello’ (the ‘little monk’ in dialect, a helpful yet mischievous sprite) and a Robin Hood 2.0.
Sagg Napoli: Hi, Massimiliano, whereabouts are you in Rome?
Massimiliano Caiazzo: I live near Viale Libia.
S.N.: I don’t actually know Rome that well, where are you from originally?
M.C.: Castellammare di Stabia.
S.N.: And how long did you live there?
M.C.: Till I was 19. I started commuting to Rome when I was 18 and then I moved permanently a year later.
S.N.: Have you ever lived in Naples?
M.C.: I’ve spent 5-6 months a year there for the past four years with the series that I’ve been working on.
S.N.: Which is Mare Fuori, right?
S.N.: Are you going to be doing any more work there?
M.C.: I’ve just filmed a series for Disney+ in the Sotterranea [Underground Naples, Ed.].
S.N.: Which ones?
M.C.: Both Napoli Sotterranea and Piscina Mirabilis because it’s an urban fantasy set around the city and in the places linked to the legend of the Munaciello. I actually asked if I could sleep underground for a couple of nights because my character is inspired by the Munaciello and he lived down there. I wanted to get a feel for the energy of the place but, unfortunately, it wasn’t possible, I guess for legal and safety reasons. It would have been like sleeping in a museum. Where are you from?
S.N.: I’ve lived in Naples for two years.
M.C.: Aren’t you from Naples?
S.N.: Yes, but I grew up in London. I came back a few years ago and we’ll see what happens next. I’m always on the beach, which is the best thing about it. When you were filming Mare Fuori here, was the location the same inside and out?
M.C.: The prison cells were recreated inside a naval base. But I was staying in the Quartieri [Spagnoli, Ed.].
S.N.: Would you ever live in Naples?
M.C.: I’ve thought about that a lot and, in all honesty, I would have to say no. I was in love with Naples the first year, coming from Castellammare, I found the big city fascinating. But now I’m always traveling and I’ve found the place for me. I live a very local life.
S.N.: Why? Do people go crazy if you go out in Naples?
M.C.: Yes, but I lived above the Quartieri for 4 months. I really liked it and I had a lot of fun. You immediately make friends with the people next door. But it’s intense.
S.N.: Something I’ve been reflecting on is how interest in Naples has increased so much in recent years. Do you think it’s a group of thinkers and creatives that has actively contributed to this shift, or is it something more random?
M.C.: There are multiple reasons and I think the truth lies in all of them together. There are many things that have contributed to an expansion of the themes associated with Naples and they have attracted the interest of scholars and intellectuals. The language alone—which I personally wouldn’t call a dialect. Naples is the way it is because it is, essentially, a traveling city. So many different peoples have lived here and abused the city, so it’s like someone who has travelled the world and carries all the conscious and unconscious effects of what they have seen. When you walk through Naples, you don’t just hear the usual neighborhood clamor, but also echoes of the Spanish, the Austrian, the Piedmonts and the French, who all came through here. This melting pot produces an energy and charisma that are fascinating because they speak of us in the way we want to be spoken about.
S.N.: Rome must be the right place for you, given your profession.
M.C.: Not necessarily. I think that Naples is having an artistic rebirth. I think it might actually be more productive for an actor to live there than in the capital.
S.N.: Do you think so?
M.C.: Yes. And I’ll tell you why: Loads of sets are in Naples nowadays and the vast majority of international directors who make auteur cinema are Neapolitan or orbit around the city. Then there’s the fact that so many of the stories that appeal to people are Neapolitan. The local theater scene is crazy, too, you can pick from experimental, independent, prose, classical… A couple of months ago, I went to see a play that hadn’t been staged for 20 years. While here in Rome, many are closing.
S.N.: But aren’t all the auditions in Rome? Mind you, it is only an hour’s distance by train.
M.C.: Yes, it’s true that there are some rounds of auditions where it’s better if you’re in Rome because it’s still the nerve center for production.
S.N.: You’ve got to think about the kind of vibes you want as well. I’ve wanted to move to Milan for years, but every time I go, I struggle to stay longer than a week.
M.C.: Same. As much as it’s a city that holds a certain appeal for me, after a while, I want to go home.
S.N.: Ok, we get it, you like living in Rome! What about outside of Italy? Where would you go?
M.C.: Well, I lived in London for a bit as well. I was in Camden Town between the ages of 15 and 16 and I had so much fun. I would definitely go back to London. Madrid, Barcelona and Spain in general really appeal, too. But as an actor, the atmosphere of somewhere like New York is unbeatable. I prefer it to Los Angeles, which I find a bit weird.
S.N.: Have you ever been?
M.C.: No, I’ve only been to New York.
S.N.: New York is more European than L.A., but L.A. has a healthier lifestyle. They are both complex and frenetic cities, but New York three times more so. And in L.A., you can get around by car, there’s more of a culture of healthy living, sport and nature. Do you dream or aspire to expand your career beyond Italy, or are you happy here for the moment?
M.C.: Definitely. One of my personal goals is certainly to transfer a certain kind of work and approach abroad. I grew up on American actors, even though that’s such a cliché.
S.N.: Like who?
M.C.: I’m a big fan of method actors, I was trained in that school. I believe in entering into a certain, very specific type of process, but when you talk about that here, people think you’re showing off. I think people just don’t know much about it.
S.N.: Explain a little more about what method acting means.
M.C.: In short, it’s a school that was brought to the US by Russian actors. It draws on the experimental work of Konstantin Stanislavski, which students like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler took and made their own, later spreading their own approach through the US with the Group Theater. This marked the birth of a new generation of actors and a new style of acting. Think Marlon Brando, James Dean directed by Elia Kazan, and the ones we know like Al Pacino and De Niro. I find it fascinating because it requires a certain kind of preparation, which I think is fundamental. Out of curiosity, I checked out your Instagram profile and I saw that you’re also the kind of artist who likes to get inside a process and bring it to life for the people receiving the ‘artwork,’ if you agree with how I’m expressing the concept. A bit like Marina Abramovic and Ulay, who enter into a process and open that up to the audience.
S.N.: The difference is that I’m always myself in my work, I don’t have to swap roles. I hope to grow and evolve as a person, of course, but I’ll always be Sofia. Perhaps it’s different for an actor because you have one role today and another one tomorrow.
M.C.: In order to play a human being and not just a mask, I always start with Massimiliano. When I get lost or confused, which sometimes happens, having myself as the base allows me to get my feet back on the ground so I don’t go off on a tangent.
S.N.: What is the role that has most emotionally moved or disturbed you?
M.C.: My most recent role, the Munaciello. Perhaps because I’m coming out of it now. I found it really moving because you’re working on this character that is supposed to be a hero and so the first thing I did was ask what it means to be a hero, so the viewers could empathize. I thought, what do I have in common with someone with superpowers who appears to be perfect? I realized that you needed weakness and vulnerability, too. It was tough, but that’s where my research started.
S.N.: And what does it mean to be a hero, in your opinion?
M.C.: More than you’d think. I researched the word hero and it comes from the Greek concept of eros, which also means ‘love.’ So I understand the hero as someone who can communicate all the nuances of eros. The flipside is Thanatos, or death, which is the opposite of eros. So the hero is someone who can easily kill, but decides not to and uses those tools to protect people.
S.N.: I could talk about this for days, but let’s move on. In your work and your role as a public figure, do you use social media or are you a private person?
M.C.: Yes, I do use social media because I think that ignoring it wouldn’t be the smartest move in the age we’re living in. We are living through a historic transition similar to the 1930s, when cinema was just beginning to have sound. There were those who snubbed it and then there were people who saw it was the future and wanted to invest. The result was that the big producers of silent films who didn’t embrace the change have all disappeared while the smaller producers were right. We’re living through the same thing right now. Whether you like it or not, we have to accept the fact that these things exist and use them intelligently. I find them useful to send a certain type of message about the different projects I’m working on, for example.
S.N.: Is there a lot of you on your social media?
M.C.: Yes, because I run it.
S.N.: Do you only post stuff about work or personal things as well?
M.C.: There are bits of personal stuff because every project I do starts from me, so what I want to communicate is primarily what I believe in. I don’t put all my personal business up there, though, I think that’s boring.
S.N.: A question occurred to me when we were talking about the Munaciello and superpowers versus vulnerability. Right now, a lot of people are using social media to talk about fragility, especially people with large, engaged followings. As though it has become normal to say that it’s OK to talk about our problems and that not everything is going great.
M.C.: I do that in my own way. Like when I talk about Tonino Uonderboi and I explain what I put in of my own personality. In this instance, I faced an area of personal darkness which I worked on by going through a certain process and I brought that to the audience. It’s cathartic for me. I use social media to explain to the public who I play and why. I think that helps to engage people.
S.N.: In my work, I have always tackled themes like folklore and superstition from south Italy and Naples, especially. What looks like folklore in popular culture is actually the response to sociocultural themes that needed to be exorcised and explained to people, in the past and perhaps still today. What does the Munaciello figure represent, do you think? And why can it be of interest to a broader public today?
M.C.: I think that writing a story today about the legends of Naples and the character I play is a pretext to talk about something else but I can’t talk about it until the project is released because it’s top secret. These figures have both historical and cultural roots, in terms of the period they were born in and this need to exorcise. There are so many different versions of them, too. Some lived underground, some say they were a link between the people and the aristocracy. People needed to believe in certain figures to bridge social or economic gaps or to believe in something, which I believe is a sentiment all human beings share. Others thought they were children who died very young, which stems from the hope that the lives of these children weren’t just snuffed out at such an early age, but that they lived on as monks who would watch over or torment their families. But, in general, I think everyone has their own personal interpretation.
S.N.: So Munaciello will be coming out on Disney+? Sorry, you may have already told me, but I woke up half an hour ago and I’m still half asleep. I barely slept last week and I’ve had two days to catch up now and it’s been amazing.
M.C.: I know what you mean, I’m going through the same thing. I finished filming last week and I’m sleeping 15 hours a day.
S.N.: I’ve always slept well, especially because I wear myself out with training. But last week, I’d just lie there without falling asleep or I’d wake up 40 times.
M.C.: Were you dreaming or was it something else?
S.N.: Nightmares. And I have to keep my phone in another room, otherwise, I check it and wake myself up and I get distracted. What problem do you have with sleeping?
M.C.: I was the kind of kid who used to fall asleep outside with toys still in my hands, or so my mum tells me. But I dream a lot and I used to have loads of nightmares as a kid. I still do today, but I have a different perspective now. That was one of the reasons that I started acting. Around the age of 8 or 9, when I was having problems sleeping, my mum told me to try this game where I would act a scene or to study acting so that I could decide what to do in my nightmares. Then, at the age of 10, I joined an acting school where everyone had perfect diction. I was like, this is not my cup of tea. Never again!
S.N.: Was this in Castellammare or Naples?
M.C.: Castellammare. It was full of these stage mums who would be like, “My kid is an actor.” I would observe them and just want to go back to my room.
S.N.: So you never went back?
M.C.: No, never. I still don’t like that kind of thing to this day and I don’t like actors who act like they have a pole up their ass.
S.N.: Which also isn’t what people are looking for today, right?
S.N.: So what was this game you were telling me about?
M.C.: I used to watch films or cartoons in my room and then I’d take a scene that I liked and replicate it, using that to build my imaginary castle.
S.N.: So, even as a child, you liked this idea of replicating something to make it your own? Sounds like this is your strong point, to me.
M.C.: Yes, now that you mention it, I realize that it’s an approach that I have stuck with over the years, even when everything became more serious.
S.N.: You need a lot of self-confidence. You’ve mentioned several times in this conversation that whenever you start something new, you always look for that element in common.
M.C.: Of course.
S.N.: You never give anything back without it having first gone through your own self. You need character for that because it means opening yourself up and lowering your defenses.
M.C.: If you can’t do it, then ask yourself why. What is it that I can’t accept or that I don’t like that is making my body refuse this? There’s a book that one of my first acting teachers recommended to me – which you might have read, actually, because I know you’re an archer: it’s called Zen in the Art of Archery.
S.N.: People send it to me every single day and now you mention it, too!
M.C.: I’ve read and reread it. It was my bible for years. I recommend it to everyone because I really relate to this concept. I don’t know if you remember when he says, “Be drawn”? That’s exactly what I mean. You let something go through you and at that moment, you shoot the arrow into the center of the target because by breaking through your own defenses, you break through the other.
S.N.: It’s so funny that you mentioned that book. Have you ever tried archery?
M.C.: As a kid on holiday.
S.N.: What do you do in your spare time? Do you have hobbies?
M.C.: Yes, I like to walk in the forest or through the city. Sometimes, I get on my scooter and drive for hours. I write a lot, too.
S.N.: There are lots of places to try archery in Rome. It changed my life. You need to dedicate a lot of time to it to become really good, but even as a hobby, it helps you get to know yourself.
M.C.: If you do it in a certain way and you learn that the arrow doesn’t necessarily have to hit the bullseye, do you know what I mean?
S.N.: I went to the Italian Archery Championships last week and I thought I was relaxed. I thought that even if I got the worst score, it couldn’t go too badly. To cut a long story short, I shot an arrow into the target next to mine. After the competition, my coach looked at me in despair and just overloaded me with feedback. Every time I shoot, I do a mental check-over of how it went afterwards because it’s the only way I can recognize my mistakes. If someone is just spewing words at me, I can’t work it out. It’s something I have to do because you can see the physical error from outside, but you can’t see what was happening in my head.
M.C.: It’s the same on stage. When the director overloads you with feedback or shouts at you, you just panic. From the outside, you can see what I’m saying and doing, but you can’t tell what’s moving inside me.
S.N.: We’ve been chatting for a while. Let’s try and wrap it up. What projects have you got lined up? What would you like to be working on?
M.C.: I would like to take on a very challenging role. Something that gives me a chance to explore the parts of me that feel wrong and ugly.
S.N.: No more superheroes, then?
M.C.: I think superheroes have an imperfect side, too, but the best stories are about everyday heroes. I don’t know how to explain it, but that’s what the public wants. Whether they succeed or fail is irrelevant, what matters is that they gave their all. You fall in love with them all the same, even if they fail.
S.N.: The idea of failure is something in itself. I have been realizing that through my work. It’s interesting because sport and art are very different. If I’ve been working on an art project for two years, things can definitely go wrong, but an exhibition could never fail. Things can go wrong, but you can always find a solution. Whereas in sport, failing is about numbers.
M.C.: You can’t change the numbers. But it makes no sense to speak in these terms within the artistic dynamic because it presupposes a result. It might be relevant to a producer who has invested and wants to see the numbers, but it’s only relevant to me up to a certain point. Of course, it’s great to see a project succeed because it means that my contribution was needed, but I try to keep my expectations as far away from my process as possible to keep it pure.
S.N.: My last question, which I ask everyone I speak to, is what star sign are you?
M.C.: Virgo with ascendent in Sagittarius. People are alarmed when I say Virgo, but then I follow up with the other sign and they relax. I think I have strengths and weaknesses from both.
S.N.: Thank you for talking to me. I can’t wait to watch the Munaciello series.
M.C.: You’ll have to tell me what you think!
S.N.: Good luck with everything.
M.C.: You, too. Let me know if you have any exhibitions coming up.