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There are several Asia Argentos to choose from: international starlet del giorno, showbiz kid, polymath auteur, big talker. The 26-year-old's directorial feature debut is just hitting these shores: Scarlet Diva, a sort of autobiographical cautionary dream. However, she's about to be known in America as the romantic lead and stylish asskicker of likely Hollywood franchise XXX (like Scarlet Diva, it opens Friday), a movie structured rigorously like a video game in which she and co-star Vin Diesel are dragged back and forth across the sets by some really fantastic outfits. At least she reportedly had a starletastic on-set affair with the director, Rob Cohen, who's old enough to be her father.
Then there's her father, a renowned Italian pulp director. Dario Argento is the man behind a wealth of trash classics, the uncredited writer of Dawn of the Dead, and enough of a cult figure to be the subject of Argento Series, an entire volume of poems based on his work by California writer Kevin Killian. Dario started casting Asia, his child with actress Daria Nicolodi, when she was a kid, though not before she'd appeared in films including Nanni Moretti's Palombella Rossa. Working with her dad, she made flicks from The Stendhal Syndrome to Dario Argento's Trauma. Eventually wandering from the family but not the family business, Asia took a series of roles playing femmes fatales with suspicious pasts"dark lady" roles, she calls themin indies like B. Monkey and Abel Ferrara's New Rose Hotel. All this by the time she was 22.
Soon after, she realized she just wanted to direct. At 23, she started shooting Scarlet Diva, about a sexy, successful Italian actress from a showbiz family who . . . just wants to direct. "I took a vow," she said while driving to San Diego to attend Comicon (the comic book convention where XXX, appropriately, will be screened). "If I wasn't able to do Scarlet, I would never act again." But what would she do then?
"Oh, I do many things. Photography, music; I write. When I was five I published this poetry book; I published a novel when I was eight. Scarlet Diva comes from my book called I Love You Kirk. I work with different bands as a singer, mainly electronic bands. I did a cover of [Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg's] "Je T'aime Moi Non Plus" with Brian Molko from Placebo. He's playing Jane and I'm playing Serge."
That kind of kink runs its veins through the stained romance and sexuality in the kinetic, discomfiting Scarlet Diva. A literal summary might describe the film as a digital-video travelogue, where the hero wanders the capitals of Western Europe and has something really fucked up happen in each city. "I felt like a killer. You know how a murderer always goes back to the crime scene? I was shooting in places that were really meaningful. In London, when you see me going into the little street, it was a street where I lived for two years. In Amsterdam, the coffeeshop was the coffeeshop where I go when there. The apartment is my real apartment in Rome."
So why no Berlin? "I didn't have much experience with Berlin except hanging out with Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten. And I ran away from home when I was 14 to go to Berlin and see The Wall concert by Roger Waters." Here she blanches with what seems to be aesthetic mortification, and concludes, "I'm not such a big Berlin fan."
Bargeld, the theorypunk who launched a million tattoos, turns out to be near the heart of the Scarlet Divastory, wherein free bird Anna Battista, played by Argento, falls for rocker Kirk Vaines. "Blixa was supposed to play that role, but he was too chubby. I would have had to rewrite the role. The guy who inspired the movie was handsome, skinny, tall, and beautiful. He loved Blixa, but Blixa was too German and it would have meant work. Then I saw a photo of this guy, Jean Shepherd. We started talking, he tells me he's a musician, he plays in a band called Campesinos del Sol. I flew him over, he was just perfect. I put him in the studio with a couple of friends, they wrote the songs for the movie in two weeks. I was so in awe that I had found my lead actor, so [I said,] 'Whatever you want, we'll make it easy for you.' In two seconds he was acting like the worst fucking Hollywood spoiled brat. It takes so little to go from being a humble striving musician to an asshole on the set. No wonder J.Lo acts the way she does. I'm lucky I grew up in a family of filmmakers, because I really appreciate how hard it is for people working in films. And these people are fake and spoiled in two seconds."
In the midst of her XXX junket, she concedes the pleasures of LaLa startripping sometimes trump humility. "I'm enjoying the perks that actors get. We're so spoiled. People just bring them coffee, 'Please sit, are you tired, can I give you a foot massage?' When you're directing, nobody takes care of you. You're tired, you get a broken back, you're sick. You go to work for one year, nobody cares about your movie. It's like being pregnant."
Reversing herself again: "But I wanna do something, I don't wanna be done. Acting is like being an instrument. It could be the violin, it could be the oboe. You need a guy to play you. You can't play your own self by yourself, unless you're a mechanical piano."
Back to extolling the director's art, she reels off her favorites. "I love the dreamlike world in Fellini and the true horror in Polanski, and the solitude. I love silent movies, Dziga Vertov and Pabst. Abel Ferrara taught me a great lessonthe way he pushes actors to their limit. I did that too. I had these two people having sex [for a scene]; they didn't know each other, they're not porn actors; one is a DJ, Vera is a friend. It was lunch break, I convinced them to have sex. I know how to get what I want. If I have to be scary, I'll be scary. That time I needed to be nice. Just . . . nice, like a snake."
Argento carries Scarlet Diva both as actor and director. In XXX, she has precious few lines, but she's considering taking another such role to finance her next directorial effort. "I always loved this Brando line: 'Acting, not prostitution, is the oldest profession.' Baudelaire said art is prostitution. When you're giving something so intimate to the world and being paid for it, that's no different. But artists also get pleasure. We do it for ourselves. It's a really funky kind of prostitution." And filled with surprises and inversions, it turns out: "With Scarlet Diva I wanted to make a silent movie. That's why the big faces, big expressions, everything is so exaggerated. Instead I did the silent movie with XXX."