"An Artist’s Love Story": An Interview with Robert De Domenici
"In the fifth-floor restaurant of Waterstones, Piccadilly Circus, we talk for three hours, and in the process cook up a conception of the actor’s identity: the delicious smells of Italian cuisine, a large slice of Jack Nicholson's smile, some intellectual Hollywood nostalgia, and a pinch of Soho’s flashing lights beneath the rain."
Robert De Domenici is a London-based actor in his twenties who recently acted in Mojo, a play directed by Roger Beaumont, and Liberté, a film from Simao Boucherie Mendes. In the fifth-floor restaurant of Waterstones, Piccadilly Circus, we talk for three hours, and in the process cook up a conception of the actor’s identity: the delicious smells of Italian cuisine, a large slice of Jack Nicholson's smile, some intellectual Hollywood nostalgia, and a pinch of Soho’s flashing lights beneath the rain.
‘To be a successful creative you need three things: love, passion, and attention to detail.’ It’s a love story. At some point in our lives it will happen. We will fall in love with a book, a film, an actor, a painting, a song, a place. And this innocent love becomes a burning passion: a longing to imitate, to create, to be immortal? Having fallen desperately in love, and having developed an insatiable passion for more, there is but one ingredient missing: attention to detail. Now we will have to learn, observe, study, train, work hard, rehearse, and prioritise.
Wise words. It justifies him greeting the waiters with the seemingly well-practiced hand gesture and smile of a regular, echoing the confidence of a star waving to his fans. It explains why he can sit there, inhabiting a very small chair with a mixture of laid-back consideration and first-time eagerness. It explains why I am shifting around for the next three hours.
With the dreamy expression of an excited child, Robert De Domenici tells me: ‘that’s the reason I want to do acting, watching movies…like most people, you know. This “I want to do that”.’ He watched Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for hours and hours with his father, who always advised him to steal from the best. At the same time, he observed people from all over the world, hiding behind the sparkling Big Ben miniatures of his father’s souvenir shop in Soho. Yet it had not been London that made him fall in love with an artistic career; rather, the “dishwasher to millionaire” country on the other side of the Atlantic. ‘I love London, it's my city. But I don’t feel like I fit in the façade it puts up.’ He reminds me of many somehow melancholic Londoners I have met. ‘It’s a love-hate relationship. I couldn’t live here all the time but would also miss it.’
London has been a Disneyland for artists for centuries, like Paris. Walk out of the door in a Mickey Mouse costume and you are merely one among many queer characters in London’s exciting race for individuality. Timeout floods Londoners and tourists alike with potential great evenings and adventures. There is always something happening somewhere. But having been born in Disneyland, and seeing it every day, Robert offers a very different view on what others consider to be an artistic amusement park: ‘I grew up with all these different flavors to pick up on, helping my father in his souvenir shop in the West End as a child. His family were Russian-Polish Jews coming to London at the turn of the century; my mother’s family emigrated from Italy in the 60s. There are lots of opportunities, but all the same so many disconnected and broken communities that are not addressed by the city and its institutions.’
Roller coasters, fairytale castles, dance shows, and smiling children are hardly enjoyable when you know what is behind the beautiful blinking lights of Soho by night. Walking past homeless people injecting illusory happiness into their arms on the way to a West End musical makes that expensive ticket a tiny bit heavier. Still, is that not the case everywhere? London is not doing too badly at integrating communities. An old Scottish veteran lives door to door with international students and a family from Bangladesh. The hipster café offers weekly English classes for everyone and hosts bilingual Bengali poetry and song nights. Obviously, there is the danger of getting lost in anonymity: running through long tube tunnels in stuffed trains at rush hour, no one speaking, no one smiling. ‘When you become embedded into London, you become grey,’ explains Robert, ‘all the colours and cultures mingle into a grey soup of melancholic faces in a jungle of concrete, brick walls, and solitude.’ But does the grey soup necessarily need to be melancholic, lonely, and ugly? Can it not instead be a soup of mixed parentage, multiple backgrounds and histories – like Robert’s himself? Perhaps it’s less a grey porridge, and more a crazy rainbow cake.
In fact, Robert’s Disneyland and inspiration are located somewhere other than London. ‘I take it mostly from New York, a lot of my heroes such as Pacino, de Niro and Jack Nicholson were born, lived, and worked there.’ Suddenly the doubtful voice of a Londoner talking about his city transforms, turns dreamy. There is something about the New World that stands apart from England and its rigidness. Even I have to admit, the US gives off the smell of experimentation and opportunity; whilst, in contrast, London sometimes seems stuck in its Britishness, in its eternal admiration of Shakespeare. At the same time, it might be dangerous to become too allured by Broadway’s lights. He might have had a good look behind the scenes of London, but has he seen New York’s stained alleyways? After all, the New World is a big pasta dish of old traditions from different cultures: delicious-looking to an outsider but inside are the effects of a cook’s inexperience. There are broken homes, disconnected communities and neighborhoods; there were in Robert’s idealised 60s and 70s and there are now. Still, Robert remarks admiringly: ‘there isn’t a class system, it is about the money you earn, and communities are more integrated, as immigration has not come on top of a culture loaded with tradition but has formed and made the whole country.’
Yet is there really no class system in the US? Or is there in fact a class system based on economic success? “Racial and socio-economic segregation is even more pronounced in some parts of the city now than it was five decades ago,” states the New York Times this March. It goes on to emphasise the marked inequality and segregation in New York’s public high schools (cf. Shapiro 2019) Robert mirrors Martin Scorsese’s imagined New York, the city that has inspired the latter’s entire career: “I’m obsessed with this city…New Yorkers, we walk in the street, we talk to ourselves. But the issue is the energy, the excitement, and the different ethnic groups all mixed together. We’re spoiled being here”(Lee 2008).
The words of a multiculturalist writer from Robert’s hometown echo in my head: “the dream persists, even as reality asserts itself” (Smith 2009).
“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent”( A Bronx Tale (1993)).
Robert’s favourite quote tells us of the great authors who will never be discovered, marvellous actors who might never see the stage and words that will be left unspoken and unwritten. Whilst bookshops are flooded with up and coming self-help books and the film industry is overfed with YouTube influencers, many neither get the chance nor support to express themselves. Real creativity is not an on-off relationship; the process of turning an affinity into a talent, a hobby into a passion, is one of the most difficult steps to becoming an artist. To achieve it, unbroken willpower, ambition, endless dedication, and focus have to overcome rejection, doubt, and distraction.
Consequently, it makes sense that Robert glows with the relaxed confidence of a creative who knows what he wants and what he is. But does art therefore entail a certain degree of vanity? A Dorian Gray-like obsession with the beauty of one’s talent and creation? Robert grins. ‘Well, yes of course.’ Of course there is vanity, he agrees, yet he says so with a humility in his eyes. There is no self-indulgence here, as he hesitates and adds: ‘Dustin Hoffman once asked Laurence Olivier why he thought actors acted. The reason we do what we do, dear boy, replied Olivier, leaning in, is for this: look at me look at me look at me look at me look at me.’
Listen to me, they might say, or look at all the things I can do. Seemingly arrogant, performative; yet these are irreducibly human cries for attention at their core. For creatives especially, art is the means to get the attention they long for. Talented and successful, aspiring and starting off, the artist, scientist or academic, the normal employee or housewife – whatever, the desire to be noticed and appreciated is a driving force for human interaction. Audrey Hepburn once said: “We all want to be loved, don’t we? Everyone looks for a way of finding love. It’s a constant search for affection in every walk of life.” But how to resist the compulsive stream that draws artists into Dorian’s dark hole? Be aware that the ego inside needs to be controlled, Robert advises. Be aware that “[e]very portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”(Wilde 1890). What does his work say about Robert? What does he want to express? Who does he want to be as an artist? Art is a chronic malady, and it requires that balance between self-indulgence and humbleness if you are to live with it.
Attention to Detail
‘Attention to detail means doing everything in order to be the best at what you are doing. If you are an actor: spend hours observing, reading, working on yourself.’ Robert wore the same clothes for two months, did not shower, and lived in a tent. He went to Centrepoint and talked with homeless people. Sensing that the worst thing about being homeless is being invisible, isolated, he told his friends not to talk to him. He did everything he could to scratch the surface of what it feels like to be homeless, just for an immersive theatre experience at college. For me, this story of Robert’s epitomised the importance of attention to detail. And not only that, but also the possibility for artists to take something away from their work. If actors play a difficult role, if writers want to write about something they have not experienced before, it is not only the research that is significant but also the aftereffects. From Rob’s point of view an actor has to connect with his or her roles and their worlds: ‘You have to like them and defend them.’
When Robert was cast to play a person who is transgender in the film Liberté, he had to connect with a completely different life and personal history he did not have. Smoking French cigarettes and blinking out of pink eye shadow, research became a different reality. I asked him what he learned, as a man, from playing this role. ‘Empathy.’ Paying attention to detail does not necessarily have to mean an exact imitation of a person who is homeless or transgender. Instead it means discovering, experiencing, and understanding worlds that are not your own. Writers live several lives; actors do too. And the more attention to detail they pay, the more colourful these lives will be. After all, it is about the curiosity that gives us artists the urge to explore the unknown. It is this “what would that be like?” But is it dangerous to get lost in roles? Playing characters in real life? Rob’s radiant smile is gone now, replaced by knitted brows. ‘We all do, really. It’s a defense mechanism. We all have masks to put on; you should be aware you are doing it. Subconsciously we don’t realise it.’ And consciously? ‘Life is a battle, sometimes you need to put on masks to survive.’
I leave Waterstones and dive into London’s hot summer sun. There is a young man standing in front of the store with a sign which reads: My story will inspire you. I look him in the eyes and smile. To be a successful creative you need three things: love, passion, and attention to detail.
Eliza Shapiro, Segregation has been the Story of New York City’s Schools for 50 Years, New York Times (2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/26/nyregion/school-segregation-new-york.html?login=email&auth=login-email
Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Interview Magazine (2008), https://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/martin-scorsese-shutter-island
Changing My Mind (2009), Zadie Smith.
A Bronx Tale (1993).
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Oscar Wilde.