Stanley Tucci wrote the screenplay for Final Portrait more than a decade ago, but it’s somewhat fitting that it took him a while to actually get the movie finished. That’s not to say anything about the work ethic of a man who has everything from the Hunger Games trilogy to the Transformers franchise and the Best Picture-winning Spotlight on his resumé. (Or should that be ‘CV’? The 57-year-old moved to Barnes in West London in 2014 to be with his wife Felicity, the literary agent sister of Tucci’s Devil Wears Prada co-star, Emily Blunt.)
The new film, directed by Tucci and out now, is based on a book by American writer James Lord (Armie Hammer) who agreed to sit for a portrait by the Swiss Italian artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) on a trip to Paris in 1964. As an art lover, Lord is honoured to be asked by the great man to sit one afternoon, but the process drags on for 18 sessions as Giacometti tinkers and re-works the painting countless times. (Arguably, it was worth it. The portrait sold for more than $20m in 1990.)
Lord is forced to delay his flight home several times and becomes restless. We, the audience, are left with a sketch of the creative process — with all its optimism, despair, chaos and serenity.
Have there been moments in your own career when creativity has seemed like a curse, like a intractable problem that you can’t solve?
Oh yeah. There are times when you are working on something and you can’t quite figure out how to make it work. Then, years later, you go ‘Oh, all I had to do was this.’
Is there anyone you’ve worked with in your career who seems to find that it comes all too easily?
When it comes to actors, certain people are just so consistently good. I think my sister-in-law Emily is one of them. It’s just an innate talent. But she doesn’t rest on that. She’s incredibly hard working. Every time we see her she’s doing something slightly different and she’s able to do anything. She’s like Meryl Streep in that way. Meryl’s another one where you just go, ‘How do you do that?’ And marvel at it.
In this film there’s the idea of ‘the great man’ — Giacometti is brilliant, a genius in his field, but isn’t a master of personal relationships, to put it mildly. Do you think those two things often go together?
They don’t necessarily have to go together but they seem to. Although I don’t think being brilliant at what you do gives you the licence to be cruel to people. With certain artists, and also scientists, you sometimes see somebody who is brilliant at what they do, but is incapable of the simplest tasks. They’ll need a partner or somebody to do those things for them. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the practical aspects of life and the artistic or the creative.
You were born in New York State, but have lived in London for a few years now. What’s struck you most about life in this country?
Really, London is an incredibly efficient city and it works really well. And it’s the cleanest large city I’ve ever seen. I know a lot of Brits might not think that, but if you’ve spent time in New York recently, you’ll agree. I really like it here. And there’s a politeness that you don’t get other places. I really like when you get into a black cab and they know exactly where they’re going. They don’t need a satnav. And if you give them a tip, they’re in shock, so thankful. It’s quite civilised.
So is the archetypal idea of the British gentleman alive and well? Does reality live up to the stereotype?
I think it is reality, yeah, to a certain extent. Not everyone’s walking around in three-piece tweed suits, smoking pipes in bowler hats. But yeah, I think it exists to a certain extent.
It feels like it’s been a difficult year for the country. Have you ever felt like picking the family up and moving elsewhere?
No, no. I’m happy to be here now. America’s just so sad with what’s happening. After Obama worked so very hard over eight years to enact some really positive changes, with a stroke of a pen, a lot of those things are being deconstructed and destroyed. Yes, England is going through a tough time now. I think the Brexit thing is a disaster and I think everybody knows it, but will it ever truly come to fruition the way they imagined it? I don’t know. I hope not. But no, I’m not going anywhere. I would kind of like to move to the Alps, but that’s not going to happen.
Are you tempted to take on any projects that would comment on the political situation and what we’re seeing now?
Not necessarily. I guess what we’re seeing now is what has happened over the centuries again and again. It just hasn’t happened for a while. The extreme distrust. Disdain for immigrants. It rears its ugly head all the time. It disappeared for a little bit and now it’s back again. But I don’t feel an obligation to create anything with a social message or political message.
One last question about Final Portrait. There’s a scene where Giacometti takes Lord for lunch and, without him ordering, the waiters bring over ham and eggs and two glasses of red wine and two espressos — all for him. Did that happen?
That is a detail from the book, it’s very funny. And that is what he ate every day. They knew exactly what he wanted and just brought it to him. He didn’t have to ask. But he also died of stomach cancer.
Is there anywhere in London that treats you in a similar way?
There are places — like the Olympic and Riva [in Barnes] — that know when I walk in how I like a Martini. No Vermouth at all, straight up. Stirred, not shaken. With a twist. [Laughs]
Sounds good. Make it two.