Imagine landing a dream job and on the first day of work, realizing you can’t understand a word anyone is saying. That’s exactly what happened when Alessandro Nivola signed on for “Coco Before Chanel,” starring Audrey Tautou and opening Sept. 25.

“I was the only non-French-speaking person on the set,” recalls the actor, who tackled the role of Coco Chanel’s early love, Arthur “Boy” Capel (despite playing a Brit, most of Nivola’s lines were in French). “Of course, by the end I was pretty fluent. But by then it was too late.”

This story first appeared in the September 18, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Here, the 36-year-old Boston native, who resides in Brooklyn with his actress wife Emily Mortimer, talks to WWD about French immersion, living in Paris and his upcoming film with Abigail Breslin.

WWD: If you didn’t really speak French, how did you land this role?

Alessandro Nivola: I had high school French before…and I speak Italian. I ended up recording my voice on a tape recorder reading the lines from a couple of scenes and I sent it to [director Anne Fontaine]. I fooled her into thinking that I can speak French because my accent is much better than my grammar.

WWD: Acting is hard enough, but in another language it must have been difficult.

A.N.: I just thought I would learn the things I had to say really, really well. But in order to have the freedom to be spontaneous and not perform like a robot, you have to have much more control over the language. It was a major challenge. It was also exhilarating because you are so out of control. I’m kind of addicted to that feeling, but this was definitely a step further than I have ever gone.

WWD: What was it like on set?

A.N.: [I remember] sitting at lunch with Audrey and some of the other actors and not understanding what anybody was saying. Audrey didn’t speak that much English — I thought she would have spoken more because she had been in an English-speaking role [in “The Da Vinci Code”], but she hardly spoke it. So we were sort of sitting in silence for hours in between our scenes for the first several weeks, and then slowly my French started to come on pretty rapidly.

WWD: At least you had amazing locations — Deauville, the countryside near Versailles. Where did you stay?

A.N.: I was living in the Marais. It was funny — I had this big black mustache and slick, dyed-black hair, which, when I was in my period costume, made sense. But when I put on my tight jeans and leather jacket and went home [after filming] people were walking by me on the streets and whispering, “Ooh, Freddie Mercury.”

WWD: Did you know much about Chanel’s life before this movie?

A.N.: I knew her as the lady who designed the perfume that my wife sprays. I was surprised to discover that her life was as dramatic as it was….I’ve never felt that I’ve had some great fashion sense of my own — I tend to wear what my wife tells me to wear.

WWD: You are currently shooting “Janie Jones” about a rocker who suddenly discovers he has a 12-year-old daughter, played by Abigail Breslin. They always say, “Never act with children or animals,” so how is that going?

A.N.: It’s dangerous because they can act you off the god–n screen. She’s incredible — give her 20 seconds and she’s got tears streaming down her face, while there’s the rest of us trying to squeeze some little droplet of emotion out. She’s just incredibly comfortable in her own skin, which I can’t understand because at her age I was so self-conscious. I still am.

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