Sophia Loren (‘The Life Ahead’) on being ‘completely taken’ by Madame Rosa [Complete Interview Transcript]

Sophia Loren returned this past year with “The Life Ahead,” her first role in a film since 2009. The actress plays Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor who takes care of children who need guidance.

Loren and her son, Edoardo Ponti, who also directed the film, recently spoke with Gold Derby editor in chief Tom O’Neil about the story of “The Life Ahead,” what the actress thought of her young c-ostar, Ibrahima Gueye, and her memories of winning the Oscar for “Two Women.” Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Edoardo, let’s start with you. Set up the story here of this film. 

Edoardo Ponti: Well, it’s a story of love and friendship between two people, Madame Rosa and Momo. Madame Rosa is an aging ex-sex worker who is also an Auschwitz survivor, a Holocaust survivor who, in order to make ends meet, has this makeshift daycare for children of other prostitutes in her home and one day, she is forced to take in this boy, Momo, who’s quite a handful for many, many reasons. What starts off as a very contentious, belligerent relationship ends up changing the lives of both of them and I think what’s beautiful about the story and these two characters is that on the surface, everything separates them: race, religion, culture. And yet, they are just two sides of the same coin. They were both raised without families. They were both defined by pain and loss, but really by hope and resilience. It’s a story of two survivors who find each other and who complete each other. 

GD: And Sophia, tell us what you thought of the role.

Sophia Loren: I wanted with everything in my heart to be able to be the actress of this film and to be able to do this wonderful image of this woman that really, when I read the script, when I read the story, I was completely taken by this great personage that I would like to do. Absolutely. I was very close already to this woman even before I made the film. It was great. Great moments for me during the film, also. 

GD: Tell us some of your favorite moments.

EP: (translating for Sophia) One of the moments she really loved, and actually a moment that we always love shooting was when Momo finds Madame Rosa in the basement, in her refuge and Madame Rosa tells the story of Auschwitz and of the mimosas. Another one that I know that she’s always loved also, is that scene up on the rooftop when the rain falls down. 

SL: Yes, yes. “Don’t blink.”

EP: Yeah, I asked my mother during the shoot not to blink even though the water was falling on her eyelash. Everything was perfect. Her face was perfect. But when we turned on the water, she started blinking and I was like, “Well, I know it could be right medically that you blink when you’re in this mental paralysis, but it doesn’t look right. So can you do the impossible and not blink?” And my mother looked at me with such eyes saying, “Edoardo, you’re crazy.” And yet, when I called action, she did not blink. If you go back in the scene, she doesn’t blink, even though water is falling on her lash and it’s almost physically impossible not to blink. But, in some way, she did it. 

SL: Because I was afraid of him. 

EP: (Laughs.)

SL: Bad boy. Bad boy. 

GD: Well, Sophia, you’ve been the boss of this boy all his life, but when you make a movie with him, he is the boss. So do you listen to him on the set or do you say, “I’m the mama?”

SL: No, no, no. He’s the boss. Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely. So I even accepted, “Don’t blink.” 

EP: (Laughs.)

GD: We have to tell the viewer it’s crucial for you not to blink in that scene because we also have to suspect she might be dead. Quite frankly, you could die in a sitting-up position and it’s that moment where we see Momo caving slowly. The movie is a process of both of these people, Madame Rosa and Momo, not wanting to be together, but never comes a big moment where they have a Hollywood-style reconciliation and turnover. It’s such a slow, gradual thing and that scene on the roof is powerful because if she’s dead, he needs a new place to go. He’s a Senegalese refugee. As much as they are alike in having been raised on the streets and had a hard life, everything’s on the line for him. But the way he responds is a beautiful moment. My favorite scene is back in the Batcave downstairs when Momo gives Madame Rosa the yellow flowers and apologizes for them being in plastic. That moment was so beautiful because it was unexpected and tender. 

EP: And he treats her like a queen. If you look at the arc of his character from the beginning of the movie where he could not be more rude and irreverent to that moment where he treats her like a queen and the rapport that they have together and my mother’s emotion there and just the fact that she knows who he is but she doesn’t know who he is because of her illness. I actually asked my mother about that moment when we were shooting. I said, “You were so into this moment. Where did you draw the inspiration there? You looked so frail. You looked so fragile.” And she said something very, very touching, very beautiful. She said. “I just had to lean into my age.” And how beautiful it is that an actor, that an artist, can tap into the most vulnerable parts of themselves so openly, so fearlessly, and she does it effortlessly, There is no alternative to that choice. She will go straight for the heart, straight for the most fundamental thing. It’s an instinct, amazing instincts. 

SL: But these scenes for my character are the most wonderful scenes given to an actress or to an actor to be able to give it all at that moment, and that’s what I felt at that moment because it was really a magic moment. 

GD: When Madame Rosa shuts down or she doesn’t blink or she freezes, we know part of it could be dementia. We know part of it could be depression even, but also those moments, Sophia, when you withdraw, we know that those moments could also be times that you are reflecting in your life and maybe it’s the horror of…

SL: The life I had before. Of course. Even though I did not feel it myself because it was not my time, but that’s what you are inclined, if you are an actor and you really want to give it all and you give things that are natural at that moment, you have to go all the way like you were having that kind of thing at that moment. Sometimes you do it so well, you know that you do it so well that you never like the man who is behind the camera to say, “Stop, let’s do it again.” It’s incredible. It’s an anticipation that it’s not right for that moment. You want to go on and on and on. If you get it right, you want to go on. But there are beautiful moments that you never forget. Absolutely never, even though I never lived through these kinds of things. But you imagine and imagining, you want to go on because it feels right. It feels not good, but it’s a shame. It’s a shame. 

GD: In some other interviews that I’ve read, Sophia, where you have talked about this movie, you mentioned that it reminds you of your own mother and maybe your grandmother. You were raised by your grandmother, correct? 

SL: With my mother. My mother was there, but my house was a little tiny so we were all together, my mother and grandmother. 

GD: So how did this movie help you rediscover those memories? 

SL: Every movie, when there is a war, when there are these kinds of things, it reminds me of what I had before, because it was a life with nothing, a life with war, a life with no life at all. So it’s very easy to put your mind right and to remember what you went through, more or less. Also, because I was three years old, I was four years old. I was very, very, very young. 

GD: Tell us also, Sophia, a few moments behind the scenes that we don’t see on camera that you appreciated the most when working with Edoardo. 

SL: It’s not a question of working together. I appreciate my sons every time of my life. I look at them and I appreciate them because I love the way they are. I love their characters. I love to be with them. I am always in good company with them because they are part of me, they’re part of me, Sophia, everything. So sometimes it’s very difficult even to say in words what you feel, they are so strong, these kinds of things that you have inside as a mother, also. 

GD: Edoardo, what is it like to direct your mother? 

EP: Well, my mother is right. Our work is an extension of our relationship as mother and son and as people. We are very similar. We strive for the same authentic notes when we work. We’re both of the service of the characters that we’re trying to tell the story of and of the film. So our agendas, creatively speaking, are exactly aligned and what is beautiful is my mother has been my mother for 45 years, but I am discovering her as an actress and as an artist more and more as I work with her and it’s so wonderful to discover different aspects, different layers of the person you call your mother and the person that you love.

Maybe the biggest aspect that has tremendously inspired me working on this movie is her ability to courageously take on a role like this at 85 years old, when she had nothing to prove, and approach the role with such concentration, such work, such commitment. It’s a very difficult role. My mother is very humble in that way, so she won’t tell you but I can tell you, this is a very, very difficult role, a very demanding role.

Not only is it demanding emotionally because the arc of Madame Rosa’s character is very, very wide, from this woman deep and control to a woman who ultimately loses herself and her identity. Not only that, though. It is a very physical role because she’s around children all the time. There is this kinetic dynamic in between her and taking care of these three children. And as we all know, when we’re around children, it takes a lot of energy to be around children. So there are all these elements that she makes effortless because she’s so passionate and so committed and in the end, so humble at the service of what she has to deliver, which is this story and this performance. 

GD: Did you let your mother improvise any scenes or did you just encourage her to stay with the script or be more involved during the scriptwriting process? 

SL: Improvise!

EP: (Laughs.) Yeah, absolutely. We’d improvise. It’s very important to have a blueprint. Obviously, it’s very important to have a solid ground to step on and to dance on, so to speak, creatively. So then when you have a solid ground, a solid script, you can improvise. And then out of that improv, you find moments of truth, which is exactly what my mother is saying. You need to improvise in order to find moments of truth, in order to find the right connection between people. So it was a combination in the end, but a lot of the improvisation made it into the movie. 

GD: Give me some examples of scenes. 

EP: It was really about the relationship that she has with Momo or even with Abril [Zamora] or even when they dance, for example, the dancing scene. It wasn’t supposed to be such an extended dancing scene, but then it became an extended dancing scene because they were having such a good time together. My mother loved Abril Zamora, who plays Lola, and they were dancing, truly having a great time. So this is a perfect scene where the improv…

SL: In the beginning, I was a little shy with her to dance, for the character I was playing. Don’t you remember? 

EP: Yes. My mother loves Brazilian music. So the moment that song came on, it went beyond shyness into just letting go and being in that song. 

SL: But I was afraid the character wouldn’t have liked me to dance. So in the beginning, step and then I retired and then another step, I retired. Then I said, “I go, I go, I go.” 

EP: That’s right. 

GD: Sophia, what was it like to work with a 12-year-old boy with no professional experience? 

SL: For me, he looked like a 12-year-old boy, but his mind already was working as a grown-up because when people live like they were living, they grow much earlier. But he is a wonderful guy. Anything that we asked him to do, he was ready to do. He was ready to help us because he wanted to be good. He wanted to be really wonderful. I really am very, very pleased that he wants to go on like an actor and maybe if he really sticks to it, if he really works for it, if he really is helped by other people, also, maybe he’s going to be a very good actor, or maybe he’s not going to be an actor. It depends. But I would like to see him as an actor one day, because that’s what was the sentiment at that time that he was working with us. He wanted to be like us. He wanted to be an actor like me, like other children. And he will be. If it’s really very strong, this kind of feeling in him, it will be like I did. If you knew how much I suffered, you have no idea, but I did. Here I am talking with you. 

EP: There are a lot of similarities between my mother and Ibra. They’re both born from a working-class background and really worked very hard to get to where they are and I think that my mother related to him and he related to her in a way that I can’t even really relate to my mother because my upbringing was completely different. So it was the chemistry between them, which is so apparent, was born also from that, from recognizing in each other elements of their lives that were very particular to both of them individually and together, and what was really beautiful seeing them together is that they both are the same kind of hard workers. They both prepare. They both are very meticulous. They both want to know everything so that when they go on set, they feel comfortable and they can be themselves. It was very interesting to see that coming from a woman with my mother’s legacy and a young man with, his legacy is in the future. It was really wonderful to see that kind of rapport growing and how we were able to guide it for the movie. 

GD: This movie is now a contender for Oscars and many other top awards. Sophia, you have a wonderful history with the Oscars when you won for “Two Women” back in the early 1960s. It was a historic win. Never before had a foreign language, subtitled movie won a top Oscar like that and you had been working for many years in Hollywood before you made this movie. You went back to Italy, to your roots, to do true Italian cinema and then that’s what you ended up being rewarded for. It is remarkable. Tell us about that year, because you won the Cannes Film Festival Award. You won the critics awards like the New York Film Critics. You knew that you were suddenly on the map, but suddenly in the Oscar running for something that had never won before. 

SL: I never thought I was going to win because it had never happened before. I was praying to win, but it was not easy for my situation of being Italian and for an Italian film and I prayed. And [Vittorio] De Sica was with me praying because he wanted me to win that Oscar because he had worked with me and he was enchanted for the role, how I took the role, how I did, how I was being helped by him in the sentiment of this wonderful story of this woman with this child, with the war. It was really incredible. But it happened because the role was very strong. I was very young. I was 26 years old. I was very young. But with De Sica, he’s the man who really helped me a lot in the beginning of my career, especially when we did the scene on the street, these soldiers… 

EP: The scene where the soldiers violate your daughter and then they go away…

SL: In the church. And then the scene also that continues in the street where she screams to the soldiers something that I cannot repeat here, it’s impossible, but that scene, it was really the scene that made me explode as a dramatic actress and for that scene, I think I received the Oscar for it. Because I remember after I had done the scene once in the street when I was screaming at the soldiers going away in the car, I said, “We can do it again,” because I thought he did not like it. “We can do it again.” He said, “No, no. You will never do it like this again. It’s incredible what you did. Shut up. I’m going home and I will see you tomorrow and be happy.” De Sica. Can you imagine? For that scene, I received the Oscar. 

GD: You’ve had many memorable moments at the Oscars since then. The year that Roberto Benigni, you open the envelope and said “Roberto!” 

SL: “Roberto! You won! You won!” In a very Italian accent. But he understood right away that he had won.

GD: But he was stuck in his row and couldn’t get out and he crawled on the backs of chairs. 

SL: He was walking over the heads of so many people. It was crazy. “Be careful, be careful!” Everything became very Italian in that moment. No Oscar, nothing. The heads of the people. 

GD: Another time that you introduced the winner was the year that for the first and last time they had past winners, five of them come up and read off the nomination of current nominees and you had Meryl Streep. So that must have been a wonderful experience.

SL: It was very strange, Meryl Streep, even though I didn’t know her, when we met, we became friends right away. Friends. Absolutely. I adore her. She’s a wonderful person, and her family, too. Really great people. I have nice souvenirs. 

GD: Looking back over your whole career. Sophia, what have been some of your other favorite performances that you would encourage people to see? 

SL: Almost every film I did with Vittorio De Sica, all the films. “Ieri, oggi e domani,” for instance, when Marcello Mastroianni is completely naked, he wants me to dance for him. It was a wonderful scene. And De Sica taught him what to do. When De Sica was teaching him what to do, can you imagine at his age? He made us laugh a lot and we had a wonderful time in that film. It was beautiful. Every time De Sica was involved, I had a wonderful time. A wonderful person, very simpatico, very nice, great sense of humor. Wonderful. He was great. 

EP: One of my favorites is also, of course, “A Special Day.” “A Special Day” is one of your greatest performances.

SL: Yes, but it was not De Sica. Ettore Scola.

EP: You’re so internal. And also “Marriage, Italian Style.” 

GD: That’s a classic, of course. 

SL: Yeah, “Marriage, Italian Style,” of course.

GD: Well, congratulations on this movie, both of you. It affected and touched me deeply as a film lover and now it has wonderful awards buzz. So we wish you well in the next few months and encourage everybody to tune in and see “The Life Ahead.” It’s one of Sophia Loren’s greatest performances. Edoardo is at the top of his talents under his many hats for this film, and it’s something that touches the human heart very deeply. So it needed to be made. Congratulations. 

EP: Thank you so much.

SL: Thank you very much. Big kiss!

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