Interview: Joe Dallesandro
An underground legend if ever there was one, Joe Dallesandro has endured as one of the most iconic faces of independent cinema in the 1960s and ’70s. Having gotten his start within the Factory scene, Dallesandro made his mark in a sequence of films by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, beginning with The Loves of Ondine (68) and concluding with Blood for Dracula (74). (And, of course, he provided the Levi’s-clad bulge that appears on the unzippable cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers.) His sui generis career then saw him decamping for Europe, where he starred in numerous Italian poliziotteschi films, not to mention audacious efforts by Jacques Rivette (Merry-Go-Round, 81), Walerian Borowczyk (La Marge, 76), Louis Malle (Black Moon, 75) and Serge Gainsbourg (Je t’aime moi non plus, 76). A strange trip, indeed; but Dallesandro’s career has established him as one of the era’s most unforgettable sex symbols and inimitable screen presences, not to mention a fearless performer showcased by some of the period’s great envelope-pushers.
FILM COMMENT sat down with Dallesandro in February, on the eve of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s presentation of Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime moi non plus, a screening that reunited Dallesandro with his co-star, Jane Birkin—herself the co-subject of FSLC’s retrospective, “Jane and Charlotte Forever”—to discuss his career. The interview sadly coincided with the news that Rivette had passed away at 87, so accordingly the conversation began with the Nouvelle Vague’s incomparable night watchman.
I wanted to ask you, in light of the news today, about Jacques Rivette. Could you say a bit about your relationship with him and talk about the shooting of Merry-Go-Round? It’s kind of a legendary production, in a way.
The thing was, they called me in on the project because I think they’d already signed Maria [Schneider] to be a part of this film, and it started off in England, and Jacques had had somewhat of a breakdown, so they’d lost a lot of money. But even with the remainder they thought they had enough to make a film in Jacques’s style. It’d be, you know, 24 hours long, or even longer. And they brought me in on the project because they knew that I was a friend of Maria’s and thought that I could have some sort of control over her, and I had a reputation for doing my work and finishing it. I had a good reputation in Europe. So people liked working with me. I got called in and I was an insurable actor and they could stop the film if I got sick, stuff like that. The film started to go way too long. I knew Maria had stopped at a certain point, she didn’t want to do it anymore. She had a couple of days like that at the beginning. When we had filmed an awful lot she wanted to stop and they brought in a double for her [Hermine Karagheuz], and then I felt like, “Oh, well, this could go on forever for me too, so I need to stop.” So I told them the forest scenes would be the last scenes I’d be doing.
The inserts that appear intermittently throughout the film, of you running around?
Yeah. So that basically was the way we got through the film. We had to tell Jacques that the movie was over—otherwise, it could have gone on forever.
It’s often said that Rivette had an almost mystical regard for actors, and Merry-Go-Round was essentially all improvised, right?
Right. I’ve never seen the finished movie so I don’t know what it turned out to be. The making of it was very strange. But we all had a good time because we were, you know… when you improvise stuff you’re closer to another actor than when you are going on and becoming a character from a script. I’m always Joe anyway, so it wasn’t like I was gonna truly become somebody else.
Well then, I guess, since the occasion for your being here now is to present Je t’aime moi non plus at the Film Society, could you say a bit about how you got involved in the film and how Serge Gainsbourg approached you? What was it like working with Serge and Jane?
Serge is the one who approached me, yes. They were great people. Just a great couple that were truly a couple. They were fun to be with. It was really difficult to shoot a film where your love interest is the wife of the man who’s directing it. The film had to be erotic and I had to be very cool. I was doing multiplication tables in my head the whole time. But I loved both of them very much. They were very special people.
Did you think the idea sounded kind of crazy when Serge explained what the film would be about?
Yeah, but I thought it was the right time for it. It was ahead of its time. I thought the public was gonna be ready for that kind of story. I thought it’d have been a nice success if they’d released it back then. But they weren’t giving Serge the kind of play he wanted. I don’t know exactly why it didn’t get a release, but I think it had something to do with what he was looking for them to do with it versus what they were willing to do as distributors. But that’s the story of my life, of my career. I was always doing things that were good enough to bring some attention to me and never got the kind of play I needed them to get. But I also thought then that I could never come back here to America to work because of my work with the Warhol people…
Je t’aime moi non plus
What do you make of the trajectory that your career has taken, starting with the Warhol films which are very unlike any other films that have ever been made, and then going to Europe and doing a number of art films and genre films, and finally coming back to America and making totally different kinds of films?
Well, I was being groomed by [Paul] Morrissey to go over there, to Europe, to make films. So when we went over to do those last two films I did with them, which were [Flesh for] Frankenstein  and [Blood for] Dracula , I was already offered a couple of other films to do before I even finished the Frankenstein thing. I wanted to stay, and me and Paul were on the outs. He mentioned to people that he didn’t feel I could do the script. So that just made me angry to the point where I wouldn’t do anything unless they wrote it for me. So Frankenstein and Dracula were being written every day by Pat Hackett so that I would have lines to do, otherwise I wouldn’t talk.
What was the atmosphere of a Warhol shoot before Paul sort of took the reigns and properly assumed the directorial mantle?
By the time I had come and begun working with them, Paul was pretty much set up, trying to give Andy direction on how the films should be made. The first thing I did with them was this movie called The Loves of Ondine . But Andy’s original idea for it was a 24 hour movie [****, (67)], and they had just cut this piece out to make The Loves of Ondine. So yeah, the films I shot where Andy sat behind the camera were much different than the ones I did with Paul.
Like Lonesome Cowboys …
On Lonesome Cowboys Andy sat behind the camera, and he’d be reading the newspaper and he’d turn the camera on and off. That’s how it’d work. So it was an altogether different thing. You know you’d hear Andy laughing, and that meant the camera was on because he’d found something funny. Sound was always so bad: we had such a bad sound system. And Paul would take that material and edit it into movies.
Were you pleased or a little resistant when Paul wanted to call the shots? Because it seemed he wanted to make more conventional films—granted, according to his understanding of what a “conventional film” was—whereas Warhol’s approach was a bit more freeform, spontaneous, chaotic.
Paul gave direction during those films. He would come up to you and tell you where he wanted you to take the story and to improvise dialogue around certain ideas that he had. So you’d do that, and Holly [Woodlawn] was really good at it, and I think my thing in Trash  was to react to the people that were in it. And Flesh  was a different movie altogether. I pretty much thought we were gonna shoot another movie and then it just became something else as we went along with it. I said, “Well this has nothing to do with a boxer!” Paul would trick me. He’d tell me we were gonna do something and then we didn’t. But that was alright. I trusted him in that. He would always tell me that we were making an Andy Warhol movie that would one day show in museums. And now he rants and raves about how much he hated Andy. It’s crazy.
Paul was always there when Andy shot his films. He was always on the sidelines giving everybody direction while Andy sat behind the camera. But when a person sits behind the camera and is controlling the editing by turning the camera on and off, it doesn’t matter what you’re told to do in front of the camera if it’s not on.
So would you say there was a power struggle between them, or was it that Andy was so distanced that he was above conflicts like that?
Yeah, he wouldn’t fight over anything. It was just his way of doing things. It doesn’t matter if someone’s telling him, “We should shoot this.” It was his way of making his films. I mean, I’m sure he understood what Paul was saying, but he had his way of doing things and he wasn’t gonna change.
And then you went on to work with some pretty major European directors, like Walerian Borowczyk and Louis Malle. I mean, it’s an amazing list—did working with those guys come naturally to you? Was there any adjustment for you, given that their methods were totally different from those of Warhol and Morrissey?
In the films that I did when I went to Europe, I promised myself I wasn’t gonna work with an arthouse filmmaker, but my manager at the time pointed out to me that I needed to continue to make art films because that’s what I was known for [the Warhol/Morrissey films]. And my films had never shown in Italy when I first went to live there, because they said nobody would relate to these films since supposedly people weren’t hustling in Italy, and I would laugh because I just thought that what we were doing basically originated over in Italy. I think they got that, but they still weren’t gonna release the movies. So the directors I came to work with, and the producers, were people who went and saw those movies in other places and saw that we’d done these films with Andy—these films that were done very cheaply and very quickly, and had an audience. So yeah, they thought, “This is a good character to put in our movie.” I had a following already, but they made my following bigger.
So how did La Marge come about? How did Borowczyk approach you?
Well, his producers approached me through an interpreter, because I didn’t speak French and he didn’t speak English, and the producers were these very old style producers. So it was a very weird combination, these producers and the types of movies that Walerian made. It was very strange to have them producing it and to have the star actress… I just thought the combination of Joe Dallesandro and Sylvia [Kristel] was a combination that couldn’t be beat. I didn’t know that Sylvia wanted to be a nun, that she didn’t want to be that character anymore. It was a little difficult when an erotic scene has one person trying to make it a sex scene and the other person trying to make it something completely different. But I think it turned into an interesting type of film.
Oh, absolutely. How did you react when you they told you they wanted to bandage your arm, to cover your tattoo?
I thought that was a great idea. I couldn’t be Joe forever. I had to be somebody different once. That’s the biggest mistake, tattooing your name in a place where anyone can see it.
I’m curious, did you have a favorite director to work with, or any favorite collaborators more generally?
I thought that the best films I did… You know, I had a great relationship with Paul, getting through a lot of that. But when I moved on to do a different style of film with the people in Europe… My relationship with Serge was incredible. I really loved doing [Je t’aime moi non plus]. I thought it was a great film, and I had a lot of fun making it. I just felt bad it didn’t get the kind of release I would have liked here in America. Because it could’ve brought me back here. It was that good, in my mind.
And I was also wondering—with such a diverse body of work, a lot of it in the underground—what was the strangest or most insane role or situation that you found yourself in working on these films?
They were all quite different, you know? The work I did with Borowczyk was very different from what I did with Rivette, and what I did with Rivette was entirely different from what I did with Malle, and what I did with Malle was very different than what I did with Gainsbourg. I mean, those were my European art films or whatever. And then I had these different films that I shot in Italy that were just “shoot ’em up” bad-boy films, and there was no art in them at all. I’m sure in their minds these directors thought they were doing wonderful projects with me running around trying to kill people with a pitchfork or a forklift, but they were just crazy, angry, bad-boy films. They still do a lot of them today, too. It wasn’t anything that was gonna excite anyone over here in America. I couldn’t even get them to use my voice. They couldn’t decide… I told them, “Look, I have a following. Shoot the movie in English, and you’ll have a way of selling it. People are not gonna buy this movie in an English-speaking market if it’s dubbed.” And they got so upset with me over that that they didn’t even call me back to dub in my lines when the sound had to be redone. So, basically, my Italian films are just my image. Nothing to do with the acting. Maybe a couple of them do, but most of them don’t.
What are you up to now? And what’s next for you? I know you’ve said that you’re open to working on a new film if it’s small enough and tailored enough to you?
[Laughs] There’s nothing scheduled. I’m just not saying, like before, no to everything. But if something comes up and somebody is interested, then I might think about it.
Dan Sullivan is the assistant programmer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.