Sophia Loren: ‘I’ve always tried to play women with a strong character’

She’s one of the most famous screen sirens, but the Italian actor was always drawn to roles with grit – and that hasn’t stopped now she’s 86. As she returns playing a tough former sex worker in her son’s new film, she tells Alexandra Pollard where her daring nature comes from

Sophia Loren is one of the most recognisable women on the planet, the kind of supernaturally gifted screen siren they don’t make anymore. But ask the 86-year-old if she’s ever wanted to be normal and she seems puzzled. “Why do you think that when one is a star, this is not normal?” she says, her accent thick as treacle. “And they say that I am a star; I don’t know. I never felt so normal in my life.”

Stardom probably does feel routine by now. The Italian actor has been famous since before men landed on the moon. A vibrant vestige of cinema’s Golden Age, she has gone toe to toe with John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Clarke Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Marcello Mastroianni, Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. She’s defied tradition and type, playing sex workers and immigrants, duplicitous spies and restless housewives, all while being dismissed by thigh-rubbing critics as a “lush and plush sexpot”, a “vamp”, an “adornment”. In 1960, for her tour-de-force turn as a mother fleeing the horrors of war in Two Women, she became the first-ever actor to win an Oscar for a non-English-language performance. She’s won five Golden Globes; a Grammy; the Venice Film Festival’s Volpi Cup; Cannes’ Best Actress; the Academy’s lifetime achievement award. She was honoured with the 2,000th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Rolling Stones wrote a song about her, “Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren)”. If she isn’t a star, no one is.

“I don’t know, I’m mixed up,” she says. “I will think about it. Maybe in a month or so we can talk again.”

Loren is speaking to me over Zoom. Even without her camera on, she is a maelstrom of charisma. “It’s hard for me to express myself in another language,” she laments, and yet she is so expressive that she cries twice, offers to embrace me once, and ends answers by saying things like, “voila, thank you, that’s my story”.

She’s at her home in Geneva, Switzerland – a home that makes Buckingham Palace look drab. I’ve seen photos; there are chandeliers, marble sculptures, silver candelabras, ornately framed paintings. An entire room is dedicated to her panoply of gold statuettes. But even a mansion isn’t so great when you’re not allowed to leave it. And even stars aren’t exempt from a pandemic. “I don’t know what to do with my life,” she says, after a long sigh, when I ask how she’s been, “because I am at home. I don’t leave. I don’t want to go out. I’m scared to death. The film is the only thing that I feel close to because it’s for me. It’s mine. It’s my creature.”

The film is why we’re talking. The Life Ahead, Loren’s first starring role in over a decade, might just get her another Oscar nod. Directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, who’s sitting next to her now to help with translation, it is an odd-couple Italian drama that’s as gritty as it is fantastical. Loren is Madam Rosa, a Holocaust survivor and former sex worker who now looks after the children of other women in the profession. She is hard-headed but compassionate, hiding old trauma behind gold hoops, hair spray and a sharp tongue. When Rosa agrees to take in Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), a 12-year-old Senegalese boy who stole her handbag, the pair develop a prickly bond.

“The role, it was beautiful,” says Loren. “She was strong, she was fragile, she was funny, touching… everything that a woman is and everything I have always wanted to bring on the screen. In my career, I’ve always tried to play women with a strong character.”

Many of those women – even in Loren’s many comedies, for which she had to “switch to my Neopolitan side” – have existed somewhere in the margins of society. There was Mara in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), an escort who brushes off her neighbour’s suggestion that she’ll go to hell and performs the most joyous striptease committed to celluloid. There was Antonietta in A Special Day (1977), a discontented fascist’s wife who grows close to her gay neighbour (Marcello Mastroianni, Loren’s most regular co-star). And there was Filumena in Marriage, Italian Style (1964), who tries to trick her philandering lover (Mastroianni again) into marriage so that her three children, born out of wedlock, might have a family name. That one earned her a second Oscar nomination – and hit particularly close to home. “I was born in a family which was… not traditional,” she says.

<p>Loren as Madam Rosa with Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) in ‘The Life Ahead’, her first starring role in over a decade</p>
Loren as Madam Rosa with Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) in ‘The Life Ahead’, her first starring role in over a decade(Regine De Lazzaris aka Greta)

Before there was Sophia Loren, there was Sofia Villani Scicolone, born in a charity ward for unwed mothers in 1934. “My mother Romilda was a beautiful woman,” recalls Loren. “She wanted to be an actress because she looked exactly like Greta Garbo. Every time she went out in the street, people would gather round her asking for her autograph.” In fact, when her mother was a teenager, she won a Greta Garbo lookalike competition. The prize was a trip to America, but her parents wouldn’t let her go. “Nothing happened to her,” says Loren. “She was always very lonely. She was strong but not really. She meant to be, but she was not as strong as she wanted to show – to other people or to herself.”

When the Second World War began, Sofia, her mother and her younger sister Maria – the children’s father wanted nothing to do with them and refused to even grant Maria his last name – lived on rationed bread and foraged food in the Neapolitan city of Pozzuoli. Sofia was so malnourished that the other kids would call her “toothpick” – when they weren’t chiding her for being illegitimate.

<p>Loren performs the most joyous striptease committed to celluloid as ‘Mara in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ (1963)</p>
Loren performs the most joyous striptease committed to celluloid as ‘Mara in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ (1963)(Rex Features)

“The children at school all had families with a father,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t say I was envious, because I loved my friends very much, but I was not like them. I felt different. And the little boys, they joked about me, and I suffered very much for it. A great deal. But it didn’t make us any less of a family because my mother was not married,” she adds. “Maybe it made us more of a family, because we bonded over the fact that we were not like the others.”

Telling stories of non-traditional families, she says, “can help other little girls and boys be proud of the families that they have. We all deserve to be loved deeply and honestly.”

When Loren grew out of the toothpick phase, she began entering beauty pageants. This is probably the time to mention the obvious: that Loren is beautiful. So beautiful that she has become almost synonymous with the word. In her youth, she had to contend with lascivious male co-star after lascivious male co-star. Cary Grant, who was married, became besotted with her on the set of 1958’s Houseboat. Peter Sellers, also married, declared his love for her in front of his wife. Marlon Brando – you guessed it, married – made unwanted advances on the set of 1967’s A Countess from Hong Kong. She warned him off by hissing at him. But that beauty was always a Trojan horse through which she smuggled a million other things: goofiness, grit, steeliness, humour, loneliness, vulnerability. When the renowned film producer Carlo Ponti turned up at one of her pageants, it may have been her beauty that first caught his attention, but it was her talent that kept it. He just had one suggestion. Might she consider having a little work done on her nose? “If I have to change my nose,” she told him, “I’m going back to Puzzuoli.”

<p>Loren and Marlon Brando at a cinema in Rome in 1954</p>
Loren and Marlon Brando at a cinema in Rome in 1954(Getty Images)

Gradually, nose intact, Loren built up her reputation. Bit parts in low-budget productions grew into starring roles. When she landed her first big film, Aida, in 1953, she used the one-million lire fee to buy her sister the rights to their father’s surname. “I was lucky enough to receive for myself roles that were good for my appearance,” she says, “and were good for my inside.”

Loren was green back then, but she credits the Italian director Vittorio de Sica with looking out for her. “I was 16,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to think. I must say if I hadn’t known Vittorio, I don’t think I would have done as well as I’ve done. He was a wonderful maestro of acting.” Even before they worked together, de Sica would mentor Loren over long phone calls. “He gave me strength. Strength to go on and never be afraid of daring. Never.”

<p>Loren has one Oscar, five Golden Globes and many, many more awards</p>
Loren has one Oscar, five Golden Globes and many, many more awards(Edoardo Ponti)

She would eventually work with de Sica on a dozen films. The pair did some of their best work together, and Two Women was perhaps the finest of the lot. As Cesira, a widowed mother who escapes to her rural hometown when Rome comes under siege, Loren gave a striking performance, defying conventions of femininity with moments of untethered rage. It was revolutionary. Think of her telling a casual lover: “You are not my master. I am nobody’s property”. Or confronting a truckload of soldiers after she and her 13-year-old daughter have been gang-raped. “Do you know what they have done, these ‘heroes’ that you command?” she asks a US officer, flinging herself in front of his truck. “No I’m not mad. I’m not mad. Look at her and tell me I am mad.” As they speed off, she hurls rocks in their direction before crumpling in on herself in the middle of the dusty road.

Loren only did that scene once. “De Sica said, ‘Let’s wrap up and go home’,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Why? What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘You will never do it again because it was perfect’… I would have never thought that de Sica would ever say this to me. Each time I see it, I say, ‘Maybe he was right.’ It worked wonderfully. I gave him a kiss on the cheek. Oh yes. Now I’m going to cry for a while. Because I’m very much emotional.”

<p>In 1960, Loren became the first-ever actor to win an Oscar for a non-English-language performance, in ‘Two Women’</p>
In 1960, Loren became the first-ever actor to win an Oscar for a non-English-language performance, in ‘Two Women’(Rex Features)

Loren felt destined to be in movies, but she felt another yearning, too. “I always thought about the house, about children, about family,” she says. After turning down Grant, she married Ponti in 1958. There was a small hiccup in the form of a bigamy trial – Ponti’s divorce from his first wife wasn’t legally recognised in Italy – but they soon smoothed things over and married again in 1966. Two years later, her first child, Carlo Jr, was born. Edoardo came along five years later. I’ve seen Loren and her younger son together in interviews, he with his arm draped around her, she softly kissing his hand.

“They are beautiful,” says Loren of her sons. “The memory that I always want in my life is when I started to be pregnant, and I started to think that one day, I will be a mother.” There’s a pause. “If I go on, I will cry. Be careful, because we are almost there. You don’t know me, but I am like this very much.”

Her family was the reason Loren took a step back from acting at the start of the Eighties, and has returned only sporadically since. “One day I was at home, and I was thinking, ‘My God, I’m working so hard since I was 17 years old,’” she says. “In the meantime, I got married, and I had two children, and I thought to myself, ‘My God, I don’t enjoy them anymore because I cannot be with them anymore.’ It was like a… un lampo… como se dice un lampo?” “A lightning bolt,” says Edoardo. “Like a light…,” she says, before losing confidence. “And I said to myself, ‘I want to enjoy my children, I want to stay with them, because after all, I had them, they are beautiful’. And so I put a stop to everything, and without knowing, I was out of cinema for a long time.”

<p>Loren with English director Anthony Asquith on the set of ‘The Millionairess’ in 1960</p>
Loren with English director Anthony Asquith on the set of ‘The Millionairess’ in 1960(Getty Images)

It was Edoardo who persuaded Loren to do The Life Ahead. If it hadn’t been for him, her final film might have been 2009’s Nine, Rob Marshall’s disastrous romantic musical starring Daniel Day Lewis. Edoardo and Lauren enjoyed working together, though I’m surprised to learn that she still needed constant reassurance from him. “I’m sometimes very tragic,” she says. “I’m very, very, very much: ‘Everything is going bad.’ It’s a defence for me. Because if I have a very important scene to do, I don’t know if… if I will be able to. I didn’t go to the school of acting so I don’t know anything about…” She catches herself. “No, I know my feelings.”

She has four grandchildren, who are, she says, the most beautiful grandchildren she’s ever seen in her life. Does she show them her films? “I don’t want to impose on them things that they are not interested in,” she says. Edoardo laughs. “They saw their grandmother’s last movie, that’s for sure,” he says of The Life Ahead. “Oh yes, oh yes, twice, absolutely, yes,” says Loren. And did they like it? “Yes.” Edoardo’s 14-year-old daughter had watched it alone in her bedroom and came out tear-stricken. “I have never seen my daughter be so affected by a movie,” he says. “That’s when I felt, ‘If this movie can touch a 14-year-old, then maybe the world will respond to it as well.’”

A recent article suggested that Madam Rosa hearkened back to the “combative” characters that Loren played in her heyday. Does she agree? Did she play combative women? “Eh?” she says. “People who always fight,” says Edoardo. “No, no, no!” says Loren, each “no” a little more emphatic. “No!” There’s a silence. She thinks again. “Maybe if they fight,” she says, “it’s to get better things from life.”

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