Always a Rebel: Alessandro Nivola on The Big Cigar


In 1974, film producer Bert Schneider – the producer behind such industry shifting New Hollywood hits as “Easy Rider, “Five Easy Pieces, and “The Last Picture Show” – put together a fake film production in order to help Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, escape to Cuba after a warrant is issued for his arrest. 

If this story sounds a bit like “Argo,” that’s because it’s based on an article written by Joshuah Bearman, who also penned the article on which the Oscar-winning film was based. Bearman’s retelling of this larger-than-life Hollywood meets activism story has been developed by “Winning Time” co-creator Jim Hecht for an Apple TV+ limited series entitled “The Big Cigar.” 

André Holland brings his signature magnetism and depth to his prickly portrayal of the conflicted activist Huey P. Newton, whose constant harassment by the U.S. Government has affected not only his work but also his personal life. The always intriguing Alessandro Nivola walks the fine line between comedy and tragedy with his take on the passionate but often unreliable Schneider, whose commitment to the cause becomes affected by his various addictions. 

Nivola spoke to over Zoom about developing television projects with a cinematic flair, how Warren Beatty in “Shampoo” shaped his performance, and the uneasy marriage of privilege and activism. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

In the past, we’ve talked a lot about how you usually look for a director you want to work with for your film projects. With television, there are often a lot more directors involved, although there’s usually a showrunner or some main creative force. In the case of “The Big Cigar,” you’ve got Don Cheadle directing several episodes and a story developed by Jim Hecht. What are you looking for with the television projects you’ve participated in?

Emily [Mortimer], my wife, and I have a production company. We’re developing television and have a deal at Sony. A big part of the way that we are developing television is around filmmakers. We want as much as possible to try to make the filmmaker the central focus of the development process. Obviously, once you get into filming, if it’s an ongoing or long-running series, it’s impossible to have one single director. Still, I feel like if a director can be involved in the development process as much as possible, there’s a better chance that the show will have a particular style. A look and feel and rhythm to it that hopefully then can be continued as other directors come in. 

With something as short as “The Big Cigar,” it’s not unthinkable for a single director to do a six-episode series, but it’s still not that common. In this case, the scripts had a very specific tone and style. That was apparent on the page. Just from reading it, it was clear that there was a kind of marriage of something that had an absurdist element to it, with an undercurrent of something a lot more upsetting and relevant to the current moment. 

Jim Hecht had done “Winning Time,” so I knew that this had a little bit of that element, but here, it was applied to a completely different world with different stakes. So, just from reading it, it was clear that it was going to have a particular visual style that was all its own and that didn’t feel like a lot of other television. 

So much of TV, in general, starts to look the same, just in terms of the way it’s lit and shot. It’s starting to change because more and more auteur filmmakers are getting involved in making TV, and the visual storytelling element of television is growing in importance. I think traditionally, TV relied so much on dialog to tell the story, as opposed to visual imagery. And in my mind, that’s why I always preferred film. But I do think that that’s changing.

Your character, Bert Schneider, is often high as a kite. What was the research process like for his physicality?

I did a lot of research about Bert Schneider, but there wasn’t a lot to go on regarding his physicality and behavior because he was a behind-the-scenes guy, at least as far as film entertainment goes. He was very much on the scene as far as his social life went. But the only video footage of him that you can find is him accepting his Academy Award for the documentary I’m making in the series called “Hearts and Minds,” which was an anti-Vietnam War documentary. So I had that tiny little clip of him. 

He famously read out a letter from the leader of the Viet Cong at the end of the Vietnam War, thanking the American progressive public for having protested against the war. And I think Frank Sinatra, who was much more reactionary and conservative in his attitudes toward the Vietnam War, was so furious with him that he punched him backstage at the Oscars after he read it. So I had that little bit to go on. 

But really, I would say, the thing I spent the most time with just in terms of his physicality and the way that he spoke and what his attitude was, I got from watching Warren Beatty in Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo,” which was exactly this period. He was a very similar kind of character. And in fact, I think Bert Schneider, along with every other man in Hollywood or on the planet at that time, wanted to be Warren Beatty. He was the biggest, coolest star in Hollywood at that particular moment. They were in the same circles. Bert even references him in the series. Beatty’s character in “Shampoo” had a lot of the same tone as Bert, where he’s a little bit hapless and ultimately ends up alone and sad at the end of all of his sexual exploits. In other words, “Shampoo” was about the bill coming due for the excess of the late 60s and early 70s. 

And there is a big element of that in this story, I think. It was true about both Bert and Huey. They had these big ideas in the late ’60s, and they wanted to change the world and start a revolution and everything. But, by the end of the ’70s, they were both coke addicts. Cocaine represented the end of peace and love and the beginning of this self-obsession and disintegration of all of the idealism of the late 60s. “Shampoo” is about what lies underneath this veil of something light and almost silly. So I thought that was a good model for “The Big Cigar” and how this story was being told.

You mentioned earlier how this film can speak to world events. Do you think people watching this, seeing what happened with Huey and the government, what happened with Bert and his ideals, that it speaks to today’s activism and politics?

I mean, no question that in the last five years, a lot of the scenes that you see in the series look familiar. It’s not an accident. There’s no question that there was a feeling of optimism as the Civil Rights Movement was coming to a head that faded away a little bit as time moved on. I think there was a reckoning in the past five years where everybody suddenly took stock and realized that while there were a lot of things that had progressed, there were others that hadn’t at all and that that was a real problem that needed to be faced in this country. 

It’s obvious when you see these scenes in the series and you see what happened to George Floyd. They could be the same; they look the same. I think this series handles that pretty deftly. I don’t think the series was constructed or designed as a moralizing lesson that it’s trying to jam down your throat. 

It deals with these different issues on the Hollywood side, too, in terms of the motivation for Bert’s activism: how white privilege can’t solve problems with the racial divide. Bert’s reasons for getting involved with the Black Panthers, I think, really evolved over time. His activism in general became more and more the focus of his life. By 1974, he produced his last movie and really dedicated the rest of his life to political activism.

Do you think it explores the balance between performative activism and the weight you actually need to put into real activism? 

Yeah, for sure. Bert was always a rebel. The guy was kicked out of Cornell for gambling. He always wanted to live on the edge a little bit. But, one thing that drove him towards full total commitment to radical activism was having had so much success with such a mainstream television show as “The Monkees.” I think that, inasmuch as it made him rich and gave him so much power in Hollywood, and allowed him to be able to self-finance “Easy Rider,” I think it irked him that, as this wave of counter-culture, youth culture was starting to sweep the nation, that he was part of this almost anachronistic television show that was so tame. He needed something that would show that he meant business.

I think the danger that the Black Panthers represented provided that for him, initially, and then I think slowly, it became more of a personal commitment to Huey himself. But, in terms of the bigger picture, I think it will eternally be an uneasy marriage of privilege and activism and trying to prove your authenticity and all those things. For somebody who didn’t suffer growing up, there will always be the question, “What’s the reason for this? What skin do you have in this game?”

I wanted to ask about the Louvin Brothers project you and Ethan Hawke have been working on. I’ve been following it for what seems like a decade now. Is there any progress on that?

It has come together and fallen apart about five different times. We are cautiously optimistic that we may have a new investor now. We’re still totally committed to it. Ethan is one of my very best friends. We meet up most days a week for breakfast, and hardly a day goes by where the Louvin brothers aren’t part of the conversation. So we feel hopeful. It’s such a great script and an amazing story. And the music is so particular. We just always wanted to act together. He directed me in “A Lie of the Mind” off-Broadway.

The Sam Shepard revival. 

Yeah. That was the thing that really brought us together. We’ve known each other since we were in our twenties when we both first came to New York, and that solidified our friendship. It was funny because he was a director and I was an actor, but we’d always wanted to do something together as actors, and we’d been looking for plays that we could do together. So this was something that we cooked up ourselves as an excuse to be able to act together, but then it took on its own life. And the more we learned about these characters, the more fascinating their story became and the more entertaining and compelling. So we were determined to make it. We may just have found the money.

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