Who on earth does Vincent Gallo think he is? James Mottram meets Hollywood's most outspoken star
Most celebrity websites offer little more than a few photos, cuttings and the occasional message from the star. Not so at vincentgallo.com. Take the merchandising section, fronted by a picture of Gallo dressed in a sailor suit and grabbing his crotch. Among the usual CDs, T-shirts and posters, you can buy such rarities as a Charles Manson artwork (given to Gallo by Johnny Ramone on his 33rd birthday) or the helmet he used when he once raced motorbikes professionally. There's even a section marked "Personal Services". Yes, for $50,000, Gallo has made himself "available to all women – all women who can afford me, that is". You too can spend an evening with Vincent.
In truth, you'd probably get value for money. A self-confessed "strong right-wing Republican" (he doesn't "support extreme leftist concepts"), Gallo may have an ego the size of a hot-air balloon, but even an hour in his company is wildly entertaining. Indeed, who else would have the guts to offer up, on the same website, their own sperm for the princely sum of $1 million? Painter, hip-hop impresario, breakdancer, bass player, male model, actor, film-maker, architect... it's little wonder a cult exists around this self-styled legend in his own lifetime. "Credit where it's due," says Chloë Sevigny, the actress who famously performed fellatio on Gallo in his much-reviled sophomore film The Brown Bunny, "he's a Renaissance man".
When The Brown Bunny, a virtually plotless road movie, was unveiled in 2003, the reviews were savage. Esteemed US critic Roger Ebert called the film "the worst in the history of Cannes", to which Gallo responded that Ebert was a "fat pig with the physique of a slave trader". Nevertheless, he retreated like a wounded animal, cutting 30 minutes from the film before scuttling for shelter, away from the public eye. Since then, he's barely been seen on screen – until now. This month heralds Gallo's triumphant return in the title role of Tetro, the new film from Francis Ford Coppola, one of the greatest directors of all. It's a classic Gallo turn: full of anger, childishness, bile and beauty – just like the character Billy Brown he played in Buffalo '66, his 1998 directorial debut.
I interviewed Gallo for that film. When we meet again, sitting in an airy room in a Venetian villa, he claims to have a dim recollection of the event. "I think it was the first piece of European press that I'd ever done," he says, in that high-speed East Coast whine of his. "And I thought, 'Oh wow, that felt really good.'" He then proceeds to tell me that nothing good ever came of the press he's done over here. "It's gotten me into a lot of trouble, especially in England. If I gain support, the support doesn't seem to mean anything. It's not like anyone really cares about me. It's not like I've developed a real friend, a relationship that's going to be around for a long time." It sums Gallo up – underneath all the bluster, he's a complex mixture of sensitivity and pain.
At first glance, it seems he hasn't changed much since our last encounter. Now aged 49, he's as fragile and as fuck-you as he ever was. Today he's wearing red-and-white dogtooth-patterned trousers and a plain white T-shirt – thankfully free from self-promotion (in Cannes, he was seen to stride around with "Gallo" emblazoned on his chest). His brown hair is what you might call scarecrow-chic while his bushy beard makes you think of late period Jim Morrison. What with those manic blue eyes of his, he would've made a good Charles Manson, a role he was once mooted for in a biopic that never materialised. Then there's his wiry body, with not an ounce of fat on it. "I'm very into food again," he tells me. "I eat a lot of raw things."
While he's not vegetarian, Gallo's lately been shopping for food at outlets he calls "very focused and fanatical", a phrase that could easily describe himself. "I drive out to this quail farm, where I get a lot of these incredible quail eggs, which I eat all day long," he says. "And [I eat] a lot of superfoods like goji, cacao and chia seeds, things like that. And I like unpasteurised milk of the goat and the sheep. They send it once a week from Pennsylvania, from the Amish farms, and I get it in Los Angeles." A health zealot, Gallo hasn't drunk alcohol or taken drugs since he was 14. "I feel that it's mainstream behaviour. I'm repulsed by any mainstream behaviour. And this kind is the most unattractive to me."
In the world of celebrity journalism, where actors are media-trained to be bland, Gallo is like a walking truth serum: put him in front of a captive audience and he unleashes a torrent of invective against all those who've crossed him. When we met before, it was the British actor Tim Roth who was winding him up because he didn't want to star in a movie with him. "Tim fucked me! Tim fucked me," he cried. "And I'm unfuckable." In Cannes, with The Brown Bunny, the whole world was against him. Kirsten Dunst's agent was a "nasty, lunatic woman" while Winona Ryder, who was due to be in the film, proved impossible to get to the set on time. "At 9 o'clock in the morning, she was sleeping with a mask on and earplugs in and no one could get her out of the room. She had some tablets which seemed to have impacted on her behaviour."
For all this, there's a dark humour to Gallo's words, as he lifts the lid, with unflinching honesty, on the Hollywood underbelly. Back in 1997, he famously penned an article for Grand Royal magazine, the in-house publication of the Beastie Boys. In it, he interviewed himself, using the opportunity to slight everyone from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Abel Ferrara, who, he alleged, was too high on crack to direct him properly in the 1996 gangster film The Funeral. It would almost be pointless to try and count the enemies Gallo has since accumulated. "I've never been a popular person, but it doesn't matter," he says. "I have everything in my life that I want. I'm not a walking publicity stunt. I'm not an anarchist, or bitter. I'm not trying to be subversive. I just try to remain unguarded, unprotected by fear, and agents and publicists, and I feel comfortable that way."
While today's conversation shows Gallo has mellowed a little, he still can't help himself. "I'm easily antagonised and easily upset," he says. This time it's Lance Acord, the acclaimed cinematographer who has worked with Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola, as well as shooting Gallo's own debut. "Lance Acord could run around Hollywood telling people that he shot Buffalo '66 but Lance Acord pressed the button when I said, 'Press the button'," says Gallo, beginning to foam at the mouth slightly. Yet despite this one-man siege mentality he seems to exhibit, Gallo is kind to those he loves. Meryl Streep, with whom he starred in The House of the Spirits, is "incredible – sexy, goofy, funny". Likewise his LA Without a Map co-star Julie Delpy – "the funniest, sweetest girl in the world".
Right now, it's all about Coppola. Gallo seems made up that the director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now came calling for him to play in the most autobiographical film of his career. "If Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock asked me to be in a film, I wouldn't have been more excited than I was when Francis called me," he says, breathlessly. "Not even close. It didn't even matter what we made. To tell you the truth, I didn't really like the script. It's not really my cup of tea. You know my taste probably a little. Tetro wouldn't be my cup of tea. It didn't matter. I knew I was in the company of a very special person, and I adjusted to his world, which was very difficult."
While Coppola initially wrote the role with Matt Dillon in mind, he turned to Gallo when it became clear Dillon was unable to make the film, due to scheduling conflicts. "Everyone said, 'You can't work with him. He's terrible. He's a nightmare. He's a monster!'" says Coppola. "But I just called him up and I said, 'Will you come and spend a week with me and just get to know each other?' I went to pick him up at the airport and when I saw him, I just felt he had the right mystery... though he was covered in hair. It took me five haircuts to get his hair down! But I must say he was very intelligent and a pleasure to work with. He was there on time, he worked hard and he always tried to be truthful."
In the film, beautifully shot in black-and-white in Buenos Aires, Gallo's Tetro is a would-be novelist living in the bohemian La Boca district. The meat of the film is his relationship with his younger sibling Bennie (Alden
Ehrenreich), who comes to seek him out a decade after Tetro left home with the unfulfilled promise that he would return. It's a mirror of Coppola's relationship with his late elder brother August (the father of the actor Nicolas Cage). As Gallo puts it: "His brother was older than him. His brother knew all about movies. He taught him about films. He showed him how to write. He taught him everything. And then his younger brother becomes the most successful film-maker in history! So then where is Augie after that in the family?"
The film is almost as personal to Gallo as it is to Coppola, and the actor's own family history is equally troubled. Growing up in Buffalo, New Jersey, where his mother ran a beauty salon, he was not encouraged to pursue a career in the arts. The parents visited by Billy Brown in Buffalo '66 were, to some extent, modelled on his own. "My mother and father are exactly like that, but more painful," he says, as he tells a story of how they once collected him from the airport, when he was 16. Back then, the young Gallo excitedly told them he'd been accepted to study acting under the tutelage of Stella Adler, the famed teacher of Marlon Brando and Harvey Keitel among many others. His father, he says, "slams on the brakes to the car. The car goes skidding into a snow-bank. And he grabs my ear, and he pulls me by my ear from the back seat to the front seat, into the rear-view mirror and he pushes my face, five or six times, into the mirror. The rear-view mirror breaks off from the windshield. And he tells me, 'Look at your face, you retard. You look like Paul Newman? You look like Robert Redford? Those are actors. You look like an idiot. Get a job. Stop telling your mother lies, because she believes you. When you get a job as a plumber or in a gas station, give us a call and we'll come and visit you.' And then he threw me in the back seat." Like all of his anecdotes, it's twisted, shocking and told with all the power of a force-10 gale.
By this time, Gallo was living in New York, hanging out with musicians and artists. He formed the band Gray, with his artist friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, and after a time racing bikes and managing the hip-hop crew New York City Breakers, in 1983, he held his first solo art show in Manhattan. Just 21 at the time, he went on to become one of the most successful American painters of the decade, with Vanity Fair even running an article on his work back in 1990 (the same year he won a bit-part in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas). He quit painting after that, and his screen appearances ever since have been never less than memorable – whether it be as the face of Calvin Klein in a stunning collaboration with the great photographer Richard Avedon, or his Mexican transvestite in Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby.
Yet as Gallo emerges once more into the crosshairs of the critics, I wonder whether he was scarred by his experience in Cannes with The Brown Bunny. "No, I had a wonderful time!" he says, defiantly. "I'm from Buffalo and I'm in the South of France; 3,500 people are hooting and hollering during my movie. That was a high. It was not a provocative film, regardless of what anyone thinks. But they booed from 'A film by Vincent Gallo'. They booed at 'A Vincent Gallo Production'. It didn't take the movie to get them to boo! They booed the opening credits! It would've been nice if I had a more gentle response. It would've been nice if it wasn't a Kafka-esque [experience], if it wasn't The Trial. It didn't matter why I made the film, I had already been accused of why I made the film."
It certainly hasn't put him off directing for life. Among other projects since that fateful Cannes – including designing a house and overseeing the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival in 2005 – he has found time to make a third film, the ultra-low-budget Promises Written in Water. Gallo's cagey about the details, but it's the story of a terminally ill girl. Rather lamely, I ask if it was nice getting back behind the camera. "Well nice is perhaps the wrong word," he smiles, politely. "What makes you go back into being uncomfortable and giving that kind of attention to something? No, I wouldn't say 'nice'. When you decide to go into your basement and clean it all out and reorganise it, is it nice to get back out there and clean it up? Nice is not the word but it feels good when it's done."
Gallo used to be in the rock band Bunny with fellow actor Lukas Haas, and later put out his own well-received CD, When. He says he may return to Europe to play live, but "if there isn't [interest], then cool, I can live with that". Following Tetro, there are already some other acting roles in the can, not least voicing the hero in the Swedish animated movie Metropia, in which his bald character looks suspiciously like his friend, the similarly provocative director Gaspar Noé. "My least favourite face is Gaspar Noé's!" he giggles. "Meaning, if God said you could be anyone, I would pick Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. If God said you're going to be Gaspar Noé, I'd go to the nearest bridge and jump."
One suspects that he won't. Such are his powers of self-belief, Vincent Gallo probably feels immortal.