We spoke to the Game of Thrones actor about inhabiting the skin of pop culture phenomenon, Andrea Bocelli.
Biopics are a dime a dozen. Rise and fall musician stories are even more prevalent and often suffer under the true-to-life misery that usually scars an icon’s lifestyle. Director Michael Radford (1984, Il Postino) was not looking to repeat this formula with his subject, Andrea Bocelli. The Music of Silence is based on the Italian singer’s autobiographical novel in which he details his late-to-life success story as one of the most popular performers in the world. Bocelli’s records have sold more than 80 million copies, and while he routinely filled stadiums with adoring fans in the 1990s, he also managed to attract the attention of popes, presidents, kings, and queens.
Toby Sebastian (Game of Thrones, Barely Lethal) faced some serious anxiety in taking on the role of this pop culture idol, but through sheer immersion, he found the man behind the legend. Bocelli’s one instruction to both the actor and the director was that his blindness was to never be treated as a disability. It was certainly a challenge, but also an advantage in deconstructing the craft of vocal performance. Sebastian had seven weeks to fully engage himself in the mannerisms and techniques of Bocelli’s artistry. We discuss the challenges of not falling into mimicry, the details needed to sell authenticity of character, and the complicated process of lip-synching to a genuine maestro.
The Music of Silence opens in theaters today and is currently available on VOD and Digital HD.
How do you prepare to play such a pop culture icon as Andrea Bocelli?
Well, several things. I mean, I could have had several years to prepare on this and it still wouldn’t have been enough in my eyes. I still wouldn’t have been happy. But in my case, I had seven weeks, and the good thing about playing someone who is alive and is current and is huge in the public eye, is there is a ton of footage you can watch somewhat, which, for me, is invaluable because I’m very good at looking at the way someone moves and then recreating that. So, I had seven weeks to basically just dive into it and binge watch videos, and read articles about him, and hear him talk, and hear his voice. And then best of all is I got to go to Porto D’armi in Tuscany and go and spend about five days with him. He played me the songs that I had to sing, so I could watch him playing them, so I could see the way he moved in all of those songs.
I could hear him, and I got to just watch how he walks around, how he moves, and how he can tell if the door is open by clicking his fingers. They have a rule in the house that the door is either open, or it’s either closed. If it’s in the middle when he clicks his fingers, or when he taps his feet then there’s not enough surface for the sound to bounce off of. So, little things like that, I could use. But meeting him was just extraordinary and I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did without having been that fortunate.
Was there any anxiety in portraying a real-life figure?
Yeah, in all honesty, I was a little terrified, but I knew it was healthy because I know that when I feel that it’s a good thing and I thrive off it. Yeah, it’s definitely scary. After I met him, I remember watching these films of the songs that I had to sing. I remember it kind of being apparent that I had bitten off more than I can chew. And of course, I knew that I could do it, but it was a lot of pressure for someone who’s such an important person in the world and is viewed so highly. But once I met him, after those five days, everything calmed down because he’s incredibly welcoming, and you kind of get into a groove. Once you kind of say, “Right, I can do it. This is fine.” You’re fine. Just one step in front of the other. You know?
And you got validation from him eventually. I just saw his Instagram post about you. That’s got to be a relief.
Yeah, I gotta tell you. It’s the biggest relief to see that. Just lovely, really, really, lovely for him to say that. And he didn’t need to, he really didn’t. And none of his family needed to say the things they said. So, it’s a real comedown point.
One of the aspects of the film that I appreciated so much was that it takes time to explain the craft of vocal performance. I mean, yes, he was born with a natural talent, but it also has to be trained, shaped, and protected. And as a musician yourself, how important was it for you to get the nuts and bolts of the performance accurate?
It was really complicated because first of all he’s an Italian, and I’ve never sung opera before, and I wanted a … It’s like, I could have just opened my mouth and pretended to sing it anyway, but of course, any event you’re playing some of those people you’re running the risk of like, every single person that loves Andrea Bocelli as an opera singer, or sings in that style is gonna be watching. And you want to make sure that you look the part, and that was really hard. But, you know what? I had some lessons, but most of the learning that I got was literally from watching him. But for me, obviously, as a musician it mattered even more. I hate it when I see someone playing a guitar or if they’re playing a singer or a pianist thing, and I can see the flaws. I really, really, dislike it, it really bugs me. So, it was just as important as the rest of my characterization, it was just as important as me playing blind, or speaking with an Italian accent.
Were you familiar with Bocelli’s music before getting the part?
A little bit. I didn’t know a lot, I knew “Con Te Partiro,” his main song, but I didn’t … I knew of him, I didn’t know a ton of his music. Even when I just started auditioning, before I even got the role, I would listen to it constantly. A little bit, not tons. But it wasn’t playing in my household, at my family home.
What initially connected you to the character?
I just thought it was a wonderful story. I thought that as an actor to be able to show so many things, and to go from 15 to 34 … First of all, there’s the story, which I thought was beautiful, and I loved the struggle that he had. And some people were saying, “Yeah, but what’s the story?” A lot of people don’t know about his life. And for me, when I read the script there’s so much and there’s lovely arcs in it, and there’s so much I can play with, and so many emotions to show. And aging from 15 to 24, I had no idea how I was going to do it. Well, I had a little idea, but I didn’t really know if that was the way I should do it. The whole thing was just very intelligently written. It was based Andrea Bocelli’s book, “The Music of Silence,” but also Mike Radford, and his wife Anna, they wrote a stunningly beautiful script, and it flowed. It flowed and it was really pretty.
What was your relationship with Michael Radford? He’s a bit of a maestro himself.
Yeah, and I mean, it was a bit like working with Antonio Banderas, or Andrea Bocelli. He’s someone that I so highly regarded, and of course, I loved his films as well, so it was a massive honor to have gotten the role in the first place. And even when I was auditioning for it I remember I met Mike, I think, after two or three auditions, and he isn’t scary because he’s very nice, and he’s a very warm person. But there is also this sense of, “Can I be enough for him?” After all the great actors he’s worked with and all these wonderful materials he’s created, but very quickly you kind of get him into a groove. And He made something rather complex, so it was lovely.
What’s interesting about Bocelli’s book is that it wasn’t really a memoir, it was more of an autobiographical novel. And the film also takes on the alter ego of Amos Bardi. I guess it gives him as an author and you as a performer a little freedom in the telling. Did you ever discuss this persona with Bocelli, or with Radford?
We did, of course. Yeah, well, we tried to keep it as close to his actual life as possible. Of course, some things change, and that is the beauty of filmmaking. But I know that Andrea Bocelli was behind every single thing that Mike was thinking, and they really met half way and had an understanding of each other’s vision. The thing is, if we had to come on and do everything to such detail without being able to move away slightly then, of course, it would be a very hard process because we’d have to check everything. Of course, we did check everything, but we went into it … Mike had to make it right for himself, and there’s a book, and there’s a film. And you can’t … it’s impossible to just take the pages of the book and then go… Do you know what I mean? You still have to create a script, and you have to make sure that it flows. So, we had the luxury of Andrea Bocelli being so trusting in us.
Biopics are one of the most popular sub-genres, especially music biopics. How do you see The Music of Silence being apart from the rest?
Well, there’s lots of things. One of the main things I find so interesting about it is how late it was that he actually came into success. 34, I believe, that he did that huge concert with Zucchero, when he sang “Miserere,” and I thought that was amazing. He came from a family background, and he’s obviously been … had to tackle and struggle with blindness his whole life, and the peaks and troughs, and getting married, and having kids, and it’s amazing that at 34 was when it all kicked off, or early 30s. I thought that was kind of amazing. And it wasn’t like a rock and roll biopic where they’re living a rock and roll lifestyle. He’s a very humble, quite private man and always has been. And his family has kind of been with him the whole journey. So, I don’t know, I thought that was … as a musician myself, and I’m 25, I think musicians that break at 34 that’s quite an amazing thing because normally it’s a lot younger or it doesn’t happen for them, and I found that quite amazing, that drive throughout all those years.
Over the course of inhabiting Bocelli did you discover anything new, or surprising about his character?
His sense of humor. He’s absolutely hilarious. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and I only spent four, or five days with him. We drank wine, and I laughed, belly hurting laughing, for four, or five days. He’s a very, very comedic, humorous man.