Powerful presence: Filippo Timi on playing Mussolini on film

The Italian star Filippo Timi talks about the experience of portraying the Italian dictator on the big screen in the film Vincere.

The Italian actor and best-selling author Filippo Timi has been in Los Angeles for all of 24 hours when he declares in his signature stutter: "This is my city." The fact that his luggage has gone missing and he has been flown over from Milan at six hours' notice for the Los Angeles premiere of the Cannes competition title Vincere, in which he plays none other than Benito Mussolini, clearly has not put him off: "This is a wonderful city," he says, speaking enthusiastically into the night as if projecting into a darkened auditorium, hoping that someone in the audience might hear him.

"I have seen homeless people and women wearing Chanel. I have seen both sides of Los Angeles." The winner of the 2009 Best Actor Award at the Venice International Film Festival for his work in Giuseppe Capotondi's psychological thriller La Doppia Ora (The Double Hour), Timi is in as good a position as any to take on Tinseltown should he choose. His whirlwind tour of Hollywood, which included a drive down Sunset Boulevard and a photo-op with a Michael Jackson impersonator, he says, was enough to convince him that he might just like to give it a try sometime soon.

"I want to live here," he declares with an Italian-esque passion that infuses our interview, which is conducted in Italian and in Timi's broken English. "I love this city because I recognise its spirit, its tragedy, its story. Everyone is exposed here. The rich people, the poor people. It is a place where you are who you are and show it," he says. Timi was on stage playing Hamlet in Milan, where he lives and has a theatre company, when he received a phone call saying that he needed to get to Los Angeles pronto because his Vincere co-star Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who was originally scheduled to present the film, had fallen sick. Mezzogiorno plays Mussolini's secret wife in the film, which is based upon a real-life story about the Italian dictator's clandestine first wife and child. The film brought the subject to the attention of a mainstream audience.

As the LA crowd settles in to watch Timi's compelling performance as a megalomaniac on the rise, we quietly slip outside and wander down the Westside's upscale Montana Avenue, where he sits sipping green tea and talking about his life. He is wearing a heavy overcoat that offsets his sallow skin and dark, sleep-deprived eyes. The coat turns out to be part of an understated Prada outfit, which the fashion label kindly sent over so that he would have something to wear despite the luggage fiasco.

All in all, Timi has had quite an adventure with Vincere, both on set and off. He recalls how someone came up to him in a shop in Italy after seeing the film and made the führer sign to him and told him they were surprised to see that he looked different in real life. "Mussolini is an uneasy character to play," he says with a shrug. "He isn't an invention. He is real. Too many people remember him to this day. Mussolini incarnated the people and the desire for an Italian revolution. The people screamed, 'You are Italy.' So many people believed in him. But he was a man who wanted everything. When you want power, it kills everything else - your family, your humanitarian character," he says.

Marco Bellocchio (My Mother's Smile, The Wedding Director) directs Vincere, which begins in 1914 when Ida Dalser (Mezzogiorno), a wealthy beauty salon owner, and Mussolini, a poor socialist and union activist, begin their relationship. Mussolini eventually eliminates Dalser from his life and she ends up a tragic mess consigned to a lunatic asylum. The film is roughly based on the books Mussolini's Marriage by Marco Zeni and Mussolini's Secret Child by Alfredo Pieroni. There is also a documentary by Fabrizio Laurenti and Gianfranco Norellis called Mussolini's Secret, which Timi watched to prepare for the part - or parts. He plays two roles in the film, the young Mussolini, in the first half, and Mussolini's secret son, Benito Albino, in the second.

"The story is true and the film is very inspiring," said Timi. "It takes you with it." When Timi went with the film to Cannes last May, he didn't quite get the welcome he expected. He recounts a story about checking into a hotel and seeing Quentin Tarantino in the lobby and saying hello, only to get a bewildered glance back. He was the one looking surprised when he opened the door to his room to discover that it was no larger than a shoebox. "Here I was thinking I'm a big-shot actor in competition in Cannes," he laughs.

But maybe Tarantino will recognise him the next time around. Timi recently completed his English-language debut, acting alongside George Clooney in Anton Corbijn's action film The American, which tells the story of an assassin (Clooney) who goes to Italy for one last job. The subject marks quite a departure for Timi, whose career has included serious theatre work, notably the roles of Woyzeck and Orfeo.

Born in Perugia in 1974, Timi became a star of the big screen after the publication of a best-seller he co-wrote called Tuttalpiù Muoio. This he followed with two more books. "Once I published my first book, people discovered me," he says. "It was a big shock. I wrote the best-seller then I was on Italian television and then I became famous overnight." His film work includes Ferzan Ozpetek's Saturn in Opposition, As God Commands and a slew of other Italian titles.

As a child, he dreamt of becoming a rock star. And for good reason. "I stutter," he explains. "But I don't stutter when I sing or act in plays or movies. It was very difficult when I was a child but now people love this characteristic. Girls say to me: 'Can you say my name and stutter?'" Timi embraced his early experiences and uses them to fuel his work. "It is like the story of the Ugly Duckling who grew up," he says. "He doesn't see himself as beautiful but he accepts who he is and says: 'If you want me, I'm me.' I don't have a six-pack like Brad Pitt, but I'm a much better actor for it. Not that Brad Pitt isn't a good actor."

While making Vincere, Timi gained some insights into Mussolini as a young man. "When he was young, he was a socialist, a man who wanted to change the world," he says. "The principle was good, but afterwards he changed his way of thinking and left socialism by the wayside and founded fascism. He did some good things and then afterwards he did so much that was bad. I can't even think about it." At 35, Timi says that he is power-hungry himself, but in a somewhat more benevolent fashion than Mussolini. "I want the power to be able to choose who I work with," he says. "And to work on subjects that are important to me, to tell stories that make a difference. Now it is my time. I'm not young and I'm not old."

However, he concedes that in the entertainment industry, power is a relative term. "Los Angeles, the entertainment business, is like the Golden Age in Rome," he says. "It is like the Coliseum when you wanted to be a slave to be part of it. Maybe we can think of the industry like that. The people who work in the industry are like slaves to it. We all say that we are going to leave, but we like it too much."

If and when he does get to concentrate more on subjects of his choice, this might include a focus on female characters. "Women have to do three times as much as men in the space of 24 hours," he says. "It doesn't make any sense. Why is there such a difference between men and women? I have never seen a film that addresses this situation." Timi has plenty of material to draw upon and says that he is surrounded by strong women in his life, including his agent, who is having dinner with Italian journalists in a nearby restaurant while we speak. "The theatre world is totally misogynistic," he says. "The problem is not the women, but the men."

Then, lighting a cigarette, he gets on to a subject so close to most Italians' hearts: clothes. "Sometimes it is stupid and sometimes it is not," he says. "It is a job and part of the job is to have clothing from Prada."