The early April air was frigid, offering no hint of an early spring, and a wall of gray clouds spat a mixture of rain and snow onto the streets of Syracuse, New York. Sarah Willaby did not take notice of the weather. Instead, she was engrossed in her thoughts as she strolled down Crouse Avenue toward Marshall Street.
If Sarah would have revealed the subject of her interview piece for her graduate arts journalism course at the renowned Newhouse School of Communications, she would have been the envy of her fellow students, not to mention some of her professors and other journalists around the world.
She was scheduled to meet family friend Federico Corvallini, the two-time Oscar-winning actor, noted for his temper and perfectionist tendencies. Federico grew up in nearby Rome, becoming best friends with Sarah’s father, Ron, and now lived in a sprawling compound overlooking Lake Delta in the town of Western. Some in the entertainment world had labeled Federico a recluse.
He countered by saying he loved upstate New York, and in particular the Adirondacks region, and he chose to make his home in the area, where he could ski, boat, fish, and play golf in the summer. At this stage in his career, he made one movie a year, most of the time with an A-list director and cast.
He agreed to Sarah’s interview request as a courtesy to Ron.
Sarah arrived at Faegan’s Irish pub ten minutes early, only to discover Federico was already seated at a table in the back. He cradled a cup of coffee and appeared to be staring at a framed Guinness poster hanging on the pine wall.
Sarah thought he looked much older than the last time she had seen him. His hair had gone
gray, and he looked haggard. He was dressed in khakis and a green sweater, and a worn
Adirondack barn coat and gray scarf rested on the chair beside him. Sarah thought he could have been cast as a Syracuse University faculty member in a drama about academic life.
He rose from the table and strode toward her. She extended her hand to him; he disregarded it and instead hugged her. “It’s so nice to see you, Sarah,” Federico said. “You’ve grown so much. Your father must be very proud.”
“Yes, I think he is,” Sarah said, and they both sat down at the table. “Thank you so much for taking the time to meet me, Mr. Corvallini. I really appreciate it.”
“Please, call me Federico,” he said. “And it’s not a problem. Your dad told me you needed an interview with an artist for your journalism class. I don’t know if I classify as an artist, but I’m happy to help out.”
Sarah reached into her brown leather briefcase and pulled out a digital recorder, a small reporter’s notebook, and a pen. “Is it OK if I record our conversation?” she asked.
“I won’t use the audio portion of the interview,” Sarah said. “I just want to make sure I quote you accurately.”
“Of course,” Federico said. “Go ahead.”
A young waitress with red hair approached their table. She gave them menus and said, “I’m Emily. I’ll be serving you. What can I get you to drink?” She looked in Federico’s direction and added, “Would you like more coffee?”
“Sure,” Federico answered. “And can you also bring me a shot of whiskey?” He gazed at Sarah and the waitress and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m fighting a terrible cold.”
“No need to apologize,” Emily said. “And for you, miss?”
“I’ll just have water with lemon,” Sarah said.
Emily walked away, and Sarah and Federico scanned the menu. Federico put it down and said, “I think I’ll just get a fish fry.”
“That sounds good,” Sarah said. “I’m going to have a chef salad.”
“Boy, we know how to order quickly.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Emily came back with Sarah’s water, Federico’s shot of whiskey, and a pot of coffee. She set the drinks down on the table and refilled Federico’s coffee cup. “Are you guys ready to order?” she said.
“Yes,” Federico said. “The lady will have the chef salad and I’ll have a fish fry.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Emily said. “We’ve run out of haddock already. You know how it is—a Friday during Lent?
“This is an Irish pub, correct?” Federico said. “You’re supposed to plan accordingly.”
“Sorry about that. We have grilled tilapia with berbere spice if you’re interested.”
“I’ll pass,” Federico said. “You do serve ground beef I take it?” Federico asked.
“Yes, we do have that.”
“OK then, I’ll just have a burger and fries. Medium-rare on the burger.”
“Coming right up,” Emily said. She started to walk away and then turned around and came back to the table. “Wait a second, do I know you? You look really familiar.”
“I don’t think so,” Federico said. “I don’t make it a habit of hanging around with college-aged females.”
The waitress put her hand on her hip and smiled. “I do know you,” she said in a loud voice, although her statement could not be heard amid the noise of the busy lunch crowd.
“You’re that famous actor.”
“Yes, of course, that one,” Federico said.
“Yes, I remember. Your name is Feder-something. You’re the guy with the famous temper who won an Oscar a few years ago.”
“Thank you for pointing out my temper. I promise I am working on it. Now would you expedite our orders? And please don’t tell anyone I am here.”
“You got it, Feder,” Emily said, and she hurried toward the kitchen.
“It must be fun to be a celebrity sometimes,” Sarah said.
“Not really. Most of the time I’m out no one recognizes me. It’s not like I’m Brad Pitt or Leonardo.”
“A real celebrity sighting,” Sarah said.
“Please, let’s get back to business,” Federico said. “Start your recorder and begin your questions.”
“Thanks,” Sarah said. She pressed play and record on her digital recorder and took the pen in her left hand. “Now, can you tell me, what are you most proud of in your career?”
“I like it,” Federico said. “Jumping right in. No softball questions from you.” Federico reached for the shot glass and gulped the whiskey. He then took a sip of his coffee and said, “OK, let me see how I want to put this. I would say I am very proud of the work itself, and what I’ve been able to accomplish throughout the course of my career. I have been very fortunate to collaborate with some really talented people, and we made a few movies that I am very proud of.”
“Such as Irrelevant and Lime Green Curtains, for which you won the Academy Award
for Best Actor?” Sarah asked.
“Yes. But it’s more than awards. I mean, I put myself, all of myself—body, mind, and
spirit—into every film I work on.”
“Great,” Sarah said. “Now, a lot of people seem to have an opinion of you. You have been labeled a genius, a hot head, a recluse, not to mention moody and selfish.”
“Stop,” Federico said. “You’re gonna give me low self-esteem.”
“Well, what I was going to ask you was, ‘How would you describe yourself?’”
“I think that’s hard, Sarah,” Federico said. “Honestly, the only thing I can really say is I’m a hardworking guy who is passionate about acting. Do I take it too seriously sometimes? Maybe. Am I a pain in the ass sometimes? Oh most definitely. But it’s not ego-driven. I am a pain in the ass trying to tell the story of a character as I see it. The work itself is my main priority. Nothing else matters.”
Sarah continued scribbling the quote. When she finished writing, she said, “I would like to ask you somewhat of a personal question. Is that all right?”
“Sure,” Federico said.
“You are sixty-eight years old. You likely have enough money to last you multiple lifetimes. Why do you continue to act? Why are you still so committed to it?”
Federico was about to respond to the question when Emily returned with their lunches. “Here you go.” She placed the chef’s salad next to Sarah and set the burger and fries on the table in front of Federico. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Thank you,” Federico said.
“My pleasure, sir,” Emily said.
Federico arranged the lettuce and tomato on his top bun and added salt, pepper, and ketchup to the burger patty. He cut the burger in half and brought one section to his mouth; however, he lowered it to his plate when he noticed Sarah had not started to eat her salad. “What’s the matter,
Sarah? Not hungry?” he asked.
“No, I’m fine. I just want to finish my questions before I eat. But don’t let me stop you. Please eat your burger before it gets cold.”
“Yes, I’m really hungry,” Federico said. “Why don’t you repeat the question you asked me before the waitress came.”
“I wanted to know why you continue to act when you have accomplished so much in your career and your age is advancing.”
“Well, I’m not dead yet,” Federico said. He took a bite of the burger, wiped his mouth with the white cloth napkins, and drank more coffee. “Sixty-eight is hardly ancient, and I feel like I still have work to do. But I’m also going to explain something to you. And I want you to know that I have never told this to another person, let alone a journalist, and if I am ever asked about it again, I will deny it outright. I am telling you this because it may help you to understand me a little better. But before I do, could you please shut off the tape recorder? This is off … off … oh what do they call it?”
“Off the record,” Sarah said.
“Yes, exactly,” Federico said.
“No problem. I can turn it off.” Sarah pressed the stop key on her digital recorder, placed her pen on top of her reporter’s notebook, and sat back in her chair.
“Thank you, Sarah. I appreciate it. You know you really are a professional.” Federico sighed, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes. After a moment he opened them and leaned in toward Sarah. “And now I will let you in on my secret. Here it is: I act because I have to. I act because it is necessary. In acting, and only in acting, I can lose myself and forget who I am.”
Sarah stared into Federico’s brown eyes. “And why is that so important to you?”
“Well,” Federico began, “because you see.” He stopped and took a glance at the nearby
tables to see if any customers were eavesdropping on their conversation. “Come closer to me. I would feel more comfortable if I whisper this.”
Sarah leaned closer to Federico.
“You see Sarah,” Federico whispered, “I dislike myself. No, it’s strong than that, actually. I hate myself. I hate myself with such ferocity that acting is my only opportunity to escape myself.”
Sarah whispered, “What? I don’t understand. Can you explain? Can you tell me why you hate yourself?”
“You’re missing the point,” Federico said. “It’s not why I hate myself that’s important. It’s what I do with it. But just to enlighten you, I’ll try to explain. I hate myself because of who I am and what I look like. From as far back as I can remember, I loathed the person I saw in the mirror. It was like I was born with this innate repulsion to myself.”
Federico’s voice had risen beyond a whisper, and he began pounding his right fist on the table. “And I’ve come to hate myself for the many things I have done wrong and for the many things I have failed to do. And I realize now I’m a complete failure away from acting. I know how to play people, but I still haven’t learned how to live with them. And that’s why I’m alone today.”
Federico paused, and Sarah noticed beads of sweat bubbling on his forehead. He looked at Sarah and placed his hand on top of hers briefly. “I’m sorry,” Federico said. “I think I got a little carried away unburdening myself. But none of it really matters. It’s all bullshit. The fact is, I truly hate myself, and I use acting, and the process of becoming someone else, as an insurrection, a rebellion against myself. By fully becoming a character, I am able to lose myself, and I forget
who I am and why I hate myself—if only for a little while.”
“I really don’t know what to say,” Sarah said.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Federico said. He pushed his plate away and took another sip of his coffee. “I just told you so you would understand. I’ve lived with this secret for a very long time, and I guess I just wanted someone else to know it.”
“But that must be a terrible way to live,” Sarah said, “hating yourself like that.”
“As I said, I only really live when I’m acting,” Federico said. “The rest of the time I just exist.”
“Well, it can’t be healthy for you. Perhaps you should get some help.”
“I’m beyond help,” Federico said, and then he let out a short burst of laughter. “Don’t worry about me, kid. I endure somehow.”
“Well, I want you to know I will not use any part of what you said in my story,” Sarah said. “I’ll just focus on you being passionate about your work.”
“That sounds good, Sarah. But you can use whatever you want. At this point in my life, I don’t care.”
Sarah pondered Federico’s statement. Her stomach felt queasy at the thought some editor could use his admission in a flashy headline, such as, “Corvallini battles self-hatred” or “Ego-driven actor despises himself.” She decided then not to use the personal information he shared with her. Maybe she lacked the killer instinct, but she also had to live with herself. And if she crossed the ethical line at this early stage of her career, where would her actions take her in the future? She had a responsibility to be a professional, even as she was developing her skills as a journalist.
Emily returned, looked at the remaining food on the table, and said, “What’s the matter? Was
there a problem with your lunches?”
“There’s nothing wrong,” Federico said. “I just lost my appetite. Can you get a box for the salad, along with our check?”
“That’s not necessary,” Sarah said.
“Please, Sarah. I’ll feel better if you at least take some food home since you didn’t eat.”
“OK, that’s fine.”
“I’ll be right back,” Emily said, and then she darted off to the kitchen.
“I’m sorry you didn’t eat the rest of your burger and fries,” Sarah said. “I hope the interview didn’t upset you.”
“Don’t worry about it, Sarah. I just get carried away sometimes. Do you think you have enough quotes to write your story?”
“Yes, I think I have plenty,” Sarah said, although she wished she had pulled some movie star insider stories from Federico and a few more useable quotes.
An uncomfortable break in the conversation then followed as Federico and Sarah waited for Emily to return with the takeout box and their check. Federico watched the HD television screens perched above the bar. His eyes moved from a breaking news report on CNN to sports highlights on ESPN. Sarah scanned her notes and tucked her digital recorder in her briefcase. While still flipping through her notebook, Sarah said, “Thanks again for taking the time to meet with me and doing the interview.”
“No problem, kid,” Federico said. “I could never repay your dad for bailing me out of trouble when we were younger.”
“Yes, he told me some great stories about you two,” Sarah said. “But I always wondered—
what made you guys such good friends in the first place?
“I don’t know,” Federico said. “Our parents were friends, and we grew up together in East Rome. We’re lucky because we have that kind of relationship where we won’t see each other for years and then pick up the conversation again like nothing happened. I can tell your dad anything and not feel ashamed.”
“Does he know how you feel about yourself, about the self-hatred?”
“No. Like I said, I never told anyone before. But enough about me. I bet your dad must be so proud of you and what you are doing here at school, getting your master’s in journalism.”
“I don’t know. I wonder sometimes. I think he wishes I would have done something a little more practical, like going into business or becoming a lawyer like him.”
“But you love journalism, right?”
“Yes, I do. I love telling stories.”
“Well,” Federico said, “I’d like to tell you to just follow your passion and everything will work out. But I’m sure you know that’s not true, that things don’t always work out the way you hope.”
“Yes, I know. That’s reality, I guess.”
“True. But I think you’ll find if you are willing to work hard and make sacrifices, you can get to where you want to be.”
Sarah wanted to reveal her secret to Federico. She wanted to tell him the truth about her college life—how the focus on her studies left little time for anyone or anything else and how she often felt lonely. Her tongue settled against the back of her front teeth, and she thought of a question that could yield insight into her life. “So, can I ask you,” she began, “how do you deal with living by yourself? Don’t you get lonely, especially living in the middle of nowhere?”
“The town of Western is not far from the city of Rome, so it’s hardly in the middle of
nowhere. But your question is a good one. I deal with being alone by not thinking about it. I just go through the motions of every day—walking the dogs, cooking, doing laundry, you know, the basics.”
“Yes, I see. I get it. I’m the same way.”
“So, you’re a lonely soul, too?”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Well, that’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I predict you’ll find a nice husband before long.
“Maybe,” Sarah said with a smile. “But it’s not a priority now.”
“Well just don’t wait too long to live the part of your life outside of work. Otherwise, you’ll end up old and alone like me.”
Emily came back with the check and the takeout box. “Here you go,” she said. She placed the box near Sarah and set the bill on the edge of the table. Federico snatched the bill, retrieved some money from his wallet, and handed the cash to Emily.
“Here. Keep the extra for yourself.”
“Thank you,” Emily said. “And thanks, Mr. Feder for making my lunch rush a little more interesting.” She held out her hand and Federico shook it. “You know, you really are much more handsome in person.”
“Thanks, yourself,” Federico said. “You know how to cheer up an old man.” The waitress smiled and, leaning against Federico’s shoulder, planted a soft kiss on his cheek. “That’s for being a national treasure, a real American legend.”
“Ha, you’re funny,” Federico said. He hugged the waitress and said, “I don’t know who put you up to that, but I’ll take it. You’re very kind. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, sir,” Emily said. “I also wonder, can I ask you one small favor?”
“Before you leave, can you come back to the kitchen and meet our staff? When I told them you were here, their jaws dropped. They’re all huge fans of yours?”
Federico said, “What’d ya say, Sarah? Do you have time for a pit stop before we leave?”
“Sure, I’ll take a picture for you.”
“Great. We’ll be there shortly.”
“Thanks,” Emily said, and then she turned and left.
“Let me just box up this salad and we can leave,” Sarah said.
“Take your time. You can have my fries if you want. I didn’t even touch them.”
“No thanks,” Sarah said. She scooped the remainder of her chef salad into the Styrofoam box, poured a generous amount of dressing on top of the lettuce, and then closed the box. “I’m ready,” she said.
“All right,” Federico said. They stood and weaved between the closely grouped tables as they made their way to the back of the restaurant.
Emily was balancing a tray of drinks near the kitchen and said, “Go right back there. They’ll be so excited.”
“All right then,” Federico said. And then he ducked into the kitchen, where a small group of cooks and dishwashers was working. “Hello, gang. Emily said you wanted to meet me. Well, here I am.”
“Oh man, I can’t believe it,” said one young man with blond hair and blue eyes. “My dad is gonna flip when he finds out I met you. I’m Matt.”
He extended his hand and Federico shook it. “Nice to meet you, Matt. I’m Federico.”
“Why don’t you guys all get together and I’ll take a photo?” Sarah said.
“Good idea,” Federico said.
The staff members gathered on one side of the kitchen and huddled close to Federico.
“You need to get closer so I can get all of you in,” Sarah said. After they moved closer, she said, “There, that’s it. Now smile.” And she took the photo. “OK, where am I sending it?”
“Right here,” Matt said, holding up his phone. “AirDrop it to me.” Sarah pulled up the photo on her phone and sent it to him.
“All right, everyone. You take care,” Federico said.
And he drew some stares and smiles of recognition as he and Sara wended their way through the restaurant.
“I’m parked in the garage on University Avenue,” Federico said once they exited Faegan’s and reached the sidewalk on Crouse Avenue.
The wind had picked up, the temperature had dropped, and large snowflakes now fell from the gray sky.
“I’ll walk with you,” Sarah said. “I think I’ll get a coffee.”
“That’s fine,” Federico said. “I guess Marshall Street has changed a bit since I was last here,” he added. “I’m glad to see Manny’s is still around.”
“Yeah, but new places move in all the time,” Sarah said. “Starbucks closed, but now we have Chipotle and Popeyes. There’s also a tattoo parlor.”
“I’ll remember that in case I decide to get a tattoo the next time I come to Syracuse.”
“I think Emily would like you even more if you had a tattoo.”
Federico laughed and pulled Sarah close to him. “You do have your father’s wit.”
“Yes, I know. My mom thinks Dad and I are always conspiring against her because we are so much alike and because we laugh so much together.”
“That’s funny,” Federico said. “How is Barbara doing?”
“She’s doing well. Thanks for asking.”
They reached the end of the shopping district along Marshall Street.
“Well, I guess I’ll be on my way,” Federico said.
“Before you go to the garage, can I ask you one more question? Something has been on my mind since we talked in Faegan’s.”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“What I would like to know is, if you need acting in order to truly live and also overcome your self-hatred, how do survive when you’re not acting, when you’re not working on a project?”
“Good question,” Federico said. “It’s quite simple. I may not always be working on a movie, but I never stop acting. I act in every aspect of my life, whether in a relationship, making love, or going grocery shopping. I’m constantly creating characters in my mind that I can portray and shaping their experiences and playing out their lives.”
“That’s so interesting. But doesn’t that take away the joy of just living, you know, like …”
“Like normal people, you mean?” Federico interrupted.
“Yes, sort of,” Sarah said.
“Not really. I’ve known since the beginning, I’m not normal. Never was, never will be. For a long time, I tried to fight it. Now I accept it—in fact, I embrace my abnormality. Now, anything else?”
“Well, if what you said is true, I would like to know if you were acting with me when you
said you hate yourself. I mean, did you make it all up? Was that just another character embellished for my sake?”
“No, Sarah,” Federico said. “I was being completely honest.”
“Gosh, I’m sorry. It must be awful to live like that,” Sarah said.
“I’m not sorry,” Federico responded. “I think it makes me a better actor. And acting is living for me. That’s all I really care about. And now you know my deepest darkest secret. What you do with it is up to you.”
“Don’t worry. I promise not to use any of that in the article. It was off the record, and I wouldn’t burn you like that. I think I’ll just focus on the show business stuff and your passion for the craft of acting.”
“Thank you, Sarah.”
Federico hugged Sarah and kissed her on the cheek. As he started to saunter away, he said, “Please give your parents my best. And tell them we have to get together soon.”
“Yes, I will,” Sarah said. “They’ll be happy to hear that.” She then stood in front of Salt City Coffee and watched as Federico crossed the street and made his way along University Avenue with his head down, standing out against the stream of college students walking up the hill toward campus. Sarah wondered if he was in the process of interpreting a new character.
She understood that without Federico’s revelation, her article would not garner the attention she desired. But somehow, the idea of her guarding his private admission of self-hatred made her feel more like a professional journalist than anything she had ever learned or done at the Newhouse School.
She also felt closer to Federico, the austere uncle figure who seemed so imposing to her as a child. And although she now felt sorry for him, she respected his intensity and found him to be a flawed but alluring figure. And his secret would remain as background, never to be made public. Only she would know the truth about Federico Corvallini.
She told herself the task at hand was to write a decent story about one of America’s greatest actors. And so she stepped into Salt City Coffee, her glasses fogging up instantly, ordered an Americano, and sat down at an empty table. She pulled out her laptop from her briefcase, booted it up, opened a blank Word document, and began typing.
Francis DiClemente is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who lives in Syracuse, New York. He is the author of numerous poetry collections, most recently The Truth I Must Invent (Poets’ Choice, 2023) and Outward Arrangements: Poems (independently published, 2021). His blog can be found at francisdiclemente.com.