Seminal photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s creative awakening as a photographer stemmed from a desire to explore his sexuality through art. His photographs are explicit provocations, and so is the new biopic “Mapplethorpe,” which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Director Ondi Timoner captures how dangerous it was to put this work, deemed pornographic and deviant, into the world.
For British actor Matt Smith, best known for playing The Doctor on “Dr. Who” and Prince Philip on “The Crown,” playing Mapplethorpe felt like a risk.
“In many ways, [playing Robert] felt outside of my comfort zone, outside of the things that come naturally to me, ” said Smith in an interview with IndieWire. “But then they’re the jobs that I like, because they make you feel alive.”
Timoner focuses on Mapplethorpe’s creative process as a physical extension of his desires. Timoner’s Mapplethorpe has his major breakthrough during his first sexual experience with a man (at the time, he was dating and living with Patti Smith, portrayed here by Marianne Rendón) and soon sought beauty in pornographic art. Smith said the key to these scenes was figuring out how to translate Mapplethorpe’s artistic passions into onscreen physicality, while at the same time setting boundaries with Timoner about what he was (and wasn’t) willing to do.
Tribeca Fim Festival
“I think that’s true of every part,” said Smith. “Like, am I prepared to go and live in a hut in South Thailand with 10 other people? Maybe not, or maybe so. It could be anything. Am I prepared to put on 15 stones [approximately 200 pounds]? It just depends. I think those boundaries always exist, whatever the part, but absolutely, with a part like this, you have to be clear about what level of nudity you’re willing to do.”
In the film, male frontal nudity becomes prevalent (as it did in Mapplethorpe’s photos), but not Smith’s – who spends a great deal of screen time without his clothes on.
So what specific boundaries did Smith set for “Mapplethorpe?”
“I mean, you saw what I was willing to do,” said Smith. “They were the bits I was willing to do. The other bits, they’re not in there.”
Yet there was another type of nakedness that Smith needed to lay bare in the film, which was far from pretty or sexy. As the photographer’s star rises and his drug habits ramp up, the biopic portrays him as becoming increasingly self-centered and cruel – treating his models and his little brother (Brandon Sklenar) like disposable props.
“Often with great artists, there comes a complete kind of singular vision and a selfish nature, because sometimes that’s what it takes,” said Smith. “I was quite keen about that. We didn’t shy away from the fact that he was quite selfish at times and could be quite difficult at times, and often put himself first or his work first. I hope that does come across, because I think that’s an important facet of his personality, frankly. It’s why he went on to be an icon.”
Tribeca Film Festival
Smith, who plays Charles Manson in Mary Haron’s “Charlie Says” (in post-production) – in addition to English royalty in “The Crown” – said that digging in to do research is a big part of his process in figuring out how to play such historical icons. In the case of Mapplethorpe, there was a wealth of material – biographies, websites and the photography itself – but, as with all his roles, the historical becomes just another way into feeling comfortable in his character’s skin.
“I got very interested in the photography particularly, and seeing people through a lens, seeing the world through a filter, Robert Mapplethorpe’s kind of filter, which is often what you do as an actor anyway,” said Smith.
He ticked off a list of roles and the varying challenges they brought him: “It always starts physically with me, whether it’s Prince Philip, he holds his hands behind his back. With the Doctor, he’s mercurial. He’s everywhere. He sort of carries [himself] like a Bambi on ice. With Robert, I knew that I had to get skinnier and be a bit lighter, a bit lighter on my feet, a bit lighter in my body, and a bit lighter in my weight. With Manson, it was I returned to listening to The Beatles a lot, which I hadn’t done in a while. You go, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember the ‘White Album.’ Oh, yeah, cool,’ or it’s LA in the late ’60s. Here it’s New York in the late ’70s.”
Ultimately, Smith said, he embraced the different challenges. “These things, they’re gifts,” he said. “You get to be a historian.”
“Mapplethorpe” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.