For his role as the “frightening and hilarious” Sensei in The Art of Self-Defense, Alessandro Nivola didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
“When my son was about 7 years old, he had done this course at some dojo in Brooklyn, and after reading the script, I immediately remembered this guy who was the kind of Sensei of the dojo,” the Tony-nominated actor tells EW. “This arena of a class full of 7-year-olds was clearly the one place where he felt totally empowered, and that he could lord it over these kids. [Laughs] I just thought I’d play him, just kind of an impersonation of what I remembered him to be like.”
Hopefully for the sake of Nivola’s son, that karate instructor wasn’t exactly like Sensei. In writer-director Riley Stearns’ film, Nivolva’s cult-leader-like character takes timid loner Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) under his wing after a violent attack.
“Somebody who recently saw it described the Sensei as cunning and stupid, and that pretty much summed it up,” Nivola says with a laugh. “I think, like Casey, he was someone who felt impotent in the world and didn’t really feel comfortable in his own skin, and that people didn’t take him seriously. And he found through karate this way of being tough and powerful. Obviously, it took on a sociopathic, violent direction. But I really loved the little details that Riley had woven in, where when you see Sensei alone, he’s basically just running a small business. He’s this sad, lonely guy going around vacuuming and cleaning the toilets in sandals, white tube socks, and high-waisted dad jeans. And that is such a great contrast to the chiseled, black-belt wearing guy who seems to wield so much authority when he’s in the classroom setting.”
Both Nivola and Eisenberg were struck by the “unusual” tone in Stearns’ script, which Eisenberg previously told EW quickly progresses from seeming to be a “typical story of an average man finding his inner strength” to a “surreal but wry commentary on the absurdities of masculinity.”
“It clearly was making fun of the notion that to be a man you just have to suppress your more feminine side and instincts,” adds Nivola. “The whole thing is a satire of that kind of cliché of how to be a man. And that seemed very relevant today, where you have people that feel invisible or ignored and they need to assert themselves in the world and find, usually online, these substitutes for some kind of feeling of empowerment, and it often takes a violent form. In the end, it was a movie about a wimpy guy who chose the wrong person to show him how to be a man.”
The Art of Self-Defense hits theaters Friday.