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Can you see it?” Matilda De Angelis has her cheek pressed up against her laptop camera. “You don’t see it because I have makeup on, but I have a lot of acne on my face.” The actor, who recently made her streaming debut in The Undoing, is making a point about physical beauty in film. “It’s not real,” she tells me. “I never felt beautiful in my whole life. So it’s not something that I rely on.”
She can argue it all she likes but one thing is undeniable: although De Angelis was given just a handful of scenes as murder victim Elena Alves in HBO’s latest smash-hit, she still walks away from the series having made an impression. Not least because she portrayed the sloe-eyed working-class mother with the sort of earnest frankness rarely seen in “other woman” roles. It’s the same kind that permits a person to draw attention to their acne on a video call with a stranger.
De Angelis is in Venice, two days before the show’s explosive finale is due to air and where she has just begun filming an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel Across the River and Into the Trees. Before that, though, the 25-year-old appears in Netflix’s Rose Island, the Italian-language film that debuted on Wednesday (9 December). She plays Gabriella, the love interest in the true story of Georgio Rosa, a hapless dreamer and ambitious engineer who clashed with the government after building a steel island off the coast of Rimini, northern Italy, in the Sixties.
The actor is no stranger to Rimini – more specifically its barefoot, Campari-fuelled party scene. She lived on the outskirts of rural Bologna and would regularly make the 90-minute drive for a coastal bender on a weekend off from work. “People are crazy there,” she smiles, her Italian accent wholly untempered by her recent Hollywood diversions. “I’m watching the movie now and seeing all those colours and that freedom and partying,” she continues. “It’s making me very sad and very jealous of that moment.”
De Angelis is down to earth and, as you may gather, a little rock’n’roll. She’s the kind of person who takes life as it comes. In fact, her whole career has been rather unexpected. “I started acting before I realised I wanted to be an actress,” she says. When she was 18 years old and planning to pursue a career in music with her band Rumba de Bodas, De Angelis had been walking down the street when she was plucked from the crowd by director Matteo Rovere and asked to audition for the lead role in car flick Italian Race. It was a case of learning to act on the job, as well as learning to drive. “I was just a puppet doing whatever they said with no idea of what I was doing. Even so, the movie went really well,” she shrugs. “And I still don’t know why.”
In previous interviews, more than one of her directors have spoken about De Angelis’s “presence” and “aura” as the indistinguishable thing that helped her cinch parts, despite a lack of experience. Her magnetism makes people want to cast her: The Undoing director Susanne Bier compared her to French icon Brigitte Bardot.
This inscrutable allure is also the reason why Michaela Coel wrote a part inspired by her in another of 2020’s most hyped series, I May Destroy You. The two met at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, where the pair were celebrated as “shooting stars”, and quickly became close friends. Before Coel’s drama premiered in June this year, she wrote to De Angelis to say that she had written one of its characters with her in mind. “The part wasn’t for me as an actress but the inspiration was me,” she grins. Named after Matilda (but with an added H), she’s the Italian waitress in episode three who gives Arabella (Coel) and Terry (Weruche Opia) free fries and water, before introducing them to drug dealer and future love interest Biaggio at the basketball court.
When she’s on the screen, however, De Angelis’s balance of intense vulnerability and incredible confidence has lent itself to roles with sexual overtones. More often than not, when we see Elena in The Undoing she is either completely nude, partially dressed or in the throes of sex with Hugh Grant’s character.
The idea of going full-frontal for any actor warrants some deliberation, but for De Angelis, having a female director helped swing the decision. “I felt really safe with Susanne [Bier],” says the actor. “Really, really safe. I knew she could understand me completely and that she’d do what’s best for me and the project and the character – I never had to worry about that because she’s a woman.” Things have changed post-Me Too, she says. There was an intimacy coordinator on set asking her continuously whether she felt safe and happy. “They would come and say, ‘You can take Hugh’s hand and put it wherever you want.’ When you feel empowered and in control of things, that’s easy,” she says. “The problem is when you don’t have that control. That’s when it can be brutal.”
Before intimacy coordinators though, there was only trust. When De Angelis signed on to the 2018 drama Youtopia to star as a young teen who auctions off her virginity online to pay her mother’s debts, she was more wary. “It was a very small Italian film with a really low budget,” she says, and so hiring and paying an intimacy coordinator was out of the question. “Back then it was about trusting the director, and I did.”
After landing the role, she spent days in Milan with American acting coach Doris Hicks, trying to become comfortable with the idea of appearing nude on screen. In what sounds like an experience akin to immersion therapy, she was asked to stand naked in a room of people, some also naked, some half-dressed, others fully clothed. In a previous interview, De Angelis said that she cried on the first day but felt completely at ease by the second. Now she brushes off nudity nonchalantly, “just so long as it’s not…” – at this point she says something in Italian to a translator who is waiting in the wings of our call. “So long as it’s not gratuitous,” she finishes. “Emotional nudity is way more difficult.”
It must feel like stars aligning for De Angelis. She has projects lined up for months, having just wrapped on a mini-series about Leonardo da Vinci and next up is the Hemingway adaptation. It sounds like the actor – whose first time in America was on the set of The Undoing – is still coming to terms with her new reality. “Sometimes I still can’t believe it,” she laughs. “I keep thinking, ‘No it’s not true, it’s not real’. It’s impossible.” A little charisma goes a long way.