Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe is a period piece that extends from the start of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s early period of experimentation and discovery (both sexual and artistic) in the ’70s up to his death from AIDS at the close of the ’80s — when his infamy was at a high point thanks an obscenity trial centered around his work.
Despite the space in years, the film is reflective of modern times as threats against public funding of the arts continue and puritanical views about sex stand their ground in an ever-raging culture war. But it doesn’t effort to make that connection crystal clear or paint Mapplethorpe as little more than a symbol of a movement for his stubborn refusal to turn his lens away from the gracefully composed dick pics and S&M imagery that captivated him (and others). Instead of focusing heavily on the issues, Timoner teams up with actor Matt Smith to focus on Mapplethorpe, the man. Flaws and all. Talent, curiosity, boldness, and all.
UPROXX had the chance to meet with Smith during the Tribeca Film Festival, asking what it was about this character (and this cause) that drew him to the project, how he created his version of Mapplethorpe, and whether he puts any weight into how people react to his own work.
When did you come to this project and what was it that attracted you to it?
Smith: Well, I think I came to it a few years ago, actually. It was him. It was his art, really, and the complexity of him as a man. His sexual life, where he came from and his journey towards being the artist that we know him to have become.
Yeah, you know, it was a film that was set in a period and place in New York that I was very interested in and I thought it felt like a challenge.
Were you really up on his art prior to taking on the role? Was it something that fascinated you before?
Not really, no. No. No. We don’t quite have the same sense of him in England as you guys do in New York. I mean you get it. You do and you don’t, but I became completely fascinated by it, I have to say. And I just think it’s brilliant and vivid and totally memorable.
Censorship is not at the same level that it was in his time, but it still exists. Was that part of why you wanted to take this on? To do something that spoke to the freedom of expression?
Well, you know, I think a wonderful thing about Robert is that particularly at the time that he was living, you know, it was utterly controversial to behave and be the man and the artist that he was. And, you know, I think now if he were around today, he’d still remain utterly controversial. I guess, yeah. I guess it’s always interesting to play someone of controversy and you hope that we sort of learn lessons, really, when we look back and go it’s okay to be bold and different and apparently strange.
Obviously, this is not the first time you’ve played a real person.
Is there an extra burden when you’re researching that or when you’re playing that? Do you pay attention to his mannerisms? His voice? Or do you just try to create your own thing?
You do pay attention to his rhythms and his cadence and his, you know, like you say his mannerisms. You do as much research as you can, you know, you borrow, you borrow, you borrow, and then, here comes the point where you sort of have to stop, really. And, you know, because you’ve got to allow your own sensibilities and your own imagination to come alive, really, as an actor and an artist. And it’s about the marriage of those two worlds of you and him coming together and then there is an interpretation that takes place and you watch whoever it is express, you know… Abe Lincoln or Robert Mapplethorpe or whoever it might be.
Has anyone from his family seen the film? Is that something you’d want to know? Their feedback?
I don’t know, actually. I have no idea. Well, you know, look, I guess I’m never going to be him, you know. I’m never gonna have lived as he did or, you know, but one would hope that they’ve enjoyed it on some level but I’m sure, yeah, I’ve never met anyone, so I can’t speak for them.
How’s that work for you in terms of feedback? Do you look at reviews or…
Are you just self-guided?
Yeah, it’s done. It’s over now. It’s…
On to the next thing?
Yeah, on to the next thing. I mean, sometimes I don’t even watch it.
Yeah. Because it’s just what can you… you can’t help it. You know? Apart from a pat on the back, which, if you’ve done a good job then you get it anyway when you finish the movie, yeah, so. On to the next.
Mapplethorpe is currently seeking a distributor.