In 2008’s Gomorrah, director Matteo Garrone explored the world of crime in Naples. In his new film, Reality (beginning its limited U.S. release on Mar. 15), Garrone explores a different side of that Italian city. Reality, which won the Grand Jury prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of Luciano, a fishmonger who auditions for a local version of Big Brother to humor his family, and after being consumed by the idea of achieving reality-television fame, eventually sacrifices much of his real life to the imagined world.
Playing Luciano, actor Aniello Arena brings an improbable twist to the Neapolitan tale: Arena, you see, is currently serving a life sentence in Italy‘s Volterra Detention Center for his involvement, while a teen, in an organized-crime hit squad. He spoke to TIME from prison, via Skype and through a translator, about how he discovered acting while imprisoned, what he has in common with Luciano, and his own feelings about reality television.
TIME: How did you first meet the director of Reality, Matteo Garrone?
Aniello Arena: The first time I met Matteo Garrone was in 2005, eight years ago. We were rehearsing a play in jail. We do about one play a year. Matteo Garrone was not involved in the play, but he came because his father is a theater critic and had been following the company for years. I was doing a monologue and they were shooting everything on video. He asked the director to pass the camera, and he was immediately struck. When he started shooting Gomorrah in 2007, he wanted me for an important role, but I wasn’t allowed any special permits to get do work outside the jail. But he didn’t forget. He came back in 2011, and by then I finally had the permission.
How do you get those passes?
They’re based on good behavior over the years. First, you get a lighter version and then you actually get work permits, where you’re actually allowed to leave in the morning and come back at night. I was hired when I was doing theater and, later, for the film, as if it were any normal job.
(MORE: TIME Review’s Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah)
And how did you first start acting?
I came to the Volterra prison in 1999 and had heard about the [prison-based] Fortezza Theater Company, but at the time they were rehearsing a play, so I just sat in. I heard that the director, Armando Punzo, was Neapolitan, like me, and assumed [the play] would be in the traditional Neapolitan style. But what I saw was very different and new to me. I asked myself, “What the f–k is this? Where have I been all these years?” I thought the only theater was classic Neapolitan theater, but here, they take the texts and rip them apart. It’s all monologues, no dialogue. It’s all about the actor, performing in front of the audience. There’s no respite. And Armando doesn’t choose his actors: it’s a theater that chooses you. If you want to stay, they find something for you to do. The next year, they started working on the next play and even though I’d seen it, I was still terrified to get up and do something when it was my turn. The director had to come get me where I was hiding, behind an armoire. If he hadn’t have done that, I never would have gotten on stage and I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now.
How did making your first movie compare to stage acting?
Working with Matteo Garrone was incredible. Cinema and theater are obviously different, but Garrone has a very different way of working. He works on the scenes consecutively; he builds scene by scene and allows you to build the character within you, which is what you do in the theater. But compared to theater, cinema is very cold. You don’t have 600 people hanging on your every gesture and giving you the emotions you need. It’s just you and the camera. And you have to find the emotion within yourself, on your own.
Which elements of the character in Reality did you identify with in order to find that emotion?
I recognize myself in the first part of the movie, when my character is joyful. I like to make people laugh and always have the right thing to say. But in the second part, I don’t recognize myself at all. If I had the most important things in life — family and a wife and my own store — I never would have thrown that away for an illusion.
(MORE: Reflections on Big Brother)
People are interested in your personal history, you getting famous while serving a prison sentence.
It’s better not to talk about it. That young Aniello who first came to this jail in 1999? I’ve buried him with my work. I’ve grown. I don’t want to talk about the past that much. Those are just open wounds that would hurt me if I poked around in them. But maybe what people are interested in is that because I’m a prisoner, they don’t expect me to be able to act, to be good.
Garrone has said that Reality is about someone who wants to exist in another world beyond his own. Do you relate to that at all?
It’s based on a true story that was adapted for the movie, so maybe he was referring to that original person. But I don’t relate to it. I don’t want fame. I don’t want cars. I don’t want to be rich. I want to keep doing theater. If I have another chance to make a movie, so be it, but I had an incredible experience with the movie. I’ll carry it with me my entire life.
How do you feel about Big Brother?
I saw the very first edition when it first aired here in 2000, because it was something new. The second edition I watched a little bit less. The third started to get repetitive. But I’m a reserved person. I don’t like to show my life. Nothing would convince me to go on a show like that that.