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BAZ BAMIGBOYE: Film icon Sophia Loren, 86, shows her true grit 

At 86, Sophia Loren still exhibits the showstoping glamour she had in her golden movie-making heyday

At 86, Sophia Loren still exhibits the showstoping glamour she had in her golden movie-making heyday. 

But she would like you to know she's not now, and never has been, just a sexpot (or 'sexy pot', as she would put it), or a 'hot pants'.

When the proud Neapolitan first went to Hollywood in the mid-1950s, she was told by studio chiefs that her mouth was too wide, her nose too long and her teeth too crooked. 'They tried to change me,' she said. 'But I wouldn't let them.'

Which is a blessing, because the camera loved her, and she went on to win an Oscar in 1962, for Vittorio De Sica's Two Women. Despite that, she had to fight for respect. Loren once said to Andy Warhol: 'I am not a sexy pot! I am a serious actress.'

When I reminded her of those words, she said: 'Really?! Did I say that?!' But then she laughed and added: 'I wanted to be sure they knew I could act, too.

'With my English then — and also today! — sometimes I say the wrong things at the wrong time.'

However, the legendary actress said whatever her words, there was no misunderstanding the tone of her voice. 

Whether that was saying 'no' to a Hollywood-style make-over — or a movie executive who desired something more than a business conversation.

The #MeToo movement may not have existed back then, but Loren recognises all too well the struggle women in her industry still face to be seen as something other than 'bombshells or whatever'.

'I don't like it. No. No. I am a person, not a hot pants. I don't like to joke about such a thing. Yes, I agree with the #MeToo movement that we are people, not objects.' 

We were on a three-way call. 

Loren and her younger son, Edoardo Ponti, were on separate lines, talking to me from her home in Switzerland. 

The #MeToo movement may not have existed back then, but Loren recognises all too well the struggle women in her industry still face to be seen as something other than 'bombshells or whatever'. She is pictured above in 1959

'I'm only here if she needs some translating,' Ponti said, before introducing 'Mamma', though actually, we required little introduction, having last met in Cannes in 2014.

The pair have just collaborated on their first feature-length film, The Life Ahead. Directed by Ponti, it stars teenage unknown Ibrahima Gueye alongside Ponti's mother.

The picture — an awards season contender for Loren's performance — is a contemporary re-telling of Romain Gary's book about a Holocaust survivor and former brothel keeper, Madame Rosa, who runs a makeshift nursery in Bari, Puglia. 

Into Rosa's life barges Momo, a turbulent 12-year-old Senegalese refugee. Loren's first words, uttered in her first feature film for 11 years, are: 'You little s***!'

'She's feisty,' Loren agreed, chuckling. She said when her son offered her the role of Rosa, she fell in love with the part — and the picture — 'and I don't fall very easily in love with films that I read, sometimes'.

She said the relationship between Rosa and Momo is 'heartbreaking'. And she admired the film for daring to tackle the subject of 'outcasts who are refugees'.

'The world is a dangerous and complicated place now,' she said. 'All we can do is live our lives with dignity and simplicity, without ego and fear.

'I'm really proud of this character,' she said of Rosa. 'This is something I maybe wanted to play before I'm too old.' She dragged the word 'old' out to 'oooold'...and then dissolved into laughter.

Perhaps, working with Ibrahima made her feel young again? 'I spoke to him like I were his mother and tried to teach him, if he was in a little trouble. Where to look at the camera.

'This was his first film, and I was amazed that he was so prepared and focused. He was able to bring so much joy and emotion to the scenes. I hope he has a big future; but in the cinema you never know.

'He was a great screen partner,' she added. Coming from a woman who's shared billing with actors like Marcello Mastroianni and Cary Grant, that's high praise indeed.

Speaking of screen partners, Loren is a huge fan of another former co-star: Judi Dench, with whom she worked on the screen musical Nine.

She said the relationship between Rosa and Momo is 'heartbreaking'. And she admired the film for daring to tackle the subject of 'outcasts who are refugees'

Were they wicked together, I wondered? 'No,' she said, 'because the director was not a funny director. We had so much to do that we had no time to joke. That's sad, but true.'

But she did derive great pleasure from working with Nine's leading man, Daniel Day-Lewis.

'The men that I worked with in America, they're not with us any more,' she said sadly. 'I loved Peter Sellers and the rest. And to work with them, one by one, was a big thing.' Of today's leading men, most 'do the best they can'. But Day-Lewis is 'the one'. 'He's wonderful. Wonderful!' she exclaimed.

And the women? 'I love Meryl Streep, of course,' she said. 'She's the actress I most admire on the screen today.'

In case you're wondering, The Life Ahead is not her swansong. She is not, she said, ready to retire. 'It will never be my last, of course.' Of course. 

The Life Ahead will be on Netflix from November 13.

Sope in a house of horrors

Sope Dirisu noted that Ian McKellen's definition of a successful thespian is 'someone who has a job to go on to'. And by that mark, the actor's doing pretty well.

Dirisu is shooting a new film; and he has projects waiting, in a holding pattern, for next year. Also in 2021, he'll be seen in Silent Night, alongside Keira Knightley.

During the lockdown, Dirisu's profile rose thanks to his role as a kickass undercover cop in Sky Atlantic's terrific mini-series Gangs Of London.

And next Friday, he and Wunmi Mosaku (star of HBO's Lovecraft Country) will appear in director Remi Weekes's psychological horror movie His House, which starts on Netflix just in time for Halloween.

They play a couple from South Sudan, seeking asylum in the U.K., who are sent to a decrepit sink estate where they discover that something — or someone — is living in the walls of their home.

Scares: Mosaku and Dirisu

The best horror thrillers, Dirisu said, have a story that underpins the terror. In This House, it's as if the awful civil war the couple escaped, and the perilous journey they endured to reach England, have followed them. 

'The trauma's still within them,' Dirisu told me. 'You can't shake off too quickly the reason they left their country.'

Dirisu observed that the fear depicted in the movie emerges out of their culture. 

'Despite the missionaries' and the colonisers' best efforts, there's a different culture of spirituality that exists in Africa, and I think we touch on that in this film, with the 'thing' they discover in the house,' he said of the BBC Films production.

Was he scared making it? 'With horror, there's a lot of technicality to it,' he explained. 

'Lots of set-ups and set pieces. There's a science to making those scares work.' So nope, he wasn't frightened — because he was involved in helping to create the fear factor. 

'But I hope those coming to it fresh are truly terrified,' he said ominously.

In addition to scaring the living daylights out of them, the film might also give audiences pause to consider the plight of refugees. Dirisu said he was glad to be able to give a voice to people who are talked about 'cursorily in the news, but we never hear their stories from their own mouths'.

He and Mosaku ensure those voices are heard loud and clear.

More recently, Dirisu has been working with Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Josh O'Connor and Odessa Young in filmmaker Eva Husson's Mothering Sunday, based on Graham Swift's novel of the same name. Producers Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley signed the London-based actor up after watching his work during quarantine.

'I'm lucky to be able to say that I have something to look forward to,' he said, echoing McKellen's words.

And next year he hopes to be in front of the cameras again, for season two of Gangs Of London. Which will be good news for the show's legion of devoted fans...including many women. 

'There was a concern that it was going to be too violent for some people, and the target audience was very masculine,' Dirisu said. But he was comforted to hear that it had attracted a wide range of fans.

'We're hopeful of doing the second season, but it does depend on the worldwide health situation,' he warned.

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