Oyster #96: Vincent Gallo
"Meanwhile, I was fucking all the girls, teachers and moms, and no one knew about it."
For Oyster #96, we interviewed Vincent Gallo about what New York used to be, getting teased in school and how Angelica Huston almost legged it from the set of Buffalo 66 – all without the aid of a Dictaphone or note-pad: Vincent Gallo has been busy. In addition to working on a slew of new movies — including one that he wrote, funded, directed, starred in and then forbade anyone from seeing (Promises Written in Water) — he was also shot recently by Anton Corbijn for the latest G-Star RAW campaign. Gallo’s unorthodox and authentic appeal is the perfect match for the brand; in fact, it’s at their headquarters that I met him for an interview — but first, a little backstory. In the early 2000s, my friend and neighbour Janet would sometimes ask me to babysit her cats. On one occasion I was lounging in her spacious Chinatown loft, gently petting Hoopy while systematically drinking the liquor cabinet dry, when the phone rang. I’d been instructed to let all calls go to the answering machine, so I took another sip of my afternoon cocktail and waited for the beep. “Hi Janet,” the message began, “this is Vincent. Call me when you get this. I’m in town and it’d be great to see you.” I sat bolt upright and sprayed Hoopy with Mai Tai in the process. There was no mistaking that whiny New York drawl — turned out Janet was friends with Vincent Gallo. Fast-forward nearly a decade, I’m standing in the G-Star offices and have just been told that I will not be able to record my interview with the actor. “I’m sorry,” says the denim-clad G-Star rep, “we had no idea.” “No problem,” I say with a smug smile, confident that this rule will not apply to me once Gallo learns we have a mutual friend. Eventually my name is called and I’m shown into a conference room with a long grey table at which Gallo sits sipping tea. He rises to shake my hand, smiles, and says, “Hello.”
His eyes are very blue and, though his long hair is streaked here and there with silver, he looks much younger than his 50 years. “Hey, man,” I say, presumptuously, “Janet says ‘hello’.” “Janet?” His eyes light up. “Janet!” He loves Janet! “How is she? What’s she doing?” He calls her from time to time, but she never gets back to him. I tell him she’s doing fine, working hard, has a new boyfriend. I also tell him about my babysitting the cats and hearing his message, and how cool it is that the whole thing has come full circle. “Funny old world, right? Hey, would it be OK if I broke out the Dictaphone?” I ask. “No!” he says, recoiling a little. My knowing Janet had perhaps softened the famously prickly Gallo, but it wasn’t going to allow me to record the interview. Taking notes was not going to happen, either, and nor was directing the conversation anywhere that disinterested Gallo (‘So, how do you like living in LA?’). Here then, from memory, are the things he told me. First he spoke of old New York — the New York he moved to from Buffalo in the late seventies to be a part of. There were piano bars, pubs, dive bars, clubs, and then there were the underground clubs. This was the birthplace of No Wave, a scene with no derivative source — a scene that could only happen in New York. The album No New York is testimony to that. He spoke of his band at the time, Gray, and his time with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Then, suddenly, he jumps to punk. “The Ramones wanted to be the Bay City Rollers and Alice Cooper at the same time,” he says, staring at me. “I mean, can you believe that?” And then, “Hip hop,” he says, “was invented by Puerto Ricans.” He was there when it happened, in 1978. Fashion at that time was incredible as well. Fashion in the early eighties, man — the crazier the better. He wore a piece of Formica around his neck, as wide as his shoulders. ‘Prince Vince’ it read, hanging from his chain. Everyone thought it was cool. He jumps from his seat now, and does a hilarious imitation of his younger self swaggering through downtown Manhattan: “What’s up?”
In Buffalo he was teased for dressing weird. Plus he was skinny. They called him “faggot”. Faggot — yeah, right. “Meanwhile, I was fucking all the girls, teachers and moms, and no one knew about it.” Then he moved to New York, where he was still weird, but folks were far too busy to care. He had friends who lived up in Harlem, and when he visited them he was met with the same bullying he had been confronted with in Buffalo. “Everyone thinks black people are so cool, but they’re really very conservative.” One time he wore tennis socks with the little balls on the ankle, and all the Harlem kids were like, “Yo, what’s up with those socks?” But you had to have front in situations like that. He misses the crazy times in New York. He doesn’t miss being in his twenties, though. At this point he stops; sadness enters his eyes, then vanishes. Hollywood. He doesn’t fit the Hollywood mould. After Buffalo ‘66 there were plenty of offers for other projects, but he passed them up. Not because of any sort of “integrity”, mind you. He just knew it wasn’t for him — “I might say something to insult someone.” We laugh at this because it’s very true, and then a nervous G-Star girl enters with iced coffee for him. “Do you want one? Are you sure? Let’s split this one.” He pours half his iced coffee into a glass for me. “Cheers!” Then he’s out of his seat again, telling me about Ben Gazzara’s fantastic performance in Buffalo ‘66, and how he had to pay out of his own pocket to get Gazzara in the film. (Somehow Gazzara found out Anjelica Huston was charging a higher fee, and Gallo had to pony up the difference to keep him.) During the family dinner scene Gazzara flew into a rage about the direction of a table knife (Gallo kept moving it just before calling ‘Action!’) — “Don’t point that knife at me!” He was genuinely furious at Gallo, and that take made the final cut. Angelica Huston was so shaken by the whole thing she almost walked off set. I ask about the new movie, the one no one will ever see. Can I see it? “No, no. But listen: Christina Ricci — wow. Even though she’s said some stuff about me recently, the little Judas,” she was “excellent, excellent, excellent” in Buffalo. She was great. Perfect. He shakes his head, smiles, then frowns. He was hurt that people thought The Brown Bunny was a prank. “Imagine painting a room six times a day for three years. That’s what it’s like to write, direct and act in your own movie.” Why would he put himself through that for a prank? And he isn’t a narcissist. People say that, but he isn’t. He’s never played a hero, never wrote a heroic part for himself. He always plays the loser. And anyway, people don’t fucking matter; what they think doesn’t matter. It’s the work that matters. Nothing else matters besides the work. “And your best work is bigger and better than you.”
Words: Jason Crombie
Photography: Anton Corbijn