Alessandro Nivola talks about helping Jessica Alba see the light in their new thriller

Alessandro Nivola started to make a name for himself in the late nineties with standout supporting roles in such films as Face/Off, Best Laid Plans, and Jurassic Park III. He then went on to perform live on stage and appear in a number of smaller independent films. Last month saw Nivola returning to the big screen in the John Cusack drama Grace is Gone. He is now headlining the Lionsgate thriller The Eye, which is probably one of his most commercial films to date.

In The Eye, Nivola plays Dr. Paul Faulkner, a sight therapist that helps Jessica Alba's Sydney Wells adjust to her new cornea transplant. When Wells begins to see ghosts all around her, the good doctor takes the young woman on a road trip to find her donor. Along the way, they find themselves in a race against the clock to save a bunch of innocent bystanders.

We recently met up with Alessandro to grill him about his participation in David Moreau and Xavier Palud's remake of the original Hong Kong thriller. Here is what he had to tell us about The Eye:

Alessandro Nivola

What about the script appealed to you?

Alessandro Nivola: What made me want to do this was the film that David and Xavier made in France called Them. I watch it. It was sent to me along with this script. The script had a great concept, but these things can go so many different ways. But I watched their film and it was so spare. They created so much suspense without any kind of pyrotechnics. The scares came in a really natural way. The performances felt authentic. It just seemed like they had a flair for it. So I went to meet them. We drank lots of wine. Next thing I knew, I was in the movie.

I want to know how you reacted to the producers saying that this film is made specifically for thirteen year old girls first and foremost, before everybody else.

Alessandro Nivola: Who said that?

The producers did.

Alessandro Nivola: Oh, yeah. Right. I don't know. I didn't really think about thirteen year old girls while I was giving my performance. I don't think about thirteen year old girls much at all, you'll be happy to know. I guess they are referring to the fact that the biggest demographic for horror movies is teenagers. I guess. Right? Isn't that the biggest audiences for this movie? You would know that better than me. As far as making the movie, I didn't feel like they were trying to dumb it down for kids. That said, it's not the most sophisticated genre of movies. It's not like you are making There will Be Blood. It is a genre film, and you have a responsibility to scare people out of their seats. That takes a certain technique. And you have to preserve a certain tradition. I think the two French guys were well versed in that style. That's why they were so good for this. I'm glad that they did it.

The Eye is PG-13, while some films go much further.

Alessandro Nivola: Right. It is not gory. Which I was grateful for. I didn't want to be in Saw. I felt that this was a more ambitious film.

Are you a believe in the super natural?

Alessandro Nivola: Nope. (Laughs)

Did you ever think, while shooting, that this was the hottest blind girl you'd ever seen? Would you react to that instead of ignoring the fact that she was really, really hot?

Alessandro Nivola: I would probably do what the doctor did. I would probably be really rude to her.

Why was he so rude to her?

Alessandro Nivola: I think he is someone that is very clinical and scientific. He doesn't get involved with his patience in any way. He is not beyond the office. He is comfortable in his office, but beyond that is a slightly uncomfortable atmosphere for him socially. When this girl walks in there, I think he is determined for that not to be the nature of their relationship. He wasn't going to be chatting her up, or winking at her, or trying to get in her pants. When he starts to fall for her, I think it is kind of upsetting and confusing for him. That explains his erratic behavior. It explains why he is acting as crazy as she is. In these kinds of movies, there isn't that much room for a big sex scene. You'd have to jam it in-between charred bodies. It would be up against the windshield. There isn't much time for us to jump in the back seat. I think there had to be someplace to go. If you start the movie with two people finding each other attractive, it would have been a cheesy move for the doctor to come onto her. Plus, they would have had to have sex at some point. There would have been this endless anticipation. The way we have it, the characters have more time to come around to that. It was important that his decision to go down to Mexico be something that really cost him. It needed to be something that he really didn't want to do. It had to be something he had to grapple with. I think that is why I was encouraged to have him not be some sort of charmer at the beginning of the movie.

What do you think about the director's decision to place the original eye donor in Mexico?

Alessandro Nivola: I think they wanted it to be a place where the two of us would seem out of water. It needed to be an exotic place where the language was easy to misinterpret. And where the customs would be hard to know. I was talking with some of the Mexican journalists today, and they were asking me if I was superstitious. I said, "No." They said, "Oh, you would be if you grew up in Mexico." I was like, "What do you mean/" They explained to me that there was a big tradition of the supernatural in Mexico. So it does seem that there is an exoticism of that in this location. That she was seen as a witch. And that she was treated badly. Because people are superstitious in Mexico.

Did you actually shoot those scenes in Mexico?

Alessandro Nivola: No. We shot them in and around Albuquerque. Some of that stuff was on Indian Reservations.

Did you see the original film?

Alessandro Nivola: I didn't. I saw a tiny bit. Just a couple of scenes. I didn't want to watch the whole thing, because I didn't want to just be ripping off that poor guy's performance. He'd already done it. I wanted my performance to be fresh.

What is more challenging? A film like this? Or a film like Grace Is Gone?

Alessandro Nivola: I don't think one is more challenging than the other. You go about them all in the same way. You just try to find the reality in the character. You try to be as present as possible. I went about the process the same way. I did all of the usual things. I didn't go through anything different. It was nice to go from that to this, because it is always nice to change things up. I don't like doing the same type of movie over and over again.

After Best Laid Plans, you sort of disappeared. What happened there? Did you take a break from acting?

Alessandro Nivola: Well, obviously between then and now I have done maybe ten films. I did Jurassic Park. Laurel Canyon I got nominated for a Spirit Award. Junebug was a big indie part. They were all smaller movies. Since Jurassic Park, this is the most commercial thing that I have done. That may be why it seems like I was gone. I was playing a lot of supporting roles for the last five years. Just in this year, with this movie and the thing I did right after it with Christopher Walken, it is called Five Dollars a Day, and this other thing I am starting, they are all lead roles. I don't know why that is happening, but it is great.

You did some live theater during that time, too? Right?

Alessandro Nivola: I did one play with Gwyneth Paltrow. I did How You Like It. I did the Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare piece "Love's Labors Lost". I was actually the star of that with Alicia Silverstone. It didn't do very well, but I met the love of my life, my wife Emily Mortimer, doing it. It wasn't all for naught. I did a Mike Figgis film. Time Code. It has been a real mix of stuff. I guess the two things I am most proud of in that time are Laurel Canyon and Junebug. They are the things that I have had the most critical praise for. They are small movies, so they don't have that kind of exposure that a big blockbuster film does. This year does seem to have me finding big roles.

The Eye opens this Friday, February 1st, 2008.