It's so wonderful because they believed in me. It was an investment, a big one. I really didn't speak any English!
Following the runaway success of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Netflix is punching it up even further with the period epic Marco Polo, which follows the famed explorer on his adventures in Kublai Khan’s court and war-torn China in the 13th century. Taking the production to Italy, Kazakhstan and Pinewood Studios in Malaysia undoubtedly presented a number of unique obstacles in and of itself, but with the subject revolving around one of the most storied figures in history, walking the line between fact and fiction makes for an even greater challenge. And beyond giving cinematic buoyancy to Marco Polo’s incredible journey, a story plenty fantastic without any embellishments, the show gives viewers a peek at the inner workings of another enigmatic individual: Lorenzo Richelmy, the show’s little-known titular star.
Everything that appears on the show—the exquisite art direction, wardrobe for which every garment was hand-stitched and the international cast—is the result of a carefully orchestrated effort, and all across the board, months upon months of intense preparation. Crucially, there was a lot riding on finding the perfect Marco Polo in 24-year-old Richelmy, an Italian actor plucked from obscurity and being thrust onto the world stage. For his part, the newcomer underwent intensive training in archery, kung fu, horseback riding and sword fighting—he didn’t even speak English prior to the show!—to headline a series with such high production values that there were scenes calling for 300 extras and 400 people in the construction crew alone. Richelmy more than pulled his weight here and the show’s a huge boon for the actor. And he’s just getting started.
Marco Polo’s ten-episode first season bows December 12th exclusively on Netflix.
I binge-watched the show over the weekend.
Yeah? How many episodes?
The first six that was available to the press pack. That’s still five hours, you know.
I’ve only seen the first two episodes. You know more than me!
Is that because you’ve been so busy?
No, they only gave me the two episodes to watch.
You must be dying of curiosity.
When do you get to see the rest of it?
December 12th? [Laughs] I really want to see it properly at 4K [resolution].
So how did you get involved with this show? This is a $90 million dollar show, which is completely nuts.
They were actually looking for an actor for three years because the project kept stalling and it changed year by year. Nobody called me or anything like that. I only heard about it because my friend auditioned for it in Italy. I said to myself, “Why aren’t I doing it? I could be good for it.” I called my agent and asked about the scene for the audition. Then I asked a director friend of mine to help me film my audition tape and just do the best we can. We put up lights in this room and my friend played Kublai Khan. I brought my own version of Marco Polo to the part and I think that’s what thrilled them. I had a particular idea about how to play the character. After I sent over my audition, they flew me out to Malaysia and I met with the writers, directors and all of that. I had to sell myself to John Fusco, the show’s creator. I told him, “First of all, I’m Italian. I’ve also been to all the places Marco Polo’s been. In a way, you could say that I know Marco Polo more than you do.” [Laughs] And it worked! And you know I didn’t speak English before this show.
You sound like a crazy person right now. That can’t be real.
[Laughs] They said, “Yes, you don’t know English. You’re the one, but you have to improve your English really fast because we’re short on time.” They gave me a dialect coach for one week. I studied eight hours a day. At the end of that week, I gave my final audition in London with the casting director, Nina Gold, and Benedict Wong, who plays Kublai Kahn. That’s a good story, right? I feel lucky because this is a really, really rare opportunity for any actor.
Has it all sunk in yet?
It’s so wonderful because they believed in me. It was an investment, a big one. I really didn’t speak any English! I didn’t know kung fu or any of that stuff. Everything was brand new to me. They were brave. This is the first American production with no American actors. For an American production, it’s just unheard of. It’s really weird. I would say that Netflix is being really innovative with this one. We’re trying to do something new.
And acting first came about when you were 8 years old? How does that happen?
Well, my parents are both theater actors and I was always around it. When I was 4, I was touring around Italy with my mother in a van with these crazy actors. I fell in love with it pretty quickly. When I was 8, I did a pretty big show on stage. After that, my mother said, “No, no, no. You can’t work. You’re 8 years old!” And she was right. She said, “You have to study. When you’re bigger, you’ll know if it’s a real passion or not.” So I quit, for years. I did some theater workshops, but nothing too serious. When I was 16, I realized I wanted to do it seriously and asked my mother again, and she was okay with it. She said, “Show me you really want it. If you get all A’s this year, I’ll get you signed with an agency.” I’d never been a great student, but I was able to do it because I wanted to act. A year after that, I got this big job in Italy on a famous TV series that ran for two years. While that was going on, people were telling me that, despite my talent, I have to continue studying. So I quit, again. I was pretty famous over there at 18 years old and I decided to study. I was in a pretty famous national drama school in Italy for three years and finished in 2011. Then I started working and got really lucky. So it wasn’t like I went from nothing to everything with Marco Polo, which is good because I know how this works. I know some stuff. [Laughs] I’m able to handle what’s coming right now, but this is a really big jump for me, of course.
I’d never seen a detailed rundown of an actor’s workout regimen before yours. It looked really intense. You learned kung fu, horseback riding, sword fighting, archery…
It was just so many things at once that I couldn’t process it. You just take it day by day, like, “What do I have to do now? Give me the schedule.” I can only do my best and go onto the next day. When I got the job I didn’t want to do it, but I had a great group of people helping me. The stunt team was fantastic. I had two dialect coaches for six weeks before we started shooting. I spent ten hours every day training. Again, English was the biggest issue because an actor only has their eyes, their body and their tongue. It’s really hard to say something when you’re not fluent. In Italian I can say, “I love you” and “I hate you” because I know how to say it and I know how it works. Communicating in English was totally different and I was scared as hell in the beginning. I was really a black, Italian sheep in the middle of these professionals. I told myself, “Just pretend it’s easy” and everything was fine. I never injured myself. We always got what we wanted to get.
Benedict [Wong] went the other way since he was asked to gain a whole bunch of weight to play Kublai Kahn. Would you have preferred doing that instead?
No! [Laughs] That was his own challenge and he did a great job. He gained, like, 30 pounds for the job and had to stay that way for seven months. I prefer to know martial arts. It’s better.
I was surprised to learn Joachim [Rønning] and Espen [Sandberg] were executive producers on the show. They also directed the first two episodes. I was their directors’ assistant on a couple of commercials ways back. They’re such an odd couple, aren’t they?
Oh, that’s cool! Yeah, they balance each other really well. It was great to work with them. I love them! They’ve been really great with me and the beginning was such a freaky moment for me. It was important for me to have these really grounded, humble guys around me. We all knew that we were trying something different with this show, so even the Academy Award winners and the Emmy Award winners were just trying to do their best. No one came into this, like, “I know this stuff. I know how to do that. This is bullshit.” Those guys have known each other since elementary school and you can sense that. The balance is great. When you work with all of these different directors on a TV show, you see their distinct personalities and attitudes come out. How many episodes did you watch again?
[Laughs] Did you think the first two episodes were different than the third one?
No, I wouldn’t say that. It all felt pretty seamless.
Oh, that’s good. When we were shooting, I felt like one director would be more focused on the character and the introspection, whereas someone like Joachim and Espen would be more into the backgrounds, the journey and the adventure. I think we had the best director for what we wanted to focus on for each episode. We basically shot ten feature films. The scope of the show is so wide and international. We had people from 27 different countries working on this. We’re telling the story of Marco Polo’s journey, of course, but we took a journey as well. We were on an adventure from Venice to Kazakhstan and Malaysia for seven months. It was strange to be away from my home, my family and friends for that long. The crew was pretty used to doing it, but I wasn’t. Even a long shoot in Italy lasts no more than two months. It took a lot of effort, but it was worth it.
Do you guys talk about a possible second season or is it too early for that?
It’s too early. There are, of course, the rumors. But there aren’t real conversations about it yet. We covered the first five years of Marco Polo’s journey from Venice, so we have many years left to cover. We’ll see. Let’s hope that people love the show.
I’d be curious to know what you’re into, purely as a fan of cinema and TV.
Pulp Fiction! I watched that movie, like, 45 times. I never get tired of it. [Quentin] Tarantino is it. I also love Bronson and [Nicolas Winding] Refn.
A brilliant movie and a brilliant performance from a great actor. Those are the kinds of things I try to do in my own career. There’s nothing better than what’s happening for me right now, but I don’t want to be a Hollywood star. I don’t want to be the next sex symbol in the American film industry. I’m going to try to put my drama skills to good use and prove to the American audience that I’m a good actor. It’s something I’ve been able to prove in Italy, so I can sleep easy knowing that at least. I have nothing to lose now and it’s thrilling.
You’re going fast, Lorenzo. You started out super young. You’ve scored a massive show early on in your career. And aren’t you the youngest person to have been admitted to [Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia]?
Not anymore! [Laughs] At the time I was. I just always wanted to claim freedom of being an adult. I wanted to be an adult really early. I always wanted the freedom. I always wanted to do things my way. The audition for this show opened the doors to that opportunity: “Do not follow anybody else. You only have yourself.” You have to prove yourself and fight for this stuff. It’s possible! I’m bringing with me my drama schoolmates who struggle as bartenders, unable to get a job in Italy because the market sucks and there’s corruption. I want to shout, “Italians can do it! Believe in us!”
Do you have plans to move over here?
I want to stay in Rome. That’s my life and where I come from. That’s where my friends are. They ask me if I want to move to L.A. for the auditions and to work in the Hollywood system, but I’m not planning to. We don’t have Netflix in Italy, which is good for me. I love it! I’ve done a lot of movies in Italy, but they’re not too mainstream. Everything is pretty underground and I want to keep it that way. It would be nice to be famous in America and China, and remain unknown in Europe. I want to be able to go out with friends and have a beer without it being a problem.