In the sun-drenched new mini-series Riviera, actress Julia Stiles plays curator Georgina Clios, born in the Midwest, trained at the Courtauld Institute, and now plying her skills as art adviser for her client-turned-husband, billionaire collector Constantine Clios (played by Anthony LaPaglia).
We watch Georgina head to New York from France in a private jet to bid on a multi-million-dollar trophy painting to add to the couple’s collection. Meanwhile, back in the Riviera, the yacht that her husband is on is suddenly consumed by a fiery explosion.
So begins the art-themed Sundance Now soap opera. And the art-intrigue only deepens as it goes on.
Georgina barely has time to process this sudden, shocking loss when she is hit with a series of troubling revelations regarding her husband’s dealings—including forged paintings and a fictitious collector associate—that make her doubt just how well she knew him.
While looking for answers, Stiles’s curator also must help her former hubbie’s three adult children sort through their grief. (For Game of Thrones fans, Iwan Rheon, aka Ramsay Bolton, “the most hated man on HBO,” plays one of the Clios kids.) She also has to deal with Constantine’s ex-wife, Irina (played by Lena Olin), who has returned to the family’s mansion in Southern France, in an effort to re-assert her authority as a matriarch.
Paul McGuinness (formerly the manager of U2) hatched the idea for Riviera. He has has a house in the South of France and says the series was inspired in part by a quote from writer Somerset Maughm, who described the region as “a sunny place for shady people.” The Crying Game director Neil Jordan and Booker Prize winning author John Banville wrote his idea into action.
Recently, artnet News caught up with Stiles—no stranger to intrigue in her past roles as a secret agent in the Bourne films—to ask what it was like to play a curator, how she prepared for the role and researched the art world, and what she learned along the way.
When was the script pitched to you and why did it appeal to you?
I was actually in the airport, coming back from shooting part of Jason Bourne. My agent told me about this pilot that Neil Jordan wrote. I read it on the plane coming home and I was really struck by it. Partially it was the setting, but I also liked the contrast between the romantic, glamorous visual of the South of France, which is very cinematic, and the kind of corruption lurking beneath all that.
Jordan described his inspiration as coming from the idea that “behind every great fortune is a great crime.” That was an interesting theme to explore. And then to have this interesting character who is a fish out of water, the only American among Europeans—but also she is not a gold digger, she’s very skilled and experienced, coming from the art world.
What was your knowledge of art or the art world up until then?
Growing up in New York I was definitely exposed to art and culture in a way you could almost take for granted. My mother’s an artist: She makes ceramics. It’s not the very expensive, high end art that you’re seeing at Sotheby’s and the auction houses or galleries, but still, conversations always came up with her and her friends about the struggle between your creative drive and the business side of the art world.
Who are some of your favorite artists, living or dead?
Henri Matisse. Everything from his stencils that inspired tapestries and textiles to his paintings. I love the way that he draws people into interesting settings, like a naked woman on a lounge chair in the jungle. I think he really has a funny, very cheeky way of painting. But also the colors are really beautiful.
For living artists, I really love Cindy Sherman’s photographs. Particularly the film stills and her self-portraits. And I didn’t know Bob Dylan was a painter as well! There were a couple Bob Dylan paintings on set in the character’s house. I was really struck by them. I don’t really know how to describe them. They’re figurative, they’re very colorful, and even if I didn’t know it was Bob Dylan, I would be really impressed.
What kinds of things did you do to research the curatorial role?
For my own curiosity I was eager to reach out to anyone that I could to give me more information. There was a dealer, who happened to be the husband of one of the makeup artists. I was lucky to talk with him about practical things like where do you get the paddle at the auction? And what sort of gestures do you make? Or what’s inappropriate to do at an auction?
I was able to watch live auctions online, because I couldn’t get to London or New York in person to an auction. Sotheby’s live streams their auctions, and I liked observing how people moved and made gestures.
What kind of surprises or challenges did you encounter during filming?
There was a lot of discussion about the pronunciation of artist names because there’s the correct pronunciation if you really want to be a purist, and then there is the Anglicized version. For example, if I was in the middle of a conversation and I said “Van Gogh” [Goff] to you, you would probably think I was pretentious.
Egon Schiele is featured heavily because one of his paintings is forged, and that’s a major part of the show. I remember from college people pronouncing it as “Egon Schiele” [Sheel]. Then I called a couple of my friends who were more knowledgeable than I am and they were like, no it’s “Schiele” (Sheela). So I had to go ADR all those lines over again, which is where you go into a sound recording studio and re-record dialogue.
With such an international cast, everybody has a different accent. I have an American accent; there are a lot of British accents; there’s Swedish; there are a couple characters who are either Middle Eastern or Israeli. The thing is, when you’re making a show, you want everybody to be consistent. The danger was that everyone would start getting really self-conscious and wouldn’t pronounce anything fluidly.
Along with a Claude Lorrain painting that features prominently in the plot, what other artwork was on set?
One fun game that we played on set was trying to identify the art in Villa Carmella, the house that they live in, because there were reproductions along with actual pieces. There was a real Picasso somewhere, which we discovered later. Because the set designers worked with Halcyon Gallery in London there were several works by Lorenzo Quinn. [Quinn also makes a cameo appearance at a charity auction in the show.]
I also had a great time taking advantage of some of the art that’s in the South of France. So we went to St-Paul-de-Vence [Fondation Maeght]. There’s a hotel called La Colombe d’or that has a lot of beautiful artwork—Picasso, Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder sculptures—in the same town as a beautiful, amazing art museum.
Our producer Paul McGuinness has a lot of relationships with influential people and with that auction scene. In the beginning we wanted a really iconic piece of art to be shown, so he was able to reach out to Jeff Koons and we got a reproduction of a Koons painting. [Ilona on Top (1990), featuring the artist with his then wife, Italian porn star La Cicciolina]
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