Vulture: Finding the Ferrante Four

HBO’s My Brilliant Friend stars were chosen from 9,000 children to portray two of the most elusive characters in literature.

On Vulture

Phoebe Reilly – Nov 19, 2018

itting with the Italian stars of HBO’s My Brilliant Friend adaptation is like observing two sets of sisters. The Lilas — Ludovica Nasti, 12, and Gaia Girace, 15 — are raven-haired and intense. Ludovica frantically waves her arm every time she wants to speak, while teenage Gaia offers a haughty stare. The Elenas — Elisa Del Genio, 11, and Margherita Mazzucco, 16 — are timid by comparison. With their dirty-blonde hair and large green eyes, Elisa and Margherita appear shy and serious and somehow more accessible.

Up until now, lunch at an L.A. restaurant has proceeded calmly through interpreters, as the girls devour pasta and pizza that miraculously doesn’t offend their palate. But when the topic turns to the true identity of author Elena Ferrante, who famously writes under a nom de plume, the table erupts in a chorus of si, si, si and no, no, no as everybody — including the actresses’ mothers — starts speaking at once. The interpreter struggles to keep up. “They’re all saying they think they know who it is,” she explains. “It’s a writer that we met in L.A., but she’s Italian!” shouts Gaia. “There’s so many things that don’t jive, so we think it must be her.” She reaches across the table to high-five Elisa, who grins in agreement. Ludovica and Margherita shake their heads. They prefer the prevailing rumor, introduced by a New York Review of Books blog two years ago, that Ferrante is a Rome-based translator, or possibly a college professor.

Anyway, at present, these young women are probably the bigger curiosity. Some 10 million people worldwide have read Ferrante’s four-book Neapolitan Novels, the story of a turbulent lifelong friendship between two girls growing up in the violent, impoverished outskirts of post-WWII Naples. Presumably, all of them have a picture of the heroines in their heads: Lila Cerullo, self-made and motivated, the alpha of the friendship, defiant in her talent and intelligence; our narrator, Elena Greco, bright and thoughtful, but deferential to and competitive with her friend in every way. Their dynamic is perfectly distilled on the page. “I did many things in my life without conviction. I always felt slightly detached from my own actions,” explains Elena early in the novel. “I trained myself to accept readily Lila’s superiority in everything, and even her oppressions … I soon had to admit that what I did by myself couldn’t excite me, only what Lila touched became important.”

The stars of the series — which premieres on November 18 — were plucked from obscurity to portray perhaps the most profound female friendship in modern literature. None of the girls except Gaia had acted in so much as a school play. That’s because Italian director Saverio Costanzo (Hungry Hearts) and Ferrante herself wanted the ensemble in this densely populated, eight-episode production to be from the authentic Neapolitan region. The casting process took eight months, beginning in early 2017. In total, roughly 9,000 children were considered. “It was really hard,” says Costanzo, speaking the day before, during the Television Critics Association July press tour. “The weird part is that these four girls are the only real option we had.”

Complicating matters, of course, was the need for the younger and older versions of the characters to resemble one another. “This was the great dilemma of the casting process — whether to choose Elena and Lila as adults first, and then look for the girls based on resemblance to their adult counterparts, or do the exact opposite,” says casting director Laura Muccino. “We opted for the latter because we wanted the search for the young girls to be as unrestricted as possible. Still, we had to look for children who were similar, both in their looks and personality. We relied greatly on Elena Ferrante’s descriptions of them. Our priority was to be faithful to these descriptions, not only from a physical point of view, but also from a psychological and behavioral one.”

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