“I’m an artist. I would’ve been a painter but the camera was invented.” That’s how Robert Mapplethorpe describes himself in Mapplethorpe, a biopic following the life of the provocative photographer from his early days as a visual artist and Patti Smith’s lover through to his 1989 AIDS-related death.
EW exclusively debuts the first trailer for the film starring Matt Smith (Doctor Who, The Crown) as the notorious artist, who stirred controversy with his images of the naked male body, even drawing ire from the National Endowment for the Arts. “Like any artist in many senses he was vilified at the time,” Smith tells EW. “But that’s because he was pushing the boundaries and the form and the envelope of that he was doing and the time he was in, and often the purpose of art is to do that.”
Smith stars alongside Marianne Rendón as Patti Smith, and the cast is rounded out by John Benjamin Hickey, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Kerry Butler, and more in a film directed by Ondi Timoner (Brand: A Second Coming). The film premiered at the Tribeca film festival this past spring, and it will hit theaters on March 1, 2019.
EW called up Smith to get the lowdown on what attracted him to playing the photographer, how Mapplethorpe’s life impacted his own views about art and what makes an artist, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How familiar were you with Robert Mapplethorpe’s work when you signed on to the film?
MATT SMITH: Not massively. He has a different presence in Britain than he does in New York and America where he seems ingrained in the fabric of things in a much more prevalent way. There’s not a massive consciousness of it if I’m really honest with you. But now I’m of course a huge admirer of it. It’s utterly compelling.
What type of research did you do? Obviously biographical, but did you learn how to be a photographer yourself in a sense?
I learned my way around the camera in the way he had his way around the camera. The fortuitous thing with a film like this is, I’ve always had a passion and interest in photography anyway. Just on my own terms, in a purely hobby sense. That connection I really understood because it still to this day is one of my favorite art forms. I love it. I love galleries and exhibitions that are based around it, and it’s always been something I’ve been attracted to really, both in print and in cinema.
Was there something in his photos that particularly spoke to you?
The amazing thing about his photos is that often you don’t know why, but you can’t take your eyes off them…With Robert, there was a simplicity. He didn’t really understand light in the way that some photographers do, but somehow subsequently that simplicity led to this iconography that we know. Who knew pictures of penises could be so compelling? But they are. It’s the brutalism in some of it as well, which I think is amazing. It’s brutal and tender and fierce, and just all the things that Robert was really.
The film really interrogates Robert’s understanding of the interweaving of beauty and the devil or beauty and sin — did the role force you to wrestle with the intersection of those two things yourself?
Every part you play you live with and you immerse yourself in that person as much as you can. Similarly, in the context, in the environment and the place it is being set. Essentially these people are a mirror against yourself. You’re working out which bits you can articulate and tell the truth about and invent. Of course, I think his work does that anyway. Regardless of me playing him or not. I think his work forces that level of conflict and self-searching and reflection in oneself anyway because he’s such a clear, brilliant artist.
Similarly, Mapplethorpe’s work has always been a flashpoint for political arguments about art vs. pornography. How much time did you spend thinking about that and did it change your perspective on things?
No, I’ve never been too prudish about that…I’m certainly not conservative on it. I’m quite liberal when it comes to representation in art. You go back to the greats, the Restoration and all that, they were painting nudes. Modigliani and all those guys were painting nude people. Surely it’s the same thing. It’s just Robert as a vessel and an artist took the photographs in a certain way and that was his interpretation of the person naked in front of him. Ultimately, it’s simply a naked person which has existed in the form of art since the dawn of time.
The film has a line: “The photos are quickly becoming a gallery of the dead.” And Mapplethorpe died of AIDS himself. Did you think about or did it make you emotional to know he captured some essence of a generation wiped out by disease?
Just investigating that moment in time, it certainly made me reflect on being a homosexual in the ’70s in New York and the way they were treated for a disease that was completely misunderstood. You think with what we know now about HIV and AIDS, you think if only we could have imparted a bit of the medicinal knowledge and the cultural understanding of that thing. It was appalling really what happened to gay men then, and the way they were treated, and what they had to go through. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in being able to treat that particular disease. It absolutely made me think about that. He died so young and if he were around now, then he’d live out the whole of his life and still be a brilliant, prolific artist I’m sure. Because he was prolific. He just worked and worked and worked.
In terms of the role, it’s pretty unflinching in terms of showing how callous and cruel and direct he could be. Did that appeal to you?
In a similar sense to someone like Prince Philip, that’s what he was. He could be cruel and he could be unflinching and direct, and he wanted what he wanted. And that’s what made him amazing. He was unapologetic about it. But if he loved you he loved you, and you were part of his inner circle and his world of kindness. With anyone, you want to represent them as truthfully as possible. I didn’t want it to be too sentimental or through rose-tinted glasses, because, a) that’s not how he saw the world, and b) that wasn’t what he was.
During this process, was there anything about him that surprised you?
There’s a lot about him that surprised me really…Just his brilliance for one, his sexual appetite’s another, his relationship to God, his relationship to his parents. Loads of stuff surprised me about him. I found him really riveting and really grew to love him actually.
What do you think it was that made Mapplethorpe’s work so remarkable and unique?
It’s an impossible question. What makes Michelangelo’s work so unique? I think because he was totally true to himself and clear about the moment. He knew what the moment was when he was taking a photograph, when he was looking through a lens. When he saw it, he knew. That instinctual brilliance, you can’t learn, you can’t teach — it’s either in you or it isn’t. He had the courage of his convictions. He worked really hard and he never gave in. I think, ultimately, if you do that, if you stick your head above the parapet, you work your ass off, and you never give up, and you have the amount of talent and artistic courage that he does, then hey, eventually, you’re going to be remembered.