Photo: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for GQ
Spoilers for the sixth episode of The White Lotus season two,kidnappings.”
“I thought, i’m the dick. Like, I’m fucked! This role is going to ruin my lifeexclaims Sabrina Impacciatore on a Zoom call from Los Angeles. The 54-year-old Italian actress – known and loved in her native country after rising to fame in the 90s variety show Not à la RAI – plays Valentina, the manager of the White Lotus Sicily in season two of Mike White’s hit HBO anthology series. Her role is the Italian counterpart to Murray Bartlett’s Armond, a character whose existence was paramount to the season’s end and won Bartlett his first Emmy.
“He became an icon of this show,” continues Impacciatore. “I was terrified of the comparison; expectations were very high. And then I had to be bitchy on top of that? I want to become an international actress! And I will never work in this role again.”
And yet Valentina’s blunt rhetoric, general misandry, and teetering in stiletto pumps over the cobbles of Taormina have endeared her to the public, with Impacciatore spreading media appearances and memes on the internet. Episode six trades her comedic beats for an emotional roller coaster: After mustering up the guts to ask Isabella out (on her own birthday, no less), Valentina is thrilled when she accepts – until the unwitting confides in Isabella that she’s engaged with Rocco. Visibly devastated, the manager cancels their plans to drink martinis alone at the bar. Then Mia (Beatrice Grannò) arrives with a proposal, and the pair use Valentina’s master key to sneak into a suite, where Mia helps Valentina have her first sexual experience with a woman. “Mike was very passionate about this moment,” Impacciatore says of the tender sequence. “She really wanted to confirm that the hookup finally sets Valentina free.”
I have to start with the starfish pin that Valentina gives to Isabella. It’s been bothering me ever since episode four. No one should like that, right?
I still do not know. When I saw the pin I wondered, Is it a bit cheesy? I know it was very expensive. In the first take I literally described the pin in great detail to Isabella to make it clear to her how much money I had invested in this gift. It was a sign that Valentina is making a big effort. But it’s a gesture that’s almost too much, a little invasive. You know, I just learned that a starfish is a symbol of eternal love.
Aw! That makes it so much sadder when Valentina finds out that Isabella doesn’t love her.
I mean, she’s so naive. We see her alone like this, and then she falls in love with Isabella. She doesn’t understand that Isabella doesn’t love her too. Then, in that moment of vulnerability, there’s the encounter of a lifetime with Mia. Even if they won’t be together, who cares? There’s a click. Mike was very passionate about this moment; he came to me and said, “Sabrina, Valentina can’t be sad if she understands that she won’t have a relationship with Mia.” Mike really wanted to confirm that the hookup finally sets Valentina free. That really touched me. I cried a lot off camera with this character. Even now I get emotional. I love her so much.
Did you have a backstory that you made up for Valentina, or did Mike work on it with you?
So I never spoke to Mike. For example, we never rehearsed. So I arrived terrified on the first day of shooting because I didn’t know what he wanted from this character. We talked for five minutes and he told me, “Valentina is so direct. She just says things she feels.” Through my character, he wanted to tell this story about his own experiences traveling through Europe, when he met someone who didn’t treat him the way he expected.
In the beginning I struggled a lot. He said to me, “Sabrina, you need to be more bitchy!” And I didn’t get it right away. I was afraid people would hate me. It’s my first American show, a huge show in America; I was excited and I was terrified! So I made up her backstory myself and I didn’t even share it with Mike. I’m an actress who really needs to feel things. I don’t act, I live things, and the only thing in the script was that Valentina was married many years ago. With editing, that information is no longer there, so I created the story of an abusive relationship. I pictured her at home, no real life, no friends, very lonely. The scene with the kittens actually helped me a lot because I thought: Valentina loves these kittens so much because she’s not comfortable with people.
I loved that scene with the stray cats in it episode three. It’s our first glimpse of something deeper inside her.
Sometimes people love animals more than people because they feel that the animals don’t judge them. They don’t ask questions; they just love you. The more Valentina works, the less she can think about herself. Her job is a way to have control over her life because all her emotions are suppressed. I found that very moving, that Valentina was in contact with herself through those kittens.
So that abusive relationship, that’s where her hatred of men comes from?
Valentina doesn’t even know why she treats men badly. She just feels uncomfortable. She feels they want something from her that she doesn’t want to give them, but she doesn’t know why. To me, that was surprisingly innocent. Because if Isabella comes up to her and says to her, ‘I admire you. I like the way you treat men’. It’s the first time Valentina has thought about doing that. But she feels seen for the first time, and so she becomes attached to the first person who pays attention to her.
Like a lost kitten.
Precisely! She is a lost, sad kitten. In fact, I worked a lot in the opposite direction of bitchy. I imagined a cactus that was repellent on the outside, but very sweet on the inside.
I want to ask about Valentina’s sexuality against the background of Sicilian culture and gender dynamics. Did that matter at all?
Naturally. In Italy, sexuality is still a big problem. The queer community does not have the same rights as heterosexual or queer people in America. Always in my life, it made me struggle. As an actress, I have always tried to convey that we have the same right to love. For example, I did it in a monologue about homophobia. We all like; Who cares if you love someone of the same sex? Why shouldn’t you have the same rights? But because we have the Vatican in Italy, that’s a big problem. So not only does Valentina not know herself, but from a cultural point of view, she is afraid to accept that idea.
And then Mia and Lucia show off their sexuality. It’s an insult to Valentina’s orphans, isn’t it?
Yes, of course, because they live very freely with their sexuality. Valentina probably subconsciously felt threatened by them. Her reaction to it is very strong at first, but because of them she finally meets herself, she meets her truth.
When you think about the consequences of being gay in Italy, what was the reaction to Valentina, or to you, online?
I am surprised. So many people have written to me on Instagram. They say, “I love you. You are my favorite. I can’t wait for your episode. I want to marry you.” Even with just a few scenes, they love me and this character.
Asked someone to marry you?
Okay, well, no marriage, but I’ve had so many declarations of love from different people: men, women, girls, trans people. In Italy I’m a queer icon, but it happens here too, and I’m so proud of that. Maybe in the future I will have a girlfriend.
How did you become a queer icon in Italy?
It’s a strange fate. It happened like 20 years ago. They keep following me and they really support me. I’ve been a queer godmother for queer film festivals, gay pride, they involve me in their parties. It’s something very special to me. But I have no idea how it started. When I was 18 I did a huge variety show that became a phenomenon. Even though it was in the ’90s, they still air it every year. On the show, I was a comedian and created characters; I wrote and sang this song that the queer community loved so much. I used to dress myself in a lot of makeup, wigs. I was never the cute girl who tried to please everyone, and I didn’t want to be. I just want to be me and I want to be free, and I want to fight for everyone’s rights.
So basically you are the Italy-based Lady Gaga.
[Laughs.] There are some memes about that. Hello! There’s one on TikTok that says “Lady Gaga’s best acting ever,” and it’s a picture of me on the show. It’s weird because on Instagram people say I should have House of Gucci. It’s crazy. You know what? Look at this. [Impacciatore demonstrates her profile, running her pointer finger down her nose to accentuate the bump on the ridge.] I mean, my God. Actually, when I saw it A star is born, I identified with Gaga a lot. I feel like she is my sister and I can’t wait to meet her one day.
Hey, maybe someone — *cough cough* Mike White — will write a sister story for you and Gaga.
Oh my God! That’s a good suggestion!