Italian actor and singer Michele Morrone has become an international star, to the point where he can’t go out for a drink with a friend without being stopped. Even with a hat on and a protective mask over his face, people spot his tattoos from a mile away.
The reason for his sudden rise to global fame is Netflix’s adult drama ‘365 Days’, where he plays Don Massimo, the head of the Sicilian mafia who abducts a Polish woman and gives her a year to fall in love with him.
The film, compared to ‘50 Shades of Grey’, has courted controversy for its storyline, which many found harmful, and even prompted a petition to remove it from the streaming platform. However, it is also being touted as one of Netflix’s most-streamed films to date, regularly finding itself in the Top 10 most-watched list.
How did Morrone, who had given up on acting in the midst of depression and moved to a village to be a gardener, find himself at the centre of this storm?
Flying to Dubai from Rome, he spoke to Gulf News at the Palazzo Versace on July 23, during a visit to promote a new locally based platform called HalaHi, where fans can pay to receive a personalised video shout-out from their favourite celebrities — himself included. (Some fans might be surprised to know that the father-of-two, formerly married to a Lebanese designer, can speak basic Arabic, which he demonstrates during our video interview.)
Morrone discussed reactions to his film, donating parts of his HalaHi proceeds to an orphanage, and why he nearly said no to the role that changed his life.
Tell us about your partnership with HalaHi, and why you wanted to be part of it?
The concept of HalaHi is that you are doing something good for people who love you. Fans that would like to receive a personalised video from their idol can just go and book the video, with their name and everything. At the beginning, I thought, I don’t like people to [have to] pay for a video. I don’t want to make business with this. Because I think that an artist should be kind and just send videos for free. But then I thought that I could take this love and put [it into] something else … which is charity, because part of the money that I personally make — I don’t know [about] the other artists — will go to charity.
What kind of charities are important to you, personally?
The first one that I love is, how do I say in English? Orfanotrofi. All the kids, they don’t have families, for example, they are in this kind of house — an orphanage. In Italian, we say orfanotrofi. I’d like to put my attention especially on them … Because I’m a dad, and I know what does it mean not to have that, because I grew up without a dad.
I read something where you spoke about going from farming in a remote village to [the success of ‘365 Days’]. How much has this film changed your life and in what ways?
From one to 10? One thousand, I guess. Today is July 23, and exactly one year ago, I used to work up in the north in Italy as a gardener. My life completely changed in one year, just like that. I stopped acting for personal problems for two years. After my divorce from my wife, I’ve got so many personal problems, and I decided that the way of the art wasn’t my way so I just stopped it.
I started getting small jobs. I worked as a waiter, I used to work in a company that used to build parquet (flooring), but I got fired because I wasn’t very good at it [laughs]. But I was very good with trees and stuff, because it was easy just to cut this to make a heart. Then I started working in this company, up in the north of Italy, in the place called Durazzano. I worked there for six months and a half, seven months, until I got an offer from Netflix.
What happened after that?
Something incredible happened, because my agent called me one day and he’s like, ‘Hey, there’s this offer from this movie called ‘365’, it’s a Polish production.’ I’m like, ‘No, please, I am over with acting, with music, with everything.’
In the night, I got a call from Poland, and it was the director. [He said], ‘Hi, I’m the director of the movie ‘365 Days’. Listen, I don’t know you, but I need you.’
How do you need me? You don’t even know me. ‘I like your physical appearance. You know, this movie, it’s gonna be big.’ Everyone can call you [and] say, ‘This movie is gonna be big.’ He’s like, ‘Listen, I made you that flight ticket. If you want to take the flight tomorrow morning, you come, otherwise, thank you very much for everything.’
The next day, I decided not to go [to work]. I called my boss, where I was working inside the park to take care of the grass. I’m like, ‘Hey, listen today. I don’t really feel good, my stomach [hurts]. I’m not coming to work.’ [He said], ‘Okay, okay, I will call to replace you.’
I [packed] just a little bag, it was one underwear and a pair of socks inside. I just flew to Poland, and when I got there, there was a contract of three years to play the main character of this movie. When I signed it, they quickly sent me the script and I start building up the psychology of Massimo. I’m like, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna go back to the park anymore.’ I was feeling guilty because I didn’t finish my work [laughs], but I had to study the script.
Your music is in the film, too. Was music your first love, or was it acting?
I decided to become an actor around 11, 12 years old, so that was my first love. I always had the passion for music and singing, but it was always a hobby. While we were shooting, I was at the dinner with the director, and he’s like, ‘What do you like to do besides acting?’ I’m like, ‘I like to write songs.’ I made him listen to one of my songs, and he totally fell in love. And he’s like, ‘Hey, Mickey, this is gonna be inside the movie.’ So I was the main character of ‘365 Days’, and I did all the soundtrack for the movie, as well.
How do you feel about the reaction to the film? Whether it’s good or bad, how do you personally feel?
I mean, I feel good because I did something interesting. I did something that people like and it’s a nice feeling, a really nice feeling. On my Instagram, for example, I still didn’t get one bad message. [At time of writing, Morrone has 9.1 million followers.] Yesterday, I got a notification from Forbes that ‘365 Days’ is the most viewed movie on Netflix, the most downloaded movie in the history of Netflix. I feel good about it. There’s nothing negative about it.
Looking forward, will you be doing more English language films, now that you have also a global audience?
I’m gonna only do more English films. I’m collaborating with Hollywood, with Spain. I’m gonna have to start the second part of ‘365 Days’, as well. We still don’t know when, but for sure we’re gonna make it, because of this problem with COVID. I have many projects, not in my language. I have a Spanish project, so I have to learn Spanish.
We heard that you have a perfume line coming up.
Yeah, I’m here in Dubai for two reasons. One of the reason is HalaHi; I’m part of this amazing family with these amazing guys. The second is because I’m making my own perfume … There’s nobody in the world that knows about perfume as [much as an] Arab country. The concept of the perfume here is not just take a perfume, spray and go — perfumes are more like something about culture, about philosophy. If I want to do something, I want to do something perfect. And this country is the perfect country to make this kind of business.
Can you speak any Arabic?
Akeed. Ana bahki Arabi shway, mesh kteer, inno bas… [Of course. I speak Arabic a bit, not too much, though.]
Have you been to the Middle East before?
Mesh honeh, Lebanon, erefti keef? [Not here, but Lebanon, you know what I mean?]
What’s your favourite Arabic meal?
I love the Arabic food. But my favourite one is the bread with hummus that you just grab and put it in your mouth. And you eat it and you swallow it down and you can feel it, you know? Yeah, totally hummus. I mean, it’s the most simple thing, but it’s the most good thing. I like many things. I like kafta, I like tabouleh, fattoush… kello, jaj. [All of it, including chicken.]
People are just getting to know you. What are the characteristics that you would describe yourself with, as a person?
I’m a very, very loyal man. To me, loyalty is something more important than business, than money, than everything. I exactly know what I want for my life. I exactly know what is my goal. And I exactly know what I can do and what I cannot do. I mean, loyalty is something sexy, don’t you think?
After this film, can you walk down the street without being recognised? Or has life changed in that way?
Do you like that?
I mean, I accept that it’s part of the game. I made a movie that is worldwide. Every country I go, like America, Spain, I’m getting recognised, Every time I arrive to an airport, there’s a lot of fans. And it makes my heart so full of love. But, you know, sometimes it’s difficult. Because you can’t even [have a drink] with your friend [without getting recognised].
Imagine yourself getting recognised from everybody, all the time. Even when you have the mask of the COVID and the cap, you get recognised, because I have the tattoos on my hands, you know? It’s a part of the game. I love all of my fans, because they love me. And I think that artists should always be down to earth, because if you’re big, it’s because of your fans. If your fans love you, you’re someone. If your fans don’t love you, you’re just nobody.
What are three things that you cannot live without?
I think food and water… It’s a serious question, or? I can’t live without my kids. I can’t live without my friends. And I can’t live without my work.