Giovanni Ribisi never really thought about it, until now. When he walks down the street, people who recognize him often want to chat for a minute or two about different credits. He’s 47 years old and has spent much of his life in front of a camera, appearing in everything from his first credit, a 1985 episode of Highway to Heaven, to The Wonder Years, Saving Private Ryan, the Mod Squad movie, Boiler Room, Lost in Translation, Friends, Public Enemies, Avatar, and Sneaky Pete. Not surprisingly, it’s usually Boiler Room or Avatar or Friends that people gush about.
“Wow,” Ribisi says, pausing to think during a recent, exclusive Zoom call with Fatherly. “It depends on what city I’m in. In New York, it’s Boiler Room. In Italy or Europe, it’s Friends. For the most part, it depends, usually, on what you’ve got coming out at that moment, I guess. That’s an interesting question.”
Ribisi’s latest project is the Paramount+ 10-episode limited series, The Offer, which begins streaming on April 28. The show, with a good bit of dramatic license, goes behind the scenes of the making of director Francis Coppola’s classic film, The Godfather. Miles Teller stars as Albert Ruddy, the ambitious young producer who rises from total obscurity to oversee Paramount Pictures’ adaptation of the best-selling novel by Mario Puzo (Patrick Gallo). Ruddy teams with Coppola (Dan Fogler), and must contend with an array of allies and nemeses, including Paramount boss Robert Evans (Matthew Goode), Gulf & Western head Charles Bluhdorn (Burn Gorman), stern, penny-pinching Gulf & Western exec Barry Lapidus (Colin Hanks), Ruddy’s wise gal Friday, Bettye McCartt (Juno Temple), and New York City mafioso Joe Colombo, played by Giovanni Ribisi. The pressure is on because the studio needs a hit, and jobs — and lives — hang in the balance
In real life, Ribisi’s character Colombo not only ran one of the infamous Five Families of the American Mafia, but he also founded the Italian-American Civil Rights League. Colombo and the League, as well as other powerful figures, notably Frank Sinatra, initially protested the making of The Godfather. Ruddy met with Colombo, selling him on the idea that it was an immigrant story and promising to remove any script mentions of the term Mafia, and gained his support. Some of that real story is incorporated into the story of The Offer.
“I was definitely familiar with The Godfather, and I knew a little bit, heard throughout the years about Joe Colombo, with the Colombo family,” Ribisi said. “I’d never really known all the ins and outs of what that relationship was; the dynamic and the Italian-American Civil Rights League. It was incredible. For me, the most interesting thing about it was how much change was going on. I’m talking culturally, in the film industry, politically, and also within the Five Families, and how Joe Colombo was at the vanguard of trying to usher that life into the 20th century. The theory is that’s what got him killed.
“It was incredible.”
“The relationship with the film was interesting because, with The Offer, with the 10 episodes, it’s about making The Godfather, one of the seminal films of the 20th century, through the lens of a producer,” he continued. “Which I think is unique because everybody asks, ‘What does a producer do?’ It’s like, ‘Well, what doesn’t he do?’ It’s anything and everything to try to get a movie made. This is unique in that (Ruddy) was trying to achieve what is considered impossible. On top of that, he’s got to deal with the Mafia, who’s adamantly against him making this movie and telling this story.”
Colombo, of course, was a real figure. He died in 1978, following seven years spent in a coma after an assassination attempt during an Italian-American Civil Rights League event in New York City’s Columbus Circle. Ribisi, for The Offer, did what he could to capture Colombo’s physicality, voice, fearsome presence, and essence.
“There’s no way that I could ever be Joe Colombo”
“For the first half of my preparation, it was about trying to be accurate,” Ribisi said. “Then, at a certain point, you have to let go of all that and focus on the story that everybody else is telling, which is The Offer, the scripts, making a scene work, rehearsing. What you fall back on is essentially just trying to find your own version of it. There’s no way that I could ever be Joe Colombo, but I think that we were definitely striving for something. It was a reach. It was intimidating and terrifying, and the furthest I had ever felt from a character, but at the end of the day it served the material.”
Beyond The Offer, Ribisi keeps busy at home helping his girlfriend Emily Ward raise their three-year-old twins, Enzo and Maude. Ribisi, who is a twin (Marissa, an actress), also has a daughter, 24-year-old Lucia, from a previous relationship. On the work front, he is currently revisiting his Avatar baddie character, Peter Selfridge, for director James Cameron’s highly anticipated Avatar 2 and Avatar 3, with Avatar 4 and Avatar 5 also on his radar.
“It’s incredible,” he says of the ambitious Avatar quartet of sequels, which are taking years to complete. “It’s something that I wholeheartedly welcome. We’ve done 2 and 3 and 2 is coming out this year. 3 is next year. After that, I believe, it was somewhere in there, we’re going to be setting out again to do 4 and 5.”