Lorenzo Richelmy was briefly a child actor. Born in La Spezia, Italy, and raised in Rome, he started acting professionally at the age of seven. Three years later he quit at the behest of his mother. “Both of my parents were stage actors, so no money, really poor. They ate lentils and beans for most of their lives,” he says over the phone. “I had to fight for it. They were well aware that it is not a job in which you can make money.”
At 16, Richelmy brought up acting again. His mother agreed with the usual caveat: first, he had to get good grades in school. “I had never been a brilliant student, but I did it that year,” he laughs. He was accepted to drama school a year earlier than usual and entered into his own lentil and beans period, acting in Italian TV shows and in Kubrik—Una Storia Porno, a web series about young Italian filmmakers who somehow find themselves shooting a porno.
Then, in April 2014, while Richelmy was visiting the U.S. for the first time, he was offered the lead role in Netflix’s aspirational historical drama, Marco Polo. Marketed as a new Game of Thrones, the first season of Polo follows the famed Italian explorer as he leaves Venice and arrives at the court of Kublai Khan, the ruler of the Mongolian Empire and grandson of Genghis Khan. Marco’s father promptly abandons him in exchange for a permit to trade along the Mongolian-controlled Silk Road. Negotiating his own survival, Marco transitions from a prisoner to a tolerated curiosity to a trusted advisor. “A 17-year-old starting from Venice and walking through all of Asia to get to the court of the most powerful man on earth, Kublai Khan? That’s a magic story,” Richelmy comments. “I would say one of the most beautiful true stories in our history.”
Tomorrow, Netflix will release all 10 episodes of Marco Polo.
MARCO? POLO: They were looking for the actor to play the character throughout Europe and New Zealand—almost everywhere. They did look for three years and couldn’t find anyone in Italy. I heard about the project—an Italian friend of mine did it—and I thought to myself, “I can do it better.” So I called a friend of mine, a real director, and I had him help me with the audition. We tried to do the best that we could. I proposed my own version of Marco Polo and that worked. I think what they found in me was that I was first of all Italian, and open-minded and a traveler. Basically, I’ve been all the places Marco Polo had been when I was a kid. My stepfather has a passion for Asia, and he brought me there two months a year every year from nine to 16. I did the whole of South-East Asia, except China.
THE REAL MAN: When you study Marco Polo in school—in the history books—he’s known as the explorer and in Italy, more the merchant. But then he spent 20 years in Asia and he brought nothing back—what kind of merchant was he? He wasn’t a merchant, he was really an explorer, and he was driven by his passion for life—curiosity.
THE MOST POWERFUL MAN IN THE WORLD: With the relationship between Marco and Kublai, it’s pretty complicated. You can see the relationship from different angles: in the beginning he’s the puppet of this great king who just wants to amuse himself—a relationship between the king and the clown. [But] the powerful man on earth is surrounded by all these yes men, and [only] this young kid is speaking the truth. He needs him, and from that point he starts to use him. We see these two totally different characters—I mean, the Emperor of Mongolia and a young Italian kid—eventually become friends.
Marco Polo went back to Italy 20 years later and had a family. He tried to tell all the people the great things he saw in China and Mongolia, but nobody believed him, probably because of the Church. The Vatican could not accept that there was a man more powerful than the Pope at that time.
ALL TEN EPISODES OF MARCO POLO WILL BE AVAILABLE TOMORROW, DECEMBER 12, VIA NETFLIX.