MICHAEL BARBIERI IN NEW YORK, JUNE 2016. PHOTOS: DENIS VLASOV. STYLING: CLAUDIA CIFU. GROOMING: LAURA DE LEON/JOE MANAGEMENT FOR CHANEL. FASHION ASSISTANT: ANITA LAU. SPECIAL THANKS: COFFEE SHOP, NEW YORK CITY.
Jake Jardine and Tony Calvelli, the junior high school students at the center of writer-director Ira Sachs‘s sixth feature film, Little Men, seem like an odd pair. While Jake (Theo Taplitz) is reserved, awkward, and unpopular among his classmates, Tony (Michael Barbieri) is gregarious and charismatic—the sort of kid who can talk to anyone, and does so at a mile a minute. But both boys are creative, loyal, and fond of video games, and while they teeter between childhood and adolescence, that’s enough to make them inseparable. “Once you have a friendship bond like those two characters had, you’ll never lose it,” says Barbieri when we meet him in New York with his parents. “I grew up with kids I haven’t spoken to in a year or two, but I saw them the other day and we always have that bond and we’re always going to be close.”
As with Sachs’s prior film, 2014’s Love Is Strange, Little Men is a compassionate and intimate examination of a bond between two people. With Brooklyn as a backdrop, newcomers Barbieri and Taplitz play their roles with grace and ease. Indeed, Barbieri tells us that, “Tony was pretty much me. He’s Italian and very into his acting—like me. He auditioned for LaGuardia and his goal is to get into that school, which was mine,” the downtown New York-native continues. Like Tony, Barbieri is friendly and affable. “I like to go up to people and just talk to people,” he says. “That’s just what New Yorkers do.”
Though Little Men only comes out in theaters today, it has already been an important springboard for Barbieri. Since the film screened at Sundance in January, Barbieri has signed with an agent and traveled to South Africa to film a role in The Dark Tower with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. “I was ecstatic,” he recalls. “I was very excited to be in a film with stars like that.” For the last month and a half, he’s been in Atlanta working on Spider-Man: Homecoming. This autumn, he’ll begin his freshman year at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
HOMETOWN: Downtown New York, New York. I’ve been a New Yorker my whole life. A lot of people tell me, “Would you ever try living in L.A.?” I just can’t. I’m a city kid. I like to walk everywhere, take the subway. People are always like, “If you’re in L.A. you need a car.” That’s not me. I love walking around the city. I grew up with a bunch of kids who would walk everywhere. We’d walk uptown, downtown—we’d walk all around. I’m definitely a good New Yorker.
FAVORITE FILMS: I’ve seen Goodfellas a lot of times. That’s a good movie. Classics like Taxi Driver, Godfather, Raging Bull. I love Money Monster that just came out. George Clooney is very good in that. American Sniper with Bradley Cooper—movies like that. I’m really into cop shows like Hawaii Five-0, [Law and Order:] SVU, Blue Bloods.
INTRO TO ACTING: My brother John is an actor. I saw one of his plays and it looked like a lot of fun, so I said to my parents, “Hey, I want to do that.” I auditioned for my school drama club and I got a role and I took off from there. After I started getting into acting more and more, I gave up baseball. I couldn’t do both at the same time. My brother John, he graduated from LaGuardia at the same time when I realized this is definitely what I wanted to do. I wanted to study more and I went, “I’m going to study here.” I needed to go to school to study, and LaGuardia is the best.
DISCOVERING LEE STRASBERG: I was in acting school, but I graduated because they only go up to a certain age. I wanted to go to another acting school, so I just typed in “acting school” [on the internet] and it came up and there were so many good reviews about it. I had to audition for it. I had to have an interview. I got in and it really helped me a lot with acting.
The acting teacher in Little Men is my real acting teacher. Ira [Sachs] was looking for someone to play an acting teacher. He came in after one of my classes because he wanted to see how a day at Strasberg is. Mauricio [Bustamante] was the teacher, and Ira said, “Hey, I’m doing this film. Would you like to audition for it?” Mauricio seemed real. They had auditioned other people who didn’t seem real. His acting made it seem so realistic.
AUDITIONING FOR LITTLE MEN: Lee Strasberg sent everyone—including me—an email saying, “Ira Sachs is doing this film. It’s an open audition. Whoever wants to come, come and audition.” They sent me the sides and I auditioned. After a while Ira said I got the role. I originally auditioned for Theo [Taplitz’s] role, but the same day Ira cast Theo. I guess he liked me so much that he still wanted me to be in it so he switched the roles. I was very fortunate that he did that. Little Men was my first big feature. I had done a short before, but that was easily the biggest thing I had done then. It wasn’t really foreign to me but it was pretty cool. It was the biggest set I had ever been on before Dark Tower.
AT SCHOOL: Everyone was very happy for me. They all know I want to be an actor. I grew up loving acting. They were really happy that it’s happened for me. I was really excited. To be in a feature film and everything that’s happened to me lately…everyone’s very excited for me.
ON SET…[Ira] told me, “Just be yourself. If there’s something in the script that you feel like you’d say different, say it.” Ira wants it be personal. He wants it to be real. He doesn’t want it to be us in a room rehearsing lines. He wants it to be as if it’s just happening. I looked at the lines and I would say them, but if I felt like there was something I’d say differently Ira was 100 percent cooperative.
GETTING INTO CHARACTER: To relate myself [to my character], I read my lines, I see what I’d say there if there’s something similar, and I look at it and say, “Maybe this is what I’d say. Maybe this isn’t what I’d say.” I try to find relation in what I would say and what it says in the script.
ACTING ADVICE: Always be yourself, have confidence, never lie, thank your directors and everyone. Mainly just be yourself and have confidence.
FUTURE PLANS: If I do go to college, as of right now and this very moment, I would probably want to go to Pace [University] to follow in my brother’s footsteps. As of right now, I don’t really know 100 percent what I want to do in college. I just want to get through LaGuardia first, enjoy the experience of high school, enjoy the LaGuardia experience of acting. I know they’ll teach me well.
LITTLE MEN COMES OUT IN SELECT THEATERS TODAY, AUGUST 5, 2016.