It was a spring day in Rome when Lady Gaga’s sense of reality started to slip. For nine months while preparing for and shooting House of Gucci, Gaga stayed in character as Patrizia Reggiani, who married and ultimately ordered the 1995 murder of Gucci heir Maurizio Gucci. She spoke in a Northern Italian accent even when cameras weren’t rolling on the Ridley Scott film and tapped into her own history of trauma, including being raped by a music producer when she was 19, to depict Patrizia’s unraveling.
One day while shooting a scene with Salma Hayek, who plays Patrizia’s confidant, Gaga was laying on a couch relying on a Stanislavski acting technique (in which she would run through sense memories from an emotional event) when the line between her own experiences and Patrizia’s began to blur. “It’s a scene where I knock a lit candle across the room, and I remember I gave Salma a heart attack that day,” Gaga says. “I was falling apart as [Patrizia] fell apart. When I say that I didn’t break character, some of it was not by choice.” Gaga had experienced this kind of dissociative state before — including once when she was hospitalized.
On the Gucci set, Scott intervened, concerned by the impact the performance seemed to be having on his leading actress. “Ridley said, ‘I don’t want you traumatizing yourself,’ ” Gaga says. “And I said, ‘I already have. I’ve already been through this anyway. I might as well give it to you.’ And he said, ‘Well, leave it here and don’t do this to yourself anymore.’ ”
It’s 9 at night in early November in a brightly lit photo studio in Culver City, and Gaga has been posing in dramatic headpieces and gowns for a few hours, occasionally trailed across the room by her attentive hairdresser, Frederic Aspiras, fanning the nape of her neck. She has changed into a loose-fitting royal blue Celine tracksuit for an interview in her dressing room, her hair swept into tidy Princess Leia buns, her hazel eyes often filling with tears as she talks. As a singer, Gaga, 35, has been creating characters onstage and in videos for her entire 20-year career.
But in House of Gucci, which MGM will release in theaters on Thanksgiving weekend, she found a new kind of role into which she could channel her considerable real-life heartache, a character driven mad by rejection and hurt. “I took the pain I feel from being attacked when I was a young girl, from feeling left behind by people that I love, from feeling trapped that I can’t go out into a world that I love,” Gaga says. “I took that pain and I gave it to her.”
Her House of Gucci performance is one that will cement Gaga’s place not as a singer who acts, but as an actress full stop, and confirm that her Oscar nomination for 2018’s A Star Is Born was no fluke. The film comes at the end of what has been a busy and, characteristically for Gaga, varied year. In 2021, she released Love for Sale, an album of standards, with her beloved 95-year-old collaborator Tony Bennett, performed a series of jazz shows in Las Vegas and dropped Dawn of Chromatica, an avant-garde remix album of her 2020 dance pop album, Chromatica, in which she teamed with young, mostly LGBTQ artists.
In January, she sang the national anthem at President Biden’s inauguration while wearing a bulletproof vest sewn into her Schiaparelli gown (with a huge gold dove brooch), and — in another moment of great national import — in May she performed the song “Smelly Cat” dressed as Phoebe at HBO Max’s Friends reunion.
Sophisticate, chanteuse, patriot, Friend with a capital F: Gaga can become anyone she wants, except a regular person who can walk down the street unrecognized. At times, the weight of that fame is oppressive. “I made a trade when I decided to pursue my career in the way that I have,” Gaga says. “I didn’t know what that trade was going to be, but it happened. And in a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve lost everything.”
If Scott were making House of Gucci 40 years ago, he says, he would have cast Elizabeth Taylor. “There’s that beauty,” Scott says. “And yet there’s an intelligence and a cattiness and a danger to Liz Taylor. And I would compare a lot of this to Stefania.” (Scott calls Gaga “Stefania,” Italianizing her real first name, Stefani, a nod to the actress’ immersion in the Italian woman she plays.)
The English director’s company, Scott Free, had been trying to make House of Gucci for nearly 20 years, since Scott’s wife and producing partner, Giannina Facio, bought the rights to Sara Gay Forden’s 2001 book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed. There was always some barrier — the script was never quite right or studios weren’t interested in a movie that didn’t fit neatly into a particular genre or there was worry of what Gucci, as a company, would have to say about it.
Around the time Scott finally got a script he liked, by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, Warner Bros. released A Star Is Born. Up to that point, Gaga had appeared in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, earning a Golden Globe Award, and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and Machete Kills, all roles that capitalized on the flair for drama she demonstrated in her stage persona but none that suggested she could carry a movie.
With A Star Is Born, which would end up grossing $436.2 million worldwide and earning eight Oscar nominations, including one for best picture, Hollywood realized Gaga was not just a piece of stunt casting. “A Star Is Born is such a specific thing, and there was always a meta element to the project,” says Bradley Cooper, Gaga’s director and co-star in the musical. “She’s just so terribly charismatic and beautiful. When I met her, I thought, ‘If I can just harness that … then it’s just for me to mess up.’ But then, when we started working together, I realized, ‘Oh, oh, the sky’s the limit in terms of what she’s able to do and her commitment level.’ ”
After seeing A Star Is Born, Scott wanted Gaga for House of Gucci and quickly set up a meeting. “There was only one person ever in my sights at this moment in time who could carry this pretty forthright woman,” Scott says of the role of Patrizia, who, despite a humble upbringing, enchants Maurizio at a party, marries him in 1972 and elbows her way into the Gucci family business, before eventually ordering Maurizio killed when he elbows her back out in their 1994 divorce. “I found Stef to be inordinately approachable and, frankly, a lot of fun.
She’s very smart and very, very perceptive. I knew after that first meeting, it was essential that she would do this part. She must. And, of course, because of her very recent success [in A Star Is Born], that made it a lot easier for us to get going and get a proper budget.” (The movie cost more than $75 million.)
Gaga sees Patrizia as a performance of a lifetime — “meaning I put my entire lifetime into her” — and a cautionary tale about what happens to a woman who has been taught that all of her value is in the man whom she marries. In a scene where a family attorney serves Patrizia divorce papers at her daughter’s school, “I yelled at him for every woman on earth, the way that we all do,” she says. “As a woman, I feel like I really can snap into something that’s not about the person that I’m yelling at. It’s like I’m yelling at all the men that came before them. It doesn’t make it right, but it’s real.” Her interpretation of Patrizia is a feminist one — that what drove a woman to murder was going unseen and unheard by the men around her.
“I can assure you, you should never put a hit out on your husband,” Gaga says. “But my love and best wishes and my heart go out to all of us women who try to survive and matter in a man’s world. While lots of men were trying to figure out what piece of this pie they were going to get to keep, while they were watching the money, they should have been watching her. And because they didn’t pay attention to her, they lost everything.”
With Gaga aboard, Scott set about winning over the fashion house itself, to be able to use the name Gucci and the clothing archive. “There’s something magic about the word ‘Gucci,’ ” Scott says. “It’s a sexy word that suggests everything that you want to go and see as a form of escapism.” On that front, he had help from some other dynamic women, including his wife: Facio is friends with Hayek, whose husband, French businessman François-Henri Pinault, is the CEO of Kering, the parent company that owns Gucci.
Scott reached out to Pinault before going into preproduction, and the executive read the script and had no notes, beyond the word “spectacular,” Scott says. The name and the archive would be made available. Scott rounded out the cast with Adam Driver as Maurizio, the elegant but shy businessman who falls for Patrizia just as he’s preparing to take over the Gucci empire from his father (Jeremy Irons) and uncle (Al Pacino), along with his sometimes bumbling cousin (Jared Leto) and Hayek as a psychic Patrizia consults and ultimately befriends.
For six months before production started, Gaga worked on her accent, which she treated like learning a new musical genre. “If I can sing rock ‘n’ roll or jazz or country or pop music, I knew I could speak in a specific Northern Italian accent,” Gaga says. “It’s knowing how to use your voice, why, and where, and with who, and how to feel while you’re doing it.” She ate more pasta and bread than usual, deliberately gaining weight to have a more rounded figure. “My mother and father met me as Patrizia a couple times,” Gaga says.
“And they were mostly laughing because my family gets a kick out of my love of artistry. … There’s a downside to committing yourself to a role in that way because it’s an adjustment for everybody around you. Suddenly, you’re not talking to Stefani anymore with an accent. You’re talking to Patrizia Gucci.” Hayek praises the end result, “the freshness of [Gaga’s] performance and creativity in her choices.” “She was the ultimate professional,” Hayek says.
On most days during the three-and-a-half-month production, Gaga woke up around 3 a.m. to begin her transformation, a process that included donning a prosthetic bald cap under her various wigs. Often after she awoke she vomited, from some mixture of “anxiety, fatigue, trauma, exhaustion, commitment and love,” she says. “You wake up, you throw up, you go to set, throw up again.”
Gaga knows that melodrama is part of her brand, but she hopes that people understand she is being sincere when she talks about her total absorption in the role. “I feel so insecure talking about this,” she says. “I get nervous that people will assume that I’m sensationalizing a certain type of acting.”
She also drew upon her family’s Italian heritage that, growing up, often revealed itself around the dinner table. “We had as much food as we possibly could have on the table to celebrate the good fortune that came from hard work and elbow grease,” Gaga says. When her grandparents emigrated from Sicily, she says, they assimilated. For House of Gucci, Gaga says, “I worked a lot on digging into my ancestry and kind of reversing the car, reverse assimilation. How do I get out of the Italian American thing and get myself into what it means to be an Italian woman?”
She identified in a core way with Patrizia on the subject of craving parental love and approval. “Part of what makes a good character is knowing what the deep need of the character is,” she says. “But you can’t understand what the deep need of your character is unless you understand your own. My deep need was always to make my father proud. For Patrizia, I think it was to make her mother proud by way of mattering to a man. A man like Maurizio.”
Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in New York City, Gaga started playing piano at age 4 and soon learned that music got her what she most craved, which was attention from her father, Joe, a businessman who started a company that sold hotel WiFi and now runs an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side, Joanne Trattoria. “It’s a bottomless pit,” Gaga says. “I know my father’s proud of me, but my body doesn’t know.
When I would sing, my dad would lay on the couch and he would tap his feet and I would play piano. When I sang, I knew I was doing something that my father loved.” Her mother, Cynthia, was a telecom executive and now runs Gaga’s nonprofit, the Born This Way Foundation, and her younger sister, Natali, a fashion designer, has worked on some of Gaga’s projects.
Just as she was studying music as a child, Gaga also was learning acting, including at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, the Circle in the Square Theatre School and, briefly, before dropping out to pursue music full time, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She performed in school plays and booked a tiny role as a high school student in a 2001 Sopranos episode (“The Telltale Moozadell”) but didn’t bring the confidence to acting that she brought to music.
“I was terrible at auditioning,” Gaga says. “I was so bad. I could never get a role. I used to just freeze.” One particularly grim episode of camera-induced paralysis happened at a LensCrafters commercial callback. “I would stand there and go, ‘Oh my God. Ah! You’ve got to do this perfect. I’m not making my dad proud.’ ” (She didn’t get the part).