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It may look easy being Maria Venuti, but it’s harder than you think, she admits to Andrew L. Urban. Venuti plays the traditional Italian Mama in Fat Pizza, the movie version of the SBS TV series, which is so totally unlike her, her daughter didn’t recognise her.

The spacious and deserted 4th floor atrium lobby of Roadshow’s Sydney offices suddenly come alive and the shiny leaves of the potted plants shimmer and rustle in a frisson of elation as Maria Venuti – in a striking black and white outfit - walks through from the lift lobby, escorted by Danielle Cooper, publicist for Fat Pizza. We are whisked into one of the boardrooms for our interview, and Maria smiles her dazzling ‘Darling!’ smile. (Declaration of interest: we’ve been friends for years.) She had just come out of a special screening of Fat Pizza, in which she plays Mama, where she had been accompanied by her grown up daughter, Bianca. What did daughter say? 

"Well darling, this character IS so different to me"

“She hissed at me, ‘Who is THAT!?’” Maria laughs. “Well darling, this character IS so different to me, which is what I love. She’s so feisty and feared! I’ve never been feared in my life! Being Bianca’s mother I’ve always been the softie, all my life. ‘Yes, whatever you want…’ sort of spoily, never that demanding and firm. But as Mama Guiliotti, I can be all those things.” No wonder Bianca didn’t recognise her as the mother figure!

But Maria had a useful reference to use in creating Mama - her own late mother, Bella. “Absolutely! She was a matriarch! And it’s wonderful to have her in there … it’s like a tribute to her. This screen mama is so bossy! I’ve never been bossy. And she explodes with maternal anger. But above all, she’s traditional. She brings a bit of tradition to the movie.” 

Which is not what Paul Fenech does: “he didn’t show me the whole script,” says Maria, “and he works on this need to know basis. But now I’ve seen the film I have to say, it works.”

For those who don’t know, Fat Pizza is the extended, movie version of the SBS TV comedy series Pizza, created by Paul Fenech who writes, produces, directs and stars in Fat Pizza. He is also the narrator of the story of Bobo the pizza chef (Johnny Boxer), who is about to be married to his mail-order bride Tuyen Le (Lin Chow Bang), an asylum seeker. But Mama (Maria Venuti) doesn’t approve. Wrong ethnic. In the meantime, the delivery boys are hard at work. Pauly Falzoni (Paul Fenech) has started a war with the Ronnie Macdoggle hamburger chain, Sleek the Lebanese rapper (Paul Nakad) is being stalked by a gang of fat chicks, and new guy Davo Dinkum (Jabba) who has a drug problem, runs into a gang of bikies.

"I like being another person"

Raunchy and rowdy, Fat Pizza is Maria’s third movie role and it’s her least flattering. “I’m losing all vanity,” she declares, but I suspect she means only on screen and in character roles. As Mama she looks older and of course less glamorous than the Maria Venuti you and I know. “I look older and feel older in the film, but I like being another person,” she says. 

Maria has always been a performer; even as a singer, she performs, and as an actor, she’s always been cast in obvious character variations of her image. The buxom, outgoing, exuberant type. Except once, in GP. “That was my one serious role and I must say, I reveled in that.” Maria played the Italian mother (even then) of a 17 year old boy dying of cancer. “She was a typical mother and wanted the best for her son. He didn’t want to go to hospital…and in the end he died, which was really terrible and when I read the script, I thought, how am I going to do this.” 

When it came to shoot the scene, Maria was intense and spontaneously burst into tears. “I was in tears for two hours…they couldn’t stop me! It suddenly all came out as if I was grieving for my father…because when my father died in 1966, I could never grieve for him because I had to look after mum; she fainted for two hours and all that, and I had to look after her…So this scene helped me get rid of much of the grief – what, 26 years later!”

She says she projected her father onto the character of her screen son. “You try not to get that deep, but it happens. It was a big surprise to everybody, including me, I guess.”

"it’s great to be different people"

Singing, her first love, offers her a performing opportunity, but she’d love to go further with acting. “I don’t mean I want to do that big dramatic part and blah blah…but it’s great to be different people.”

She also relished working to camera. “Yes, well this is what I really did have to work on: focus! When you’re performing as a singer to an audience, you’re all over the place. So I do have to keep telling myself, focus, focus, focus. And listen. Listen! Focus! Because I’m not naturally a focused person! But I do seem able to do it.”

Some people, she feels, get scared of her. How are we going to discipline Maria Venuti, they say? They needn’t be. “When I did Lend Me A Tenor with director David Gilmour, he said I was too hard on myself, so did Ron Link who directed Women Behind Bars. He said ‘you want perfection’ – but I never thought I was like that.”

But her pursuit of perfection is manifested in her absolute professionalism. She gives of her talents a thousand percent, but not just as a performer: she can’t say no to charity appearances and has lost count of the money she has helped raise. It’s worth noting that her profile as a ‘personality’ is anchored by her natural talents as a singer across several styles, ranging from pop to jazz, and a singer whose stage presence is unique. She has no role models. “That’s the trouble!” she says effusively. 

“I’ve never had a role model, and you know what, that’s what makes it difficult. If someone says I want to be like so and so, it’s very easy to get a movie and emulate that person. And when you’re singing, you can easily get influenced by people. I feel you can be influenced a little bit, but you’ve got to be unique. But it’s hard. I’ve chosen the hard road . . . it would be a lot easier if you have a role model.” 

"Life is a cabaret, darling"

The elusive thing about Maria Venuti is that her image hides all that hard work. As she tells youngsters starting out in showbiz: “Life is a cabaret, darling - but you’ve got to do your homework.”

Published April 10, 2003

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Maria Venuti

... in Fat Pizza

... in Fistful of Flies

Maria Venuti clippings:
Cabaret singer and stage performer, Maria Venuti made her acting debut in the 1985 production of Women Behind Bars at Sydney’s Footbridge Theatre, playing the fiery but ill-fated jailbird, Guadalupe. Andrew L. Urban was there, reviewing for The Australian. “Outrageous and low-brow,” he wrote, “hugely amusing and a great escape – and isn’t that what some jails are for?”

She went on to appear on stage in Jerry’s Girls, Lend Me A Tenor and Annie, and on TV in A Country Practice and GP, as well as on the birth of Fat Pizza as the comedy series Pizza on SBS TV. She has had support roles in two previous films: Gino (1994) and Fistful of Flies (1996). 

... in Fat Pizza

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