As Young Peggy, Julie Cohen has a memorable interaction with the young Noodles (Scott Tiler), and here she recalls her memories of the making of the movie, over thirty years ago.
How did you end up getting the role in Once Upon A Time in America?
I was a young actress working in New York and got a call to audition for the film from my manager. I was 17 years old and had a background in theater and film acting.
What did you think of the part? How did you get the essence of the character?
I liked the role when I read the audition sides, I thought the character of Peggy was sassy and funny. The role also made me nervous because of the sexual nature of the part and some nudity. But as an actor I'm drawn to taking risks. If a part scares me, it means I should take it. I was already beyond playing it safe, even at 17.
Do you recall your first meeting with Sergio? What was he like? A lot of actors say he kind of just stared at them for a while, placing them in his vision for the film?
I remember my first meeting with Sergio Leone very clearly. It was my first audition for the film. I had the scenes in advance so I knew what I would be performing for the camera. What I didn't know is that he would answer the door in his bathrobe. The audition took place at a town house on the east side, near the UN. I think he was finishing breakfast and there was no rush. It was leisurely. He had large tortoiseshell glasses, a big belly, and a warm expressive manner. Although I was young and the material was somewhat racy, he made me feel at ease with his humor. He was watching everything I did very intently and commenting when I was too comic. He encouraged me to take the material seriously. I was cast in the role of young Peggy that day- one of the first people cast. But it would be another year before shooting began, which was lucky for me, I turned 18 in the meantime so I could travel to Italy on my own, without a guardian - LOL! My mother never forgave me.
What were days on the set like?
I had 2 different experiences of shooting once upon a time in America. In the US we filmed the exterior scenes, my scenes were shot in lower Manhattan, Chinatown and Soho. Coincidentally I lived nearby and could walk or take the subway to the set from home. One clear memory was the production department removing all television antennae from the rooftops to reflect the correct time period!
Also when we were shooting in the tenement building in Chinatown for the bathtub scene, it was very cold and I was nude so the very considerate Italian crew would warm a robe for me with an iron so I could warm up between takes. Later I went to Rome to film interior scenes at Cinecitta, an incredible experience for any film fan. The history of that studio is remarkable and working there was an honor. One memory is the warm crusty focaccia bread brought to the set in the afternoon for a pick me up! Shooting in Rome was an amazing experience for an actor. The cast all stayed in the same hotel, sharing dinners and excursions. We became close, especially the kids in the cast.
What kind of a director did you find Sergio?
Sergio Leone was a great artist. This film was very important to him and he took it very seriously. He managed many aspects of the film - from tiny details to grand sweeping themes - shaping the material into a personal vision of American crime and punishment. Everyone working on the film was aware of his stature and gave him respect and trusted in his vision for the film. As an actor he made me feel safe and protected, a very fatherly figure. This is what a young actor needs to feel safe enough to be vulnerable. Scott, Brian, Jennifer and I were all handing very adult material at a very young age and it was Sergio's care and steady vision that made us feel safe enough to do that and make a better film full of heart and soul. I remember Sergio coaching Brian bloom through the scene with the pastry beat by beat. The camera was running without sound and Sergio was sitting just out of the frame telling him when to move and how long to pause. It was as if he was painting or sculpting a human moment using the actor as his clay.
What did you think when you first saw the movie?
Well, visually I was blown away. Seeing all the pieces come together - performances, locations, cinematography (Tonino!!) and the MUSIC (Morricone!) was pure poetry and all the elements were there BUT....the first time I saw the movie it was the edited version released by the studio. The story was just not clear. I was disappointed by how much was missing and how hard it was to figure out what was going on. Trying to tell the story in chronological order made it more mundane and took away its dreamy magic somehow. I was also surprised by some of the violence, especially towards women. Those scenes were difficult to watch. So brutal and realistic. But it is a story about brutal men, crime and guilt. Responsibility, loyalty, greed... .that's heavy stuff.
What about now? How do you look back on what is now a classic movie?
Now that it's been restored to Sergio's vision and now that we know it was his final film, it has so much more resonance and power. Now when you watch it it's like an opera full of pain, love, loss, regret. I mean it's big and mythic! The performances really hold up, James Woods, Tuesday Weld - these are great performances. The flashback scenes are so sweet to me now. We were all really young kids doing brave and difficult work.
I'm so proud of the work we did and I'm so grateful to have been a part of it.
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