Fans of BBC Four's Inspector Montalbano are in for a jolt when they catch Luca Zingaretti's performance in Sky Atlantic drama The King.
The Italian star shows little of the Sicilian detective's reassuring charm in the new eight-part series. By contrast, his character Bruno Testori, chief warden at one of Italy's harshest jails, is a cruel, cocaine-snorting control freak.
Fortunately, Zingaretti is very much in benign Salvo Montalbano mode when he speaks to Radio Times via Zoom from Rome, the city of his birth.
Radio Times’ Patrick Mulkern: Hello, Luca. I understand The King is very much a passion project for you. Can you tell us what inspired the series?
Luca Zingaretti: It started as an idea of mine, which four years ago I brought to the producer Lorenzo Mieli at the Apartment [a TV production company]. We wanted to work together for a long time. The subject evolved and changed over time. I also worked alongside the writers, following the creative process up to the start of shooting.
RT: What made you choose this darker character and the setting within a prison?
Luca: I wanted to tell the story of a man who, in a crisis, loses his direction and points of reference. I love characters with light and shadow, inner conflicts that an actor can come to grips with. In real life you don't have this clear-cut situation where it's either good or evil – even a murderer has certainly done something good in his life.
And the idea of setting it in a prison is because we wanted an enclosed space like a boxing ring where everything has to happen here and now and, because of the poor conditions, it's also where conflicts are heightened. It's a bit like a reality show where people are all locked in one place and explode.
RT: How closely does The King reflect conditions in the real Italian prison system?
Luca: Clearly what we describe in the series is exaggerated, but Italian prisons are not famous for being places with the best conditions. Evidence of this is that while we were shooting the series, a scandal emerged in Italy after some convicts were beaten by prison guards, and these guards had to undergo a trial. A lot of effort has been made to improve conditions in Italian prisons but we still have a long way to go.
RT: Do you think prisons in Italy should do more to rehabilitate criminals, and should there be a separate system for the Mafia or jihadists, as seen in The King?
Luca: I do believe that prison should offer more rehabilitation for convicts. Italy has been sanctioned by the EU community because of the system of "41 bis" [an emergency measure to deal with prison unrest], which is a specific provision for mafia mobsters and members of organised crime. It's clear that once in prison these people should not be able to order or govern their Mafia families from inside, and maybe different systems should be put in place to prevent that.
RT: And what we see on screen – is that a set or did you go to a real prison?
Luca: It is a real prison from the 1800s, Carcere le Nuove in Turin, which has been turned into a museum. We took a wing of it which is not used so much as a museum and repainted it and took it back to look like a prison. It's extremely important for us to film in a real location – not only from a visual standpoint, but for the actors, physically, to perceive and feel the burden of being in prison.
RT: Did you visit any active prisons for research?
Luca: I talked with many non-profit-making organisations that work with convicts, and in the series there are actually some ex-convicts.
RT: Bruno Testori's best friend, who gets killed early on, is called Nicola. Is he named after your brother [Nicola Zingaretti, a famous Italian politician]?
Luca: No, truly. I was not involved in choosing my best friend's name. My own character Bruno, though, is named after one of my best friends who died tragically a couple of years ago. I thought it would be a nice thing to do – to wear that name.
RT: What would you say are the differences and similarities between Bruno Testori and Salvo Montalbano? They have a strong but very different sense of justice and morality.
Luca: I have to say that these two characters Salvo and Bruno have come from a completely different framework and background. Salvo comes from literature, the books of Andrea Camilleri, and is Camilleri's alibi to express his vision of the world – a kind of timeless world where you see very few people, very few cars or mobile phones. The character of [Montalbano police officer] Catarella is very weird, like he’s from commedia dell'arte – a kind of Harlequin. Bruno is much tougher and used to talking about direct reality.
RT: Inspector Montalbano is popular in the UK – the books and the films – but the author Camilleri died in July 2019. Are there more stories to be filmed? When do you think you’ll say goodbye to Salvo?
Luca: There are still two novels left which Camilleri published before his death, and some short stories but most of them have been used up. In 2019 we not only bid goodbye to Camilleri, but the series director Alberto Sironi died and Luciano Ricceri, the production designer, who had chosen all those places we filmed in. Montalbano's last novel has been published in Italy. It's called Riccardino, like a "small Richard", and it's one of the two novels that hasn't been adapted into a TV film yet.
RT: So did Camilleri discuss with you at all how the story might come to an end?
Luca: Actually, he told me that he had written the novel as a kind of game where the literary character would question the writer and ask him something about me playing him on screen.
RT: You've directed the last three Montalbano films – do you enjoy directing and will you direct more projects?
Luca: Yes, very much. I'm developing my first movie and my first series as a director. The film will be a story of rebirth, about a young man with many problems who is getting himself out of that tunnel. And the series is the story of a lawyer in Milan, a woman who is going through a series of events and adventures.
RT: What hopes do you have for more seasons of The King?
Luca: It's been a huge success in Italy already and was a triumph at the TV series festival in Lille, so we're going to start the second season soon.
RT: You're recognised all round the world. Any plans to come to the UK soon?
Luca: For all of us actors, especially my generation, England has always been the homeland of theatre. I am a stage actor. I was there four years ago to do a reading and it was extremely moving and touching, so I come back to England every time I can with a lot of pleasure.