Narrator Edoardo Ballerini on Genres, Beautiful Ruins, and Hollywood
Edoardo Ballerini has had a varied career. He’s had recurring roles in hit television series such as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, and will be in Quarry next year. He’s worked as a stage actor and film producer. He’s also narrated numerous audiobooks, including books by James Patterson, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Cherie Priest.
Ballerini’s father is Italian, and he grew up both in America and Italy, which is part of why he was such a natural fit to narrate Beautiful Ruins. I called him up to talk about Beautiful Ruins, the differences between acting and narrating, and his dream audiobook gig.
[Judy Oldfield]: You’ve narrated several audiobooks of all different sorts, including thrillers and mysteries, like James Patterson’s NYPD series, books about mindfulness, and more literary books like Beautiful Ruins. Do you approach reading for different genres differently?
[Edoardo Ballerini]: Absolutely. I have always said that the narrator’s job is to follow the author, to be as faithful to the text in representing it as possible. So the difference between narrating James Patterson and the Dalai Lama as you can imagine is pretty broad.
I really feel like my job is to be James Patterson as much as I can be when I am narrating James Patterson and to be the Dalai Lama—which is a tall order—when I’m narrating the Dalai Lama. It’s an interesting acting exercise. I feel like the narrator is meant to be as faithful to what is presented as possible, as opposed to let’s say theater, where you can be more interpretive, take your instinct, and do something new and different. I feel like the narrator’s job is not that. And so I do approach the different genres very differently.
[JO]: So then it really does differ from your work as a TV or a movie or a stage actor. Was it hard for you to make that switch when you started narrating audiobooks?
[EB]: No, my background is actually literary. Both my parents were academics and I went to school with the intention of being an academic myself—an English major. And so the world of books—the world of literature—was very natural to me, and it’s something that I had wanted to do for a very long time. It felt like a very comfortable fit for me, and I am so pleased that it worked out the way it has. I’ve met so many wonderful people, and I feel very at home in the world of audiobooks.
[JO]: How were you selected to narrate Beautiful Ruins?
[EB]: That’s an interesting question. A woman named Paula Parker was in charge of producing it in concert with HarperAudio and she knew me from some other work we’d done. She knew I spoke Italian, that I have an Italian background, and that I move between acting genres (meaning I do some in television and some in Hollywood). And along came a title which somehow blended Italy and Hollywood, and so she thought of me.
Beautiful Ruins and I, I feel like, were a match made in heaven. I really feel like if there was ever a book I was meant to narrate, that was it. To me—I’m almost embarrassed to say this—but it was easy. It was an easy book to narrate because it just felt so natural. It just felt like these worlds that were being written, these characters—I knew them all. I didn’t have to do that much outside of myself, and so I remember when I first read it I thought, “Wow, this is going to be special.” And I think the longevity of the success of the audiobook has proven that there was this kind of perfect match of narrator and text.
[JO]: Yeah, I heard Jess Walter talking about audiobooks on his podcast and he said that of his books that have been made into audiobooks, this was definitely his favorite and the only one he can really listen to comfortably.
[EB]: Yeah he said that to me as well. . . . We actually did an event together here in New York where I read a piece of the book and we discussed it in front of the audience and he said to me the same thing, privately, that it’s the only book of his that’s on audio that he can really listen to. So, it was the right pairing. I think casting, be it in audiobooks or be it in film, television, stage, whatever it is, is so important and this was just one of those moments where it all came together in the right way.
[JO]: You talked about having a bit of insider information. How did you feel about his depictions of Italy or Italians?
[EB]: I thought the main character, Pasquale, is a very beautiful character. That was in the sixties portion of the book as readers and listeners might be familiar with. My father is of that generation and so I’ve certainly met a lot of these people, and been to a lot of these smaller towns up the coast. It felt very honest to me. It felt very pure. It felt like this guy really could have existed and I could see him very easily. I thought it was a very honest, fair depiction of an Italian man of that time and that place in a small town, falling in love, and trying to expand his world and trying to break out.
[JO]: And what about Hollywood?
[EB]: The Hollywood characters also felt equally honest. You know, the Michael Dean producer, the young development assistant who is trying to make her way, and her slacker boyfriend. I feel like I’ve met these people a hundred times over.
I think, the success of the book, both in print and in audio, speaks to these chords that it struck in people, that these were real characters, that they lived authentic lives.
[JO]: Do you have a favorite moment in the story?
[EB]: It’s very easily the Richard Burton parts. I mean I know it’s an easy thing to point to, but it was so delicious, these scenes. And believe me, I’m never going to get to play Richard Burton ever again in my life. Just the chance to embody this legendary actor was just so absurd. From what I was told about Burton, it seems that too was an honest depiction of what the man was like. And just the chance to be in his voice and his head—it contrasted with Pasquale who is this beautiful young innocent. Those scenes were so great, they were so great.
[JO]: I know you said that this was almost like the ultimate audiobook for you, but if you had the chance to record any audiobook, what would it be?
[EB]: That’s a tough one. There are so many. You know one that I would love to do, is Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again—which is Thomas Wolfe, not Tom Wolfe. I’m not a Southerner so I probably shouldn’t be asked to do it, but it was a book that had such an impact on me as a young man in college that I would love to do that.
There’s another actually, now that I think about it: Jack London’s Martin Eden. It’s essentially London’s semi-autobiographical story of how he was this sort of brutish sailor who ended up in this wealthy man’s library and was introduced to the world of books and then launched into being a writer. It’s such a beautiful story, I’d love to do Martin Eden. So if anybody’s ever producing Martin Eden please give me a call.
Edoardo Ballerini shows great range as a narrator. Check out some of the many books he’s narrated.