I’m totally psyched for this edition of my “5 Questions With….” series. This person has continuously been an incredibly important person in my life. She has been with me through thick and thin and I can’t imagine what my life would be without her. She is an inspiration to me and I’m so proud of her accomplishments so far and I just know that there is much more in store for her.
Alissa DeGrazia is a talented actress, writer and filmmaker who prides herself on her Italian heritage, in particular her Calabrian roots. Alissa has always been very active in the Italian-Canadian community in Toronto and was also a regular cast member in the well-known comedy troupe, The Rosina Parmiggiano Show. Alissa’s grandparents immigrated to Toronto from the small town of Carpanzano in Calabria. Growing up, she was surrounded by the Calabrese dialect and customs. It inspired her to create a documentary called Sempre Avanti: An Italian-Canadian Immigrant Experience, sharing first hand experiences of Italian immigrants who came to Canada in the 1950s.
I’m so thrilled to be able to introduce you to the wonderful and fabulous Alissa DeGrazia.
Let’s start with the most obvious question, what inspired you to get into acting, writing and film-making?
I think that I am a born performer but, if I had to choose one specific thing that inspired me it was my grandfather Arturo. He and I were inseparable throughout my childhood. When I look back on it as an adult, I think he saw something in me as a very young child and was able to hone in on that. He taught me to speak the Calabrese dialect from our town when I was about a year old. That’s not an exaggeration. I have filmed footage of us performing little stories for people and I was about 14 months old. That’s really how it all started. He used to teach me stories and then we would perform them together. As I got older and started to study Ballet, he would put on music so I could dance around the house and when the Italian variety shows were on TV he used to make me dance along with the “velline” because “some day that would be me”. He also gave me a passion for both listening to and telling stories. If I had to sum up what I do, whether acting, modelling or film making, it’s just me telling a story.
Alissa and her nonno
How much of a role have your Italian roots played in your development as an artist and in your life in general?
My Italian roots, I believe are the reason that I am a artist; mind, body and soul. The Italian culture is a culture of passion. Whether it be food or clothing, cars or politics; we are a passionate people. Even the smallest conversation can have so many variations of colour in a room full of Italians. We also have an appreciation or an understanding of art and beauty which I think is innate. If you have ever been to Italy, it doesn’t matter where, you are inundated with beautiful art, architect and landscape. In a more specific way, my Italian roots have given me an ability to explore diverse career options. At about 16 I started as a coop student at the Telelatino Television Network. This was my first real experience in the industry and it wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t understand and speak the language. Later on, in my comedy career I toured for several years with the Rosina Parmiggiano comedy troupe. This was another one of those serendipitous moments where my “dialect” got me noticed. It’s incredibly rare for a young woman to speak such a fluent dialect without being born in Calabria, and this, along with my sense of comedic timing is what drew the producer/ writer/director to me. Eventually she created the character of, Stellina Parmiggiano, which I was able to originate on stage which was a great deal of fun.
Alissa as Stellina Parmiggiano with Rosina Parmiggiano
As you already know, my father immigrated to Canada when he was only 17 years old. In fact, much of my family and yours were immigrants from Italy and each had their own unique experience. You decided to film a documentary documenting the different experiences of some of your family and relatives. How important was it for you to tell this story?
The decision to discuss the Italian immigrant narrative in my documentary Sempre Avanti! An Italian Canadian Immigrant Experience was a no brainer. The immigrant narrative is something that is always very close to my heart. Again, probably from all the stories Nonno Arturo told me growing up! It is such an important part of who we are as an Italian people. I know that if my family had not immigrated, I would never have the opportunity to follow any of my artistic callings. They gave up so much for future generations that they deserve to be paid back in whatever way we can. Their stories deserve to be told!
To read more about the documentary, visit Transformations: The Italian-Canadian Experience
Alissa at the 2014 Canada International Film Festival
What are some of your favourite Italian traditions?
OMG this is a tough one. I love cooking in general. I love to make all the traditional foods and keep up the things that my grandparents taught me. I love tomato sauce day because it means another year of amazing spaghetti! I love to dance a long and fast tarantella and I love to sit around with people and chat in dialect.
Have you ever been to Italy? What was your most memorable experience there?
I have been blessed to visit Italy several times. I have a great number of family and friends there and I really cherish each and every visit. There are probably two Italy trips that stick out in my mind. One was in 2003 when we went on our family vacation. It was the first time in 14 years that we had been to Italy and being an adult, it gave me a chance to connect with people and places that I had only ever imagined. Seeing our home town and meeting my great uncles Carmelo, Totono and Gerardo was an incredible gift which I was fortunate enough in subsequent years to continue developing. Another great memory was sitting at the bar in my home town with you having a drink shortly after your move. It was a fantasy that we had shared for so many years and it was so great to get a chance to fulfill it!
Thank you so much Alissa! I wish you continued success in your many creative ventures!
You can find out more about Alissa by visiting:
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/alissa.degrazia / https://www.facebook.com/alissadegraziapage
Official Website – http://alissadegrazia.com
Transformations – The Italian Canadian Experience – http://www.transformationscanada.com
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