“Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti,” Sophia Loren famously said when referring to her figure and perhaps in reverence of her Italian heritage.
Sharing that sentiment is another budding Italian actress, Lisa Palmieri.“Italians and food – the way we are about it, that passion, it’s next level,” says Palmieri as she describes what her heritage has brought to her performances.
In fact, the Montreal musical theatre sensation’s most recent role as Mabel Washington in the Just For Laughs production of FAME, which ran from June 7 to July 28 at Montreal’s Theatre St-Denis, was reinvented to play to the actress’s Italian background.
Inspired by Palmieri’s “Italian” mannerisms, expressions and accent when speaking French, FAME’s director Serge Postigo took Mabel’s character – originally a dancer from New York struggling with a less than “ideal” body type as a result of her love for eating – in a decidedly Italian-Canadian direction. Making some key adjustments to the original script: “Serge added the word poveraccio because of literally how often I say that!” Palmieri laughs.
The 28-year-old actress started dancing at the age of nine and speaks three languages. She wistfully recalls her childhood spent with family, namely assisting her father at his produce stand at the Jean-Talon Market, which he’s owned and operated for over 40 years. “I was always around food and I think that love is something I wanted to bring to Mabel’s character,” says Palmieri.
The actress grew up in Saint-Leonard with two older brothers and first generation Italian parents from Calabria on her mother’s side and Campania on her father’s side. “I always knew I wanted to be a performer,” she says. “My brothers and I would reenact scenes from Pierino or The Godfather and we’d just crack our parents up. My entire life I’ve wanted to make people laugh.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies from Concordia University in 2012, Palmieri turned her sights to potential job opportunities in her field: “But I just kept feeling like, ‘this isn’t for me,’ and that got clearer and clearer the more I thought about really pursuing performing.” The catalyst would turn out to be a promising experience at a two-day acting workshop with the Tom Todoroff Conservatory held in Montreal, where Palmieri was immediately offered a spot at his prestigious New York school.
“Finally I was like, ‘this is your shot to do what you love at 100%,’” she remembers with a smile. Upon returning from New York City, after finishing her two-year study, Palmieri got herself an agent and was able to land a few dance performance gigs in Montreal. But it was a musical theatre production of Mary Poppins in March of 2016 that she considers her big break. “It was a wish come true – singing, dancing and acting. Musical theatre is that space where I can explore all three of these passions.”
She credits her family for supporting her through her transitional career moment, always validating her passions and bringing optimism in times where she isn’t preparing for roles. “I think about my parents all the time,” she says. “I’m in awe of the level of sacrifice that I see from them and their generation. And I feel so lucky to have a family that understands both sides. The one where there are traditional values and hard work and expectations of being stable, but also the side that knows if your kid is pursuing their passion, then you should show support. Because support is love.”
Looking forward to her next chapter, Palmieri feels ready. “The thing about being raised Italian is it keeps you humble.” She swigs back the last sugary sip of her caffé freddo and pauses, radiating a high frequency of energy, all equal parts composure, charm and warmth. “Whatever’s next for me,” she says, “I’m just really excited.”