Film's star explains mystery of the two espressos

by Steven Rea

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

21 May 2009


What’s the deal with the two espressos, you ask?

In Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control,” the indie filmmaker’s star, Isaach De Bankole, is a sharp-suited mystery man who makes clandestine assignations in Spanish cafes with a cast of characters played by Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Gael Garcia Bernal.

At each cafe, De Bankole, credited as the Lone Man, requests two single espressos from the waiter — not a double, but two singles, in matching cups.

Jarmusch worked the detail into his script after watching De Bankole do the same thing at restaurants over the years. It becomes the mark by which the Lone Man is recognized by his contacts in the film, a loping, deadpan thriller that is more about process than plot.

“When I was in drama school in Paris, I worked in the evenings as a waiter,” says De Bankole, 51, a native of the Ivory Coast who lived for a long time in Paris before relocating to New York a decade ago. “And I’m a coffee lover, I love coffee. The Ivory Coast used to be one of the world’s biggest producers.

“And as a waiter, I noticed, as I was making espresso for the clients, that the first part of the water coming out of the machine gives you more caffeine than the second part of the water, which is weaker. So when people ask for a double, it doesn’t equal two singles. ... Whereas in two singles, you have two halves stronger, stronger than a double espresso.

“So when Jim and I would go to a restaurant, at the end of the meal, I would order always two espressos. And the waiter would say, ‘You want a double?’ And I say, ‘No, I don’t want a double. I want two singles.’

“They would look at me like I was a zombie. And so I explained it to Jim. ... And then I read his screenplay, and there are the two espressos! I had to laugh.”

De Bankole, familiar to fans of this season’s “24” as the exiled African prime minister Matobo, has worked with Jarmusch thrice before — as the Paris taxi driver in “Night on Earth,” and in smaller roles in “Ghost Dog” and “Coffee and Cigarettes.”

The two have become good friends.

“Among the people I work with, he always comes with a surprising idea,” says De Bankole. “He has this ability to see you and put you in different roles, different identities. It’s a big contrast compared to a director who sees you in something, and then just wants to replicate it and pigeonhole you.”

As for the origins of “The Limits of Control,” De Bankole says that Jarmusch contacted him one day and explained that he had had an idea and wanted to work with him on it. There was a sketchy 25-page treatment.

“He told me that a long time ago he went to visit a friend in Spain,” says the actor, on the phone from New York. “And she was living in this building, this weird building with curved forms, which is, of course, one of the places where the Lone Man stays in the film. ... And Jim said to me, ‘So I have the building and I have you — that’s all I have. So maybe we should just go over with a small crew and do it, day by day.

“I said, ‘I’m your man, that sounds interesting to me.’ Why not?”

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