John Turturro is The Guy. Some people are The Man, but he's The Guy. Other than playing his fair share of Italian-American characters early in his career, he's never been the type of actor to get pigeon-holed playing particular character parts or types. And if you aren't impressed by all or most of his work as an actor, then you're the one with the problem, trust me. You may not love every movie he's been in, but it's never because of his performance; he's never once been the kind of actor you catch working just to cash a paycheck.
Many filmmakers that work with him, keep doing so, repeatedly. He can do anything--comedy, drama, action films, lead and supporting parts, crazy, mellow. And slowly over the past 20-plus years, he's been building a fascinating filmography as a writer-director as well, beginning with 1992's MAC and progressing to ILLUMINATA, the wonderfully passionate ROMANCE & CIGARETTES, PASSIONE, and his latest, FADING GIGOLO, co-starring Woody Allen, which sounds like a comedy but plays out much more serious and thought provoking.
He's worked under the directing of Allen, the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Michael Cimino, William Friedkin, Robert Redford, Peter Weir, John Dahl, Robert DeNiro, Noah Baumbach; hell, he's even had roles in several Adam Sandler films and all three TRANSFORMERS films to date. Not only can he not be typed as an actor; he's flat out unpredictable when it comes to guessing which way his tastes will take in selection what he's offered. He'll next be seen in the John Slattery-directed GOD'S POCKET, co-staring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, due in some cities as early as next week.
I've interviewed Turturro twice before, although strangely it's only been for films he's directed and written, and only ever on the phone. So his recent stop in Chicago marked the first time we'd ever actually met face to face. He's as smart as they come; he's willing to talk about anything; and he's considered every movie he's made (as director or actor or both) so deeply that he's willing and able to dig deep if that's where you want to go. In talking about FADING GIGOLO, we cover the topics of sex, handing over his first draft of the script to Woody Allen for notes (yikes!), and why regular people are so rarely portrayed on screen possessing sex lives. It's a great talk; please enjoy my chat with John Turturro…
Capone: Hello, sir. How are you?
John Turturro: Good. You want some water?
Capone: No, I’m fine. Thanks.
JT: And you’re with…?
Capone: With Ain’t it Cool News.
JT: Oh, hey. Yeah. Ain’t it Cool News has been very good to me.
Capone: I was just realizing out in the hallway that the only times we’ve ever talked was for you as a director. Never for one of your acting roles, other than in your own films.
JT: Good. Hopefully I’ll be doing more.
Capone: The films that I have interviewed you for, the first film [MAC] was just about noise and screaming, and then you have a musical [ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES], which is also big and bold. This film is so quiet.
JT: The first film you interviewed me was on was MAC. That’s much more of an operatic work.
Capone: And FADING GIGOLO is so intimate and small.
JT: Yeah, this is the other side of that. For me, that was a real, I don’t wanna just say "progression," but also I do like quiet movies sometimes, and I’ve always thought of it in that way, but not try to apply that to it. It really depends what the, you know, what the setting is and what the milieu is. You’re absolutely correct that this is quiet. I think it’s the most delicate film I’ve ever made.
Capone: The scenes with you and Vanessa Vanessa Paradis, in particular, are almost done in silence sometimes, or at least without dialogue.
JT: Dialogue is secondary anyway.
Capone: It would ruin the impact. They’re so intimate and fragile.
JT: That’s exactly it. She’s a rarity because she’s a singer, she’s a terrific actress--I’ve seen her in a couple of movies--but she has like an elegance, a strength, and a delicacy that you can’t act. Her acting is fantastic, because she did a lot of research and really descended into the character and brought her own feelings to it, but what she has as a person, she’s a rare combination.
Capone: I'll give you credit for taking one of the world’s great beauties and cloistering her with the wig and the clothes [she plays a Hasidic Jewish widow], because at first I didn’t recognize her. It didn’t strike me that it was her.
JT: Yeah, yeah. Lot’s of people don’t recognize her. She’s beautiful inside and out. She really is. I don’t want to say anything self serving, but if I were to look at her performance objectively, I'd say "That’s just a phenomenally beautiful performance without it being showy." And Woody [Allen], he didn’t know who she was. He thought she was a Hasidic Jew. He kept saying, “She’s so Hasidic. Is she real?” I said, “No, I don’t think so, Woody. I’m telling you.” So that’s a high compliment, coming from him.
Capone: I know you had crossed paths with Woody Allen professionally, both in movies that did and did not get made [Turturro had a small role in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS], and then also in the theater [Tuturro directed a short story written by Allen].
JT: The theater thing was in the middle of this writing process. It was a two-year process from the initial idea, which he liked, and I know he likes me, and I’m a big fan of his. Then I would draft it out, and then he would give me his feedback, and then I would re-draft it. I was trying to figure out how I was going to do it, and then he just basically encouraged me to go in a deeper way, which actually is maybe more in my nature anyway. But at first, I thought it was much broader. And he said, “It has to have legs.” And he said, “You don’t have to go there. I don’t really want to do something [too broad].” He encouraged me.
He saw the beginning of a couple of things, like with Avigal he said, “That’s interesting. Maybe you should look into that, and read some Isaac Bashevis Singer stories.” And then I did a lot of research, and then the film just developed. In the middle of it, we did these plays. He asked me to do them, and he saw that I could take criticism, and I kept thinking, “Let me consider what he’s saying.” And then I connected personally to the story. Doing my research on street walkers and this and that. And then we got to know each other, and that really helped a lot, because you’re supposed to see these two guys together who know each other for 30 years, and so what you see in the movie is a little bit of our relationship.
Capone: It feels very authentic. I can’t even imagine what would go though your head handing over that first draft to Woody Allen and saying, “What do you think?”--getting critiqued by him.
JT: Getting mercilessly critiqued.
Capone: I was going to say, not in a gentile way it sounds like. But you can’t be precious about it.
JT: No, the main thing is to try and maintain an innocence about yourself, and I think that Woody thought that I thought of him, and he said, “Wow. John and me together, that’s a good pair.” And that’s what I thought. Even if he didn’t like the first draft and he was critical, he read the second draft, and then he read the third draft. And he saw that I kept coming back with more drafts, and he always took the time to read it. He always liked his character, but he wanted it to have nuances. And I have to give him credit, without him telling me what to do, just to encourage me that way, I never would have kept going on this. And once I started to discover the characters and the relationships in a deeper way, I thought, “Wow. Now I have to figure out how to counterbalance everything.” So, it was a very good experience. You just have to be able to withstand going through that.
Capone: You’re a stronger man than me.
JT: [laughs] He sent me these e-mails, and I would lay down. I’d say, “Give me the e-mail,” I’d tell the guy I work with. “I’ll read it while I’m laying down.”
Capone: “Give me an hour to cry.” There’s a theme in this film about re-inventing yourself, and I feel like that’s something that maybe you connected with particularly. You’re doing it all the time. I don’t think you could ever be accused of repeating yourself as an actor or as a filmmaker.
JT: Absolutely. Reinvention is very American thing, in some ways. Also, I see all these stores going out of business. I have a friend with a bookstore that’s 80 years old--he’s the same age as Woody--and you think, "What are you going to do now?" Now he has to reinvent himself. Because originally I thought of the idea that maybe they’re trying to get out of the business, or maybe they’re trying to go into the business, and Woody encouraged me. He said, “If they go into the business, it’d give us more and give you more to explore.”
When people see me do something like this they say, “Oh, you’re so quiet. you’re so still.” And it’s like, “What? You think I am the way I am in TRANSFORMERS?” Some of that stuff is exhausting for me, you know what I mean? I don’t live on that level. And so I like to be able to have variety, but also I wanted to direct more. I think I would have directed even more than I have. ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES, unfortunately, I lost my distributer, United Artists, which was such a big thing for me, and it set me back a little bit, because I knew I had something in my hand that people were responding to and a lot of critics were responding to it, too. I think you have to confront yourself that way. I don’t want to see the same thing all the time.
Woody’s a good example of that. He tries all different kinds of things in his movies. And I think people in life have to reinvent themselves. They loose their job, technology phases things out, and then you say, “Okay, now what do I do? I’m not dead. I’m alive.” Same thing in relationships. People who lose a relationship or it falls apart, you have to start again, and then you say, “Yes, but I’m not 18 and I have to go on a date with someone?” So to me, there’s something interesting about that.
Capone: You’ve taken the oldest profession in the world and surrounded it with these old ideas and this old religion, and the idea of the guy working in a bookstore. It doesn't feel nostalgic necessary, but there’s something timeless about the atmosphere.
JT: Good, good. Because nostalgia over certain periods are being repeated right now--in music and fashion and lots of things, and it’s cyclical. Life is like that. But it was not to be nostalgic, but I wanted it to be more the idea of a faded poster or something that’s going to be lost, and then all of a sudden you’re coloring it back in, you know what I mean? You’re restoring it, in a way. So it’s like a restoration project.
Capone: You’re literally making the film and your character more attractive.
JT: Yes, the whole thing had to be attractive. The whole film has to be attractive.
Capone: The color scheme here is gorgeous.
JT: Well, thank you.
Capone: Especially because you’ve got flowers in almost every shot [Tuturro's character is a florist].
JT: They’re beautiful flowers.
Capone: It all seems very color coordinated.
JT: Well, the color scheme, we used a lot of Saul Leiter photographs. All that stuff from the street, that dye transfer. We used Morandi paintings, the designers Lester Cohen and Donna Zakowska worked with [cinematographer] Marco Pontecorvo. We tested digital and film; we shot on film because it was more liquid and softer on everybody’s faces. We talked about the lighting, we looked at certain movies--THE CONFORMIST, FAT CITY, some movies from the '70s for that certain kind of light that we wanted. It’s interesting because I think Conrad Hall shot [FAT CITY] and Vittorio Storaro did THE CONFORMIST. So we wanted a lot of shadows, and I wanted a richness to it, and Marco and I, we were very much in synch. We know each other very well, so we all worked very hard on patrolling the color scheme. To get Woody out of his khaki pants was a huge accomplishment. I don’t know if people noticed that, but I did.
Capone: It’s funny you mention Saul Leiter, because there’s a documentary floating around right now about him.
JT: Is there? You know, his family were orthodox; I don’t know if they were Hasidic Jews, but he wanted to be a rabbi.
Capone: Yeah, it’s called IN NO GREAT HURRY. I really wasn’t familiar with his work until I saw that. It just played here a couple of months ago.
JT: I wasn’t familiar with his work until about--I don’t know if somebody sent me a book of his, or if I just stumbled upon it, and I was like, “Wow.” Because I collect photography books.
Capone: We talked before about the writing part of the collaboration with Woody Allen, but what is he like to direct?
JT: Very easy.
Capone: Yeah? We hear so much about how he doesn’t direct at all.
JT: I gave him some direction in scenes that I wasn’t in with him. Like maybe you can take longer. Once in a while in a scene--maybe like in the last scene--I'll say, "Maybe make this harder to say, or be more delicate here." It’s a serious moment when the woman walks in the room and he sees her because he can get in big trouble. But most of the time with stuff we did, the scenes between me and him, we just do it, look at each other, and do it again. He always varies it, and I try to vary it, and then we respond off of each other. I didn’t even look at playback when I did the scenes with him. But with the kids, we had to work the kids with him, and they got to know him, and they got to like him. And I wish I'd have been able to put more in, because they had some wonderful things together between them.
Capone: Yeah, those are great scenes.
JT: Yeah, well those kids, they were fearless with him. They didn’t know who he was.
Capone: They didn’t know who he is, and they haven’t gotten any bad habits in acting. So they’re very natural.
JT: That’s right. And I think he really loved that. But I loved working with him. I had a feeling that we could, but you don’t know if you have chemistry with someone. I certainly had it with Vanessa, but with Woody I had this feeling that maybe we could be good together, and I think there’s something there. And I think he had that same instinct too.
Capone: Speaking of reinvention, with Sharon Stone and Sophia Vergara, their characters are looking at these encounters with your character as sexual rejuvenation, and it turns out that even that crumbles in a weird way, and they discover that there’s more to life than this.
JT: Yeah. Well, it’s a metaphor for people needing human contact. Sometimes they go outside their relationships. Some people are very adventurous, like Sophia’s character, but Sharon’s character is supposed to be someone who’s not very happy in her marriage, and we had more stuff telling about it, but I thought it could be indicated very simply. Film is so fast without telling you all of it. And she’s a little trapped, and then you see she doesn’t want to have a boyfriend, but then she gets a little possessive of the guy, because that’s her guy. He’s her first one, and so she’s like a young girl doing something that she’s never done before, and I thought that would be interesting because she has a life experience behind her, and so does he. He’s never done that either.
Capone: Sophia’s interesting, because this is a dramatic part for her. This is not her going for the bubbly jokes that she’s better known for.
JT: Yeah, yeah. I think she could go even further, honestly. I think she’s got a great comedic gift. It’s only if she really wants to do it. But I was telling her, I said, “Sophia, you can do a lot less. This is a movie. You don’t need to go big” And I think she’s very gifted that way, and I certainly had a fun time working with her.
Capone: Talk about the way you wanted to transform your character into someone that, in his mind ,would be sexually desirable. Because this is a sexy movie, in addition to these other more serious themes.
JT: Yeah, it’s a sexy movie. Sexuality comes in all sizes and shapes. I’ve seen people with all different body types, and people go, “Wow, that person’s really sexy. I really dig that guy.” And you’re like, “Wow, really?” Because there are intangibles.
Capone: “There’s something about him.”
JT: And some people know how to be flirts, other people know how to listen, other people know how to hold someone’s attention. Sometimes, the most beautiful people are the most entrapped by their beauty, because they’re inundated with receiving attention, and people say, “They’re really wonderful” after they do one little thing. “They're so nice.” Because they’re so beautiful, and maybe they’re not. And so I thought, you take a guy who’s a regular guy, he’s in good shape, and he’s really good physically. I have friends who are very competent in taking everything apart, making things, cooking, and then someone who’s very comfortable with women. I work with a lot of women. I like women. They interest me. I like to work with them.
I have a lot of friends that are women, and I was good friends with my mom, and I think I have a pretty good relationship with my wife that way, and I thought well, I’m not a guy's guy. I can be with guys, but I can also be with girls. And then I thought, if the person’s a good listener, here’s a guy who really likes women, but he’s never committed, because maybe...who knows. Maybe his father left his mother. He mistrusts being married or something. So, I though he’s a confident person but not a cocky person. There's a big difference, because there are a lot of guys you can be with and say, “Well, he wants to get all the way over there, and this guy is enjoying whatever that is.” If it goes there, he’s fine. He’s like, “Okay, I can handle myself. I don’t have to be a marathon guy, but I know how to keep things going”
If you’re aware of another person, you can certainly see or you can discover what they like or don’t like. And so I thought in that way, you can also say, “Well yeah that could be me.” Because he says, “I’m too old, I’m not the right casting for it.” And Woody would say, “No, no. You are.” I think if anyone would have had a real reservation it would have been Woody. He would have said something. In his movies for years, until he got too old really, he was always the romantic, and he was very convincing in those movies a lot of times. He has a real appeal just like lots of people do. And so I thought that could be interesting, because we usually see sex or romance represented by perfection, physical perfection, and that’s okay. But there are all different versions of that.
Capone: Everybody has a sex life.
JT: That’s my theory. That’s right. Some people may have a bigger sex life than the pretty people. You don’t know. Because maybe they want it more. So, that was the idea. He’s like the taciturn one, and Woody’s the talker, but he says at the end, “I’m not shy. I just don’t advertise it.”
Capone: I just love it when he asks you "Do you look good naked?"
JT: Yeah. Some people are very comfortable naked and some people aren’t. They're like, “I’ve got to keep my t-shirt on.” Other people are like, “No, I like being naked.”
Capone: You have a few things coming out in the near future, but I wanted to ask you about GOD’S POCKET.
JT: I haven't seen it. I did it after I did this movie, after I finished just editing the movie. So I had a very nice time doing it, and obviously I did it because I was a big fan of Phil’s. I didn’t realize how much he liked me. I guess I was someone he looked up to when he was first beginning; I was a little older than him. It’s a very sad story. But I hear the film’s good, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Capone: What do you learn from watching him work?
JT: He’s a guy who basically, it costs him a lot to do stuff. I think he’s a wonderful actor. He auditioned for me for MAC. He was too young to play this slow guy, and of course I should have cast him, but I really loved working with him. I’ve seen him on stage a lot, too. He’s a wonderful stage actor. Saw him do "Long Day’s Journey Into Night" and "Death of a Salesman" Wow. He was really... I think there are people who are really give away a lot of themselves when acting. Maybe that takes a big toll on them.
Capone: I never got to see him on the stage, although he directed a show here in Chicago.
JT: I’ve seen him on the stage about four times. He was a really lovely guy. We talked about a lot of things, and he was very sweet to me.
Capone: John, thank you so much. And best of luck with this.
JT: Great. Well, tell all your co-workers. Really nice talking to you.