Editor’s note: In April 2015 I interviewed the actor John Turturro a few blocks away from where he was shooting HBO crime drama The Night Of (which was then titled, simply, Crime.) The interview never saw the light of day, so, given that The Night Of is currently out in the world, I’m posting it now.
Actor, writer, director, jazz aficionado: John Turturro has many strings to his bow. The native New Yorker and Coen Brothers favourite cuts a trim, sprightly figure at 58, and that angular face is refreshingly expressive beneath his trademark short curls. He’s a busy man these days, stealing the show in Nanni Moretti’s Cannes hit Mia Madre; appearing in forthcoming Steven Zaillian/Richard Price HBO thriller The Night Of; and plotting his next directorial move — a reboot of Bertrand Blier’s 70s sex shocker Les Valseuses. I recently met up with Turturro at a comfy Italian restaurant near his Park Slope pad — and mere blocks away from the HBO shoot — to chat breakthroughs, Barton Fink and balancing budgets.
AC: So, tell me about getting involved with The Night Of. In a long career, this is your first miniseries…
JT: They shot the pilot a long time ago, and I came in at the end of it. James Gandolfini did one or two days, but he passed away, and they asked me if I’d do it. I was a little torn about it, but I went for it. I play Jack Stone, an attorney who becomes involved in a case defending a man — played by Riz Ahmed — who’s accused of murdering a girl on New York’s Upper West Side.
Where do you stand on the whole “TV versus film” debate that’s been bubbling away the past few years.
I guess television is becoming the thing people are talking about. A lot of movies — when they adapt books — are disappointing because you feel like they have to rush it in two hours. But everything is so different now. Movies were a communal experience originally and there weren’t that many other options. I still love going to the movies to see things, but I end up watching a lot of screeners at home. I think TV is a good forum for a lot of stories, but sometimes they stretch it out; it runs out of steam. I’ve never wanted to do a TV series. I’ve done many guest spots in series, but this is good because you can sink your teeth into it, and I’m working from home.
You live just up the road from the shoot? That’s convenient! Have you lived here most of your life?
I was born in Brooklyn but I was raised in Queens. I spent the first five, six years of my life in Hollis, which is a black neighbourhood — well it became a black neighbourhood. We moved to Rosedale, an Italian-Irish-Jewish neighbourhood. Then I got bussed out to one of the black schools. I’ve lived in Manhattan, and I’ve stayed in Connecticut. I went to Yale, and I’ve lived all over the world. I’ve worked in Europe almost as much as I’ve worked in the States.
Do you ever get tired of traveling?
No, I like Europe a lot. I’m very comfortable there. I did three movies in Italy last year — Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre; a film with a friend of mine, Marco Pontecorvo, who was my cinematographer on Fading Gigolo; and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Did the performing arts run in your family?
My father was a builder. My mother was a singer. She wanted to be a dress designer, but she quit school. She worked at sewing a lot, but she used to design wedding dresses on her own. She could draw. She was very talented — in our family she was maybe the most talented.
Your early movie roles were typically intense, antagonistic characters…
I got my start in William Friedkin’s To Live And Die In L.A., I did The Sicilian with Michael Cimino, and The Color of Money for Scorsese. Even though the movie Five Corners [a 1987 film in which Turturro plays a psycho returning to his old neighbourhood after release from prison] wasn’t that successful, a lot of people took note. It was a great part.
And then you played the memorably horrible racist Pino in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing…
Well, Spike saw me in Five Corners and cast me. He’s a good friend of mine. We’re the same age. He grew up in an Italian neighbourhood, I grew up in a black neighbourhood.
I read that the locals on the Do The Right Thing hated you… they thought you really were a racist!
People used to watch the rushes, and people see the same thing every day. If you’ve never worked on a movie, people think that’s who you are. It’s part of the gig.
Did you ever worry about being typecast, as a twitchy, intense guy?
Well, thankfully over the years directors like the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Francesco Rosi and Tom DiCillo have given me lots of opportunities to play all kinds of roles. I didn’t want to play one thing, and I’m not good at playing one thing, that’s not what I do. I like to try things… I was always more interested in actors who could transform, like Marlon Brando. He could have just been the same all the time, and he wasn’t… Charles Laughton is another one.
Another of your classic roles is the eponymous playwright in the Coens’ Barton Fink, for which you won the best actor award at Cannes ’91. It such an intense role, but what was it like to play?
I spent a lot of time preparing. It was a really great collaboration between me, Joel, Ethan and Roger Deakins, the cinematographer. My wife was pregnant — my son, Amedeo, was born in the middle of that shoot. It was like doing a play, it was so quiet. I got to work with lots of wonderful actors. If I could work with Joel and Ethan every couple of years I would, but they don’t always have roles for me. I’ve done a play with Ethan, and they exec produced my film Romance & Cigarettes (2005).
I have to ask you about your role as Jesus — the bowling pederast — in the Coens’ The Big Lebowski. Is this the part that people ask you about the most?
It’s one of them. It was kind of inspired by something I had done on stage — a play called La Puta Vida at The Public, NY, many years before that. I would like to revisit it. When the movie came out, I think it did better in the UK than it did in the US. I don’t know what happened. Basically it came out here and it did nothing, then over time became a classic. How does that happen? I knew Jeff was great in it but I didn’t get all the humour initially. Young people love the film. The Dude just wants to be free, and be a fuck-up. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody, he just wants to exist in a perpetual state of adolescence. It’s like a Cheech and Chong movie… but better written!
Film viewers might not know that you’re also a big theatre guy.
I studied in New York with [legendary acting coach] Robert Modica, then I got a scholarship and went back to school, to Yale. And then I worked with the playwright John Patrick Shanley, that’s where people first saw me. I like doing theatre, it’s just hard to do everything. And since I’ve directed, I need to work out what I want to concentrate on. I have the opportunity to do that. I did The Cherry Orchard with Dianne Wiest; and The Master Builder in Brooklyn. I’ve done Samuel Beckett twice. Without sounding narcissistic, I think our production of Endgame was very successful. I get Beckett. I love doing Greek plays. I did a lot of new plays when I was younger, but recently I’ve done classics. I’ve always loved Othello, but they always want me to play Iago. I did a reading with Alan Cumming where I played Othello. Now it’s not politically correct, even though I look more Moorish — I’m from Southern Italy. I was more attracted to that role.
Speaking of Othello, there was a lot of heat on Ridley Scott recently for “whitewashing” casting in Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which you played the Pharaoh Seti…
I don’t think critics picked me out so much, but the other guys are much whiter than I am. Honestly, I don’t consider myself… white. I don’t. As a matter of fact, Italians weren’t considered white until after the war. We were always “other”, and… the census changes. You do those kinds of big budget movies, and the people who criticise movies in general… well, they’re not trying to get the money to do it. Even people like Ridley Scott have to be given money to do it. It is what it is — it was an old-fashioned type of thing. It’s always been the case. Charlton Heston played two of the biggest Jews of all-time — he was Moses, Judah Ben-Hur, and he played Michaelangelo — and he had nothing to do with those backgrounds! People accepted it in those days. Audiences didn’t go for Exodus as much, but when I was told people were booing it I was like, really? Ridley has asked me to do a bunch of things over the years and it never worked out. I’d like to work with him again actually.
You’ve also appeared in the Transformers movies [as the eccentric Agent Seymour Simmons]. How do you feel about being in bigger budget stuff? It’s not something you’ve been associated with throughout your career…
For years I never did any big budget stuff. I used to make a very good — not opulent — living doing medium-sized films, but now that doesn’t really exist so much. I didn’t want to do a TV show; there was nothing I loved enough that I wanted to be on for five years. Then a few years back Adam Sandler asked me to do Mr. Deeds — I’d done SNL; they wanted me to do a big role, but I ended up with a small part. Then when they asked me to do Transformers, well, I’d turned down so many of these movies over the years that my eldest son said to me: “Just do it.” I did it, and it’s like doing something very physical, energetic… it’s like a sketch versus a really detailed thing. I’m not interested in those movies. I don’t watch those movies. But when I do it, I still have to do it.
What’s Michael Bay like?
I basically based my character on Michael Bay! [laughs] I was watching him and I got a kick out of it.
You recently directed Woody Allen in Fading Gigolo. He very rarely acts for other directors — what was he like to work with?
Once I got past his merciless criticism of the different drafts of my script, I loved working with him. You don’t have to agree with him, but if you want him to be in it, you have to consider what he’s saying! I’d done a play with him. Woody held the screen in a humorous way, a romantic way. He has weight. Until you’ve worked with him, you don’t realise how good an actor he is. A lot of actors who are comedians on television, I don’t think they could do what Woody does when he acts in films. He doesn’t change externally, but he’s good physically; he’s a good athlete. He’s a very underrated actor.
You’re quite a double act [Allen, bizarrely, plays Turturro’s pimp]…
I thought we would play well together. Sometimes you watch movies and you see these pairings and there’s never any chemistry! When Joe Pesci was with De Niro it was brutal and it was funny. They were really good together. Al Pacino and John Cazale, they had done these plays together. Gandolfini was always good when he acted with a woman. He wasn’t narcissistic at all, he put all of his attention on the woman, and he was surprisingly very sexy. But when you put a pair together, most times it’s like they’re edited, cut together, you can just tell that they don’t have that rare chemistry.
Is there anyone you really want to work with?
It’s a hard business. There’s lots of directors I’d love to work with that I haven’t worked with. But I can’t sit around hoping, waiting for that to happen. Sometimes people think, “These directors use this guy, so I can’t use him”, which is kinda stupid. People have camps. I don’t know why. I think Boyhood and Birdman have good interesting directors. I really like the Dardennes brothers. I think Two Days, One Night is an important movie.
And what about actors?
I liked A Most Violent Year. And I’m a big fan of Oscar Isaac, I like him a lot. He’s my kinda actor. I loved Inside Llewyn Davis — I thought he gave the performance of the year: he played the guitar, he sang, he was completely convincing and I loved him. I’m so glad they gave him the opportunity. When they auditioned him, they were worried because they’d written it as a Welsh guy, a whiter guy. I said to them, “Listen, the guy is good, you’re the writers, all you gotta do is give him a line where he says ‘One of my parents is Italian or Jewish or whatever’”. When someone’s that good, I was excited to see it.
Do you watch your own movies?
Rarely. If I see it on TV… I did this movie called The Truce (2007), that’s a movie I’ve seen a lot of times. I’ve taken it to a lot of places because I worked a long time on it, and I supported it a lot. But beyond that film, no. I saw Do The Right Thing at a recent 25th anniversary thing, and I think it holds up really well.
What do you do to relax?
I love sports. Basketball, I’m a Knicks sufferer. When I’m Europe I get into football. calcio! I like dance, too. I’m a big flamenco fan. There’s a woman, Soledad Barrio, her company is Noche Flamenca, I always go. Dance was part of my training as an actor. I was always interested in it but at a certain age you have to go one way or another. I like it when people can express themselves without words, and flamenco stuff, when it’s done really well, I like a lot.
I’ve heard you’re a musical guy.
I played drums for a while. I played the piano, and I wish I’d have stayed with it.
What music do you listen to to relax?
Depends on what project I’m working on. I don’t listen to rap music, even though the neighbourhood I came from, Hollis, was one of the places where rap was invented. I never really got into it. I like Andre 3000 from OutKast! When Public Enemy came out I listened to that, too. I grew up with a lot of black music, but I’m not listening to 50 Cent or Eminem. I think there’s a lot of filmmakers who try to use rap, and you can tell it’s not in their bones. I grew up with James Brown. He was a rapper before rap. I saw him perform. I love jazz music, and I used a lot in Fading Gigolo. I love Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Gene Krupa, Gene Adams. I always wanted to make a jazz film. I want to make it with real musicians, guys who never made it. I wrote a sketch out, but I want to talk to Woody about it. A singer, Woody, and Clint Eastwood — guys who are sidemen. They lose their singer. They always think they’re on the verge of making it, but they’re 80 years old. If Morgan Freeman played an instrument, I could put him in there. But I don’t think he plays. Clint is 84, but he just did American Sniper. His mother lived until she was 100. He stays in good shape. So does Woody.
What’s coming up for next for you?
I’ve optioned an old French movie from the 1970s, Bertrand Blier’s Les Valseuses. It wouldn’t really be a remake, because it was inspired by a relationship with somebody that I really like. I’m putting together a budget now. The book that it’s based on is still edgy… it’s fucking shocking. Someone read it and they said “This is misogynist!” I said “Not really”, though it pushes to the edge of that. The movie Blier won the Academy Award for, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, is a little subtler than that. Blier has been really great with me. I’ve taken some stuff from the Les Valseuses book [which Blier also wrote]. It’s fuckin’ wild. I saw it when I was 19. It affected my whole life! I’m not a hoodlum, but the sexual freedom of the movie was at a time when nobody was worrying about AIDS — everybody was naked all the time. It’s really a filthy book. The film was banned in some countries. But in the US, Pauline Kael was a big champion for The New Yorker, and it did well I think.
[Editor’s note: off the record Turturro also told me about his plans to resurrect his Jesus character; that’s now public knowledge.]
You mention Pauline Kael. How do you feel about critics?
I used to like to read Kael because I liked the way she wrote, even if I vehemently disagreed with her. It was like a friend who was very smart telling you what they thought, and it was a very emotional thing. Maybe there’s more films that critics have to review now, but sometimes they just engage from here [points to eyes] up — and I don’t think they watch with a regular audience a lot of times, they watch it with a critical audience. Some people say they never read critics. Woody says he never reads critics. Ben Kingsley said he hasn’t read a review in years, and you’re probably better off not doing so, because you don’t want to let it inhibit you. I’ve never let it inhibit me. I like the sensibility of criticism, though, because it’s not sentimental. Sentimentality leads to brutality and stupidity. Sentimentality is the other side of brutality. I remember watching these TV shows as a kid and everyone was happy, and I said to my father “Why can’t we be like those people on TV?” and he said “‘Cause that’s not the world.”