The actor: A staple in the company of directors like Spike Lee and the Coen brothers, John Turturro has been one of the most valuable players in indie filmmaking for three decades now. With his wiry presence and slightly off-kilter energy, Turturro is often called upon to play edgy, untrustworthy types, but his range within that can encompass everything from the Italian street tough of Do The Right Thing to the nebbishy, insular screenwriter of Barton Fink, and from the shattered Holocaust victim Primo Levi in The Truce to the outlandish, bowling ball-licking Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski. Beginning with 1992’s Mac, Turturro branched out into writing and directing his own projects, with his most recent being Passione, a film that employs both documentary footage and staged vignettes to delve deep into the rich history of music in Naples. Just before Passione debuted in limited release, Turturro spoke with The A.V. Club to discuss his wildly varied acting and directing career.
Mac (1992)—Niccolo “Mac” Vitelli
The A.V. Club: Since you’ve just completed Passione, I thought a good place to start would be to revisit your directorial debut.
John Turturro: That was something that started out as an idea for a screenplay, then with my good friend Brandon Cole we developed it as a play. I was still at Yale as a student. We did it while I was at Yale at the WestBeth, like off-off-Broadway. We did that twice, and then we did a piece of it off-Broadway at Ensemble Studio Theatre, and I finally got to do the movie. That was kind of based on my father and his brothers, and the world I grew up in. My father was a builder and a carpenter, and my uncles were carpenters and builders too. They worked together, like lots of families. I just thought it was an interesting world, and a world that you don’t get to see in a lot of American films. Because we always deal with the same genre it seems. It’s like there’s five professions, basically, in movies. You know: the scientist, the cop, the prostitute, the bad guy, and so on.
Because it’s really physical and dangerous, obviously the guys have to have a certain kind of intelligence to build. And sometimes people are more educated than others, but there are whole different kinds of groups of people. Those things aren’t explored that often, because it’s easier to put a gun in somebody’s hand or whatever. There’s a lot of movies about disasters, but they never make a movie about the building of a great thing, even though it lasts a long time. And there’s lots of great stories that go into that, that are dramatic and comedic and all that stuff. So that’s where that really came out of. It was something I worked on for 10 years.
Romance And Cigarettes (2005)—“Male Dancer”
JT: Romance And Cigarettes was a continuation of that world in a way, but with music, and maybe it was a little more humorous and stuff. But that was connected to that too.
AVC: As your directorial career progressed from Mac to Illuminata to Romance, you started off writing, directing, and starring, but by Romance you were just doing background dancing. And with Passione, you’re not featured at all.
JT: I actually am on screen, and I narrate a little bit. I dance in one number, just a little bit in the background. But right, I’m not featured. I’m just sort of like the guide.
AVC: Did that evolution come about because you decided you needed to concentrate more on being behind the camera?
JT: Yeah. Romance And Cigarettes was really hard for me to do that. But I think I would do both again. There’s something I’m working on—I can’t really announce it yet—with a very famous older person, and I would be in it with him. So I would do that. But I could go back and forth on that. When you’re directing, it is a little easier [than acting], because when you’re the actor, you have a to be a little more of a child. You have to get into the child’s aspect of your personality a little bit more. But working with all these great musicians [on Passione], for example, was really a great lesson in just how malleable they are and how quick they are. They’re their own special effects. The guy picks up a saxophone, someone has a great voice, you don’t really need to have 1,000 cuts in a sequences. Really great musicians and great singers, they’re great storytellers. They bring meaning to the lyrics and experience. And comedy, too.
AVC: When you’re a director and you’re also the lead, how do you know when you’ve gotten the performance out of yourself that you want?
JT: Usually you’ve done it in rehearsal—maybe you’ve done it on video before, or if you’ve done it as a play. You have to be really feeling like you know the material inside out. You do a couple different takes, and maybe you have someone else there, and maybe you want to look at it a little bit. I didn’t do a lot of playback for my performances, but sometimes if something didn’t look right, and it was supposed to be a romantic scene or something, you’d say, “Let’s light it a little differently” or whatever. In a lot of movies, honestly, the directors don’t talk to you that much. Maybe they say, “Faster, slower,” whatever. Sometimes they give you little adjustments, because sometimes you want to start out neutral, but a lot of times you wind up directing yourself anyway, just doing what you think is the right thing to do.
I usually check my takes when I work with other people, and I give notes if the director allows me. I give notes to the script supervisor and tell them these were the takes I prefer. So when they’re in the editing room, they know what I liked. Sometimes people don’t mind that. Sometimes some people do mind it. When I work on those big Transformers films, Michael Bay lets me do that. He trusts me to tell him, “These are the ones that I like.” There’s so many shots and stuff. But it’s just being really familiar with the material. You need time before that. But if you’ve written something and then you’ve rehearsed it, even if it’s in a room, you do know. You can tell. “Well, I feel good about that.” Sometimes what you think is good isn’t as good as another take that’s faster and less precious or something.
Transformers franchise (2007-2011)—“Agent Simmons”
AVC: How would you characterize Michael Bay’s directing style?
JT: He doesn’t complete sentences. What I do with a lot of directors is sometimes I just try to look at them, and sometimes I take their energy, unless it’s guys I’ve done a lot of work with. And those [Transformers] movies, I kind of use him as a role model. I’m kind of doing a little aspect of him. We improvise so much that it’s kind of crazy. We have these scripts and then we change it. He always wants to change it. But overall, I’ve gotten along with him, and he’s let me do all kinds of crazy things. I think of the parents who are going with little kids, and I think, “Well, maybe I can throw something in for them,” or for the guys who are in their 20s, something a little more twisted or irreverent. But it’s a different kind of work in some ways, because it’s short, and you’re battling these things that are giants. So what would be subtle and real in one movie won’t work in that kind of movie.
AVC: What do you think about Megan Fox saying Michael Bay is basically “like Hitler” when he’s on set?
JT: I don’t use those words freely—as we see with Lars von Trier, what has happened. People don’t really know what they’re talking about when they use those words. I actually did a play about [Hitler] by Brecht, so I know a lot about this subject matter. [Laughs.] I also did a movie where I spent five years working on it called The Truce, where I played Primo Levi. So I know a lot about this stuff. I’m not an expert, but I know a lot to know not to use that word. They butted heads. I got along with Megan very well, but they definitely butted heads. My comment is, I’m like a guy before the House of Un-American Committees. I plead the Fifth.
AVC: I did see one interview where you talked about how Michael Bay never blows his nose.
JT: Sometimes I had to remind him. But I’m older than him. Lots of times there’s all this dust around these movies. He’s got a lot of things he’s doing. He always tells me, “I heard you say that.” I said, “Well, that’s right, blow your nose, then I can listen to you. Otherwise I’m watching. I’ve been watching it go.” [Laughs.] Well, that’s in print already, I guess.
AVC: So Transformers is the first time that you’ve had an action figure made of yourself, right?
JT: Have I had an action figure made of myself? Really? I’ve never seen it. There’s an Agent Simmons action figure?
AVC: There was one made for Revenge Of The Fallen. It even has your face on the box.
JT: Let me get one, man! C’mon, send it over. An Agent Simmons action figure! I know they have the comic-book versions of it. Guys draw you, and they always make me look a little different.
AVC: How so?
JT: Sometimes I look better, and sometimes they make me look more geeky. Depends. I don’t think they really capture me when they draw those things.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)—“Bernie Bernbaum”
JT: I’ve known [the Coens] a long time. I’ve known them from the mid-’80s, because I’m friends with Fran [McDormand]. That’s how I know them. I’ve worked with them on four movies, and they were my executive producers for and really helped me edit Romance And Cigarettes. They’re really good friends—and so is someone like Spike [Lee]. It’s a pleasure in this business when you work with someone more than once. It’s nice, because everybody knows each other.
The Coens are like a mom-and-pop operation. They write it, they edit it, they do the whole thing. They’re involved in everything. It’s very low stress, working with them. There’s almost no stress. If I could make a movie with them every couple of years I would, just because of the pleasure of it.
AVC: How did you finally come to work with them on Miller’s Crossing?
JT: They’d seen me do a lot of plays, and so they said they were going to write a part for me. Then they wrote two parts for me in a row! [Laughs.] Those are big things. When someone writes something for you, you really want to return the favor. So I put a lot of work into it, and tried to give them a little surprise back. Actually I’m going to be directing these three one-act plays on Broadway soon, and Ethan is one of the writers. Woody Allen is one and Elaine May is one and Ethan is one. So I’m working with him again. This is, I guess, the sixth time we’ve worked together.
AVC: The big “look into your heart” scene in the woods. How many takes was that?
JT: I don’t remember how many takes. I just know it was 13 degrees, that’s all. It was really cold. You know, it was a long time ago. It was a hard scene. Sometimes you think about movies, and you say, “Well, I want to try to do something that’s not exactly in a movie.” If you’ve ever been in a very dangerous situation, you know that people will do all kinds of things to keep themselves alive. It was very well-written, but you want to imagine what it’s really like to be in that kind of situation. It depends on what you’re willing to do, and in real life you would do a lot of different things. I tried to capture a little bit of that. I had a couple close encounters throughout my life before that, and you store that stuff in the back of your mind. It’s how you do it, but it’s what they choose and how they put it together too. But that was my goal when I did that, was to do something that was almost a little difficult to watch, because people aren’t trying to be heroic at those moments.
AVC: When you first came across that scene in the screenplay, was it obvious to you that it would be so central and important to the movie? They even used it for the poster.
JT: I guess maybe, but not completely. I kind of knew it was important, and they kept telling me it was. But you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself, because then it’s like going to bed with somebody the first time or something. You’re like, “Oh God, I got to be great.” [Laughs.] You just don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself. I just thought about it in the context of the story, that’s it. Because you can overthink something, too. It all felt really good when they did it, but it was hard to do.
Barton Fink (1991)—“Barton Fink”
AVC: Since the Coens were writing Barton Fink while they were still struggling through Miller’s Crossing, were you guys discussing that during the shoot?
JT: No. They said at the end—the guy, [executive producer] Ben Barenholtz, said there was this other movie. The way he talked, it sounded like Bart And Fink. I thought it was Bart And Fink. I was like, Bart And Fink? I don’t know about that.” And I didn’t completely get it when I first read it. Their scripts you have to read a bunch of times. And now I guess people can read them easier—some of their scripts—because they know their sensibility. But their sensibility can be quite different, depending on the movie that they’re linked to.
AVC: Did you really go to secretarial school just to study typing for Barton Fink?
JT: Yeah, I did. It was in Brooklyn Heights. It was with electric typewriters; they didn’t have computers. But then I had to use the old manual typewriter, which I loved. They get stuck, but I really love the sound of it, and the whole visceral experience. I wrote a lot of things on that typewriter during the shoot, a lot of ideas for other things.
AVC: Didn’t you write Romance And Cigarettes on it?
JT: I wrote the title of it and some ideas. A couple of scenes. But then I kind of sat on it. I put it in this box for 10 years. So yeah, it was “A Film by Barton Fink.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Your character talks a lot about creating “a new living theater of, about, and for the common man,” which is relevant to the sort of stories you seem to tell in a lot of your own work. But in the film, it seems like that whole idea is being mocked as pretentious.
JT: [Laughs.] Yeah. Well, there’s guys who are outside of that and who talk about it, and there are guys who are inside of it. I did Mac right after that, which was really, for me, inside. And Fink is more from the outside. Plenty of writers have taken those stances—especially in the ’30s, because people came out of immigration, and there was a lot of Socialism. People were really liberal. There were anarchists. There was a Communist Party in this country. There was also a Nazi party that people don’t really talk about. So there were a lot of these things going on, and you kind of have to go back years to understand this thing. It was in the Group Theatre, and people like Arthur Miller obviously had that in his plays. Sometimes it could become a little bit pretentious, and other times not. But everything’s connected in different ways.
AVC: My favorite scene—honestly, maybe my favorite scene in a movie ever—is just a simple dialogue between you and Tony Shalhoub.
JT: Which one?
AVC: “Throw it hard.”
JT: “Throw it hard, Fink!” [Laughs.] Yeah, there were some great actors in that movie, and I got to work with all of them. It was just a treat. There was just wonderful writing in it too. Even though it was a strange movie and stuff like that, when I see the movie now, I really appreciate it. I’m like, “Wow, that was really good.” When I first saw it, it’s hard, because you’re in it. But it’s a good movie, so thank you. It’s a really well-crafted film. It was a treat to make that film, and to work with every one of those actors. Judy Davis is just fabulous.
Monk (2004-2008)—“Ambrose Monk”
AVC: The reason I brought it up is because you’ve worked with Shalhoub a few times since, most obviously on Monk.
JT: Yeah, and I’ve done Waiting For Godot with Tony also onstage—and Tony lived at my house when we did Godot. I’ve worked with Tony a lot. I was a big fan of Tony’s, because he was at Yale before me. I always thought he was great. In fact, when he auditioned for Barton Fink they mentioned him and I said, “Oh, he’s great.” I’ve done readings with him. Sometimes you go up for the same role, or sometimes a person wants you to do it and you can’t, and maybe the other person does it. Then you watch them do it and you go, “Wow, that was great what they did.”
I had read an early version of Monk when they were thinking about doing it, and I thought, “This could be a really good show.” When Tony wound up doing it, I was really happy that at least somebody who was really good was going to do it. I’d thought about it early on, but I was afraid to do TV for a long time. But I was really happy when Tony did it. Tony is a really, really skilled actor, and it was fun to work with him. We were laughing the whole time. We were cracking up. I watched what he did. He worked really hard as executive producer on the show. It was a well-written show, and it was nice because it was an hour show, so you can develop things. It was dramatic and comedic. I think that’s something only certain people can do—Tony being one of them, and I’d put myself in that camp too. To me, that’s my favorite stuff, my favorite things, to have both in it.
When you really like each other, and you’re competitive in a really good way, but still trying to help each other, it’s a treat. Because it’s more like a tennis match. Another really good person can raise your game. We see that in great musicians being together. Sometimes two good musicians with chemistry can create something that other people can’t on their own. Anyway, I’m really a big fan of his. He’s a dear friend.
The Big Lebowski (1998)—“Jesus Quintana”
JT: The only reason I wanted to make—well, not a sequel, but a spin-off or something. Joel and Ethan don’t really want to do it, but if I can get them to approve my outline, which I think they liked…. Anyway, the only reason I wanted to do it was so that people will stop asking me questions about The Big Lebowski. So I could just get it out and do it and finish it. Because people are obsessed with the movie and obsessed with that guy.
It’s really bizarre, because the movie didn’t even do that well when it came out here. Once again, it’s a movie that’s gotten better or something. I did a play that was something similar to that, and maybe that gave Joel the idea. It was small, but they kept telling me it was important, so I just threw everything but the kitchen sink in there. And they kept it, in their indomitable way. If they approve something, there’s a very good chance of making it.
AVC: Were you surprised by how the character turned out? So much of Jesus’ character is just that montage of little throwaway moments.
JT: Yeah, well I kept trying to throw things in, because they had a little extra time while I was there, so that was kind of a delight. And the first time I saw it, when they showed me in the mix, I was completely embarrassed and I was laughing. I always think that’s a good sign.
AVC: So you say you think they liked your idea for a sequel.
JT: They wouldn’t do it. It would have to be something that maybe I’d have to do. Maybe they would help me write it or something. The only movie that they’ve ever said that they want to make a sequel to is Barton Fink. And you’ll have to wait another 10 years for that, at least. It’ll be Old Fink. He’s going to be a hippie. I’m gonna have a big Jewfro and be at like Woodstock or something. Maybe he sold all his friends out, who knows. I don’t know the story. All I know is that he’s going to have a big Afro, and I think it’s going to be in the ’70s.
Do The Right Thing (1989)—“Pino”/Jungle Fever (1991)—“Paulie Carbone”
AVC: Your other most frequent collaborator is Spike Lee. You’re one of the most-used actors in his entire company.
JT: Yeah, I presume. Though basically, I really did four roles and then a lot of cameos for him. Really, Jungle Fever and Do The Right Thing are the two biggest roles, and then Clockers and Mo’ Better Blues. I haven’t really done a big role for Spike in a long time. It would be nice to do something together again, because we’re still friends. He has to hustle like everybody else in this marketplace.
AVC: You’ve said before that you gave Spike Lee tips on dialogue—like in the racist rant scene on Do The Right Thing.
JT: I worked on Jungle Fever. I worked on the script a lot and did a lot of writing on it. I’m sure Ossie Davis did a lot of his stuff, and then Spike goes over it and stuff. And Do The Right Thing, yeah, we added to that. I didn’t do as much on that, because the script was there and then we added to things. Spike likes to improvise and try things, even in rehearsals. He likes to rehearse. Those were really good experiences, because I was involved—Jungle Fever from its inception. We formed a nice friendship. Those are interesting movies, and pretty good movies. I don’t see those kinds of movies being made now. I really don’t.
AVC: You’ve also said you had problems with the ending of Do The Right Thing.
JT: Well, everybody had different things to say about it. Everybody did, in the rehearsal room. I didn’t know if it was moving enough, and this and that. Now when I see it, it plays very differently to me. It almost plays even better, because I think people were too close to the situation at hand.
AVC: So do you now see Mookie throwing the trashcan as more of an honest reaction?
JT: It seems like it’s definitely conscious. But you know, I’m not the guy playing him. I just thought maybe it could be a little bit more motivated. But when I saw it recently at the 20th anniversary, I thought it played really, really well. I was like, “Wow.” My reaction is different now.
AVC: And as you mentioned, you’ve come back for lots of cameos in Spike Lee films. You even voiced a dog for him in Summer Of Sam.
JT: [Laughs.] He thinks I’m his lucky charm or something.
AVC: Is there anything of his that you’ve actually turned down?
JT: A couple things. Sometimes I couldn’t do something because I was unavailable or whatever. But I think the next time if I do something with him, I would like to do a real role. Because, you know, the two favorite things I really did with him was Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever.
Five Corners (1987)—“Heinz”
AVC: Supposedly the role that made Spike Lee notice you was this film, where you played a psycho stalking Jodie Foster.
JT: Well, that’s a great part. John Patrick Shanley wrote it. The movie’s maybe a little uneven here or there, but there’s a lot of good things in the movie, and it’s a great part. The movie didn’t get a lot of attention, but yeah, thank goodness enough people saw me in the movie, and it was a great role. It’s still one of the better roles I’ve had. Absolutely. It’s a really good part. It’s hard to find. I wish I would have gotten to do more with John, because he could write for me really well, and he really fought for me to get that. That movie really helped me with filmmakers. I think if the movie would have done well, I would have gotten a lot more.
Mr. Deeds (2002)—Emilio Lopez / Anger Management (2003)—“Chuck” / You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (2008)—“Phantom” / Brain Donors (1992)—“Roland T. Flakfizer”
AVC: One of the other constants of your career is you’ve done several Adam Sandler movies.
JT: Basically I did Mr. Deeds, which they had asked me about, and I put two little parts that were in the script together. I really had a great time doing it. Anger Management I kind of did—not as a favor, but he wanted me because I think it made Jack Nicholson feel good that I was in the movie. I wasn’t crazy about that role, but I had fun doing it. Then Zohan was something Adam was talking to me about for years. I actually think the first hour of Zohan, there’s a lot of really funny things in the first hour. I don’t think the second hour is good. But the first hour, I think Adam is really, really good in it. I actually think he can be really good. I saw him do that Judd Apatow film [Funny People], and maybe it’s a little close to home or whatever, but I thought he was excellent.
So I like Adam, but I have to balance these things, you know what I mean? Years ago I did a movie called Brain Donors, which was like a remake of Night At the Opera. The Zucker Brothers did it, I got cast in it, and then Paramount changed hands three times. Denis Dugan directed it, who’s the same guy who does a lot of [Sandler’s] movies. If that movie would have just been released normally, I probably would have had to make a bunch of those sequels, because I signed up for that. That’s one of the funniest parts I’ve had in movies, by the way. It was a farce, but there’s a lot of really fun and clever things in that. But it depends what hits, or how it’s released, or whatever.
But Adam, I’ve known him since I did Saturday Night Live. I think of all the things I did with him, I had the most fun doing Mr. Deeds. I felt like that was the most complete thing I’ve done for him as of yet. So I don’t know. But now I’m feeling like I want to try to do some things that I want to do, even though the marketplace is crazy. So I’m trying to figure that out.
Grace Of My Heart (1996)—“Joel Millner”
AVC: When you brought up Jack Nicholson feeling comfortable knowing you’d be in Anger Management, it reminded me of the Random Roles we did with Illeana Douglas. She talked about how she and Allison Anders pitched it to the producers and mentioned they were thinking of you, and the producers said, “You get John Turturro, we got a movie.”
JT: You know what? I loved, loved doing that movie. I would put that part as one of the more successful parts I’ve ever played in a movie. I loved playing that role. I loved what the movie was about. I really liked working with Illeana, and I loved working with Allison. I really regret that I haven’t gotten to work with her again. I had a blast doing that movie.
I met a guy who I based my speech pattern on—a guy who was in the music business, but he wasn’t a music manager. I interviewed all these guys, and I found this one guy through a friend of mine, and he was just the key to the whole thing. Because it was well-written, but I was just trying to do something a little bit different, you know? And I basically did him in the movie. I really loved doing that movie. It’s all about a lot of the music from when I was a little kid.
AVC: So were you aware that you’re a name that can open purse strings?
JT: Sometimes. [Laughs.] It depends what the movie is, or what the budget is. That wasn’t like, a giant budget movie, you know.
AVC: Illeana Douglas also said that Grace Of My Heart is “90 percent about the hair.” Do you agree with that?
JT: For me? Well, they said in Newsweek years ago that “John Turturro is to hair what Meryl Streep is to accents,” or something like that. That was for Barton Fink. It’s funny, because my hair is really not that malleable, but I have done lots of crazy haircuts and had my hair straightened and this and that. I’ve also worn some wigs, and [Grace Of My Heart] was actually a wig that I’d had made for another movie, Search And Destroy. We remodeled it, and because it was long, we turned it up. That was a great job by the wigmakers, the stylists. We used it long, short. So yes, hair is very important. Look at Donald Trump. Where would he be without his hair? Don King and Donald Trump are the prime examples. They’ve got the crowns.
The Nutcracker In 3-D (2010)—“The Rat King”
AVC: That may have been one of your most impressive wigs.
JT: That was a whole huge makeup job. That was an interesting experience. I’m kind of disappointed that the movie got chopped up a little bit here and there. They didn’t know what to do with it. I think when they originally tested it, boys liked it better than girls. It was a little too dark. But it was a really fun role, and I loved working with Elle Fanning and Andrey Konchalovskiy. He was a taskmaster, and we butted heads many days, but I still think he’s a very talented guy. I was happy with what I did in the movie, but I think originally it was better. And we didn’t shoot it in 3-D. That was something definitely disappointing for me because I felt like I was in the realm of doing something interesting.
AVC: Along with your hair, one of the other malleable things about you is you’ve been called upon to play almost any race. You’ve been Italian, Russian, Spanish, Mexican—it seems like you’re an all-purpose “ethnic” guy a lot.
JT: Well listen, I’m not white, let’s face it. [Laughs.] My background is southern Italian, but there’s probably some French and Spanish in there. There could be some northern African, Greek, Turkish, you know. Everybody’s in there. And also, I’ve played in classical plays. I did Endgame. I did Godot. I’ve done Shakespeare. I may do a Chekhov next year. So I can do different things. And sometimes, like when I did Box Of Moon Light, even though Tom [DiCillo] is Italian and the character is based on his dad, there weren’t any racial or ethnic things in it. And that was nice, just to do something like that.
But yeah, as an actor, the way you look can dictate a lot of what you do. The more skilled you are, the more malleable you are, the bigger opportunities you’ll have to work. I don’t always want to have to do an accent or this or that, but sometimes you also have to have the opportunity to work. So yeah, I’ve played German, even—I’ve played all kinds of things. They actually wanted me to be the president in Michael Collins. They wanted me to be Eamon De Valera, because I look like him. I couldn’t do it, so Alan Rickman did it. I was shocked. I was like, “Are you kidding?” [Laughs.] But I guess De Valera’s a Black Irishman but he’s got a Spanish background. But I was laughing because growing up, I was always beaten up by Irish kids. [Laughs.] And I would have been the President of Ireland!
AVC: I apologize on behalf of Irish people for beating you up.
JT: No, it’s okay. [Laughs.] They became a lot of my really good friends. It’s just that when we were kids they would be like, “Ah, you dirty dago!” and this and that. So I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to do De Valera. But there really are a lot of similarities between us. It’s almost like we’re cousins or something like that. [Laughs.] Jew cousins.
The Truce (1997)—“Primo Levi”
JT: That was a great experience working with Francesco Rosi, who’s been a dear friend of mine for a long time. I spent years working on that, just reading all the material over and over and over again. It was like studying someone, like if you went to college and you were studying a certain kind of literature, even though I was doing a lot of other things at the same time. It was one of the great experiences of my life, working with Rosi, because he’s made films and worked with Gian Maria Volonté, who I think was one of the great actors. Those are the things that I always wanted to do and to be involved in. To work on an adaptation of a great writer with a great director was a really special experience for me.
AVC: You were making a Holocaust drama in the Ukraine. Did you ever get to have any moments of fun?
JT: Oh sure, there were plenty. But you had to keep your concentration, you know. It’s a very delicate film. There’s not a lot of violence in it, or lots of Nazis. It’s a very delicate movie. It’s not a perfect film, but I still think it plays well, and there are things in it that are really beautiful and very unusual. There are lots of things that I’ve gotten over the years, from people who are survivors, that it was very close to their re-acclimation, and that people really appreciate it. For me, that’s a high compliment.
JT: All I can say is that it was very hard to get my voice that high.
AVC: Yeah, you did a lot of screaming in that movie.
JT: Eh, screaming, whatever, but it was very high. It was hard. It was definitely hard. But I think he’s a very talented guy, Henry [Selick]. I couldn’t figure out why he wanted me, but he was very patient with me.
Cars 2 (2011)—“Francesco Bernoulli”
AVC: Did you have to do any special prep for your Cars 2 voiceover?
JT: Well, it was good that I had done Passione, because it really helped me. I had a lot of resources to draw on. [Francesco] was a combination of different people that I know. He’s pretty specific, John Lasseter. He’s an interesting guy, a formidable guy. I enjoyed working with him, I did.
AVC: Were you actually in the room playing off Owen Wilson and Larry The Cable Guy?
JT: No, I was basically playing off myself. It’s not so easy. It’s not like the fun of playing tennis, because you don’t have a partner, really. It’s a different thing. But I had fun working with the people in the room.
Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)—“Writer”
AVC: What do you remember about working with Woody Allen?
JT: I’m working with him now, and maybe I’ll do something else with him. We’ll see. I don’t remember Hannah too much. It was like, two days, and I don’t remember too much about it. It was a long time ago. But I’ve gotten to know him a lot better now, that’s for sure.
Unstrung Heroes (1995)—“Sid Lidz”
AVC: What about working with his leading lady Diane Keaton?
JT: I’ve become really good friends with Franz Lidz, who wrote the book. I enjoyed working with everybody, and I like Diane a lot. I think that movie has some really good things. I think there are things that I wish we would have kept from the book in the movie. They were in between writing a bittersweet, lovely story about this mother passing away, and they wanted it to be a comedy too. They couldn’t decide where they wanted to come down, and I think if they had stuck a little closer to the book I think the movie would have been better. But I liked working with Diane a lot. I have a lot of respect for, and I think she’s a wonderful actress.
AVC: How was she as a director?
JT: She’s shy sometimes, to say certain things, and other times not. She didn’t to tell you how to do it all the time. She likes to keep things very fresh. But she wore these great outfits everyday. [Laughs.]
Quiz Show (1994)—“Herbie Stempel”
AVC: How was Robert Redford as a director?
JT: Excellent. Excellent. Very good with physical behavior. We got along because I was cast way before anybody, and we worked really well together. He’s a funny man. He’s eccentric in his own way. Nobody knows that. But I do. [Laughs.]
AVC: Funny in a telling jokes or a playing pranks kind of way or…?
JT: No, he’s got his own kind of off humor. I really like him a lot. That’s another person I wish I could work with again.
The Good Shepherd
AVC: And how was Robert De Niro as a director?
JT: He likes to do it a lot of times. [Laughs.] A lot of times. He’s good with physical stuff too. But he likes to do a lot of takes. A lot of ’em.
AVC: Do you find that draining?
JT: I think I held up okay. [Laughs.] Not when he acts, but when he directs. Sometimes I would say, “Listen, that’s it, I did it. I did it. Let’s move on.” But his thing is just that maybe if you do it more, you realize that you could do less. But we’ve known each other for a long time, and we have a nice relationship. I can fool around with him. A lot of people don’t. But I do.
AVC: That relationship goes all the way back to your very first film credit, as an extra in Raging Bull?
JT: Yeah, I auditioned for that film many times, but I was too young. I had one line. I’m not listed in the credits, but I say, “Hey Jake.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Was that enough to get a SAG card at least?
JT: No, I didn’t. Next time I did though.
AVC: And you got to work with Martin Scorsese a lot more extensively a few years later on The Color Of Money.
JT: Yeah, and that was fun, as was working with Paul Newman. And [Scorsese] has been executive producer on Grace Of My Heart and Search And Destroy, so I know him pretty well. I almost did something else with him, but maybe we’ll do something else down the pike. We’ll see. We almost did something once. It was between me and someone else, and then it just didn’t go my way.
AVC: Can you say what movie that was?
JT: I’d rather not. But I will say that the person who was in it was wonderful. [Laughs.]
AVC: I’m asking you about actors turned directors, because that’s what you are. What about being directed by Dennis Hopper?
JT: That was love. That was crazy! [Laughs.] Crazy, but fun.
AVC: That is a crazy movie. It’s got some crazy people in it—Vincent Price, Bob Dylan, Charlie Sheen, whom you kill—and Dennis Hopper eventually disowned it, right? It’s officially an Alan Smithee credit.
JT: I think they took it away from him, or whatever. But yeah, I worked with all those people. And Hopper, you’d ask him a question, and he would rebel against himself, like, “Do whatever you wanna do! Whatever man! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em!” I was like, “But you’re the director!” [Laughs.] He’d be arguing with himself so you could have freedom. He liked to say “fuck” a lot. That was one of his directions: “fuck.” But he’d say it in all different ways, like, “You fucking do this, and then you fuck it, man! And just fuck it! Fuck it, man! Just fucking fuck it!” I remember Joe Pesci turned to me and said, “Man, that’s directing.”
But I got along with him really well. Every time I’d come up with an idea, it’d be, “Just fucking do it!” And I’d say, “Yeah, but I gotta check with you right? You’re the director.” And he’d just go, “Fuck ’em!” [Laughs.] It was pretty crazy. Tony Sirico was in that movie, you know. It was one of his first movies. One thing I remember is that he didn’t want to mess his suit up, because he wanted to keep it. I was telling them, “You know Tony, there’s doubles. You can buy the double.” [Laughs.] He didn’t want to get it dirty, but that’s your job you know?
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)—“Ray”
JT: I remember I wore Santo Loquasto’s pants, who was the designer. They gave me his pants to wear. I had fun doing it. I didn’t know who Madonna was, but I got to audition for her boyfriend.
AVC: You didn’t know who Madonna was?
JT: Yeah I didn’t know who she was. I had no idea. I’m not really into that sort of stuff, and really, she wasn’t that famous at the time. She was just coming up.
Miami Vice (1985)—“David Traynor”
AVC: This was maybe your first real screen role that wasn’t just a bit part—and it all culminates in you getting shot by Pam Grier.
JT: To be killed by Pam Grier is an honor. [Laughs.] I remember that she used to be on my wall when I was a kid, so it was hard acting with her. But my friend David Thornton was in it with me, and it was fun. I remember doing it and thinking, “Wow, I’m with Pam Grier!”
AVC: Have you had that happen a lot—meeting actresses you used to have a thing for?
JT: Yeah, I’ve met a lot of women that I liked as a kid, like Faye Dunaway, Pam Grier, and Raquel Welch. Barbra Streisand. It’s kind of bizarre. Having your own personal relationship with them, compared as a 13-year-old or 14-year-old, you know. But it happens with guys too, guys who you looked up to.
AVC: Was meeting those kinds of women why you got into acting?
JT: No, no. [Laughs.] That’s something that’s not got to do with acting. That has to do with my oversized Hall Of Fame of women who were, you know… Well, when you were a kid, you’d see someone like Ann-Margaret, and I’d… associate certain things with her. She was one of my first celluloid loves. You know how it goes.