Actor John Turturro returns this month with his fifth directorial effort, "Fading Gigolo," co-starring Woody Allen, Sharon Stone,Vanessa Paradis, and Sofia Vergara. In the dramedy, Turturro plays Fioravante, a struggling florist who is convinced to sell sexual services by his friend Murray, played by Allen. Always remarkably unpredictable in his career choices, whether it’s the great work he’s done with filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen or more mainstream fare like "Transformers," Turturro has made a career of unique, memorable characters. He sat down with us last week to talk about that career, working with Woody, and the reasons why cinema has so often failed to capture true intimacy.
Just being introduced as a writer for RogerEbert.com started the conversation...
JOHN TURTURRO: He was a big fan of my first film that I directed—"Mac". His father was an electrician and he really liked that film a lot. We talked a lot about it. I think I was one of the "Upcoming Actors" on his show with Gene. Then he was a big fan of "Romance and Cigarettes". United Artists was the distributor and then they got bought and it got stuck in this horrible situation. We showed it to different critics because we had a small release. And Roger wrote this rave review. It was really helpful and it was incredibly supportive at a time when I was helping distribute the film. I think he really loved movies. He came from a certain background, and I think my character in ["Fading Gigolo"] comes out of that background—a person who works with their hands, a physical man.
Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival this year will feature the 25th anniversary of "Do the Right Thing" with Spike Lee. Roger was such a supporter of that film as well. What did that film mean to your career?
The films I did with Spike and Joel & Ethan Coen at the same time…I got a lot of attention for all of those films. And then I was asked to do all kinds of movies and I continued to do the movies I wanted to do. I did my own film too instead of cashing a paycheck at that time. It was after I did "Five Corners", which a lot of people saw me in. And it was the beginning of a lot of friendships that I have to this day.
That’s 25 years ago and you mention an opportunity then to "cash a check". At this point in your career, with such a breadth of genre and style behind you, how do you choose what interests you now?
You don’t always choose. Let’s be honest. I have to make a living sometimes. And the "medium-sized films" don’t exist like they used to. I used to do big films, medium films, and then I would do a small film or a play. When I developed this idea to do something like this film, I’m not choosing to do that but I have an idea that Woody and I could be good and wouldn’t it be interesting to work with him. I got to know him. I worked in the theater with him. That’s a thing where I’m choosing to do something because I’m saying, "I want to do this and I want to do it with HIM." He’s giving me feedback and I feel like we could have something between us. So, that, I’m choosing to do. Other things; a lot of times I turn things down and then I go, "OK, I have to do something. What is the best thing available?" If I do a play or commit to doing a play then I usually stick to my guns and I’ve lost some really big jobs. Or if I’m going to direct a movie. It’s a balancing act. And my accountant says that I’m missing the opportunity to be very, very rich. (Laughs). But I’m doing OK. And I still have my family. And I think I’m actually improving as a filmmaker and as an actor. If you haven’t given up your inner life you can develop. It’s like reading good books. This last year, I read a lot of really good books. There’s a part of you that can still feel very young. I’m learning. There’s nothing better than that.
It seems to me that collaboration—Coens, Lee, Woody—is something that’s very important to you. Are the people you work with most important to you? If Joel Coen or Spike Lee say they need you on a set, do you even need a script?
Most times, I’m there. Spike I’ve done a million cameos for. Joel and Ethan, I’ve done four movies. They Executive Produced and helped me through the whole process of "Romance and Cigarettes". I did a play with Ethan on Broadway. Yes, if they said that to me, I would do that. Spike, I already have done that for. (Laughs.) I just said, "OK, don’t bother me again." There are certain people, yes.
So are you at a phase in your career where the collaborative process, like with Woody on this one, is as or maybe even more important than it’s ever been?
I don’t think this film would have been as delicate or as nuanced if Woody hadn’t encouraged me not to make a stupid, silly movie. I wanted to do something that had nuance and was sophisticated. He was very happy when he saw the movie. He gave me little notes but he said he was surprised at how good it is and that meant a lot to me. I didn’t let myself down. I didn’t let him down. And that’s a big experience for me and an experience with him that not a lot of people have ever had. The truth of the matter is that I would work with him again in a second. And I have another idea. I liked how disciplined he was. Unlike an actor who takes six months to read something, the guy’s making a movie and he’s like "Send it to me, I’ll read the script over the weekend." I have a lot of friends who are writers and the discipline of that is very attractive to me.
It’s interesting to me that you say you "didn’t let him down." Was that a concern? Were you more nervous than usual?
No, no. But when he was watching a rough cut I was like, "Oh my God, I got to go the bathroom." (Laughs.) You can’t tell with him. He doesn’t really laugh out loud or respond. And he’s so brutal. He says, "I’m gonna be brutal. You want my feedback?" And I say, "I know." And it’s not in a mean way it’s just "That’s what I think and I’m not gonna change my mind. You don’t have to agree. I could be wrong. Talk to other people." But I wanted him to feel good about it. I asked him if he liked his own performance. I know he doesn’t like watching himself. He said, jokingly, "You know, I always LOVE myself. I was worried about you but you’re good TOO."
Easy to direct?
Unbelievably. He and Vanessa Paradis were the easiest. Not that anyone was really hard but they were SO easy. Vanessa, you could have walk down the street and hit a mark and tell her what she’s thinking and she was incredible. I could watch her do anything. He’s a person who wants to be stimulated and he likes puzzle-solving and he’s alive. So, when I came to him with something, he was like, "Wow, you’re thinking about me. Other people don’t do that."
It’s a subject matter that could have been treated more lasciviously than it is and yet the image that I associate with the film is a gentle hand on a back for the first time. It’s something about human connection…
That’s what the movie is about.
…that’s often lost in movies about sex. Why do you think that is? Why are we scared of the intimate side of human contact?
I had a lot of sex in the film initially and I took some of it out. I trimmed some stuff for rhythm but I also thought that the big moments are the hair, the hand…intimacy is very hard to capture. It’s the scenes that lead TO sex that are the most interesting. Sometimes you can have a great sex scene if it has a problem—an obstacle in the scene. But a lot of times we see people and they take their clothes off and they’re writhing and it has NO effect on us. You need to distill it. And there’s a lot of tension that leads up to people touching each other—emotionally, physically, spiritually. That’s something that’s not easy to achieve and that’s what I was heading towards. Yeah, you can have sex with someone but someone else you can touch their hand and go "Oh my God, I want to be with this person."
It’s not overplayed but there are certain economic implications in the movie as well: The decline of the small business in today’s economy and alternate financial routes.
Everything is implied in the film. The guy’s background is implied. That he has no money is implied. You can see that he has a thousand dollars in his bank account.
So does the movie exist ten years ago before the financial bubble bursts?
It could exist ten years ago. It could exist twenty years ago. As for the economy, I do think that young people are facing that, middle-aged people are facing that, and the elderly are facing that. The haves and the have-nots and because of technology all of these little places that have individuality are fading away. That’s why I use that word. Like an old poster. You go into a store and know the person, play chess, talk about sports—once that’s taken away, there’s a little less of a communal feeling and the sense that someone is delivering you something individually. That’s what makes life interesting. Going to Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks—you don’t feel the same as going to a great café. It’s individual. You lose something. Now, you can’t live in the past, but it’s interesting that a lot of young people are interested in retro fashion and there’s a movement to artisanal craft. Co-ops. Slow cooking. Why is that? There’s something valuable about that.
As for the whole idea of prostitution in this, there’s a sordid side to it but there are some people who think that it serves a purpose for someone, make them feel better, heal them, ease their tension. But there is an actual transaction that goes on that is not a paper transaction—a transaction that you’ll never put your hands on. And I’ve always been interested in stories like that. People expose themselves. That’s something that interests me. I had a workspace and I lost it because the guy kept jacking up the rent. My friends lost their bookstore. A lot of places that I would go to don’t exist any more. So, I was thinking, if I was in that situation and I had a friend who said, "Listen, we can make some money." Would I do that? Maybe I would.
Everything you’ve said about transactions that can’t be quantified could also apply to religion, which is a major theme of this film. Is that why you included it? Or is it also something, a way of life, that could be considered "fading"?
It’s exploding in certain places. I could have used any religion. All of these religions—the rules are made up my men. But, within it, people are happy, content, people being told what to do. There’s a structure. And a lot of people in religions go outside of that religion and pay for sex. And it’s quite frequent. Men, much more. I thought if you’re going to have a movie about sex then religion has to be an element. And it gives you an opportunity for a really strong obstacle that can turn into a metaphor for a lot of things. I’ve always been interested in movies about religion. And also about sex.