Actor John Turturro has always called New York home and his characters are often inspired by what he's seen growing up and living here. Budd Mishkin spoke with Turturro in 2007 and filed this One on 1 report.
John Turturro’s characters get quite a reaction.
"I get a lot of sex mail from women and men,” says Turturro.
In this case he's referring specifically to his role as Jesus Quintana in "The Big Lebowski." It’s not every actor who can play that role and the role he played in “The Bronx is Burning.” Turturro prepared to play Billy Martin in the ESPN series by watching a lot of video.
“I would distill certain things and that would become my mantra. I worked on my weight and this and you know, you’re putting it all together and then at the end you go [he makes a praying motion], I hope,” says Turturro.
Many of Turturro's portrayals through the years have been memorable: the racist Pino in "Do the Right Thing;” the cast-aside former champion Herb Stemple in "Quiz Show;” and on stage, as Estragon in "Waiting for Godot."
He is known for his exhaustive research for each role, not only reading books, but also audio taping people who might only be peripherally connected to the subject ö anything that might help him, as Turturro's puts it, "open a window" into the part.
"One time I had a guy read it in Yiddish even though I wasn't going to do it in Yiddish, but I realized I would have Yiddish overtones. So I did it in English and in Yiddish,” says Turturro.
His latest work as a director is “Romance and Cigarettes,” with a cast including James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon and Turturro's cousin Aida Turturro. Much of the film was shot in Turturro's old neighborhood, Rosedale, Queens, where at the time of the shooting, his mom still lived.
“I would go home, sometimes for lunch, my mother would make me lunch,” said Turturro. “She made me great lunches, too, sometimes even an egg cream."
Turturro's mother died last year. But not before her appearance in “Romance and Cigarettes” as part of the church choir.
“I directed my mother,” said Turturro. “She wouldn't come in really early. She said, ÎI come in when I come in.”
Then again, Turturro has plenty of experience directing family members.
"There's my mother, my sons, my wife, my brother, my cousin, so, you know who is going to scare me? What actor is going to scare me?" says Turturro.
Turturro has directed his wife, actress Katherine Borowitz, on stage and screen, and says they now have a good working relationship.
“At first, they said, Îwell, why should I listen to you, what do you know?’ But you have to make an agreement, now separate a little bit and meet each other over here,” says Turturro.
On-screen collaboration is apparently not the only involvement his family has in Turturro's career.
His older son Amadeo, who has appeared in several movies himself, occasionally has some say in what pictures his father does.
"He’s helped me turn down some very lucrative jobs,” says Turturro. “I've asked him to read some kind of fantasy films and he won't read them. 'It's a piece of junk dad. I can't believe you are even thinking about doing it.’ And I’m like, 'Well, they are offering me a ton of money. Just want to know would you go see it.’ He says, 'Of course not.’ So he doesn't help. Though my older son did tell me that I had to do 'Transformers.’ He said, 'Don't even read it, Dad, just do it.’ He's really my manager.”
We’ve seen Turturro in movies like "The Good Shepard" and on television in "Monk."
He describes his career as a "fine balance," occasionally forgoing the potentially lucrative picture for the smaller, more personal film.
"When I was a younger actor, I was kind of, like, the hottest actor of the year or for one year Rolling Stone chose me and I had all these offers and I went and I did my own film. I did 'Mac,’" says Turturro.
His decision-making process is affected by a wariness of celebrity.
"The more famous you become, the more cut off from humanity you become, it’s obvious,” says Turturro. "I chose the path I chose and, you know, I'm very comfortable with that."
All around Turturro’s Park Slope home, there are family photographs and there are other rather important touchstones from his youth.
“Ann Margaret really is underrated. She's amazing,” says Turturro.
Turturro first studied acting at SUNY, New Paltz. He came back home, worked one year as a teacher, even got a bit part in “Raging Bull.” He then went off to the Yale School of Drama.
Much of John Turturro's work has been inspired by his experiences growing up in a working class family in Queens. His mom was an amateur jazz singer, and music plays a major role in his latest film, “Romance and Cigarettes.”
His father was a builder. Turturro wrote a play about him, and at a time in the early '90s when Turturro was being offered some big film roles, he chose instead to turn the play into his directorial debut, "Mac."
"He was a person who had flaws and lots of attributes, but, you know, later on when he died it was a way of being close to him,” said Turturro.
His father was an Italian immigrant who returned to Europe as an American soldier and barely survived D-Day. Years later, he made sure that his son understood the lessons of fascism and the holocaust. That education led to a film that Turturro calls a seminal experience, playing the Italian holocaust survivor Primo Levi in "The Truce."
“It studied his work, met his family, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” says Turturro.
The connection between Turturro's personal experiences and his work as a writer, director and actor began early in his career. Turturro grew up in a black neighborhood in Hollis, Queens, and then moved to the predominantly white neighborhood of Rosedale.
On the set of the 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” Turturro advised director Spike Lee on what his character should really say.
"I would tell Spike, 'That's not right. You gotta say this. That’s not really honest enough. You have to go further,” recalls Turturro. “I added a lot of stuff, tons of stuff. Things that I knew, that I told him, maybe they hadn't heard, or whatever. They would die!”
The film came out at a time of racial tension in the city and Turturro was playing an avowed racist.
"I was worried when I did 'Do the Right Thing,’" says Turturro. “I said, 'Well, I hope I can ride the subway.’ And people were only very friendly to me. So there you go."
Turturro turned 50 this year.
For the last 25 years he has fashioned a career balancing some films that attain commercial success and others that satisfy his intellectual curiosity.
"I think when I do something really good or I feel like I did something that was really physical or emotional or really funny, then I feel like that's worthy,” says Turturro. “There are other times when I do stuff and I go like, 'that's not really worthy of where I come from.’"
But with all that, there is still a wondering.
"To this day, I scratch my head sometimes,” says Turturro. “I go, ÎWow, you done OK.’ You forget that. You forget that you have, because you’re always reaching for something more or trying to stay afloat. When I start out jobs I have doubt about whether I can do something or I’ll fall flat on my face. But yeah, I didn't think things would be like this.”