John Turturro does the right thing in Jerusalem

The veteran character actor talks movies, music and life at the Jerusalem Film Festival

Actor John Turturro (photo credit: NIR SHAANANI)
Actor John Turturro
(photo credit: NIR SHAANANI)
There isn’t much John Turturro, the Lifetime Achievement Award winner at the 32nd Jerusalem Film Festival (which runs through July 19 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque), hasn’t done on film.
He’s worn purple spandex and threatened to commit unspeakable acts against a religiously observant bowler in The Big Lebowski, for example, and in his most recent film, Mia Madre, Nanni Moretti’s comedy-drama which opened the festival on Thursday night, he played a loud, unhinged American movie star in Rome.
But until my interview with him on Friday afternoon, I had never seen him touch his toes, which, it turns out, he can do quite easily.
“I hope you don’t mind if I walk around a little,” he said, pacing the length of the office at the Jerusalem Cinematheque where the interview took place. Touring the Old City the day before with his family had left him feeling a little stiff, he explained.
So as we spoke, the actor/director did lunges, squats and toe touches, until finally he was comfortable enough to sit down.
This might have seemed like odd behavior coming from someone else, but for Turturro, it could have been a scene from one of his movies, where he portrays characters infused with an almost unearthly intensity and energy.
“I love music, I played the drums for years, I still play, I studied dance, I played sports,” said the actor, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the name ‘Bunuel’ – one of the 20th century’s most audacious directors – as he tried to explain how he works his magic on screen.
As soon as he mentioned his love of music, that seemed to be the key to the rhythm of his performances.
“I like stories, I love to read... And sometimes a story can be a song,” he said.
It’s no coincidence that many of the directors with whom he has collaborated closely make music an integral part of their movies: the Coen brothers (in addition to The Big Lebowski he starred in Barton Fink, for which he won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and in Miller’s Crossing and O Brother, Where art Thou?) and Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, He Got Game, Girl 6 and Summer of Sam).
Music is also an important element in the five movies Turturro has directed, among them the 2005 Romance and Cigarettes, a musical starring the late James Gandolfini, and Passione, a 2010 film that celebrates the Neapolitan music Turturro’s father loved. An acclaimed stage actor, Turturro just finished a run in the musical Zorba! in an Encores! production at the City Center in New York.
“It was nerve-wracking,” he admitted. “I didn’t know if I could handle all the songs. It was a great experience, a beautiful story and beautiful music.”
It’s hard to imagine the slim actor, who in person has more of a leading-man handsomeness than he exudes on camera, where he has a quirkier look, as the stolid Zorba. But for Turturro, taking risks and playing against type is part of what makes his work so much fun.
“I grew up as a movie buff, watching movies on TV,” said Turturro, who was born and raised in Brooklyn and still lives there. He loved gangster movies with actors such as James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, and mentioned Angels with Dirty Faces as one of his favorite movies.
His parents were supportive when he decided to try acting, although “they wanted me to have something to fall back on, in case it didn’t work out. My father would have liked me to be a lawyer, or an architect – he was a builder.” Turturro’s directorial debut, Mac, tells the story of an Italian-American builder and was closely based on his father’s life.
He did work all kinds of jobs in the beginning before he established himself as an actor, including substitute teaching and bartending. But he felt “shy, in terms of the hustle aspect” of acting, so he enrolled in Yale Drama School.
When he graduated, in the mid-Eighties, “indie films were just starting to happen... Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, Spike Lee. I thought, ‘This is new, different, interesting.’ The market wasn’t glutted yet. There was enough room to get attention.”
Cast as a lead in Tony Bill’s gritty urban drama Five Corners in 1987, he got the Coen brothers’ attention, and soon they were writing parts with him in mind: Bernie Bernbaum, who has a show-stopping scene in Miller’s Crossing where he tries to talk his way out of being killed, and the title role in Barton Fink.
“Barton Fink was the role that opened things up for me,” he said. Complex, central roles in many movies followed, among them Robert Redford’s Quiz Show.
Big-budget Hollywood beckoned, but although Turturro occasionally succumbed – his memories of working with action-flick director Michael Bay on Transformers could be a great standup routine – he preferred to do movies that were more interesting to him.
“I save my money, so if I’m on a movie and there’s something I really don’t want to do, I can refuse and just say, ‘You can fire me,’” he said.
He takes pride in becoming an international actor, and said that playing Primo Levi for Francesco Rosi in The Truce “had a big effect on my life. He introduced me to Primo Levi and Italian culture.”
Working with Nanni Moretti on Mia Madre, in which Turturro acts mostly in Italian, “pushed me to go far. I had to learn all the dialogue in Italian... There were countless takes and then improvisations after the takes.”
Turturro improvised one of the movie’s funniest lines, when his character wakes up and says, “I dreamed that Kevin Spacey was trying to kill me. What a terrible nightmare.”
Speaking of what is perhaps his most iconic performance, Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski, he said that the Coens had seen him play a similar character in an off-Broadway play, and based “The Jesus” on that.
“I would run things by them. I’m not afraid to do things that are embarrassing. I would do things that I never thought would be in the movie – and then they would use them in the movie.”
Turturro, who said he still gets mail from “men, women and prisoners” about this role, would love to make another movie featuring the character.
Unlike many actors in recent years, he has appeared in few television shows, but is currently working on a seven-part HBO crime series written by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian.
Asked why he was virtually the only Italian-American actor not to appear on The Sopranos (his cousin Aida Turturro played Tony’s sister), he said, “I was asked to act in it and to direct it,” but chose not to because “I wanted to get away from that milieu... I think it was a great show. Now I wish I had directed an episode.”
The actor was unfailingly accommodating during his brief visit to Israel, giving a master class at the Jerusalem Cinematheque hosted by film scholar Annette Insdorf, and a another master class especially for actors and filmmakers at Hansen House, sponsored by the Jerusalem Film Fund and hosted by director Avi Nesher.
He also chatted with everyone bold enough to walk up to him, as well as posing for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of selfies with admirers. He was accompanied on the visit by his wife, the actress Katherine Borowitz, and one of his sons.
Sitting with the young film industry professionals at Hansen House he was especially animated, imitating Woody Allen (whom he acted with and directed in Fading Gigolo), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Turturro co-starred with him in Collateral Damage) and his own mother, after meeting Robert Redford on the set of Quiz Show (“Boy, he’s sexy!”).
Throughout the three days, Turturro seemed moved and grateful to be here. As he received his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Sultan’s Pool on Thursday night, he said, “I will accept this award as a form of encouragement.”