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TURTURRO

TRUE CHARACTER

The Brooklyn Paper
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Actor-director John Turturro and increasingly chic Brooklyn are a lot alike. You adore both the accomplished actor and the borough and thought they were a best kept secret.

And though the masses have lauded Turturro’s achievements or swarmed your favorite bistro, you concede it’s not so bad - because it just confirms your good taste.

On June 7, Turturro will be honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center for his body of work to date, at the tender age of 44.

Surprisingly, the trappings of the movie industry have not gone to the head of this Park Sloper. In an exclusive interview with GO Brooklyn at Sotto Voce restaurant on Seventh Avenue last week, the actor-director sat down to discuss his current projects and his goals over a salad and a couple of espressos.

Today, Turturro is very much in demand. In fact, he confesses to being the slightest bit nervous of overexposure.

"I hope there’s some challenging adventures ahead. Maybe I could direct a little bit. I don’t want people to get sick of me," he said with a smile. "I’m excited about going further with my directing and writing."

Judging by his critical successes with "Mac" (1992) and "Illuminata" (1998), going behind the camera again seems a safe bet in this risky business.

He is actually developing a film, which he will direct, where the actors burst into song a la Dennis Potter’s "Pennies from Heaven." That’s the style of his original screenplay, his first solo writing effort, which he is shopping around in the hopes of attracting investors. (For "Mac" and "Illuminata," which he co-wrote and directed, Turturro collaborated with Williamsburg writer Brandon Cole.)

"The characters lip sync songs from famous people," he explains, "like Patsy Cline’s voice coming out of you."

"The form is influenced by Potter, but not the content. It’s kind of a musical. I think [Potter] did it the best. It’s something I’ve always been interested in." He hopes to begin shooting next year.

The only sign of age on this actor are bits of gray in his close-cropped curly hair. He still retains a youthful, self-conscious air that betrays that although he is a cinema veteran, he is not entirely comfortable talking about himself.

It’s nearly impossible to keep track of all of Turturro’s projects - films in release, films in pre-production, production and post-production. As of press time, Arto Paragamian’s "2000 and None" was still without a distributor, but Marleen Gorris’ "The Luzhin Defence" was in theaters and Sally Potter’s "The Man Who Cried" (with Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett and Christina Ricci) was about to be released. Turturro will even be seen on TNT playing Howard Cosell in "Monday Night Mayhem," directed by Spike Lee cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. Look for that at the end of this year.

About "2000 and None," Turturro is enthusiastic in his usual, self-deprecating way.

"It’s not a bad movie. It was really a hard part for me. Katherine [Borowitz, his wife] is also in it, and she’s really good, too. It’s about a paleontologist who’s really into himself. He finds out he’s going to die, and he tries to make the most of it. But everyone around him freaks out.

"It’s a black comedy."

Although he’s continuously courted by filmmakers, a process Turturro refers to as the "crap shoot" - because he never knows until the first day of shooting if the film will be as good as the script he was sent - Turturro has made it a point to make time for his hometown. Like a good son, he makes supporting Brooklyn’s institutions a family affair.

The name of the East New York native pops up in the most unexpected places. He loaned paintings by his uncle, Dominic Turturro, to the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s current "Brooklyn Collects" exhibit, and he came with his mother ("a real Brooklyn girl") to watch as his leaf was installed in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Celebrity Walk of fame last year. Turturro also gives readings at Poly Prep, and reads subtitles for children’s films at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

"I am involved as I could be, but my wife is more involved truthfully," he says. "She works for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

"I wish I could shoot here more often," Turturro says of his hometown. (He shot scenes for "Illuminata" at the Montauk Club, on Eighth Avenue and Park Place.) And he expressed disappointment over the collapse of the Brooklyn Navy Yard film studio proposal touted two years ago by Miramax head Harvey Weinstein and actor Robert DeNiro.

"I thought it would be such a great thing for Brooklyn in general," he said. "It’s such a big thing, the Navy Yard; it’s like a self-contained little city."

Despite the large number of appearances in a wide range of films, his body of work is generally of very high quality, and it doesn’t seem to take a toll on him. Turturro boasts a happy home life in the Slope, where he and Borowitz have lived for 13 years. They have two sons, Amedeo, 10, and Diego, 5 months.

Park Slope is also home to his colleagues and friends. Steve Buscemi, his Coen brothers film cohort ("The Big Lebowski," "Barton Fink" and "Miller’s Crossing") who is coming out with his second directorial effort "Animal Factory" at BAM next week, also lives in the Slope.

"Yeah, he’s definitely a friend. I hang out with him as much as I do with my other friends," says Turturro. "We go to each other’s houses, but actors are never around, that’s the problem. I see his wife more."

Even with his success, Turturro has obviously managed to stay grounded. Though he did perform an early role as Heinz Sabatino, who stalks Jodie Foster (and kills a penguin) in the blackly comic "Five Corners," Turturro now says he refuses violent roles. Instead he has taken on complex character studies like Barton Fink or Alexander Luzhin, an eccentric, genius chess player in Gorris’ film, based on the Nabokov story, "The Luzhin Defence."

"Early on, you do what you can when someone gives you an opportunity. When someone gave me a choice, I’ve been able to break out of [typecasting]. I haven’t had to play psychopathic murderers, thank goodness. Early on, I turned down so many violent roles, but I could have made a living doing that stuff.

"But ’Five Corners’ was a great role. I loved it. It was like Frankenstein. But I don’t want to play someone who does something bad to a woman."

In person, Turturro at times says things not unlike the idealistic playwright Barton Fink, who spends much of the eponymous film trapped in a decrepit yet surreal, 1940s hotel (in which Buscemi is the obsequious bell hop) battling writer’s block. He preaches to the only man who will listen to him, a psychotic insurance salesman (John Goodman) staying in the room next door, about the importance of creating theater about the common man.

Turturro says he would like to make more films with blue-collar subjects like "Mac."

"Mac," Turturro’s directorial debut, was inspired by the life of his late father. The tale of three Italian-American brothers in Queens starred Turturro as a carpenter struggling to start his own construction company in the 1950s, and earned him the Camera d’Or at Cannes.

"They liked it because it was radical," Turturro says of the Cannes audience. "It was about workers. There was a scene with a bricklayer they loved." In this scene Turturro’s camera lingers on the bricklayer, without dialogue, watching him work, documenting his precision with the trowel.

"I wish it could have had a bigger audience. I really dig that movie." Turturro found that he had an enormous amount of material for "Mac" - enough for a mini series. But he didn’t think of it until a certain HBO series burst on the scene.

"’The Sopranos’ - that was our audience. Those people were married, a bit older, people who would stay home, not necessarily a movie-going audience. Bravo and the Independent Film Channel have all discovered the movie since then and play it a lot. It encourages me."

"I had enough material that I could have done a whole season. It was about people struggling to do something - as complex as they can be."

In addition to directing, Turturro has been directed by American indie icons, Joel Coen and Spike Lee. He says his role as Pino, the racist pizza man in "Do the Right Thing," is one of his favorite collaborations with Lee, a Fort Greene native.

"We’ve been through a lot of experiences working with people who were temperamen­tal," says Turturro. "He saw I was a team player. If I got mad, it was about something specific.

"In ’Do the Right Thing,’ we didn’t have enough pizzas," he recalls. "I knew how to make the pizza. He kept telling me, ’Don’t cut through the pizza.’ You can see it on the film. I’m still mad at him about it. You can see it in the movie - I’m just gliding over the pizza." He laughs. "Every little thing counts."

"I was in LA and watched the last hour and 15 minutes of it. [The film] holds up pretty damn well. I have to call him and tell him that."

After turning in dozens of nuanced performances as the racist, the loser, the spurned lover, the neurotic playwright and many others, Turturro is surprisingly pragmatic about not having been nominated for an Academy Award.

"A lot of it is beyond your control. The movie has to be successful," he explained. "When I was nominated for ’Quiz Show’ by the Screen Actors Guild, [and didn’t receive an Oscar nod] I received condolences. [Director] Robert Redford wrote me a beautiful letter.

"You just have to be in the right place at the right time. With ’Barton Fink’ and ’Quiz Show,’ I didn’t hire a publicist. I’ve never had a publicist, and I think that’s a contributing factor. They get people’s attention - get the voters to watch what you did.

"But an Oscar wouldn’t make me feel differently about the work I’ve done."

Like the brownstones of Park Slope, it can be said that Turturro’s work in these films - usually period pieces - does hold up over time. And his imperfect good looks, have something to do with that.

"I have a period face. I’ve made a lot of films set in the ’30s, ’20s. I played a Roman. Put me in period costume with pantaloons and a beard or a moustache. I can handle that material," Turturro says.

"I’m not a man exactly of this time. That’s probably correct. I don’t relate. I’ve done movies that take place before there were movies. I’m a guy from another era - fortunately and unfortunat­ely."

Turturro’s characters are enduring, and that’s what has attracted audiences to his films, and keeps the buzz going that a Turturro film is a good film.

"I take a part because it’s good," he says simply. "The movie has to last."

 

The Young Friends of Film Honors John Turturro gala is June 7, 2001 at 8 pm at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, 165 W. 65th St., Plaza Level, in Manhattan. Tickets, including a post-screening party, are $150 each. For more information, call (212) 875-5630.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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