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
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
"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
"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
"’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
"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
"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,"
"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.