"Thank you. I try. Sometimes you succeed. Sometimes you don't. You never know."
Over lunch downtown, John Turturro is taking a compliment, somewhat bashfully, regarding his hardy film and stage career, and in particular his performance (the first of his I ever saw, in 1988) in an off-Broadway production of "Italian American Reconciliation" by John Patrick Shanley, in which Turturro co-starred with Laura San Giacomo.
That was a big year for him, Turturro recalls. He performed in that production just after filming Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and before filming his first Coen brothers project, "Miller's Crossing." Since then Turturro has made seven more pictures with Lee and three more with the Coens, including "Barton Fink," in which he played a fatuous Broadway playwright at sea in Hollywood.
The 57-year-old Turturro has also made three Adam Sandler movies and three "Transformers" movies, the latter trio (he's not in the next installment) requiring a lot of high-decibel overacting simply to compete with the constant metal throwdowns. Turturro brought a welcome touch of maniacal wit to that franchise. One of his sons — they're now 23 and 13 — urged him to take the "Transformers" job without reading the script.
He enjoyed himself, Turturro says. "I try not to go slumming. Here's how I look at it: If you were a painter, this is a sketch, broad strokes. And then you get back to doing a full painting." This explains all the meagerly compensated but soul-satisfying stage work. In recent years Turturro has performed Chekhov, Ibsen and other greats in New York.
And he has a cinematic directing career to go with his acting and stage directing. Opening Friday, "Fading Gigolo" finds Turturro, who wrote the script for himself and Woody Allen, directing the story of a New York City florist (Turturro) who becomes a gigolo at the behest of his broke best friend, a bookseller played by Allen.
In 2011 Turturro directed an evening of Broadway one-acts billed as "Relatively Speaking," one of them an Allen playlet. Turturro had also appeared in a tiny role in "Hannah and Her Sisters." The joke, essentially true, is that Turturro (fabulous hair) and Allen (not bad, considering) share the same barber and several years ago it was their barber who suggested they do something together sometime.
The early drafts of "Fading Gigolo" favored a much broader style of comedy than the final version. Allen balked at the initial script "but he liked certain little ideas in it," Turturro says. "I've always been interested in what people will pay for some sort of intimacy, and in this unceasing need we have for human connection. Whether I succeeded or not, this was the intention."
Since 1985 Turturro has been married to actress and Highland Park native Katherine Borowitz, a frequent collaborator in Turturro's films and stage projects. "It's tragic," Turturro says. "Just as they're hitting their peak, too often women are relegated to nothing roles." Many resort to surgically rearranging their faces and bodies and the result, Turturro says, is that "you can't really photograph them…they don't look human."
Turturro and Borowitz live in Brooklyn, N.Y., near Prospect Park, where many Chicagoans have also settled, he says. New York is "a port city, like Naples," he says. (One of director Turturro's most satisfying films is "Passione," a personal essay about Neopolitan musical culture.) "You get some strange dynamics in port cities. People are always passing through. But those places are alive."
Next stop for Turturro as director? He hopes it'll be a loose English-language remake of Bertrand Blier's controversial, rough-and-tumble 1974 road picture "Going Places," notorious for scenes of sexual assault Turturro assures will be toned down in his version. Much will be taken, he says, from the original Blier novel. "That film had a big effect on me," he says." Its free-form tonal change-ups, he says, influenced Turturro's earlier feature "Romance and Cigarettes."
So on it goes: the pursuit of financing for projects such as "Fading Gigolo" and "Going Places," in and among film work that pays the bills and often more than that, and theater work that merely pays the bills. "My agent always yells at me and says I could be a very wealthy person," Turturro laments with a smile. "Well. I do the best I can. Small parts, big parts." Medium-budget pictures, he says, "don't exist anymore, not really." He cites director Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" (Redford's finest directorial hour to date) as a prime example. "I used to make a very good living doing medium-sized movies."
After the macchiato arrives, Turturro is thanked for his time, and we talk a little more about movies he admires, among them Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning Iranian drama "A Separation." "Woody liked that one too," Turturro notes. "Anyway. Hope to see you again sometime."
"Fading Gigolo" opens today. Turturro also appears in "God's Pocket," along with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. It opens May 9.
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