Sex sells

Ac­tor and di­rec­tor John Tur­turro plays a florist turned sex worker in his new film – and Woody Allen is his pimp. He talks to Tara Brady about giv­ing screen time to a char­ac­ter who can do any­thing with his hands

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

John Tur­turro is from New York. You don’t need me to tell you that. He has that hurry in his voice and that rest­less­ness in his pos­ture. Sub­way fumes run through his veins and stop signs flash be­hind his eyes. Tur­turro was born in the vast bor­ough of Brook­lyn and then moved to Queens. Mom was a jazz singer and Dad worked as a car­pen­ter. You don’t get more old-school than that.

If we were in any doubt about this, then Fad­ing Gigolo would surely set them aside. Tur­turro is still best known as an ac­tor: star of end­less Coen broth­ers films and quite a few by Spike Lee. But he has also been busy as a di­rec­tor. Fad­ing Gigolo is his fifth fea­ture and it throbs with Brook­lyn rhythms.

“There were so many worlds in there,” he raves. “I could have had a lot more worlds in there too. I wanted to touch upon cer­tain so­cioe­co­nomic groups and reli­gions. I’m just try­ing to rep­re­sent a lit­tle bit of the city as I know it – as I see ev­ery day.”

We get you. The film stars Tur­turro as an or­di­nary florist who, one day, hears an un­ex­pected pro­posal from a lo­cal book­shop owner. Per­haps he would like to try his hand at be­ing a gigolo. It all goes well and this hitherto or­di­nary fel­low finds him­self moon­light­ing in the world’s old­est pro­fes­sion.

“Look, some­times the things you see in New York are so crazy and un­usual and un­be­liev­able that it’s quite a job mak­ing those things cred­i­ble,” he says. “Even though they ex­ist.” So, this re­ally hap­pened? “The char­ac­ter I play is based on a guy I know who is the most con­fi­dent man I know.” Tur­turro laughs. “He can do any­thing with his hands. Any­thing. Build a house. Do plumb­ing, cook­ing, elec­tri­cal.”

Fad­ing Gigolo’s big sell­ing point is that it fea­tures a rare per­for­mance by Woody Allen in a film not di­rected by Woody Allen. The liv­ing leg­end plays the old chum who ends up be­com­ing the hero’s, well, pimp, I sup­pose.

Tur­turro and Allen are both Brook­lyn boys, al­beit from dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions. They must know one an­other.

“My hair­cut­ter told him I wanted him to play a pimp,” he ex­plains. “My hair­cut­ter, Anthony, is also Woody’s hair­cut­ter. So he told Woody to call me. The first thing he said was . . . ”

He drops into a per­fect im­per­son­ation of the Wood­ster. “‘So, we share a hair­cut­ter. Huh, huh?’ Ac­tu­ally, he re­ally liked the idea. The hair­cut­ter is in Man­hat­tan. But he’s from Brook­lyn and Woody’s from Brook­lyn. So it’s kind of a Brook­lyn story.”

As Tur­turro sug­gests, Fad­ing Gigolo is promis­cu­ously stuffed with New York­ers of all faiths and back­grounds. A sub­plot fea­tures Liev Schreiber as a fig­ure in the Ha­sidic Jewish com­mu­nity. One as­sumes that, grow­ing up as an Ital­ian kid in Brook­lyn and Queens, Tur­turro swam in the metaphor­i­cal melt­ing pot.

“I grew up in a black neigh­bour­hood. And then I moved to a neigh­bour­hood that was Ir­ish, Ital­ian and Jewish. And, you know, at that time we’d all be friends, but the Ital­ian and Ir­ish guys would have fights all the time. And if you went out with an Ir­ish girl it was kind of con­sid­ered to be in­ter­mar­riage. But then people get to know each other.”

Tur­turo showed prom­ise early on and went to study Theatre Arts at the State Univer­sity of NewYork be­fore­mov­ing on to the­eye-wa­ter­ingly pres­ti­gious Yale School of Drama. He had been around for a while (you can spot him in Rag­ing Bull, Des­per­ately Seek­ing Su­san, Han­nah and Her Sis­ters) be­fore he prop­erly caught our eye in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). Lee has, we as­sume, been an im­por­tant fig­ure in Tur­turro’s life.

“Ah, Spike and me are friends. We go out some­times. But it’s only four movies I re­ally had big roles in. The rest were cameos. He came to think of me as a good luck charm, I think. But I don’t re­ally do that any­more. I said to him: ‘You want me to do a real role, then fine’. But we’re friends. And you can tell friends that sort of thing.”

Prof­it­ing from the boom in US in- de­pen­dent cin­ema of the 1990s, Tur­turro went on to ap­pear in such fine films as Miller’s Cross­ing, Fear­less, Quiz Show and Cra­dle Will Rock. He is, of course, one of the fun­ni­est things in the Coens’ The Big Le­bowski. But he’s not just an in­die guy. You can spot him in Adam San­dler pic­tures ve­hi­cles Mr Deeds and You Don’t Mess with the Zo­han. Heck, he’s even ap­peared in two of the dreaded Transformers movies. Be­ing in those block­busters must feel like an en­tirely dif­fer­ent job.

“Work­ing with Adam and Trans­fomers? It’s like you’re do­ing a sketch, not an oil paint­ing. I never did those things un­til later on in my ca­reer. I turned them all down. But my kids wanted me to do a cou­ple of big movies. So I thought, okay. Fair enough.”

So many film-mak­ers and ac­tors say that it’s still pos­si­ble to make a film for noth­ing and to make film for $80 mil­lion, but it’s very dif­fi­cult to get one made for a rea­son­able price. This may ex­plain why our John now ap­pears in the oc­ca­sional block­buster.

“Yeah, the medium-sized films that I used to make a good liv­ing from are gone. Now it’s all small films and big films. I try to do the best I can do. It’s like a lit­tle work­out of a dif­fer­ent kind.”

Less jumpy in real life, but still in­tense, John Tur­turro seems like a sin­cere sort of fel­low. Those big movies re­ally are the ex­cep­tions in his ca­reer. Just look at the ef­fort he put into mak­ing sure that Francesco Rosi’s The Truce, a study of Pri­moLevi’s ex­pe­ri­ences af­ter the war, even­tu­ally made it onto the screen in 1997.

“I worked on that movie, The Truce, for five years. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. But once it’s out there, some­body can dis­cover it and be af­fected by it. So I don’t care if more people saw me in the stupid movie. Why would I?”

You tell ’em, John. That’s the New York way.

Fad­ing Gigolo is out now and is re­viewed on page 12

Tur­turro on the set of Fad­ing Gigolo with Vanessa Par­adis

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