French pop singer Vanessa Paradis is the last actor you might expect to find playing a Hasidic Jewish woman in John Turturro’s fifth feature as director, Fading Gigolo. Yet with Turturro’s films it’s best to expect the unexpected.
The seasoned actor, who is best known for his work with Spike Lee and the Coen Brothers (he won the 2001 Cannes best actor prize for Barton Fink), had wanted to work with Woody Allen and dreamt up the story of Allen pimping out a meek and mild middle-aged man for hard cash. He mentioned it to his barber, who also happens to be Allen’s barber and the pair became colleagues, not only on the film. Halfway through preparing the project, Turturro directed three one-act comedies written by Allen, Ethan Coen and Elaine May on Broadway. The experience fed into their collaboration on Fading Gigolo.
“Woody was very helpful and took a parental interest in me,” Turturro explains. “Initially, I threw ideas at him and he said whether they were funny or not funny. Then I went ahead and wrote the screenplay and he’d write back what he liked and didn’t like. He didn’t want to do anything silly or stupid. Funny was okay, but it should hit some levels. I know he’s very happy with the result.”
As an actor Turturro had started out in an uncredited bit part in Raging Bull and soon afterwards had a small role in Hannah and Her Sisters and auditioned, though failed, to be cast in two subsequent Woody Allen movies. He had prominent roles in classics like Quiz Show and The Big Lebowski and even featured as Agent Simmons in three Transformers movies. He will soon be seen in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.
I had interviewed Turturro at European Festivals for his first four movies. Mac (1992) took out the Camera d’Or for best first film in Cannes, Illuminata (1998) also screened in Cannes, while Romance & Cigarettes (2005) and Passione (2010) premiered in Venice. Passione, which focuses on the musical roots and traditions of Naples, won the award of the City of Rome in Venice.
I spoke to the affable New Yorker following Fading Gigolo’s world premiere in Toronto where he was seated alongside the media-shy Paradis. They have since teamed up again for Turturro’s vignette in the omnibus film, Rio, I Love You.
Fading Gigolo is a very poetic movie and allows you to breathe, to pause. Did you intend that pace when everyone today seems to be rushing and things are going so fast?
JT: The movie has to have both, pace at a certain time and then it needs to breathe because they’re all people who are not starting out in life. They have a certain amount of (hesitates) luggage.
Given the subject of the film, what have you done for money that’s maybe a bit questionable?
JT: I’ve done jobs as an actor that I have taken to support my family and sometimes later on you feel like you really have to recover from this. You have to put on more of a face than the face of the character. In the film it’s an interesting transaction that goes on. I know it can be a very brutal profession but I talked to a few people when I was writing it and one person said to me once you take off your clothes with someone you’re on equal footing. It doesn’t matter if the person’s the President or the Pope, and that can be very interesting as a metaphor.
VP: I’ve been so blessed. I do ads with Chanel but even that is a very creative process. It’s never just about a product and selling yourself. There’s always such a homemade feel at this really old fashion house where everyone works with their heart and their passion and their talent. Each time I do something with them it always comes with a sense of adventure. It promotes me as I promote their brand, but I also get to have a lot of fun. I’ve never had to do that to support my family.
What was it like to make your first film in English? Can you compare your love for moviemaking and music?
VP: My first love, my greatest love, is music. Do I want to make more English-language films? I just want to make good films and I don’t care where they come from. But I am so blessed that this first one in English is with John. I’m not that much of a careerist because I started off in this business with a big success. It’s never been difficult for me, so I have a great freedom to choose what I want to do. I got to choose everything I did from the beginning as a teenager.
What do you look for in a cinematic collaboration?
VP: You need that connection. It’s like a love affair—you cannot love somebody that doesn’t love you. It doesn’t work well, and even if that person loves you it’s all about the right moment in your life and the right material to share.
Was it intimidating working in English?
VP: Yes. But music helped me because I listened phonetically.
JT: Vanessa is really a special person to work with because she’s a musician and so is Woody and she draws on her musical background in her acting. I could work with her again and again.
VP: Same here. It helped that John’s film has such a European feel because the population of New York is cosmopolitan and eclectic and it was made in a similar way. We don’t have huge crews and budgets in France; it’s really artisanal and everybody has a lot of work to do. It’s great because you get to focus on the work, you get to know everybody and it makes the movie better because we’re all happy.
After being your own boss in your music career is it hard to take advice from a movie director?
VP: No, it’s great. You’ve learned a lot and you step out of your [music] world and learn a lot of new things. I wouldn’t like to do the same thing over and over. Listening and sharing his ideas, he takes you somewhere else. So it’s like a new adventure. It’s very invigorating.
Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara play some elevated version of their public image—rich, powerful, sexy women. What is it about John that makes women feel so free on set?
VP: Because he’s such a gentleman, as a man and as a director. His movie is like a love declaration to women of all shapes and sizes and colour and he makes you feel like this on set. He has such respect and generosity and allows you to be yourself as well as someone else and to have a good time at the same time.
Was it hard attracting so many wonderful actresses?
JT: Well, there aren’t that many great roles for women in American movies, so if you have an interesting role they are interested. I just wanted to have different kinds of women in the film. I would have had even more if I could have made a three-hour movie.
Woody Allen loves working with women, too.
JT: Yes, he does. “It’s worth it,” he always says. He’s really interested in female characters.
Has directing changed you as an actor?
JT: I learn all the time. I still have some struggles regarding how to calibrate the roleplay in a quieter way. As an actor you have a lot of sympathy for directors, because they’re up against such huge time pressure.
Is it difficult to act and direct on the same movie?
JT: It’s a two-headed monster. Some days you’re a little confused but some days you’re not. Some days if I was the only person on set and everybody was ready I’d start doing my lines as a warm-up. You have to make every second count.