Acting tough

Tue, Jan 8, 2013, 00:00

Actor Joe Pantoliano on tackling the shame and stigma of mental illness

On screen, Joe Pantoliano is not an easy man to like. He has more than 100 film and television credits to his name, and most of them are characters you would cross the street to avoid. There’s Cypher in The Matrix, who sells out his whole team for a decent cut of steak. There’s the unsettling Teddy Gammell in Memento, and the archetypal bad guy Francis in The Goonies. And then, of course, there is his career-defining portrayal of Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos; rarely has an onscreen wise-guy seemed more comfortable in his psychosis.

On the phone from his home in New York, though, Pantoliano is all warmth and bonhomie. He’s currently rehearsing a play called Moolah, written by Arje Shaw, in which he plays a fast-talking, neurotic gambler who falls foul of the Mob. “When you think about it, all great drama comes out of neuroses,” Pantoliano says in his familiar New Jersey twang. “I saw a T-shirt the other day – no great drama ever came out of the bottom of a bottle of milk. I think that’s just humanity.”

Mental illness

If this is the case, then Pantoliano has dealt with more humanity than most. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, he was brought up in a tempestuous Italian-American family that he says has a long history of mental illness, or “mental dis-ease” as he prefers it.

“My cuddly bedtime stories were about my grandfather and, for example, about the time he smacked my grandmother in the mouth, or took up all four corners of the tablecloth and threw the Sunday roast out the window because my grandma had forgotten one little thing,” he says. “My mother believed he murdered my grandmother because he choked her one day and, six months later, she had throat cancer.

“I never thought my mother had a mental illness, I just thought she was Italian-American. I didn’t ever consider that it was what we call mental illness, because my understanding of what mental illness was, was what I saw in the movies and on television.”

In 2007, he went public about being bi-polar and having clinical depression. He founded a non-profit organisation No Kidding Me Too (NKMT), to promote mental health awareness, and insists that the diagnosis was the best thing that ever happened to him – “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” is one of his favourite mantras.

It is this shame and stigma around mental illness that NKMT was set up to tackle.

Peace of mind

The chaos in his home life fuelled his own mental illness, and it is something he is only now learning to deal with. “The thing I’ve been chasing my whole life is peace of mind. Somehow I came to believe if I were able to get through the gates of Hollywood that achieving that success would heal me of this feeling that I couldn’t describe, I just know it lives inside of me.”

This week, Pantoliano is in Dublin for the First Fortnight mental health and creative arts festival, and a screening of his debut documentary, which shares its name with the organisation he set up. The film tells several deeply personal, effective stories (including Pantoliano’s), while trying to get to grips with how some institutions handle mental health. One particular section focuses on the US military. In 2012 the number of US service members who killed themselves surpassed the number killed in combat. Pantoliano has been to Iraq to meet soldiers and share his story, in the hope that they will talk about their problems and reverse a trend that sees one suicide a day in the US armed forces.

Perhaps what makes Pantoliano’s own story so interesting is the nature of his work in an industry where being able to marshal and control dark, complex emotions is hard currency. In the documentary, he raises this issue with Bob Irvin from McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School’s psychiatric hospital, after becoming convinced that acting has damaged his mind further. “I let dark people and things live in my head rent free,” Pantoliano says. “In my new book, I say you need a flashlight and a .38 to manoeuvre around up there; it’s a dangerous neighbourhood.

“I asked [Bob Irvin] was I damaging my brain by finding dark places and unresolved traumas and conjuring them up in order to use them for the characters. He said no, he believes and science believes that what I did was sublimation, which is the highest form of evolution. You sublimate the characteristic to let off the emotional steam of events that were unresolved.”

Pantoliano insists that the only thing stopping us from dealing with mental illness is shame, and the only way to deal with it is through “emotional intimacy”. “Where does the shame come from, where does the confusion come from? I have no confusion about mood diseases [any more]. I’ve traded coping mechanisms. I don’t drink or do drugs, I do yoga or talk about it. These are behaviours that I adapted.

“Shame is taught, discrimination is taught. I’d like to start to implement an emotional hygiene programme in elementary public schools. In Chicago, this type of programme is already up and running. We teach them how to brush their teeth in pre-school, we teach them about head lice – we need to start teaching them emotional hygiene. You’re four years old, with little bugs crawling around on your head, and you don’t freak out, you’re taught that it’s okay.

“Seventy-five to 80 per cent of all five years olds are going to have to deal with a mental disease at some stage. If you have a disease and it’s in the region of your heart, you can’t scratch it. All we’re promoting is emotional intimacy, the intimacy to talk freely about your insides as you would about a pimple on your face.”

Joe Pantoliano will take part in a panel discussion, Make Some Noise for Mental Health, tomorrow at Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin 2. No Kidding, Me Too will be screened at Dublin’s Sugar Club on Saturday, January 12th, followed by a discussion with Pantoliano.

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