John Turturro – the quirky character actor who once played a racist pizza shoveller and a paedophile bowler – now regularly crops up in blockbusters such as Transformers. He tells Donald Clarke about walking the line between big and small movies, how he almost played Dev in Michael Collins, and why he’s intent on making The Big Lebowski II
‘OH HEY, you’re over here from Dublin?” John Turturro says. “I’m hoping to go there next year. I just finished this production of a play by Samuel Beckett, Endgame, and we’re trying to get to Ireland with it.”
Ah, the life of the actor. One minute you’re embodying existentialist despair in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the next you’re unleashing bazookas at robots in a Michael Bay film. Turturro, one of the most distinctive actors of his generation, is, perhaps, the best reason to see Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen. Bay’s sequel to the 2007 smash finds Turturro returning as a deranged boffin, now working in a New York deli, who helps plucky Shia LaBeouf and pouty Megan Fox save the world from premature annihilation.
“I had been in the first one,” he says. “So Michael asked me to do it and I said: ‘Hey give me something to do and I’ll do it.’ And he did. I got to have some fun with it. These offers come in and, hey, I have to make a living.”
A glance at Turturro’s CV reveals that, long famous as an indie king, he has spent more and more time doing mainstream blockbusters in recent years. He played opposite Johnny Depp in Secret Window. He’s been in two Adam Sandler films: Mr Deeds and You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Next month he pops up in Tony Scott’s noisy remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.
“Yeah, you know what’s happened is that the medium budget film is disappearing,” he says. “They’re just not being made any more. But doing Transformers is a really physical business. You’re improvising. You’re in a kind of controlled chaos. It’s a different kind of work.
“When I was younger I may have been snobbier about this kind of work, but I have learned that this sort of work is really hard to do.”
Raised in that part of Queens that abuts JFK Airport, Turturro is the son of an Italian builder and a theatrically-minded mother who sang and danced a bit. Though his dad never trod the boards, Turturro admits that he had a dramatic bent and came across a little like “one of those great character actors like Lee J Cobb or Eli Wallach”.
I wonder if this is a significant turn of phrase. Turturro has had the odd leading role, but he is more often cast as the glorious eccentric lurking over the protagonist’s burly shoulder. He was the paedophile bowler in The Big Lebowski. He was the racist pizza shoveller in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Indeed, even when he got the title role in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, he was still playing a near psychotic nutcase.
“Well people say that,” he says. “I’ve worked with Cate Blanchett and Judy Davis and Catherine Keener. So I have got the girl and I think I’m pretty good at that. I guess if you’re beautiful you get cast that way more often.”
But people do think of him as the eccentric. Don’t they? “People do say that,” he says. “But I haven’t always played those roles. In the films I’ve directed I have played the straight guy. When people talk about you they want to put you in a box. I understand that.”
He’s not quite what you’d expect, this John Turturro. Though he may deny it, we’ve become used to him playing various classes of nerd over the past 20 years. In person he is certainly somewhat intense – Turturro once suggested he showed certain signs of Asperger’s syndrome – but he has a suave presence that allows him to dominate the room. A graduate of Yale School of Drama, he surely must never have been short of work.
“It was hard work early on. I did very well at college and was in lots of shows, but I just didn’t have the confidence to knock on doors the way you have to,” he says. “So I taught history in school for a year.
Then I got a scholarship into Yale and I did well there. Then I did this play called Danny and the Deep Blue Sea by John Patrick Shanley and that really changed everything for me. I later did a film John wrote, Five Corners, and I would never have got Do the Right Thing without that.” It was that scathing, largely unsympathetic performance in Do the Right Thing that first sold Turturro to a mainstream audience. Since then he has become a regular member of Spike Lee’s repertory company.
He has appeared in nearly every one of the director’s films, though he does acknowledge that it’s been a while since Spike wrote him a role of significant size. By 1990, two years after Do the Right Thing scared the world, Turturro had become one of the guys all good directors wanted to work with. He was Mr In Vogue.
“Yeah. Round about then I was identified by Rolling Stone as ‘the hot actor’. I was doing these small films. Doing films with Joel and Ethan Coen. But they were begging me to be in all these really big movies. You know I’ve been very lucky. I have been able to do theatre and direct my own material. It’s gone well.”
Admirably dedicated to his profession, Turturro has somehow found time to direct three films over the past decade: the autobiographical Mac; the romantic Illuminata and the odd musical Romance and Cigarettes.
Married to Katherine Borowitz, also an actor, he lives in New York City with their two children and appears admirably content with his lot.
I wonder what ambitions he might have left. “There’s one thing that I do want to do,” he says. “Joel and Ethan have talked about doing a sequel to The Big Lebowski. I would love to get to do that. I just have to make them write the script. I’ll really do my best.”
Oh yes, The Big Lebowski. Turturro has only a small part in that fine film, but he makes a very distinct impression. Playing a Cuban-American bowling star whose inappropriate affections involve both his ball and the local teenagers, Turturro spreads all kinds of sleaze and queasiness about the place. The film opened to modest reviews and humble box-office takings, but went on to develop a fanatical cult following and spawn websites, conventions and fancy-dress parties. Was he surprised by its afterlife? “I don’t know. That was one of those films that just built very slowly. People are obsessed with it. I have a good idea for a sequel. I’ve just got to talk Joel and Ethan into it.”
He then goes on to list a whole phonebook of directors with whom he’d like to work. Somewhere round about Guillermo del Toro, he suddenly decides to jump to the J’s.
“I’ll tell you who’s a really good director. I tell you who I’d like to work with – Neil Jordan. Actually, I shouldn’t say this because another actor ended up doing a good job, but he was going to cast me in one particular part in Michael Collins.” Oh do tell.
“You know, the president guy? What’s his name?” That would be Éamon de Valera, I imagine.
“Yeah, that’s right. A play came along and I couldn’t do it.” He should talk to the Coens. A sequel to The Big Lebowski starring John Turturro as Dev sounds like the greatest film ever.