John Turturro has become one of the most recognizable and respected character actors working today. With memorable, distinctive roles working for Spike Lee and the Coen brothers, he launched a career that now regularly takes him from indie films to Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. At the same time, he’s made a handful of his own highly differentiated projects as a writer and director: The 1992 family drama Mac, the swoony 1998 theater-world story Illuminata, the demented 2005 romantic musical Romance & Cigarettes, and 2010’s documentary Passione, revealing Turturro’s personal passion for Neapolitan music.
Turturro stars in his latest feature, Fading Gigolo, as Fioravante, an introverted, solitary New Yorker who works a series of odd jobs until his buddy Murray (Woody Allen) suggests an odder job: Playing male escort to an attractive but insecure bisexual dermatologist (Sharon Stone) who’s hunting for a man to round out a ménage à trois with her lover (Sofía Vergara). Before long, Fioravante’s sexual services are highly in demand and highly paid, but they lead him to lonely Orthodox Hasidic widow Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), who isn’t looking for orgasms so much as the simple physical and emotional contact she’s lacking. But her association with Fioravante causes trouble with a jealous man (Liev Schreiber) in her rigidly structured religious community. Where other directors—Allen, for instance—might treat this same setup and characters with a certain eye-rolling absurdity, Turturro’s script, direction, and performance all point to a sober, old-school romanticism that suggests Fioravante’s sexual prowess and financial success aren’t so much an unlikely professional success story as a burden and a barrier to the life he wants to be living. For a film about sex, Fading Gigolo is surprisingly discreet and low-key, in many ways worlds away from Turturro’s previous films. He recently sat down in Chicago to discuss his intentions and hopes for the project with The Dissolve.
The Dissolve: Is it true you started Fading Gigolo out of a desire to work with Woody Allen?
John Turturro: Yes. Not just a desire, but I thought we could be good together. I thought we would make an interesting pair, if we were in the right situation. I mean, he likes me and I like him, and we have the same haircutter, which you probably heard about. [Turturro and Allen initially communicated about the project through their shared barber, who passed messages between them. —ed.] It was a long process of me writing it, him giving me his feedback, us getting to know each other. Then we worked in the theater in the middle of it. He asked me to direct something, so I did these three one-acts by him, Elaine May, and Ethan Coen. And I got to know him. He never told me what to do [with the script]: He told me what he hated, what he liked, what he thought was not believable, what he thought could be really good. He always took the time to read it and give me his uncensored, merciless feedback or criticism.
At first, it was just an idea, so I didn’t take that much offense about what he liked or didn’t. I kept thinking, “Well, if I want to work with him, let me consider where he’s pointing me.” And he was pointing me in a direction that was much more comfortable for me, in some ways. He liked the idea that there would be someone religious in the film, he thought that was very rich. I looked at some Isaac Bashevis Singer stories, and then I just did a lot of research. I have a friend who is Woody’s age, he has a bookstore, he has a young girlfriend, all these kids. [Allen’s character in the film shares all these characteristics. —ed.] I basically hired him to help introduce me to people inside the Hasidic community.
Lots of people in these religious communities—a lot of the men, actually—go outside their community and pay for sex. Then I met all these people who had left the community—they have an organization—and I met a lot of young girls who had not had children, and had sort of planned their exodus. I thought, “Yes, there are people who are happy there, and there are people who feel oppressed.” I thought about how sex and religion go hand-in-hand. It’s so intertwined in my mind. Then the idea of either getting out of or going into the sex business because of financial circumstances, that could be interesting. I’ve seen a lot of great movies over the years, some very sad movies, explore that world.
The Dissolve: I’ve read that in the early stages, you had the idea of including a religious character and a religious aspect to the film, but you weren’t sure whether it should be an Orthodox Jew, or a Muslim, or a Catholic nun.
Turturro: Yeah. Well, a nun always because I’ve seen so many movies about nuns, and I like movies about religion. But I just thought, if you’re making a movie about a city or a community, you want to have different representation and different kinds of people. That gives it more obstacles. The movie turned out to be more about people’s need for intimacy, and for a human connection. Sex is only a physical manifestation of that. Sleeping together is another… holding hands, talking, being able to be heard, to be seen, etc.
The Dissolve: For a lot of people, religion is also about making connections, not just with something outside humanity, but with other people.
Turturro: That’s true too, and that’s why I tried to be respectful of that. The character doesn’t say “I’m going to leave my community,” but at the same time, she’s never been able to be free. When you go outside of your community completely, you’re on your own, and that can be very lonely too. Those are just things that interested me. I don’t have the answer to any of those things.
The Dissolve: So how did you end up choosing an Orthodox Hasidic community over the other options? How did that speak to what you wanted to do in the film?
Turturro: It was right in front of my face when I ride my bike around the park. I thought, “If it’s a nun, it’s hard to have kids, unless it’s a nun who’s left the Church,” you know? But some of my favorite filmmakers, like Buñuel and Fellini and Bresson, they made movies about the sex business. I always liked Midnight Cowboy. And I always liked that movie Shampoo, which was about a haircutter, but about a person who was a servant to all his customers. You’re in a service business [in sex work], in a sense. I think they overlap. Big-time. So that’s not the whole movie, but that’s a big portion of the movie.
The Dissolve: You say sex and religion go hand in hand, but the movie does separate them. There’s surprisingly little religious judgment about sexuality in the film, even though there’s so much judgment about everything else.
Turturro: It depends on how you define sex. You could have a much more intimate experience sharing a meal with someone than going to bed with them, sometimes. Most movies fail in a very banal way when they try to capture romance or sex—especially American movies, which are some of the worst at it, because they either give you a greeting-card representation, or it’s a really broad thing. Sometimes, there can be a lot of fun to be had, and a lot of drama to be gotten from something that can be specific and that can be human. When you see a great play by a great dramatist, like a Chekhov, it’s full of all of that contradiction. I don’t see that represented very often. Once in a while, but most times, I don’t feel that affected by it.
The Dissolve: What were you going for in the way you handled sex in this film?
Turturro: What I’m going for is whatever you received. [Laughs.] I’m not a results-oriented person. What I’m going for, I’m going to hold your attention and tell a story about people. I also don’t like things that say, “This is the end of it, it’s all tied up with a bow.” Because your life isn’t tied up in a bow, but you can learn certain things. I think the movie really explores friendship, and loneliness, through the metaphor of being paid to go service someone. People can be lonely in a relationship, immensely alone. Or even in a family or a community. You feel like, “Nobody understands me, or no one really hears me.” That’s why people pay for connection. That’s why people go to therapists. I thought, “‘Love’ is a very ambiguous word, full of all kinds of definitions and actions.” You know, people can say “I love you” when they’re just trying to control you. There’s a great mystery there. I love when people explore that in a way that makes me feel like I can be entertained by it, but it can be delicate in a way that there’s room for other people to enter into the conversation. I think so far, what I’ve seen, people are entering into the conversation with the film because it’s delicate enough. Some people feel like, “Well, why doesn’t she leave?” But I think there’s an unlikely romance that happens. In the middle of the movie, there’s a real love story. Whether it’s requited or unrequited, it occurs.
The Dissolve: There’s a lot of mystery there, in how Fioravante and Avigal feel about each other. Some of the earliest reviews of the film complained that Fioravante is too much of a mystery, that it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking.
Turturro: Maybe they should see it again! Well, I think for some people it’s just fine. I haven’t read enough reviews. All I can tell you is, I screened the movie for thousands of people, and some women think he’s the perfect guy. I had more lines in the script at one point explaining how his father left his mother, and stuff like that. I think he’s a quiet guy, that’s all. He’s a person who’s never committed, but he’s comfortable with women. And he’s good with his hands, and he’s a gentlemen. He’s not a person who has to get to home base. I know a lot of people like that. I think by explaining that I’m saying, “Okay, he grew up with his mother…” [Makes a disgusted face.] His character is revealed through how he handles his friendships, and how he’s trying to make a living. He expresses himself physically. Watch how he cuts flowers. Or how he deals with his clients, and especially with Avigal. I think he’s really affected by her. Maybe he’s just never met the right person, and then he does.
So three people can say what they want, but I judge a film if a hundred people see it, and 80 people go for it. Mystery is a big part of life. You can know someone for 30 years, and then one day they tell you, “I have a wooden leg.” People are tremendously surprising. My friend, who’s a wonderful writer, Paul Auster, he saw the first draft, he said, “The guy’s like a cowboy. He’s a quiet man, and that’s it.” People are used to people in films saying, “I am this way because that happened.” Who knows why you are the way you are? How do I know why I am the way I am? I just know I am. So you either go for that, or you don’t.
The Dissolve: Why was it important to you to play the role yourself?
Turturro: I’ll give you Woody’s response—it’s one less person to talk to. I knew what I wanted to do with the role, you know what I mean? When you have another actor, another person there, it’s another opinion. When it’s just me and Woody, working together and acting together, the process we’ve already done together was very helpful. So when Murray says to me, “I’ve known you a long time, I’m your friend,” the work we did together already was like saving money, you make those friendship deposits in the bank. If you have a nice feeling between you, you can play with that. And I had that with Vanessa, too. I thought we could have a chemistry between us. I think you see that, when you see our relationship in the film.
Also, I think sexuality comes in all sizes and shapes. Woody has certainly proved that in his films. I think when you only have one kind of representation of romance or sex—everybody in life has their own sexuality and individuality.
As far as directing myself goes, my cinematographer [Marco Pontecorvo] knows me very well. He was the camera operator, and then took over as cinematographer on The Truce, and I worked with him on Passione. He could tell when I was tense because of the schedule, and we didn’t have enough time, and he’d say, “John, you look a little tense. Maybe try and walk around the block for two minutes and come back.” In many films when I’m acting, people never tell me anything, except “Faster!” or “Louder!” or whatever. Sometimes I have to go look at the monitor to see what I’m doing. It was hard to find the right balance, to not be too flippant, too taciturn. You try and find the in-between. The difference between confident and cocky is a big difference. Overall, though, like the scenes with me and Woody, we just did them, and I never looked at the playback. Almost ever. I’d look at him and say, “That was pretty good.” Other times, you know, you just know, like, “I’m in the vicinity.” You can feel it.
The Dissolve: I loved the Romance & Cigarettes DVD commentary you did with your older son, Amedeo. He seemed to know a great deal about it, and about your decision-making and your process. Is he still that involved with your work?
Turturro: He’s working at DC Comics, he went to school for Visual Arts, he’s very bright. I will tell you, when he read the first draft, he said, “The best thing is the scene in the park with Avigal.” It was very short. And that scene was, at one time, much longer, and it explained a lot of the things you’re asking about. When I saw it, I felt like they were already past that, you know? Once they had that dinner with the fish, so much went on. He tells a little bit about his life, and she starts poking, she’s saying, “What kind of person are you?” and he says, “I don’t have any family, I don’t have anybody.” He has Murray, that’s who he has. People arrive at their lives for certain reasons. Sometimes giving a reason why does more of a disservice to a live than actually help elucidate it. Amedeo encouraged me in that direction, so that’s the best thing in the whole script—in the first draft. Him and Woody said exactly the same thing.
The Dissolve: What did the script look like before you originally passed it off to Woody Allen?
“Most movies fail in a very banal way when they try to capture romance or sex; especially American movies, which are some of the worst at it.”
Turturro: I did 10 or 15 drafts, so it was completely different. It was just broader. I hadn’t really sunk into what the core of the film would be about. You always think you have something good when you draft something out, and then he said, “Listen, this is just not for me. I think it’s too broad.” He said, “I would try to develop it in a more nuanced way.” As I started to do that, he said, “You know, I think you’ve got something here, because it’s about something.” Sometimes you can do a very delicate movie, and either you have to embrace that, or not. I went even further in that direction. Woody encouraged me to do that. He was pretty tough on the script. So then we got to know each other, we worked in the theater together, and then he said, “You know, I really like it, and I’m willing to participate in it.” Then I had to go get the money.
The Dissolve: You said he didn’t want to give you specifics, or push in specific directions, he’d just say, “This isn’t funny,” or, “That doesn’t work.” Was the lack of specific direction frustrating?
Turturro: He would say, like, “That’s not believable,” or, “That’s too broad.” He’d pose questions that made me think. [Shrugs.] That’s part of the gig. If you want to work with someone on something—Woody said, “You know, you can do it with someone else.” And I had friends of mine, reputable friends, who were like, “We like what you have.” And I was like, “Yeah, but I want to consider what Woody says.” Because I only wanted to do it with him. I had this feeling we were gonna be—and he wanted to do it with me, too.
The Dissolve: You’ve been planning this one for years. Do you have another writer-director project planned?
Turturro: Yeah, I have another script which is adapted from an old French film. It’s something I really love. I’d like for this—if I sold a film everywhere in the whole world, and if the film does well, people go see it, that will make it a little easier. Right now, I definitely want to get people to see this. So far, wherever we’ve shown the movie, people really enjoy it, and they seem a little surprised by it. That’s encouraging, when you’ve put a lot of time into something. Just like the characters reinvent themselves, you have to reinvent yourself too. I’ve been directing… Like, Romance & Cigarettes for example, I think that film would have made a lot of money, if United Artists hadn’t been bought. [Sony shelved Turturro’s film for two years after buying MGM/UA, and Turturro eventually bought it back and self-distributed it. —ed.] That was a big disappointment for me, the situation I wound up in. So doing Passione, and now this, it’s a big rebirth for me. Because, you know, these are big undertakings. I’m really happy with the result, and I’m pleased I got the opportunity to do it.