JOHN TURTURRO WANTS to know why I married my husband. The 62-year-old actor and filmmaker is sitting across from me at Bar Pitti, an Italian spot in New York’s West Village that he has patronized for three decades, dipping bread in olive oil. Thrown off by the intimacy of his question, I blurt something about how I like the way my husband smells. Turturro breathes in deeply, as if remembering body odors past. “I’ve thought about armpits for a long time,” he says. The scent of sweat glands, he adds, is “very underrated.”
As Turturro zips up his black Patagonia fleece, he recalls one of his favorite scenes from the 1999 film Holy Smoke!, in which Kate Winslet smells her own underarm as she dances. “But she did it very unconsciously,” he explains. The pit sniff is why Turturro decided to cast the actress in 2005’s Romance & Cigarettes, one of the first films that he directed. “She was like an animal,” he says, growling.
Turturro keeps the questions coming; during our time together, he asks more about me than any actor I’ve interviewed. He wonders whether I believe Hillary Clinton would’ve been elected president had she divorced Bill. (Yes.) He solicits my opinion on Robert Pattinson’s performance in The Lighthouse. (Certainly the most acting I saw last year.) These queries do not feel compulsory (see: Why did you marry your husband?), or like occasions to introduce his own thoughts on a topic. Turturro speaks with, rather than at, you.
This quest to understand people helps to explain why, over the past four decades, Turturro has become one of our most distinguished yet low-key film actors. He’s renowned for his ability to make any character, no matter how batshit, seem believable. With more than a hundred acting credits, he has appeared in his share of lucrative, big-budget hits, including three Adam Sandler movies, four of the Transformers films, and next year’s Pattinson-led The Batman. But he has also worked with some of the most acclaimed contemporary filmmakers, having starred in nine Spike Lee movies and four Coen brothers projects.
Turturro, moreover, has directed four of his own well-regarded but little-seen films, along with the upcoming The Jesus Rolls, out February 28. In it, he reprises Jesus, the bowling-obsessed, jumpsuited registered sex offender he depicted in the Coen brothers’ 1998 classic, The Big Lebowski.
But Turturro isn’t just interested in looking back. In March, he’ll appear in the HBO miniseries The Plot Against America, based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name. Adapted by The Wire’s David Simon, the series imagines the United States if the nationalist Charles Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1940. Turturro plays Lionel Bengelsdorf, an influential conservative rabbi who stands to gain from Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic administration. Though Turturro is decidedly Italian, “he has an unbelievable Jewish energy,” Simon tells me later. “[He’s] very verbal and quite capable with rhetoric—basically, the Jewish condition.”
“Very verbal” is perhaps an understatement. At Bar Pitti, as Turturro talks—and talks and talks and talks—he offers up, in his deep, outer-borough murmur, minutiae about his old lease on Grand Street, the philosophy of Primo Levi, and the fact that his dentist and his barber both attended James Madison High School in Brooklyn. At one point, he acts out a lengthy story involving Robert De Niro’s handsome doctor, who persuaded Turturro to get shoulder surgery. When a waiter informs us that the restaurant doesn’t serve vermentino by the glass, Turturro negotiates an appropriate white-wine substitute, in Italian.
These topics could all be powerfully dull. But in the weeds is the best place to be with Turturro. And his command of esoterica—and the dynamism inspired by that esoterica—can perhaps explain a career that has been both illustrious and under the radar. He has played a vast spectrum of schnooks, each alike in indignity—a buffoonish convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the agoraphobic brother on Monk, the embodiment of writer’s block in Barton Fink. Yet Turturro is somehow always dazzling, without distracting from the larger project. He attributes this feat to his being “more of a worker” than anything else. Even so, if you watch the Turturro canon—or spend a day wandering around the West Village with him—it feels as though the worker is always sniffing for things to turn him on.
TURTURRO GREW UP primarily in Queens, the middle of three brothers. His mother, Kitty, was a housewife. But “she could have done anything if she’d had the opportunity,” Turturro tells me. She sang, made dresses, danced beautifully. His father, Nick, was a contractor who did work for clients that included Fred Trump; one summer, in the early 1980s, Turturro hung drywall for his dad at the now-closed Lincoln Plaza Cinema.
When Turturro was young, his parents would regularly engage in wordless spats—part foreplay, part fight. They’d make “all these faces, back and forth,” he says. Their erotic sparring matches would escalate until one of them “won” by provoking a response from the other.
TURTURRO SUDDENLY INVERTS HIS SMILE AND RAISES HIS EYEBROWS TOWARD HIS GRAYING FLATTOP. THEN HE LUNGES, JUTTING OVER HIS MINESTRONE.
As Turturro and I eat, he decides to reenact one of his parents’ psychosexual dramas, and conscripts me to play his mother. Turturro, however, doesn’t tell me what he’s doing. He just suddenly inverts his smile and raises his eyebrows toward his graying flattop, imitating his dad. Then he lunges, jutting over his minestrone and widening his extravagantly lidded eyes. The whole exchange is so weird, so unanticipated, so unsettlingly magnificent that I release a guffaw of nervousness. “That’s it!” he yells, still in character. “What’s so freakin’ funny about that?”
His enormous hands splay upward, as if cupping his parents’ chemistry. “It was just brilliant,” he says, himself again. “They had a hot—they had something.”
Turturro has worked with the top shelf of Hollywood—Jack Nicholson, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, George Clooney— but he maintains that his parents’ fights are some of the finest acting that he has ever witnessed. And if he’s aware that it’s perhaps unusual to derive such pleasure from the horny anger of one’s parents, he doesn’t let on.
At times, once his folks’ performances concluded, his mother would mock her husband’s sexual potency. “He’s all talk, no action,” she’d say in front of Turturro and his brothers. “Falls right to sleep.” Nick would sit at the kitchen table, working his way through a cigarette. “Yeah,” he’d say. “Maybe not tonight. Maybe I won’t.” Sometimes this all went too far, and Turturro’s dad could get rough with his mother. Turturro sided with her. “If I’m being honest, maybe [it was] me protecting her,” he says. But when nothing bad happened physically—when everything remained a performance—it was powerful.
After high school, Turturro left New York City for undergrad at the State University of New York, New Paltz, then earned an MFA at Yale. His first film job, before he’d even graduated, was as an uncredited extra in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 Raging Bull. Nearly a decade later, Turturro entered the public conscious-ness playing a racist dope in Spike Lee’s 1989 breakthrough, Do the Right Thing. (Barack Obama took Michelle to see the movie on their first date; Turturro says the president once told him, “You brought us together.”) Lee decided to cast Turturro after seeing the odd 1988 drama Five Corners, in which his character beats a penguin to death after a woman (Jodie Foster) rejects him. The scene is, objectively, insane. Turturro somehow manages to avoid it feeling that way.
Even in these early roles, Turturro’s beauty was a bit off, thanks to his googly eyes and vulpine teeth. He cops to having a “prominent nose.” When fans come up to him in the street to show off photos of their cousin who, they swear, looks just like him, “it’s the most crazy face,” he says. “It’s like someone made a caricature. Never a normal person, or even in the vicinity. It’s always these outcast of outcasts.”
Turturro’s appearance has allowed him to convincingly play many fictional outcasts of outcasts. But their onscreen nuttiness isn’t generated by him—it’s reflected. Turturro’s personal life is as sturdy as a glacial rock. He has lived in bougie Park Slope, Brooklyn, for 30 years, and has been married to actress turned social worker Katherine Borowitz for 35. They’ve raised two children, and Turturro serves as the legal guardian for his older brother, a former musician who has mental-health issues. Turturro extends the caregiving instinct to me. “Do you want something more?” he asks, concerned that I haven’t eaten enough. “Want to share some spinach or something?”
He explains that he “steals” from others to create his characters. He based his manic role as Agent Seymour Simmons in Transformers on the franchise’s famously bonkers director, Michael Bay, known for spewing obscenities at cast members and for having Megan Fox hand-wash his Ferrari as part of her audition. Bay failed to realize that the character was based on him. “He was like, ‘I love everything you’re doing!’ ” Turturro says. “Of course: I’m doing you.”
Turturro welcomes these outside influences. “There’s two different kinds of creative types,” he explains, gesturing to the plate of spinach we’re splitting. The first, he says, tells you, “This is my spinach. I’m sharing it with you.” The second, like Turturro, enjoys the process of navigating a meal together—the awkward, interesting negotiation between forks, the warmth of generosity. No, no, you take some greens.
He’s still particularly enamored of The Sopranos actor James Gandolfini’s collaborative capacity. “He was just a slab of humanity,” Turturro says, scrunching his face as if he’s trying to smell him. “It was like he came out of the forest. He was just this bear.” Turturro cast Gandolfini in his 2005 film, Romance & Cigarettes, and admired the sensuous actor so much that, in an interview supporting the movie, he likened Gandolfini to a “beautiful, large, Italian woman.” When the article came out, Gandolfini called him, furious. “That’s a compliment!” Turturro recalls telling him. “Because you’re so feminine and so masculine.” Gandolfini threatened to kill him. (He was joking! Sort of.)
A few years later, Turturro almost joined Gandolfini on The Sopranos, first as a director, then as the unhinged horse- and pregnant-woman-murderer Ralph Cifaretto. (“Joey Pants was more correctly cast,” Turturro says, cackling. “And they couldn’t afford me anyway.”) Gandolfini died of a heart attack in 2013. Six years later, Turturro’s voice coarsens with grief and his giant eyes shine when he reflects on him. “It’s funny how you can work really intimately with people and not be best friends,” he says, pretzeling his long arms across his chest. “But you can fall in love with each other [creatively]…. He was my kind of person.”
WHEN WE’RE DONE with the spinach, Turturro offers me a dentist-grade toothpick, then we head across town to his favorite glasses store. Having spent nearly seven decades in New York, he navigates the crowded sidewalks at a trot. A Fresh Direct delivery guy points at him and says, “You!” Turturro nods and smiles: Yes, it is.
When my teeth start clacking in the cold, Turturro offers me a hat, then asks if, by chance, I’ve ever interviewed Jeff Goldblum, whom he almost worked with once and identifies as a “big flirt.” I have, and Turturro follows up with the kind of delicious, impertinent questions anyone would want to know about a famous person.
Turturro’s curiosity has helped him to age gracefully compared with other actors in his age bracket. I don’t know many men in their 60s who actively solicit challenges to their worldview; rather, it often feels like they’ve put in the 10,000 hours required for mastery and are now experts at feeling entitled to do things the same way they’ve always done them, thanks.
Turturro, meanwhile, delivers and seeks pushback rather than validation, much like his parents did. “To be enlightened, you have to be open,” he says. “I want to know. I’m thrilled by knowing.” This openness balances his more avuncular tendencies—like public dental care and the lusty appreciation he expresses for pinups like Barbara Stanwyck (“So sexy!”) and Pam Grier. (“I did an episode of Miami Vice, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to act with her?’ ”) He has an equally lusty desire to tell you about how enriching he finds the writing of W.E.B. DuBois and Ta-Nehisi Coates (“beautiful and so poetic, and so not breast-beating”).
The actress Susan Sarandon has appeared in several Turturro films, including The Jesus Rolls. “I didn’t think there was a chance in hell he’d get the money, so I said yes,” she says. The semi-unintentional collaboration was a happy one. “Working with John is a joy,” she says, before taking a hard conversational turn. “He and Bobby Cannavale were so funny. There’s a lot of threesomes in this movie, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve never done that.’ And they said, ‘We have,’ and told all these stories from back in the day. John’s just so Italian, in his love of food, women, everything. He’s so open and confident and generous. He allows you to try anything.”
When Turturro and I reach Selima Optique on Bond Street, we’re greeted by Selima, the eponymous French optician. She outfitted Turturro with his everyday bone-rimmed glasses, as well as the silver frames he sports in The Plot Against America. She offers us apple cider and cabernet sauvignon and is professionally flirtatious. Turturro immediately rises to her emotional temperature. “She’s my acting coach,” he says, wiping her fuchsia lipstick from his cheek.
Turturro inspects a tray of vintage brown Persols, all appropriate for a 1970s poolside cocaine binge. The frames have a dual purpose: to give Turturro a visual foundation for a character he’s working on and to send a photo to a potential director, to test his willingness to collaborate. At this point in Turturro’s career, he prefers to work only with filmmakers who want to create something together that’s better than what either could come up with apart, and can do so respectfully. “I don’t mind being pushed,” he says. “But sometimes people think that if it’s harder or more unpleasant, that means it’s more real or something.”
With the glasses, he wants to resemble “a lizard who never reveals themselves.” (The reasons behind this choice will, for now, stay between Turturro, the director, and the NDA they signed.) Turturro Goldilockses his way through frames until he finds the perfect pair—which, when the director proves himself open to sharing his creative spinach, will be fitted with transparent ombre lenses.
Now Turturro is vibrating with stimulation, strutting around the store imitating a dripping Italian man in a Speedo. He tells a story about working on Sugartime, in the ’90s, with the actress Mary-Louise Parker. “We had good chemistry together,” he says, sipping cider as he shimmies. “Very good chemistry.” He says that his mother warned him not to let his wife see the movie. (She still hasn’t.) And perhaps his mom was right. “When nothing happens, there’s more to imagine,” Turturro says. Performances can be powerful, even if they’re just in a kitchen.
Anna Peele is a freelance writer based in New York. This story appears in the March 2020 issue of the magazine, with the headline “Man of Many Parts.”
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