John Turturro, star of HBO’s critically acclaimed miniseries The Night Of, talks to Robin Write about acting in the New York-set story.
By Robin Write
I’m not going to lie. I was bit starstruck as I was introduced to John Turturro. In my view, Turturro is one of the finest actors of the last few decades. A formidable talent, he is renowned for disappearing into an eclectic career of roles. His most recent performance is HBO’s The Night Of which unsurprisingly lends his excellence to what has turned out to be a very successful TV venture indeed.
Nice to meet you, I have been a fan for a long time.
Thank you very much.
We’re going to talk about your latest TV venture, The Night Of, which was really good.
But not before we delve into your film work ever so slightly first. A great, varied career, so much variety. Do the Right Thing, Quiz Show, and very recently you did the Italian film Mia Madre – which did well in Cannes. A very varied career. Has it all gone to plan?
I don’t know if anyone can have a plan. Initially I wanted to do a variety of material, challenging material – be it theater, then in film. And some stuff on televison. That was sort of the goal. There are a lot of different kind of roles, contemporary, classical. You are dealing with terrific writers, and they gave me a window into a world. A way of thinking, exposing you to what you have not felt. Whenever I have worked with a good director or writer, I have been very fortunate.
Barton Fink might be my favorite film of yours, but it is my favorite performance of yours. It’s an astonishing film.
Well, that film, they wrote that for me in the middle of trying to write Miller’s Crossing when they had writer’s block. So they told me. We did that movie, and it was an experience for me. My wife was pregnant, and our first son, Amedeo, was born. Such an odd film. A lot like doing a play some days. I had no idea how people would like it at all, so I was susprised. When you work with good filmmakers, every little thing counts. It was a pleasure working with Joel and Ethan.
That collaboration with Joel and Ethan Coen, a famous one. Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? What was that relationship like? Was it a case of begging them to take you back, or was it them not letting you go?
I knew them from Fran McDormand. I went to Yale with Fran, and they saw me do a lot of plays. They wrote Miller’s Crossing, and they ended up writing Barton Fink. And it changed the trajectory of my career. I was not just playing the tough Italian guy. And Spike’s [Lee] movie kind of opened it up. I wanted to play all different kinds of characters on film. They [Coen brothers] were my executive producers of Romance and Cigarettes, we worked very closley. They are really good friends. You need people who get you, appreciate you: John Patrick Shanley, Spike Lee, or later on I got to work with [Robert] Redford, Francesco Rosi.
Great. The Night Of, then.
Yeah, I mean, that goes back to that time. Steve Zaillian talked to me about doing Searching for Bobby Fischer years ago. I really loved the movie. We knew each other back then, and know Richard [Price] from The Color of Money.
Was TV something you wanted to do at this stage? Were you looking to go back into it?
I have done a couple of TV movies over the years, one with Sophia Loren. I did a TNT movie, and played Howard Cosell. And did a mini-series for ESPN, where I played the manager of the Yankees, Billy Martin. They just did not have the money to do it like HBO do it, but had a good time doing it. I always like the BBC long form series. I’m a fan of Dennis Potter, Brideshead Revisited. I have worked on so many adaptations of books. The two hours of a good book just doesn’t make it. [With The Night Of] I read the material, and was like “Wow.” I did not know the original series. I was basing it on what I read.
So you had not you seen the British show [Criminal Justice]?
I watched a few minutes, but thought, “You know what, I will have to find my own way anyway.” Now I can see it. That sometimes works. I like reading the books, I am a big book lover. Always find that very helpful.
[Your character] John Stone feels like a real survivor. What do you think keeps him going? How did you prepare for the role?
I had a lot of months to think about it, meet a few laywers, did all the things you normally do. I thought there was a lot on the page – thinking about the costumes, the eczema. And it started to remind me of people I know, people with great intelligence, and maybe didn’t end up doing what they wanted to do. I thought this guy probably has everything that would make a terirfic lawyer. Some good lawyers explained how exhausting it can be, I just started thinking about it like that. I thought there was a lot of Richard Price in it, and thought we had a very good relationship. It was a fascinating character, had so much wrong with him, but had these attributes that offset that.
The Night Of is a very New York story. Did you draw on personal experiences for the role?
Well, I mean there are a lot of different people you meet – journalists, lawyers, actors. Sometimes the more specific something is, the more universal it is. It did remind me of Dennis Potter, the black humor. So many interesting characters, I was so happy to be working with them.
Yeah, huge cast.
Really terrific cast.
How close to James Gandolfini were you before he passed? Did you have concerns with taking a role originally intended for him?
He was my lead in Romance and Cigarettes. He was a friend, someone I really cared for, since the early 90’s. I really loved the guy. I was heartbroken when he died. Someone I really wanted to work with again. When they first approached me I was not sure I wanted to do it, but then I saw him. He had worked one day on it, and I thought about it and read everything and thought I have to do this.
Really good show. A lot of people talking about it, for audiences it seemed to come from nowhere – and people loved it straight away.
The response was really strong.
What is next for you work-wise and personally? Any big plans with Christmas looming?
Looking forward to the holidays. Editing my new film, which I have just finished. An adaptation of a book and movie, and we are getting to the first full cut of the film now. Very challenging, it has been very different form The Night Of.
One last question: Are you working with the Coen brothers again?
Oh my God, of course. I’m under a lifetime contract. Anytime.
Real pleasure talking to you. Good luck with the show. And Happy Holidays.
You too. Happy Holidays to you. Thank you.