This is a tale of two interviews. Well, two halves of the same interview.
The first, sunnier half is the best reason to talk to John Turturro (whose “Fading Gigolo,” which he wrote, directed and stars in, opens Friday): He’s been part of several major movies, laughing when I call some of his roles “historic.” Of course you earn that title after playing significant parts in “Do the Right Thing,” “Quiz Show” and several Coen brothers films, including the title role in “Barton Fink” and bowling badass Jesus “The Jesus” Quintana in “The Big Lebowski.”
“I kind of see him more as a dancer than an athlete,” the 57-year-old actor says at the Park Hyatt when I ask for a real athlete who reminds him of The Jesus. “More of a flamenco dancer or something like that. Wow. Maybe like a baseball player with a high kick.”
He suggests former pitcher Juan Marichal, then notes that former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen would be perfect in a movie with The Jesus. That they’d totally make sense hanging out together. “’Cause that guy’s hysterical,” he says of Guillen. “He is just so full of vim and vigor.”
Clearly, Turturro, a New York native and staple at Knicks games, is a sports fan. He expresses affection for the Bulls organization—particularly in terms of Tom Thibodeau’s coaching and Joakim Noah’s diverse skill set. “I love the way he plays,” he says. “He’s just an all-around, terrific player. He’s a good passer. He’s a really gritty player. I know you guys gave away one of your good players this year [Luol Deng], but I like the way they play a lot.”
Speaking of plays: When asked to name something Chicago does better than New York, he won’t say pizza (he prefers thin, saying his wife’s family in Highland Park never knew the best deep-dish to recommend) but endorses our theater community as a proving ground for new acting groups, plays and directors.
“I think it’s been very nurturing,” he says of Chicago’s theater world. “That’s something I know about. I’ve seen it. I think the rents in New York have changed. It started changing a long time ago. I think you guys have a very vibrant scene that way. A healthier scene in the nonprofit or new play arena.”
Turturro’s theater experience (including majoring in theater in college and eventually directing on Broadway) makes him value multi-faceted performers. He finds quiet characters as challenging as loud ones, if not more so. His experience in “Quiz Show,” however, did not help him ace a quick round of trivia. He couldn’t remember what movie won best picture in 2012 or exactly how many home runs Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit at their most prolific. He had no idea what I was asking when seeing if he could name the five members of One Direction. (“East, West, South, North, I was going to say.”)
So that’s the fun first half. The second, tenser half is the reason Turturro was in town—”Fading Gigolo,” which has a highly, highly questionable premise: That women played by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara, after deciding they want to have a threesome, would a) choose to hire a prostitute b) hire one who just became a gigolo and looks like Turturro and c) would still go through with it after discovering that he is represented by a pimp who goes by the name Dan Bongo and is played by Woody Allen. (After the interview, my colleague Kate Bernot makes a great point that when Lena Dunham surrounds herself with good-looking men on “Girls,” people cry foul. There’s inherent sexism in suggesting a man shouldn’t be questioned on a similar situation.)
“If people only want to see Brad Pitt in a romance,” the star/writer/director says, “Then they should go see a film with Brad Pitt.”
That’s fair. Not every movie needs to star a magazine-cover staple. Yet—and this is not even mentioning the unconvincing relationship Turturro’s character develops with a Hasidic Jewish widow (Vanessa Paradis) who has six kids—the filmmaker surrounding his arguably average-looking character with beautiful women still reminds me of Adam Sandler (“Just Go With It”), with whom Turturro (“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” “Mr. Deeds,” “Anger Management”) has worked repeatedly. He cuts off the notion of an influence there almost before I can suggest it.
“This has nothing to do with Adam Sandler,” he says. “That wasn’t in my mind at all. Not one iota. And Adam’s a friend of mine, so no.”
Fine. Less convincing is the filmmaker’s defense that the characterizations stem from financial burdens. “If I cast someone who probably didn’t look like Sofia Vergara, I probably wouldn’t have got the money to do the movie,” he says, adding that the characters want to meet someone with no strings attached. I suggest that these women could go to any bar and pick up the best-looking guy there. He argues they could, but they’re married and want someone they don’t know.
For the film, Turturro researched the Hasidic community and talked to people in the sex trade. He wanted to find people who felt proud of their work. “And a couple of them certainly did,” he says. “They had a lot of interesting things to say about how they can help people through the day or how they can help them through grief or through loneliness or in the healing process. Also teaching people certain things. People used to go to them because they had no experience. It was very hard to have sex before you were married.”
Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie. Turturro insists that most of the responses he’s received have been women telling him, “that guy is like the perfect guy.” He also says that Allen “always thought it was a good idea.” “I developed it, and he’s really happy with it,” he says, “and I’m really happy with it.”
You decide if there are more credible judges of character than Woody Allen.
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