An act of self-defence

Being typecast as the neurotic fall-guy gets actor John Turturro down, but he'd still do any part offered to him by the Coen brothers, he tells Geoffrey Macnab
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"I don't always want to be the guy who has to suffer and is tortured..." John Turturro seems pained as he contemplates some of the indignities he has endured in recent movies. In The Luzhin Defence (adapted from Nabokov's 1929 novel, The Defence) he is cast as a wayward chess genius. Uncouth, unwashed, and with his hair sprouting upward, Luzhin looks like a close cousin to the equally bedraggled Barton Fink, and is every bit as mentally unstable. He's kidnapped, mocked, humiliated, and, by the final reel, is ready to jump out of a high window.

"I don't always want to be the guy who has to suffer and is tortured..." John Turturro seems pained as he contemplates some of the indignities he has endured in recent movies. In The Luzhin Defence (adapted from Nabokov's 1929 novel, The Defence) he is cast as a wayward chess genius. Uncouth, unwashed, and with his hair sprouting upward, Luzhin looks like a close cousin to the equally bedraggled Barton Fink, and is every bit as mentally unstable. He's kidnapped, mocked, humiliated, and, by the final reel, is ready to jump out of a high window.

Pete, the mean-spirited, close-cropped convict he plays in O Brother Where Art Thou, is not so sweet-natured as Luzhin, but suffers to the same degree. He is almost lynched, comes close to being turned into a toad by some Southern sirens and is generally the butt of all the best visual gags that Turturro's long-term tormentors, Joel and Ethan Coen can dream up.

We're so accustomed to the idea of Turturro as the fall guy that it is a surprise to learn that he used to dish out beatings to his schoolmates. At 12 he was, he says, tall and skinny; one of the few white boys at "an almost all-black school" in Queens. At first, he used to get roughed up a little. "But I'd invite these guys to come over to my house. They'd see my boxing gloves and they'd want to spar with me."

Turturro was a good boxer. He'd work his opponents over, thank them, and offer them milk and cookies. He boxed because it was his father's favourite sport. He collected black and white film of famous bouts for the same reason. "I used to spar with my dad," he recalls. "We had punch-bags in the backyard. I guess it was a way of communicating, having something we both liked."

Thirty years on, Turturro is still intrigued by the sport. "There is something about it that does explore a person's will: something that in a primitive way is fascinating," he reflects, adding that his experience in the ring helped him prepare for his role as the chess grandmaster in The Luzhin Defence. "A great fighter has to have imagination and be able to counter-attack or counter-punch, or change his strategy and so there are similarities."

Turturro revered his father, who died in 1988, and loves to tell stories about him. His directorial début, Mac, was inspired by the old man. He worked as a builder but, says his son, he had the tools to be a great actor. "One could see him as Lear, Macbeth, Oedipus, Willy Loman, big men with flaws, but large and vital," Turturro once wrote of him.

Family life chez Turturro sounds like something out of an Italian-American soap opera, all storytelling, laughter, singing and rows. The young Turturro and his brothers used to listen, rapt, to the tales his father would recount about his equally larger-than-life grandfather, who emigrated to the US from Bari. The grandfather could lift up a table with his teeth and wheel 2,000lb in a wheelbarrow, uphill. Just as his old man spun him colourful yarns about his grandfather, Turturro now regales his own sons with stories about relatives they've never met.

The performing bug was beginning to bite by the end of high school. He tried stand-up comedy. He and a cousin did impressions of Edward G Robinson and James Cagney at family weddings. Nobody laughed, but at least he came to terms with the stagefright which still afflicts him. He abandoned the comedy and enrolled as an acting student, first at New York University and then, as a postgraduate, at Yale Drama School. It was a culture shock for a youngster from a working-class New York background to go to an Ivy League college. "Obviously, you are exposed to things you didn't grow up with, different social settings, prejudices, superiority postures that you haven't encountered." He steeped himself in classical theatre - Shakespeare, Strindberg, Chekhov - and took advantage of the chance to act in as wide a range of roles as possible.

Given his obsession with boxing, it's appropriate that Turturro's first screen role was a bit-part in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull after he was talent-spotted by Robert De Niro. His real breakthrough, however, came in 1984, when he starred in John Patrick Shanley's play, Danny And The Deep Blue Sea. Shanley and director Norman Jewison wanted him to play the male lead in a new project - a film called Moonstruck - but he didn't lobby hard enough and lost out to Nicolas Cage, Cher's choice for the role.

In person, Turturro is polite, affable and relaxed. On the day I meet him, he is dressed sleekly in a dark suit. He displays none of the neurotic eccentricities of the characters he has played in Coen brothers or Spike Lee movies - men like the racist Pino in Do the Right Thing or the double-crossing Bernie Bernbaum in Miller's Crossing. But that doesn't mean he's a pushover. There are stories of him having blazing rows with colleagues whose work he feels is sub-standard.

After winning Best Actor for Barton Fink at Cannes in 1991, he could have established himself as a major star. Instead, he continued to make oblique career choices, taking time out to play Primo Levi in Francesco Rosi's The Truce, or appearing as Estragon in a New York production of Waiting For Godot, which hardly endeared him to Hollywood, and his directorial efforts, Mac and Illuminata weren't box-office successes.

He is currently developing two new, equally offbeat projects, a Dennis Potter-style musical with an Italian-American twist, and an adaptation of Roland Merullo's novel, Leaving Losapas. He is shortly to be seen opposite Cate Blanchett and Johnny Depp in Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried. "I play this flamboyant, egotistical, fascist opera singer," he beams happily.

Notoriously picky, Turturro nevertheless decided long ago that he would do anything that the Coen brothers asked him to. He and the brothers are dreaming up a sequel to Barton Fink. "We're going to do it when we're 65. It's going to be called Old Fink." In the meantime, he'll continue to agonise over every role he is offered. Doubt, it seems, is still his driving force.

'The Luzhin Defence' is released on 8 September

Comments