'I want to be known as a fat, rich, A-list star'

The versatile and very busy John Turturro talks to Sheila Johnston about his films and other plans
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The Independent Culture

John Turturro is highly amused to hear himself called (as he has had been, often) an icon of independent film. "I'm not sure if I like that title," he says, laughing. "I want to be known as a fat, rich A-list Hollywood star." Luckily this looks unlikely. Turturro, 43, made his screen debut in 1980 in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull: not a bad start, even if he only had one line. "I was just a young whippersnapper," the actor recalls. "But it was a good omen." Indeed. Today his filmography reads like a veritable roll of honour of indie cinema.

John Turturro is highly amused to hear himself called (as he has had been, often) an icon of independent film. "I'm not sure if I like that title," he says, laughing. "I want to be known as a fat, rich A-list Hollywood star." Luckily this looks unlikely. Turturro, 43, made his screen debut in 1980 in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull: not a bad start, even if he only had one line. "I was just a young whippersnapper," the actor recalls. "But it was a good omen." Indeed. Today his filmography reads like a veritable roll of honour of indie cinema.

He has been a regular face in the films of Spike Lee and, above all, the Coen Brothers, with whom he has made four movies. He has worked with Peter Weir ( Fearless), Woody Allen ( Hannah And Her Sisters), Francesco Rosi ( The Truce), Robert Redford ( Quiz Show), Tom De Cillo ( Box Of Moonlight) and Scorsese again ( The Color Of Money). Right now he's one of the busiest actors around.

Turturro is not conventional leading-man material with his woolly hair, wiry frame, intense, irregular features and vaguely ethnic looks (he has played Italians, Russians, Jews, Hispanics, even an Armenian). A few years ago, he would have built a solid, low-key career as a gifted character actor, making his mark on the margins of the frame but fated never to take centre screen. But instead, thanks to imaginative film-makers like De Cillo or the Coens, he moves nimbly between major roles and colourful cameos.

This month provides ample proof of this versatility. In The Luzhin Defence, adapted from an early novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Turturro takes the romantic lead, an eccentric chess grandmaster who captures Emily Watson's heart. A week later he surfaces in the Coen Brothers' comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which he's third banana to George Clooney and Tim Blake Nelson, as convicts on the run from a Mississippi chain gang in the 1930s.

He will be on parade at the Venice Film Festival playing what he describes as "an egotistical, flamboyant opera singer in pre-war Paris" in The Man Who Cried. Directed by Sally Potter, it's a love quadrangle whose other three corners are occupied by Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci and Cate Blanchett. There's also Company Man, co-starring Sigourney Weaver and Woody Allen, and Two Thousand And None, in which he's a paleontologist suffering from an incurable brain disease.

Next spring he could be seen in Tim Robbins's Cradle Will Rock. Somehow he also fitted in the time to voice the killer dog in Lee's Summer Of Sam. "I was very busy last year," he explains needlessly. "People were talking to me about a couple of things but no-one had the money. Then of course, as soon as I'd committed to one film, everything else happened and it was just insane."

In person, Turturro is affable but restless, a ball of barely contained energy. You have the distinct impression that he's extremely hard-working and doesn't suffer fools gladly. He has often been cast as volatile, even violent individuals, like the racist pizza parlour worker in Lee's Do The Right Thing or the creepy gay gangster in the Coens' Miller's Crossing. In another early film, Five Corners, he clubbed a penguin to death as a declaration of love for Jodie Foster, shortly before throwing his mother out of an eight-storey window.

But he's equally adept at playing comically inept or touching outsiders, like his lonely chess master in The Luzhin Defence. "That was a complex role because he's very gentle but also trapped in being a genius. I tried to offer glimpses of the person he could have been if he had more balance in his life. But it was emotionally very demanding and hard to sustain; it could get you exhausted and frustrated. I have to say I got very edgy during that film."

Light relief was at hand in O Brother Where Art Thou? "With Joel and Ethan [Coen], it's especially relaxed on set because they're disciplined and focussed, but there's also a sense of fun. With many directors, if you do something bizarre, it does not make it into the finished movie. But they will build a sequence around it. For O Brother I had all these dirty teeth made so that my jaw was jutting out, and they were really interested to see that idea would work."

Turturro has known the Coens for years (he was at Yale drama school with Joel's wife, Frances McDormand), but their friendship was consolidated on Barton Fink, which gave him his breakthrough role as the Eraserheaded, over-earnest Hollywood screenwriter. One of the Coens' greatest comic creations, the character won Turturro the Best Actor award at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival (and a Golden Palm for the brothers).

He remembers it fondly: "During rehearsals there were many days when I was the only actor on set, with Joel and Ethan reading the other roles. That was probably one of the best experiences I've ever had because it was so intimate. And it opened a lot of doors. At that time I didn't take complete advantage of it because I went off and directed my first movie." This was Mac, an intimate portrait of a builder closely based on Turturro's own father, a first-generation Sicilian immigrant; it won him the Camera D'Or for Best First Film in Cannes the following year.

These last few months he has been taking a well-earned sabbatical from acting ("I've had enough of movie sets") to work on a new script of his own inspired by the work of Dennis Potter, and clearly intends to stay an independent icon. "There have been occasions when I was offered a big studio movie, but, even when it was lucrative, I didn't think it was interesting or I was involved with something else. If you live a very rich lifestyle, you have to do those roles, but I've been very cautious and it has allowed me to do whatever I want, most of the time."

'The Luzhin Defence' (12) opens on Friday; 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' (12) opens on 15 Sept; 'The Man Who Cried' is in competition at this year's Venice Film Festival

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