That Turturro feeling...

From 'Miller's Crossing' to 'Barton Fink', John Turturro has given some memorable performances. His latest, Al in the 'Box of Moonlight', is more haunting and intriguing than ever. He talks (guardedly) to Ryan Gilbey

Tom DiCillo's refreshing new comedy Box of Moonlight finally offers the mercurial actor John Turturro the role that he has always seemed to be on the verge of playing. His portrayal of Al Fountain, an uptight construction supervisor, draws on elements of the parts which have made him one of American cinema's most consistently unpredictable character actors. Al has the prissy arrogance of Barton Fink, the self-absorbed writer Turturro played in the Coen Brothers' film of the same name: the cruel overtones displayed in Five Corners, where he was horribly menacing as a neighbourhood psychopath just out of prison; the impenetrable logic of the casually racist Italian who helps provoke a riot in Spike Lee's inflammatory Do the Right Thing, the sad naivety of Herbert Stempel, the nerdy fall guy of Quiz Show; and the sudden explosions of boundless childlike energy which he used to enliven an otherwise routine "mad professor" role in Diane Keaton's Unstrung Heroes.

But there's something else, something that makes this new performance more haunting and intriguing than anything Turturro has done before - ambiguity. He appears in every scene of Box of Moonlight, and yet there are whole stretches when you can't tell what's going on in his head. On the surface, Al seems like a stereotypical working stiff, just as the picture appears to be nothing more than an anthropological experiment pitting order against chaos. But Turturro, and the film, slowly reveal unexpected depth. It's not only the audience who may find themselves initially unconvinced by the movie. When Turturro first received the screenplay in late 1993, accompanied by a desperate letter from DiCillo, he too had his doubts.

"Tom wanted me to do it," he explains in his measured, twanging New York drawl, "but I wasn't so sure. It took a couple of readings before I saw the potential, and I realised that it was playable. There's a subtlety to the dialogue, and a lot of the humour is in the miscommunication between characters - I didn't get all of that the first time I read it. A lot of writing can be very literal, but it gradually became clear to me that what was going on beneath the surface was far more interesting than in most scripts."

Turturro was born 40 years ago in Brooklyn, his father a carpenter whose experiences in 1950s New York Turturro Jnr would later chronicle in his directorial debut Mac (based on his own stage play). At the beginning of his career in the early 1980s, he was the face nobody could remember in films that no one can forget - Raging Bull, Desperately Seeking Susan, Hannah and Her Sisters. His first incredible performance was in the Coen Brothers' gangster thriller Miller's Crossing in 1980. Turturro provided the only flash of genuine human life in a cold, mechanical film. He was raw and visceral as the snivelling weasel dragged into the woods in his shirtsleeves and braces to be shot, only to win the sympathy of his assailant by memorably pleading "Look in your heart!" over and over.

When the Coens called on him again, to take the lead in Barton Fink, he made an entertaining job of a sorely one-dimensional character - a playwright who crows about the life of the common man until he actually meets one in all his grotesque, psychopathic glory. Fink spends the entire movie suffering, but Turturro unearthed considerable humour in the part, and took home the Best Actor Award from the 1991 Cannes Film Festival for his troubles. Turturro has just finished working with the brothers again, contributing a cameo to their new film, The Big Lebowski. He clearly relishes ongoing relationships of the type that he has forged with the Coens (three collaborations) and Spike Lee (four).

"Me and Spike have a nice relationship, and what we did together on Jungle Fever, where I helped create the character and did a lot of script work, I'm especially proud of. With the Coens, it's the 'how' - their writing is so specific, but then you have all these choices about how to play it."

Did the success of Barton Fink prompt a wave of scripts about neurotic playwrights?

"Yes, and I do still get sent a lot of stuff that's similar. Believe it or not, I've been sent scripts which actually rip off Miller's Crossing. I was dying laughing. You go, 'How stupid do you think I am? Do you think I didn't see that?' So I really look around for stuff, I don't care what the background is. People say, 'Well, you've played a lot of Jewish characters.' It's kind of irrelevant. You just have to ask if the characters are different."

Throughout our conversation, there exists a certain tension between honesty and diplomacy in Turturro's words, as though he is afraid that he will offend someone he has worked with, or let slip an intimate detail (a clippings file which barely stretches to pamphlet length testifies to a reluctance to be interviewed). Consequently, he has the polite but guarded demeanour of a man who is helping police with their inquiries. Everyone has been "great" to work with. Shooting the movie - any movie he happens to be talking about - was "fun".

It doesn't appear to help matters when I refer to events detailed in Tom DiCillo's shooting diary for Box of Moonlight, excerpts from which were recently published in the film journal Projections 6 (Faber). In this portrait of Turturro at work, the tone veers between hagiographic and utterly bewildered. "He is a tough one to read," DiCillo comments. "At times he is amazingly warm, supportive and giving. Then at the most unpredictable moments, there is suddenly a wall that is impenetrable."

His diary charts the production's numerous difficulties, and while it's nothing new to find a film set besieged by problems, it is interesting to note the disparities between the accounts of director and actor. DiCillo writes openly about the movie's descent into disorder; Turturro is more coy. When I suggest to him that the shoot, during which he broke two toes, sounds like it was something of an endurance test, he reacts by wriggling as though I'm Jeremy Paxman and I've just tried to pin him down on his taxation policies.

"It's always more hectic when you're shooting. You know each other on a certain level, but when it comes to being under tremendous pressure... well, then you find out who... y'know... sometimes there are bumps along the road, sometimes they are smoothed out and sometimes they are not. In this case, I think the bumps were... addressed. No matter what someone says in rehearsal, when you get on the set, people get tense, some people joke, others get authoritative or angry. I don't really respond to someone getting authoritative with me. Tom was... demanding. But helpful."

DiCillo is less euphemistic. "The pace is taking its toll," he writes. "Turturro is yelling at people. I am yelling at people. Yesterday Turturro yelled at me." The director is also revealingly candid about the relationship between the actor and his young co-star, newcomer Sam Rockwell, who plays The Kid, the wild young man who helps Al get back to nature. "There is an escalating tension between the two," DiCillo notes. "He and John could not be more opposite in technique. Turturro attacks every moment with a concentration and discipline that leaves no detail unexplored. At times Turturro scolds [Sam] for being unfocused. Sam stiffens and ignores him like a rebellious teenager." For his part, Turturro is as discreet as ever." Sam is a talented actor and a sweet person," he says tersely. "I liked working with him."

If he's reluctant to discuss the demanding nature of film-making, Turturro is equally tight-lipped on the subject of his own contribution to Box of Moonlight. DiCillo waxes lyrical about the actor's "consistent moments of brilliance" during a scene of extended improvisation, but Turturro himself is unfalteringly modest about the achievement. "It's really Tom's script," he shrugs. So what will he talk about? Perhaps his next project which, following the success of Mac, he intends to direct.

"I'm trying to make that happen now." Long pause. "Yeah, I'm hoping to do it soon."

Something you've written?

"Yeah. Oh yeah. Although it's very different to... so... um... y'know?"

Not exactly. But it was worth a tryn

'Box of Moonlight' opens on Friday 18 April

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