John Turturro is one of the great character actors of our time, equally at home carrying a Coen Brothers movie, stealing scenes for Adam Sandler, getting vicious for Spike Lee or bouncing off CGI Transformers with Michael Bay. He’ll probably always be best know for his performance of everyone’s favorite bowling pederast named Jesus in The Big Lebowski, just because it’s one of the funniest characters of all time. However, his rich career spanning almost 100 movies is undeniably impressive and he’s also carved out a small side career as a director of stage and screen. This year Turturro brought his latest directorial to the Toronto International Film Festival and it’s certainly an odd one. In Fading Gigolo, Turturro plays a high end New York escort who is pimped out by none other than Woody Allen. Written and directed by Turturro, it’s a charming little oddball comedy that makes the most out of that pretty brilliant New York character comedy duo.
Collider got a chance to chat with Turturro and co-star Sofia Vergara (who plays one of his many clients in the film) during TIFF. The chat delved into everything from the challenges of writing for Woody, the strange nature of directing yourself, and even that long rumored Jesus-centric Big Lebowski sequel that will hopefully be made some day. Hit the jump for the full interview.
JOHN TURTURRO: It’s my life story. It’s autobiographical (Laughs). You know, you just have ideas some days. The idea actually started just with me wanting to do something with Woody. I thought that could be an interesting dynamic and I think it turned out to be one. We’re very different people.
Is it intimidating to write a comedy for Woody Allen?
TURTURRO: Sure it is! (Laughs). You tell him ideas and he sits there and goes (deadpan) “Funny.” Then you say something else and he says, “Not funny” or “Could be funnier.” Then I would just rewrite and send it to him and he would write back with what he liked and didn’t like. I’d just keep doing that and in the middle of it I directed some plays that he wrote. Now, auditioning actors with Woody, that was very intimidating. I auditioned a lot of actors with Woody. I was always very nice them and Woody would just stare at them, write notes and slide them over to me. I’d look at them and think “oh no!” It was a tough room. He would always say to me, “you’re very kind and patient.” I said, “I’m an actor. I try to be nice to everybody.” I want them to get the job. You know, nobody’s right all the time. But he was very helpful throughout the process.
Sofia, how was it for you to be acting next to him?
SOFIA VERGARA At first it was very intimidating. When you think about that too much the fear gets the best of you while you’re trying to be good and funny. But the pleasure comes through soon after that. Plus, in the first scene I had so many things to do and I was afraid to hurt the kids while working with their hair. So I was focusing on all these things at once while staying in character and also trying hard not to laugh at Woody because my character was not in a position for that in the beginning. But he is such a charming person. I think he’s in a different position acting than he is directing, so whatever you felt in that room auditioning, I never felt while we were acting together. We spoke about music together and everything. It was lovely.
TURTURRO: Actually no. He liked the idea. He took something like a parental interest in me. (Laughs). He just didn’t want to do anything stupid. He said, “funny ok. But I don’t want to do anything unless it has some levels to it.” I know he’s very happy with the movie. He was interesting to work with right from the beginning.
Does he know that he has that effect on everyone around him?
TURTURRO: I think when he’s a director, yes and he takes that very seriously. But he doesn’t think very highly of himself as an actor.
VERGARA And he never takes advantage of that. He was always very nice and was talking with everyone on set. He was very available on set. He’s intimidated by other people as well.
TURTURRO: Like the little kids in the movie, they don’t know who he is. I was always trying to explain to them who he is. I said, “you’ve got to treat him with respect. This guy’s been around.” I think he really enjoyed that. There was one take in the film that was very funny. One kid would step on the other kids’ feet when they forget a line, that was his thing. There was one scene where the kid kept doing to Woody and Woody said, “why do you keep doing that?” And the kid said, “because you’re forgetting that fascism line.” Woody went, “oh yeah!” and the kid said, “You guys are all dumb.” Then Woody said, “thanks so much for saying that!” (Laughs).
VERGARA You had a six year old saying, “don’t forget your fascism line.”
Did you write with any of the other actors in mind or just Woody?
TURTURRO: Not really. With Vanessa, we were going to do another movie together that fell apart. Then later on my agent who introduced me to her recommended her for this part and I thought, “oh wow. I never thought of that.” I was thinking more of someone with dark hair and a little rough, but once I thought about it seemed right and she wanted to do it. In my mind now, I couldn’t think of anybody else. I’m not just saying that because she’s here. She did her research and was like the A student in the class. She got right into it.
VERGARA It’s part of the process of enjoying it. You’ve got to let it in. To get involved with everything is just part of the process for me.
Has directing films changed your work as an actor at all?
TURTURRO: Sure. You learn all the time. Even though I wrote the part, I struggled with how to calibrate the role. But you get more sympathy for directors once you do it. You realize that they are up against time pressures and all that stuff. I’m much nicer to them than I need to be now.
Is it any harder to act when you’re juggling directing as well?
TURTURRO: Well, I still have to act. It’s a two-headed monster and some days you’re confused. Some days I’d be alone on the set and shoot my own lines without the actors there. That can be odd, but you get used to it. It can be hard, but it can be easier too because I know I won’t give myself that much of a hard time as a director (Laughs).
Sofia how do you find working in America versus France?
VERGARA: Well, I can only really speak about this film and it had a very European feel. In New York the crews are very eclectic and small. It was very similar to being home in France. It’s great because you get to focus and have a relationship with everyone on the set and that really makes the movie better. The difference was just acting in English. I tend to choose the movie based on if I want to go see them. Because I sing so much, I do very few films and tend to be quite picky about it. I choose them if I read the story and just can’t wait to make it.
John, I have to ask given the chance, what your concept was for The Big Lebowski sequel starring Jesus?
TURTURRO: Oh that’s a whole other story now…that might change. Maybe there will be a spin off, not a sequel. I’m not sure. But we’re talking about it again. So we’ll see.