You can thank John Turturro’s barber for connecting
him with Woody Allen.
Turturro is a well-known character actor,
who in a
career that runs for well over 30 years has been in such varied projects
as Do The Right Thing, Barton Fink, Quiz Show, the Transformer
movies, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and Anger Management.
In the past decade, Turturro has been making more of a name for himself
behind the camera, directing five movies including the surreal musical Romance
& Cigarettes and the lovely documentary Passione.
He had come up with an interesting idea about a
film revolving around the Brooklyn Hassidic Jewish community and a
quiet, courtly male escort. He discussed the idea with a few friends,
including his barber. The barber mentioned that one of his other
clients was Woody Allen, and this sounded like something right up Woody’s
alley. Later, when Allen was visiting the barber, he told the filmmaker
about Turturro’s film idea. Allen agreed to meet with him.
Allen is a legendary writer, director and actor,
but he does not often work on other directors’ films. However,
occasionally he will, if he is really intrigued by the role. In the 70s,
he won critical accolades in Martin Ritt’s The Front, and in the
80s he starred in Paul Mazursky’s Scenes From a Mall. Still, the
most recent work he did which was not his own was providing a lead voice
in the 1998 animated film Antz. When he came on to work
with Turturro in Fading Gigolo, he did not take a hands-off
approach to the project. He contributed to the writing and determined
to help make the film the best that they could. Allen and Turturro
worked hard together to make the film an off-beat, but sweet and
strangely perfect view of
the culturally-diverse New York area.
“Off-beat, but strangely perfect” is a term which could also be used
on the casting of the film. Beyond the obvious against-type casting of Turturro as the soulful sex worker and Allen as his befuddled pimp,
Turturro put together an impressive and unpredictable cast. Tough guy
actor Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) gets to play a love-sick
Hassidic cop. Sharon Stone (Fatal Attraction) and Sofia Vergara
(Modern Family) get to play some of his bored rich clientele.
Perhaps most surprising of all, French actress and singer Vanessa
Paradis (Heartbreaker) took on the role of a repressed Hassidic
widow who is searching for more in her life.
About a week before Fading Gigolo was
released, we were one of the outlets who were able to talk to Turturro,
Paradis and Vergara about the film at a press conference at the Crosby
Street Hotel in New York.
How did you get into
the Hassidic community?
I did a lot of research on my own first. Then we found this
organization called... I think you say it Chulent, which is
[named after] a dish. There’s a lot of different elements in the dish.
It’s an organization that people who have left the community go to.
gather, so they have some kind of community, because they have been
raised in a very strict environment. We met different people there. I
introduced them to Vanessa, and then we went to a... what was that?
Sukkot dinner together. Then she met someone and she was very
Oh, yeah. I met this young woman who escaped a Hassidic community when
she was about 22. She was beautiful and so generous in sharing
her life story. I had no clue.
[I] did not know
much about this community and the religion. She told me about her life,
the rules, the everyday life. It was a tremendous help.
The more research you do about something,
the more interesting it becomes. There are people who are happy in that
world and there are [those] who aren’t. The women who usually have left,
they don’t have children. They knew they wanted to leave, so they’d
prepared for that.
Sofia, you always do so well playing a funny, sexy role. But, do you
ever feel type-casted? Would you like to try a more dramatic role?
That’s not bad, though...
(laughs) Oh, I don’t know, I don’t think looking like this I can play a scientist. (She
runs her hands over her breasts. They
all laugh.) Or an astronaut.
Maybe an astronaut.
[Maybe] an astronaut. I think you have to know your limitations. Of
course I’m not going to tell my agent, “You have to let them see me.
They’re casting Schindler’s List II. I want to be in that
movie.” I know where I can have fun and do a good job. I met John. I’m very insecure about the acting, because I’ve never done it
until recently. I knew I like to be directed. He told me exactly what
he wanted from me, and it was a lot of fun. It was. I don’t care. I
think you have to be grateful. I don’t think after all the
opportunities like this movie that I have gotten [it would be right] to
be complaining, “Oh, they don’t let me cry or be raped in a movie.” (Turturro
laughs.) It would be ungrateful. I take it and maybe someday he’s
decides he’s doing another movie and he calls me and gives me the
opportunity. Maybe I can do it very well.
Okay. I don’t
doubt you. I didn’t doubt you. That’s a good answer.
great about John as a director, actor and scriptwriter?
Well, I saw a side of John that Vanessa didn’t see. (They all
Oh? What’s that?
It’s okay, Vanessa. Maybe one day he’ll do another movie and let you
see that side of him.
Well, it’s amazing to be directed by John Turturro. He just makes
us do what he wants us to do, but in such an easy way and such a fun
way. There’s his energy and he is brilliant with words. And he’s an
actor. He’s a damned good actor. (She turns to Turturro.) So it
just happened so easily, with your words, your energy, your body
language. (Turns back to us.) You just want to make him happy, too.
I like to treat people the way I would like to be treated. I’ve been
mistreated on many movies. Sometimes people kind of objectify you, in
whatever way. So you try to create an atmosphere where people can be
relaxed and have some fun at the same time. Even if it is a serious
situation. Not to put too much pressure on them.
I loved it. I was worried. I had this worry about the scene I had
to do with him and Sharon [Stone]. I’ve never done anything like
that. So, I was becoming a little bit nervous, but he made it seem
so easy. I think he was more nervous than I. When I saw him nervous, I
got relaxed. (laughs)
really loved how you shot a lot of the Brooklyn scenes. What motivated
you to choose the communities and shoot them so lovingly?
First of all, we chose to shoot the movie on film. We tested a few
different ways and standards. We saw that film was a softer medium on
everybody’s skin. I think that really helps, in a way. I used
different photographs, different paintings, as inspiration. I looked at
a lot of Saul Leiter photographs. He was a fashion photographer, who
also took a lot of street photographs in the 30s and 40s. Then I looked
at these [Giorgio] Morandi paintings, these still life paintings. They
were just helpful for the visual palette of the film. We tried to have
all of the characters balance each other; lots of reds and blacks in it.
So, inch by inch, that’s how you create a visual palette. Then we all
work together on that to you have something cohesive and almost like a
storybook that you go into.
Vanessa, were you nervous to work with a legend like Woody Allen?
Oh, boy. The first day was the lice scene. I actually met Woody on the
set, in my turban, and everything. There was this little boy with the
big afro hair and my tiny little lice comb. I think that was brilliant,
John, because I was so nervous to hurt the kid’s hair that I was really
focused on that and forgetting, “Okay, there is Woody Allen! I’ve got
to act.” Of course, he was very impressive, but everything I had to do
made me feel a little bit better, if possible, on the first day. Woody
was so sweet and really nice with me. The hard part was he improvised
all these lines and they were really funny. They’d be more funny one
after another. I had to play with that super [serious character]. I
didn’t know how, because I had to smile or laugh.
You don’t know sometimes, because he does the lines but he kind of
massages them. (He imitates Allen ad-libbing sounds.) He adds
something. It could be good. You’re like, well, should I say? Should
I tell him? I’m just sorry he wasn’t
available that day, I would have liked to have a scene with him with
Sofia. That would have been very good. Talking her into it, I’m
telling you about this guy... (laughs) He’s a very good actor
with everybody. He was great with those kids. They treated him like
they didn’t know who he was. They were like: you’re was just an old
man. (laughs again) One of the kids was with Vanessa, he would
step on his foot. His name was Isaiah [Clifton]. Whenever Woody would
forgot any lines he would step on his feet. We have all these outtakes
of Woody saying, (imitates him again) “Why are you stepping on my
foot?” [The kid would go] “Because you’re not saying the line.” That
really helped, too, having kids sometimes is a common denominator.
the fact that the idea came together after a lunch.
I have a strong dream life.
that your barber hooked you and Woody up. How did your writing time
with Woody Allen affect the final outcome of the film?
He just told me to write the draft and then he would give me
his feedback. I didn’t know what that meant, exactly. Then when I
received it, I was like, “Whoa! Wow! This is feedback!” It was brutal
basically, but it was a first stab at something. I hadn’t really kind
of gotten into the world personally yet. I hadn’t done a lot of
research. So there were a lot of ideas and it was quite broad. Then,
right after that he said, “Don’t you want to do something more
sophisticated?” I said yeah, but he didn’t tell me how to do that. So
I had to find my own way. Basically I would do another draft and he
would say, “This works, and you should develop that more.” Whatever.
He made some very good comments, without telling me what to do. I’ll
give you one example. I spoke to this guy who was a prostitute. He
goes with men, he goes with women. He was telling me that he dresses up
sometimes. So originally in this scene with Sofia in one of the first
drafts, he has basketball shorts on. Woody said, “I don’t think you
need to do that. That’s too much.” I was explaining it to him what the
guy told me. He said, “Yeah, but you could do the same thing and imply
it, in a way.” He didn’t tell me what to do, but that was a helpful
hint. So it became more nuanced as it went along. Then we worked in a
theater in the middle of this writing process. We did these plays
off-Broadway. I got to know him quite well, and that helped. He always
liked his character. He always though his character was pretty good,
that I had a good ear for him or something. But he encouraged me to be
as nuanced as possible. That’s really what it was, basically.
long did it take?
About two years. About two years, on and off, with the plays in the
middle. But that really helped when I came to work with him. I think
you see some of our relationship in the movie, in imaginary
circumstances. That wouldn’t have been if we didn’t get to know each
other that way.
very rarely works on other directors’ films – I think the last time was
in the 90s. What was it like to get him to work on your film? And as a
director, was it a little intimidating having to direct such a
Well, the first day, he wasn’t getting his lines right away.
I was thinking, “Oh my God!” He skipped like three paragraphs. My
first note to him was: I said, “Woody. Cut. I think you jumped from
here to here.” He was like, “Oh God!” I was looking a him thinking, I
have to actually tell him what to do now. (laughs) But, once he
[got settled in], about after about 30 minutes, it was easy. We would
do his scenes and I was like, “Hmm, that wasn’t bad. Let’s try it
again. Maybe a little...” He would always try it differently. So I
never watched playback. I just kept doing the scenes. Within like two
hours we were off to the races. It was going well. I gave him some
notes with Vanessa in the beginning, because I thought maybe he needs to
be more delicate here or there. And he was a prince. He hardly ever
questioned me. Once or twice. He said well he felt maybe uncomfortable
or something. He was really easy to work with and he was good with
everyone. And he was good off camera. Very good off camera.
you are well known for your comedic role in
Modern Family. This role is much
more serious, sexy and had a little dark element to it. Was it a hard
transition to do?
Well, we talked about it at the beginning, because of course I am who I
am. There’s a lot of Gloria [her Modern Family character] in
me. There is so much I can tone down. So I trusted him. I’ll do
whatever he wants me to do. I don’t see it on myself, so if he was
happy, then I was happy. But it is hard, because I am loud. I’m very
active. I can not fix it. The energy. But when I saw the movie, I was
like, “Oh, I can actually sound more normal.”
I think I encouraged everybody to just be a little bit easier. I
think Sofia can do that very easily. It was a pleasure working with
her. Now, when we do our tragedy after this... One more thing. Her
character is really inspired by my friend called Salima.
I met her.
Salima designed my glasses. She has very... she’s very
well-endowed. She has sold me many glasses over the years by going like
this all the time (holds glasses in front of his chest), like
“John, what do you think about these glasses?” (They all laugh.)
I have bought so many pairs of terrible glasses from her over the
years. But she is a great lady, and she has a kind of spirit that is
similar to hers. (Points to Sofia.) So it was like a perfect
you find the right balance between comedy and drama?
The balance was something we achieved with editing. It was not easy to
do. When you’re laughing and when you’re having a good time, sometimes
you can actually slip things in that can be really moving, or really
delicate, or really tender, without really hitting you over the head.
It doesn’t have to be a greeting card sentimentality with that. Life
is like that. If you think of a person like [novelist Anton] Chekhov, a
lot of those characters are ridiculous, but they are moving. Usually
some of the greatest literature and some of the greatest films have
those elements in them. So that is something to aspire towards, whether
you reach it or not.
could bring back the golden days of double features, what are some films
Gigolo would work with?
I’ll give that to the ladies.
I don’t know what that is.
I don’t know what he is talking about.
A double feature. Two movies shown together.
Oh, yeah. I was too young for that.
They never saw one.
What is a double feature?
It’s two movies in a row. This movie with Shampoo would be
good. Shampoo. That’s perfect. That’s a nice double feature.
not being your first time behind the camera, what have you learned over
the years that you’ve been able to bring to this film?
Casting is a big help. If you cast the right people. Also, sometimes
less can be more. To not be afraid to not push it. I have to do that.
Sofia was talking about it, saying like, “I can do this really well.”
Sometimes there is somebody else saying, “Don’t do that anymore. Don’t
do anything.” Sometimes that’s really helpful. You can do something
really small and it can be really incisive. This is the most delicate
film I think I’ve made of my five films.
your favorite directors – other than of course Woody Allen – and what
influence did they have on your film?
My favorite directors as an audience member? I like [Federico]
Fellini. I like [Luis] Buñuel. I like Jean Renoir. I like [Akira]
Kurosawa. I like Michael Curtiz. Billy Wilder. The list goes on and
on. Tons of directors. [Francois] Truffaut. [Luchino] Visconti. It
goes on and on and on, all the way up to today. John Ford. [Robert] Bresson. They all had an influence on
you, because they affect you. If you retain stuff, and you look at it,
it becomes part of your unconscious. Nights of Cabiria was one
of my favorite movies, so I always refer to that.
characters are women looking for the perfect man. How did you get into
character as far as looking for the right man?
I don’t think we were looking for the right man. (Paradis shakes
her head in agreement.)
We were paying for the right man.
(Everyone laughs.) I don’t think they were putting too much thought
into it. It was handed to them. Personally, of course, for me it’s
chemistry. I think these women needed to do this in their lives because
they had a little bit of emptiness, even though you see they are
powerful, beautiful, successful and worldly. When you need to do
something like this it’s because you’re lacking something. I don’t want
to judge them. If this was what they needed at this moment in their
lives, and they had the money and they could afford it, why not?
That’s a good answer.
Yes. My [character], she’s not looking for it. But Woody Allen’s
character starts to inform her that there’s something else than her
Hassidic community. The character that I play does have the curiosity,
even though she knows it is forbidden. She’s really interested of
knowing what’s right there, five miles away in Manhattan. Curiosity and
wanting to be happy [motivate her].
how did you go about casting? Vanessa seems like such an odd and
wonderful choice for that role. And everybody else as well.
Well, for Vanessa, I have to credit the lady in the back, Christina
Bazdekas [Turturro’s agent]. She’s the one who recommended her for
another project I was going to do.
(whispers to the back of the room) Thanks, Christina.
We met and I saw some of her work and we really got along. I really
liked her. Then, when this came up, Christina again mentioned her. I
said, “Wow, I don’t see it right away.” She said, “No, there is all
kinds of different looking women in the Orthodox Hassidic community.” I
thought about it and then sent her the script. I can’t think of anyone
else now doing that role. I think what she brought to it was... forget
about the cultural background, but her own sense of intimacy and
privacy. She’s very graceful and delicate. I wanted to have all kinds
of women. Within it also showed that aspect in all the women in
different ways. You need balance in a movie. Sofia’s character is the
one character who is the freest. She’s like, “Okay, I’m going to do
this. I’m not really depressed, but my friend wants to do it.” I was
thinking about friendships. Sometimes when people have sex, the best
part is sharing it with your friends. (laughs) It’s better
than what happens. “You know what happened to me?” Then you see your
friend live vicariously through you and you’re like, “Oh my God. This
is better than what happened!” This is really true in life, I think,
many times. If you have one of those friends. (The women laugh.)
I thought of that. And also maybe she has certain kinky things she
wants that she can’t do with her husband. We all have other aspects of
our personality. So... But, you want to have people who have something
in common, but who are different enough so there’s a big variety. I
tried to have a variety in a multi-cultural city, that represents any
character was pretty quiet onscreen, which is very different than some
roles you’ve played in the past. Was a quieter role more difficult than
one with more dialogue?
Yes. In some ways. In some ways it can be just as difficult. I’ve
done other quiet roles, too. I’ve been in The Truce, in which I
didn’t really talk almost at all. Box of Moon Light.
Every role has its own challenges. Sometimes people who are quiet, they
are more of a listener. The one thing I was worried about doing it was
having a man who is confident, but who is not cocky. Not looking for
the result. Not looking for home base, but he could actually enjoy the
moment. That's a fine line between those two different things. There
are people you see right away you know where they want to go. That's
all they have on their mind. I didn’t want the character to be that.
He’s quiet but he’s not shy. That can be very true for many people. I
thought of it that way.
HERE TO SEE SCENES FROM THE PRESS CONFERENCE WITH JOHN TURTURRO, SOFIA VERGARA
AND VANESSA PARADIS!
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