John Turturro talked to the Voice about Beyond Wiseguys, his new documentary exploring Italian American contributions to filmmaking. Interview by Eudie Pak
Village Voice: What do you hope audiences will take away from your new documentary Beyond Wiseguys? What made you want to this project?
John Turturro: I’d like audiences to realize that Italian Americans have been a major creative force behind-the-scenes in Hollywood since American movies began, and that their influence on American films isn’t completely defined by writing, directing or acting in mob movies, although some of these movies are masterpieces and I’m proud of them too. I wanted to do this project because I feel very personal about my background. It’s very important to me, both personally obviously, and professionally. I’ve directed and co-written a couple of things, and I’ve acted in many films, and who you are or whatever your emotional makeup is is part of your instrument that you have to play on and a lot of that depends on how you’ve grown up and what you’ve perceived, what you’ve been around physically or emotionally. You bring your background to what you do, and make art out of it, and this is what this film is about.
VV: You’ve stated that “the story of Italian Americans in film has not yet been told on screen.” What’s that story?
JT: The story of Italian Americans in Hollywood is pretty much the same story as that of any minority group that’s trying to “make it” in America, only maybe writ a little larger, because it’s a big community with a big personality. They started out as being stereotyped on the screen as gangsters and lowlifes from the early days of silent movies because that’s how American society thought of them at the turn of the 20th Century, but meanwhile immigrants like Frank Capra and Rudolph Valentino were doing whatever was necessary to succeed and assimilate in the movie business and like everybody else, get their own piece of the American Dream. Then slowly, slowly the children and grandchildren of immigrants built on the reputations of their forebears in the business and finally now you’ve got great directors like Scorsese and Coppola climbing to a place where they can write, direct, and act the stories that mean something authentic to them.
VV: Were there any Italian American actors who you looked up to when you were starting out in the business?
JT: Well, you know De Niro, Pacino, the obvious role models. When I first saw Robert De Niro, the first role I ever saw him in was Bang The Drum Slowly He played a southern catcher. Then he played in The Godfather Pt. II, when he was so elegant and so refined, and he was playing the version of a villain with a Shakespearean sort of overtone. I saw him do all kinds of different things, and I’ve done all kinds of different things. I’m the recipient of his impact, absolutely, and so are other people in my age range and background.
VV: Does it bother you when you see films or TV shows, such as The Sopranos, that are highly successful but contribute to the stereotypes?
JT: No, because it’s a work of art, written, directed and acted by Italian Americans. But I do have to say that in the first season they asked me to direct and I saw the pilot and said, “Get out of here. I’m not doing this.” And then I read some more scripts and I said this is very well written, and then I saw it like six months later and I said “this is a really good show.” David Chase who’s Italian put it in a mafia setting to kind of heighten everything, but he’s telling other stories, domestic stories, between mothers and sons and husbands and wives. There’s wonderful work on that show.
VV: Rumor has it that you’re part of a Brooklyn co-op, you casually hang out at restaurants (minus the Hollywood entourage), and that you’re incredibly down-to-earth and accessible. How come you’re so stinkin’ nice?
JT: Don’t believe everything you read.
Read more about Beyond Wiseguys here