Interview: John Turturro Turns Himself into a Fading Gigolo


A familiar actor who has appeared in nearly a hundred movies over the past thirty years, working with everyone from the Coen Brothers and Spike Lee to Michael Bay, John Turturro hasn’t been seen on screen as much in recent years as he’s been focusing on his filmmaking.

In his fifth movie as a director, Fading Gigolo, Turturro plays New York florist Fioravante, who starts to earn money in an unlikely way by becoming an object to fulfill wealthy women’s sexual desires. Probably Turturro’s biggest coup was getting Woody Allen–who hasn’t acted in a movie he didn’t write and direct in over a decade–to play Murray, Fioravante’s friend-slash-pimp who introduces him to women as Murray introduces him to Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a Hassidic widow who has been repressed by the laws of her community and discovers a new freedom in Fioravante’s company.

Fading Gigolo is a definite winner that pairs Turturro with two beautiful women in Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara as two of Fioravante’s clients, as well as Liev Shreiber as a suspicious police officer in Avigal’s community. It’s Turturro’s scenes with Woody Allen, however, that really drive the film and any fan of Allen’s comedies should be able to appreciate Turturro’s use of New York City locations and the mix of sexy humor and sharp insights that permeated Allen’s earlier work.

Last week, had a chance to sit down with Turturro to talk about the movie and how it came together. I’m glad to have a chance to talk to you about a movie you directed, because I really liked this movie a lot.
John Turturro:
Well, I put a lot of work into it, so that’s nice to hear that people are responding to it.

CS: Being a New Yorker, I always enjoy seeing movies that capture New York as it really is, and sadly, it’s somewhat rare except for obviously the movies by Woody and Spike.
Right, because a lot of times people will come to New York and you go like, “This has nothing to do with the city.”

CS: Right, they show the familiar locations that people know. So what got you down this road? Your character kind of says it in the movie, but John Turturro is not someone you’d immediately think of playing a gigolo, so I thought that was an interesting choice you made writing that role for yourself.
He says it, and I wrote it. Originally I thought I would love to do something with Woody and I thought we would be a good team together. Then I like movies about the sex business, I like movies about religion, and so I just threw out the idea to Woody, and he said, “This is a great idea.” I said, “It will be an unlikely team to be a pimp and a prostitute.” I was thinking about the idea of two things – one, about how people have to reinvent themselves all the time throughout life. You go to college, and you think “I’m going to know what I’m going to do,” and then that’s it, and maybe if you’re a doctor, then yes. But it’s a different landscape now then it used to be, so I thought about that. I’m also very comfortable with women, and I love women. I have a good relationship with my mom, with my wife, I have a lot of friends, who when I share a work space with, people that produce things, people I socialize with – I just meet them alone; I have my own relationship with them. I was thinking how all of us have our own sexuality and sensuality and I was in acting class with models once, and they can’t project, because they’re so used to receiving it, not getting attention. Also, sometimes you see a beautiful woman with a guy and he’s like, “What is she doing with that guy?” Maybe he’s rich, but sometimes, he’s not. The whole idea of a guy who’s like a regular guy, but he’s in good shape and he can do things physically and is a good listener is almost like kind of a samurai cowboy type of guy, but in the modern day world, but without being violent. I thought, “Well, maybe if I could create a character taking some aspects of myself and aspects of people”… like I have a friend who’s really great physically and you watch him lay your roof down or fix a toilet, he just moves like he’s a dancer, you know? Plus, I like to dance. I thought then people could say, “Oh wow, well, that could be me, and I could relate to that guy because he’s not the perfect representation. He’s not Brad Pitt.” Also, sometimes, even with beautiful women, sometimes they don’t do it for me, you know what I mean? Like Julie Christie maybe does it for me, but Julie Christie had a real privacy to her. I was also thinking about when Woody was in all these movies many times when he was young. He was the romantic guy and you bought it. You bought it.

CS: Absolutely. I used to watch his movies when I was a teenager and be like, “Yeah, I could be that guy.”
I’m just saying. Okay, that answers the question in a way, so this is the other side of that guy. Woody thought it was a good idea, so I thought, “Okay, as long as I am in good enough shape and the lighting is nice. As Sofia says, ‘You look like a man, not too pretty.'” “Not Too Pretty” could’ve been a title.

CS: It’s great, obviously getting Woody to be in it. I think a lot of people who see this movie feels it has a very similar tone to some of his comedies.
Well, I mean, I wrote it for Woody, and the music is jazz. It’s not all that Woody uses because Woody has never used Gene Ammons. Usually, he uses jazz from the ‘30s and the ‘40s, but this is from the early ‘60s. Then there’s a lot of French and Italian music in the movie, too, but the sax of Gene Ammons is someone I grew up with and I loved. The album will be coming out from Milan Records, but a lot of the songs are from “Boss Tenor,” that’s from Verve. So, yes, it’s got a jazzy kinda score with these other singers, but I think that was part of my life growing up and I wrote it to that, so you can’t be afraid. Jazz is big. I also wrote it for Woody, so if there’s some similarities to a Woody Allen movie, great, but I was trying to make my own movie but with Woody playing a huge role in it. Woody certainly encouraged me—not with music stuff—to make it as nuanced as possible.

CS: Have you ever been in one of Woody’s movies?
I was in “Hannah (And Her Sisters).” I did “The Company Man” with Doug McGrath. He wanted me to be in another movie I couldn’t do. Once I was up for a big role and I didn’t get it. So I always knew that he liked me.

CS: Did you guys keep in touch?
Well, we didn’t know each other that well besides our haircutter, but I’ve always known he liked me, and in the course of writing it and rewriting it, I did these “Relatively Speaking” plays on Broadway that Woody had suggested me for, so I got to know him really well. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to do those plays, because I figured, “Well, I’ll get to know Woody well,” and that really helped when I finished doing revisions and when we actually put it on its feet, because I was pretty comfortable with him. You have to get over that, “I’m telling Woody Allen what to do… or do I even have to tell him what to do?” He was excited that I thought of him and when he saw the movie, he was like, “Wow, I’m really surprised at how good it is.” He was really happy with it, so that means a lot to me, if Woody’s very happy with it. I loved working with him and I think it shows in the movie. I think we have a nice ease, but that’s exactly what you said, when you said, “Oh, I could be that guy, too.” It encourages people.

CS: That’s probably why I liked the movie so much, because I remember Woody’s movies as a kid and thinking that if he could be with those beautiful women, so could I. Of course, that never happened.
(laughs) Yeah, but it’s still good. It’s still good, you know? He doesn’t look like Burt Lancaster, you know what I mean? Burt Lancaster, you say, “Okay, wow. The guy’s like a specimen,” you know?

CS: Let’s transition into talking about Vanessa, because it’s really interesting to see her in this kind of role. We think of her as a glamorous, French singer/model and actress, and here, she’s playing a woman who is closed off with all these rules and laws of her community. What made you think of her?
My agent, Christina Bazdekis suggested her for this other film I was going to direct in Italy and I saw “Heartbreaker,” and I just loved her in it. Then I saw “Girl on the Bridge” and I met her and I was crazy about her. Then, when I was going to do this, I didn’t think of her normally for it, initially. Christina said, “Listen, maybe not the Hasidic woman, but the Orthodox one, there’s a lot of women who look just like her. Think about it, because she’s got the delicacy.” I did and she read it. Now, I think I couldn’t think of anyone else but her to play that part, because it goes beyond whatever ethnicity she’s playing. She’s just so graceful and she brings a depth and a privacy and a delicacy that you almost can’t act. You have to have some of that. You have to have it. I think she changed the movie. I knew that things with me and Woody were going pretty well. I know when I saw them together, I was like, “Wow. This is really like, one of these like, powerful short stories when you read and you say, ‘Okay.'” I introduced her to a community of some women who had left and I think she was very open and it really resonated with her. I know it sounds self serving, but I think her performance is really exceptional.

CS: I totally agree. I haven’t seen many of her French films, but I did see “Heartbreaker” and this is very different for her.
Yeah, and I think she could easily play a really bad girl, like a wild girl, too. When I put that wig on her head, when I found that wig–talk about Julie Christie–because it reminded me of Julie Christie’s hair in “Shampoo.” When I found that wig, I loved it. But she wasn’t there when I found it. When I put that wig on, I was like, “Wow. She looks a little like Joan of Arc/Julie Christie.” So, that really changed it. So then, when Sharon came in afterwards, I realized, okay, we have established something and they all have to be a part of that film, not be in another movie, so the delicacy of that I was aware of.

CS: You must’ve spent some time in the Orthodox community, so what was that like and were they very accepting of an outsider asking questions?
I’ve spent a lot of time. I spent a couple of years there. Well, I didn’t really speak with the Satmar people, I spoke with some of the Lubavitcher people. But, I spoke to a lot of people who left. There’s this organization when people leave. The people were very generous. You know, and I also tried to be respectful to it. I mean, I’m poking fun at all kinds of things, but I feel like, hey, some people are really happy and some people aren’t. You know, I was interested in choosing some religion, because I wanted to have a big obstacle in it. I like movies where they’re connected or intertwined, Bunuel, I guess, and all that. So I thought that was the right thing to do. But, I became more interested in it, not less, you know, more interested. It’s harder to be like, dismissed of, also, because you go, “Well, people have a community and they’re happy within that community. Some people are and some people aren’t.” But, the women who did leave, I was very interested in, I have to say. I do think religions in general serve things, serve communities sometimes well, but also, there’s all these rules that are made in whether it’s Catholicism, Muslim, Hasidic Jew, that men make for women. You know, you think about this, the fear that men have of women being uncovered. It’s still a big part of the world.

CS: Oh, everywhere, yeah.
Everywhere. I mean, look in Africa, that’s a whole other thing that they do. So, I think people here, they take it for granted, that well, we’re free and we can do commercials in the middle of the day in a sports game and you see women gyrating, which there’s nothing wrong with that, but kids are seeing that, too. So, I think sometimes the freedom that we see the other side of it, and it can be just as oppressive in some way, you know?

CS: The Orthodox culture is fascinating to me and there was a great Israeli movie set in that world.
Oh, “Fill the Void?” Yeah, I didn’t see that. I heard it was wonderful.

CS: Yeah, it’s a great movie. You should probably check it out., but it is fascinating for someone who is Jewish but not Orthodox to see how different that world is.
That’s a whole huge offshoot. I mean, even from the beginning, it was like a mystical offshoot of Orthodox, you know, religion, Orthodox Judaism was really—they were looked down upon, you know? So no, I wanted to see that movie, but we were involved in this, so it was hard to do it, but I will see it.

CS: One thing I really liked about the movie were the locations but also the way the sets were dressed up. When you’re watching a scene with you and a half-naked Sharon Stone and your eye drifts off to the background out of curiosity about what’s on her bookshelf, that’s a pretty good job by the set decorators.
Yeah, well, we used all Leder photographs and Morandi paintings, like the apartment we found, where we were able to cut out a wall in the other apartment, and we painted my apartment. But everything else, we found, like whether it was the coffee shop on Lexington and 82nd Street, which we shot, or Westsider Books. You know, and sometimes we painted places, but we found a lot of these. The Flora Bella, I kind of learned how to do their flower arrangements as best as I could in one week, but that’s a shop and that’s a big character in the movie. So they were all narrow places. Hopefully, they had tall ceilings. Sometimes, they didn’t. The diner didn’t. But I think they’re indicative of a world that we know that when you inhabit those places, you kind of treasure them because now there’s so many less of them, whether they’re diners, bookshops, record stores, little places that made shoes or fixed shoes, theaters, whether it a movie theater or a theater. You know, when I think of New York, I think of the Ridiculous Theater Company with Charles Ludlam. I think of my friend Herb Weitz’s bookstore, where he would play chess. Those things, it’s a big loss individually. You don’t have this individual connection. I mean, I used to go to a diner, it was just like I lived on 73rd Street, and they would know exactly what I wanted and I’d go in there and I didn’t even have to order.

CS: I’ve been in my neighborhood 20 years for that exact reason. I can just walk in and they know exactly what you want and you don’t have to wait, yeah.
Yeah, that’s it. You feel like, okay, it’s a little bit of home, or it’s become part of a community. I think that’s why I use the word “Fading.” I could’ve called it “Reluctant” or I could’ve called it whatever, but I thought, “a painting could fade, but then they could be restored.” I liked the idea of that, but yeah, so a lot of those places, Lester Cohen and there’s the location manager Ronnie Kupferwasser, he was fantastic. Ronnie found that old synagogue in Greenpoint, that’s fantastic, then we painted the bottom room where they do the dintora. Even if it’s a small synagogue, you feel it’s very individual. Somebody’s running it. It’s homey.

CS: You’ve been acting for a long time and have directed five movies, so is it generally easier to direct a movie where you’re also the lead?
Sometimes it is, sometimes. One less actor. If I had like two more weeks, it would’ve been very easy. The hardest thing was the shortness of the schedule, and also to try to make the movie look beautiful and light everyone beautifully and do a good job. Like Woody says, “It’s one less person to talk to,” so I don’t need to convince myself. The thing is sometimes when you get tense, sometimes you can bring that into a scene and it looks like you’re weighted down by all the other machinations. But overall, many times I do movies and people don’t tell me anything – maybe faster, slower, and I try to give them variations and stuff. Also, there are things that you want to explore as an actor. I actually love acting with women, and I don’t always get a chance. Over the years, I mean, I directed Kate Winslet. I’ve worked with Emily Watson. I’ve worked with Mary-Louise Parker. I’ve worked with Cate Blanchett. And I really like working with women, but it’s not that I don’t get a chance to do it, it’s just that movies don’t do it that much. Movies just don’t do it that often, and also, if you’re over 25 or 30, they certainly don’t do it. I like movies that are about that, I do. A lot of movies that I love, that is a part of the movie.

Fading Gigolo is now playing in select cities.