In Conversation: John Turturro

Henry: About five months back, in the span of about two weeks, I watched Do the Right Thing, Raging Bull, the Transformers franchise, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Mr. Deeds, and I had this realization that I guess I’ve had before but never so strongly, that John Turturro is one of the most incredible actors working today or ever. He’s made multiple films with Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and the Coen brothers, among others of the most acclaimed directors of his lifetime, and effortlessly glided between a wide range of roles in those films, but he’s also taken on a slew of Adam Sandler comedies and big budget franchise films where he is almost always the high point. Few performers have a filmography as diverse as his and he’s been in something to appeal to any viewer and made so many supporting roles into unforgettable parts, and yet, even with an Emmy and awards from Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, he’s never fully gotten the recognition I think he’s due as one of Hollywood’s best. When we have these yearly talks about people being overdue for awards, I think it’s time we start talking about Turturro. But, being unable to vote for who gets Oscars, I thought I’d start with an In Conversation piece on Cinema Etc.

Kern: Often, the trajectory toward recognition and awards begins with us, so other actors and filmmakers should take note! No, but really John Turturro is incredible in how he can seamlessly fit into any film, in any genre, and often you barely make note of it being him. He’s like a chameleon, while simultaneously elevating anything he’s in. Most recently, I saw him in HBO miniseries The Plot Against America and he’s characteristically excellent in an extremely complex demanding role of a Jewish Rabbi who is allured by the glamour of political gain into supporting a fascist ruler. And then, like you said, you turn a corner and he’s a CIA agent (or whatever, I don’t remember) in the Transformers franchise, still giving it his all. I used to give Nicolas Cage a lot of credit for committing to a role no matter how small or dumb the film is, but that doesn’t hold true anymore, so maybe it’s time I move on to singing Turturro’s praises. I’ve got a few roles of his in lesser known films that I really love, but before we get there, since you’ve seen a lot of stuff he’s been in recently, are there a couple of roles in there you find him particularly strong or interesting in?

Bumblebee peeing on John Turturro propelled Lindsay Ellis to film criticism  greatness

Henry: Honestly the role that I think exemplifies his prowess as an actor best is Seymour Simmons in the Transformers films. That’s not to say that he hasn’t been better elsewhere, obviously the Transformers films aren’t really my idea of great cinema despite what Vincent may have argued in his column, but appearing in four of the films, Turturro was the high point of the franchise for me and most of what made them tolerable and even enjoyable at times. He goes on this wild trajectory from being this big secret government official who also ends up the butt of a few jokes in the first movie to a dude running a sandwich shop with his mother while talking about crazy conspiracy theories that have a basis in truth in the second to a celebrity and hero in the third then skips the fourth and shows up in the fifth film having been exiled to Cuba after supporting the Transformers. It’s the same character throughout and he’s always humorous and pestering and knowing what they need to know but he takes this guy through so many weird steps that aren’t shown on screen or really explained in the dialogue but he always makes it somehow believable and somehow the only time in the films where I was like yeah this makes sense was when he was first on screen in some unpredictable new station in life. Apart from that, though he’s excellent everywhere, I think where he’s best is in the Coen Brothers’ filmography. Certain actors just seem to latch onto their style and writing better than others, and that’s probably why they end up with a familiar cast most of the time, and Turturro is among the best of them. He won his Best Actor award at Cannes for his incredible turn in Barton Fink, was the best part of Miller’s Crossing, seamlessly fit in with other perfect fits for the Coens like George Clooney, John Goodman, and Tim Blake Nelson in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and turned in probably his most memorable performance in The Big Lebowski as Jesus Quintana. Every one of those roles is wildly different despite coming from the same writers and the same actor and is really a testament to the strength of all parties involved.

Kern: Good to know if I ever decide to finally get around to the other 3 Transformers movies, I have some light in the darkness to look forward to. Another film for me where he’s easily the key element holding it together for me is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X, a really dull would-be heady psychological thriller. Aside from the typical Refn-isms it’s pretty generic top to bottom, but Turturro brings a lot of internalized anguish to the main character which makes it at least watchable (and it’s just nice to see him in a lead performance). I’d definitely agree that there’s something about his onscreen presence and eccentric energy that perfectly suits the Coen brothers. I haven’t seen Barton Fink in years but so many moments stick in my mind still to this day. But the performance I always go to is his in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, a movie that I’ve always found to be underrated. He plays the reigning champ of a television quiz show who gets goaded by the network into intentionally getting a question wrong so they can replace him and get better ratings. He’s a character with so much pride and you can sense his internal conflict having to relent to the station’s demands, and that’s really just the start of his character’s journey in the film. Redford is great actor’s director (Ralph Fiennes is amazing in it as well) and it shows. I know you’ve seen it and enjoyed it, but I encourage others to give it a shot. It’s one I go back to frequently. I know you’re a huge Adam Sandler fan so did you want to talk a bit about his work in Mr. Deeds? I haven’t seen it since it came out in theaters and I remember him getting the most laughs out of me (I wasn’t a huge Sandler fan at the time, surprisingly). Or are there any other Turturro roles you think are unsung?

Henry: Quiz Show is great and it’s a shame it gets lost in the shuffle because of the amount of other films from 1994 that get talked up a lot, though it was the role that got Turturro his only Golden Globe nomination for a performance in a film. In Mr. Deeds, he was definitely the funniest guy even though I am an Adam Sandler fan and will watch any of his movies and laugh at them every time. It’s another of those roles where he’s delightfully weird in the way only Turturro can be without alienating the audience. He’s done three other Sandler films since and been a blast to watch in all of them but his turn as the butler turned billionaire who sneaks up on people and loves feet in Mr. Deeds is by far the most memorable. As for other roles that are unsung, I would say all of them if we had the time for that because he’s truly spectacular but I did realize that in 2008-2009, he did back to back roles in a Barry Levinson film, an Adam Sandler comedy, and a Spike Lee joint, before working with Tony Scott then going back to Transformers. And in literally every one of those he was absolutely my favorite part of the film, even when he only had a small role. One area where he has received a bit more critical attention is for his television roles. I don’t watch much television in general so it’s an area where I can’t really speak much to what he’s done, though I assume Turturro is fantastic as ever on the small screen, but I know you mentioned his role in The Plot Against America earlier. Have you seen much else of his television work?

Kern: The only other thing I’ve seen of his TV work is the HBO miniseries The Night Of, which is also worth checking out. Riz Ahmed ends up being the real breakout star from it, but Turturro and Bill Camp are great as well. From memory, Turturro plays an embittered defense attorney who reluctantly takes on Riz Ahmed’s case after Ahmed is charged with murder. It’s a pretty perfect role for Turturro who channels that kind of “downtrodden but still won’t give up” energy perfectly. The show starts out following Ahmed’s character, but at a certain point it really feels like Turturro becomes the lead. I’d definitely recommend both of those shows, especially because they’re quick binges: The Night Of is 8 episodes and The Plot Against America is only 6. I’d love it if he became somewhat of an HBO miniseries regular.

Henry: He seems to have taken a path sorta like Steve Buscemi with a plethora of great roles (sometimes in the same films) before moving more to television, though with plenty of films still in there, and it’s definitely a path that’s led to more recognition and some great roles for Buscemi so I’d also love to see Turturro get more of an HBO regular status or just take more roles in general and hopefully get some of the same benefits. I know he did a miniseries based on The Name of the Rose, which is one of my favorite books, and I really need to get around to watching it and the version where Sean Connery played the same character.

We’ve talked a lot about Turturro’s performances but something that I think gets overlooked is that he’s also a writer and director with a handful of features. I think Fading Gigolo is the only one I’ve seen and honestly I didn’t love it but there was definitely some promise in there. This year he had another with The Jesus Rolls which I unfortunately missed as I was living in London when it came out in America and I was back in America before it was in London but even with a generally tepid reaction to it from those who did see it, it’s something I want to check out sometime. Have you seen any of what he’s done behind the camera?

Kern: I honestly forgot The Jesus Rolls was a thing that currently exists. Typically I’d have 0 interest, even with Turturro attached but the cast is insane. I’ll let you brave those waters first though. I haven’t seen anything he’s written or directed, though I remember being intrigued by the divisive reaction to Romance and Cigarettes when it came out, but I’m not a musical guy so I skipped it. You’ve got to give the guy credit for consistently putting out these passion projects, and he must be a delight to work with because he always attracts ridiculously talented casts. I’m always fascinated by actor-turned-filmmakers so let me know if you get around to watching any of Turturro’s films.

Henry: It looks like almost of them are free on Tubi, Vudu, and Amazon Prime so maybe that’ll be a new quick project for me and I’ll put my watching tv shows people actually watch on hold for a bit.

Kern: That’ll only take you a half day, you’ll be back to binging Ozark by tomorrow. Wyatt….why dude….why….

In Conversation

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