With over 60 pictures to his credit, actor-director John Turturro, purveyor of somewhat off-the-wall, idiosyncratic characters drawn largely from the margins of American life, has become an irreplaceable figure in American cinema. As you know if you’ve seen him act, the man is a true original. Whether playing a well-meaning misfit or a dyed-in-the-wool miscreant, he breathes distinction into each of his creations. And while Turturro lends his characters his own undeniable vitality, he never fails to imbue them with a life of their own. It’s this kind of honest reliability that has made him a regular collaborator with a host of other like-minded originals, including the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Peter Weir, William Friedkin and Woody Allen. From early performances in To Live and Die In L.A., Hannah and Her Sisters and The Color of Money, to more recent work in She Hate Me, Secret Window and Fear X, Turturro crisscrosses the varied landscape of independent and commercial cinema with equal aplomb. The son of a construction worker, Turturro fell in love with movies as a kid in Brooklyn, where he entertained friends and family with a talent for impressions and amateur theatrics. “If you were good at it,” he recalls, “people were always asking you to do this or that, and it grows from there.” After studying theater at SUNY at New Paltz, he earned his daily ration as a substitute teacher and construction worker. A few years of that and Turturro applied to the Yale Drama School, where he put in three years. Like many other aspiring performers, he performed in actor showcases, countless plays and worked with a variety of teachers. “By the time I actually started getting paid, I had put in maybe 10 years.” The always-busy Turturro had a number of projects in 2005, including a leading turn in Fear X, Nicolas Winding Refn’s minimalist and opaque adaptation of the Hubert Selby, Jr. thriller novel. He talked to MovieMaker while navigating through post-production on his third directorial effort, Romance and Cigarettes, from his base in New York City, where he lives with fellow actor Katherine Borowitz, his wife of nine years, and their two sons, Amedeo and Diego. We talked about his new work with Winding Refn and discussed the distinguished and singular journey that led one of our favorite actors into the director’s chair.

Phillip Williams (MM): What brought you to Fear X?

John Turturro (JT): I thought it was an interesting script. It needed work, but I liked Selby’s style. I saw Nicholas’ first film and thought it was interesting; then I met him and we worked on the script a bit. I’d never done a psychological thriller; it’s almost a character study. I’ve played a wide variety of characters, both dramatic and comic, and I liked playing someone who’s inward and quiet for a change. I enjoy doing that more now, because I’ve done so much “explosive” material. There was something freeing about it.

MM: You’ve played lead roles before, and you obviously do a lot of character work. Is the way you prepare any different when you are, in a sense, carrying a film?

JT: Yes, but I’ve done it a number of times now. It’s different; you’re sort of the anchor. With a smaller part, if you understand the demands of the script, sometimes you come in to surprise everybody, to throw a wrench into things. It depends what the film is, and its particular demands. In this one all the characters are muted in some way, and you have to be there every day. Sometimes it’s harder and sometimes it’s easier, because you can get into a good rhythm… It depends what the demands are, psychologically. If it’s emotional all day long, that can be wearing. (laughs) Usually, if you experience something emotional, it takes the day to recover. Even though what you’re doing isn’t “real,” you’re working in that frame of mind and it can fray your nerves.

MM: By intention or not, you are always associated with American independent film.

JT: I don’t even know what that means anymore. (laughing) All the “independent” companies are owned by majors! Once in a while, I’ll partake in a larger budgeted film, but obviously it’s something I could do a lot more of. Many times I’ve gotten offers to do that and what usually prevents me is I’m going to direct a movie or I’ve committed to doing a play. I don’t know… certainly my bank account would be fatter! Creatively, it’s not been my ambition [to be in a lot of commercial films]. But I’ve had opportunities. I’m not patting myself on the back, but ultimately you are who you are.

MM: I assume your involvement in independent cinema is more about your attraction to the material?

JT: Yes, I come from the theater. But listen, I’ve done a couple of Adam Sandler films. I like Adam, and he’s done some good stuff besides his comedies. You know, it’s fun to do one of those things; you get paid and you have a good time. But when you do some of these big movies you have to go away from home for a very long time, and I have kids. I’ve been around it a little bit, but I like working with people who excite me. Very often, with commercial films, you can see the whole thing right away and you think ‘I know what this is going to be.’ You kind of know what it’s going to be without even seeing it.

MM: What makes people like Spike Lee or the Coens distinctive or exciting to work with?

JT: Well, the Coens made commercial movies.

MM: Yes. I’ve always felt that the Coens are essentially classic filmmakers—it’s just that they tend to work with smaller budgets.

John Turturro

JT: Right. They kind of do what they want. They’ve branched out in the last couple of years. They did The Ladykillers with Tom Hanks… I mean, you have to make a living as you get older. You like working with a certain kind of person and with certain material. Coming from the theater, I’ve worked with a lot of new, good writers and a lot of classic, old, dead writers. Once you’re exposed to that kind of material, it feeds you. Not that I need to do it all the time, but you know what’s really good. I did Waiting for Godot with Tony Shalhoub Off-Broadway, and then I did his show [Monk]. It was so easy to work with Tony on his show, because we had done that play. Once you get a taste for certain types of things, it’s not that it’s hard to go back, but you know what that stuff is all about. Some of the people I’ve worked with—Robert Redford (Quiz Show), Francesco Rosi (The Truce), Peter Weir (Fearless)—those are people I’d work with again at the drop of a hat; they are real directors.

MM:Has it helped you, as a director, to have worked with so many talented directors?

JT: I have some advantage, because I’ve seen how some of these people work. A lot of directors have never been on other directors’ sets for any length of time. They’ll always ask me: ‘How does this guy do it?’

MM: Can you point to some of the things you do as a director that have been influenced by what you’ve seen others do?

JT: It could be preparation, it could be how to create an atmosphere. Many directors can’t block a scene—that’s something I’ve done a lot of myself over the years. I’ve directed myself in a lot of films, too. Sometimes people don’t really say much to you; you just do it. I like to rehearse. I like to storyboard. When I worked with Francesco Rosi—and the Coens, too—you go through every fabric and piece of material that your costume is going to be made out of, and talk about it, physically. By the time you get there, it’s very specific, and it’s better. Sometimes you’ll want to throw a wrench in there to make it more spontaneous. A lot of directors want to be that way, but they’re not. Peter Weir used to play music on the set and I’ve done that; I’ve always thought that was a great idea. I did that a little before working with him, but after that I’ve done it all the time. He plays music to get you in the mood. Sometimes if you have a scene where you have to be emotional, and there’s no dialogue, as an actor I’ll say I want a piece of music on. It makes me feel something. I did that a lot in Fear X; I had them play music all the time, because a lot of the time I’m not talking.

MM: Can you talk a bit more about making things “specific” when you’re creating a character or approaching a scene?

JT: It means that every detail—whether it’s the cast, the costuming or a character’s posture—is important. It could be a photograph that inspires you, or a drawing. It all adds up, every little stitch. You might say, ‘Maybe the character would button his coat this way…’ And then you have to get used to that so you’re relaxed doing it.

MM: What was the genesis of your current project, Romance and Cigarettes? How do you begin the creative process as a director?

JT: It started with the script. I thought about it for a long time. I jotted down ideas every couple of years. Eventually, when I had a lot of material and decided that I’d found the right approach, a light bulb went off in my head. I did a lot of music research for it and then just sat down—this was after many years—and wrote it. I needed to shape it a little bit, but it was there. I sat on it for such a long time that it just came out. It was like, ‘Wow, this really has a life of its own.’

MM: It’s interesting that we often worry whether we’re being productive enough, yet so often you hear about artists sitting on things for years. That gestation period sometimes seems to be what’s necessary.

JT: Yes, I think it is. Some of it comes from things you observe, some of it comes from your imaginative life and some comes from where you’re at, aesthetically. For some people who don’t allow that time, it seems as though they’re spinning their wheels for a couple of projects. Then they get it and they go somewhere new. I do other things, so I don’t have to do one film after another. Sometimes people make one great film and that’s it. You even see great directors grappling for material that they have a special insight into; even though they are great directors, they can run out of material.

MM: You basically have to fall back on a level of craft or preparation, because the inspiration may not come when you need it.

JT: You have to really prepare. Inspiration comes out of that stuff. You can say, ‘I have a great idea because I did all this other stuff.’ I’ve rarely seen inspiration come out of nowhere. I’ve rarely seen that work—and I’ve done a lot of films.

MM: Can you talk about some of the strengths you’ve observed in the directors you’ve worked with?

JT: Some like to be surprised. Joel and Ethan are meticulous; they’ ll discuss minutiae with you. Some, like Spike [Lee], I haven’t worked with in a detailed way for many years. He’s like, “What are you going to bring?” He wants people to improvise in rehearsal and kind of incorporate that. Maybe he prefers more of a jazz kind of approach. But that’s exciting, too. Some, like Francesco Rosi, go through the scene with me as another actor, sometimes switching roles. He was wonderful. I learned a lot from him. I’ve worked with Robert Redford, who is very precise with little things. He’d give you great little activities to do as an actor to set the scene. He’s very aware of how that helps you. He was a really good theater actor in his day, and I’m sure he could have gone back to it. He certainly appreciated people who have a certain amount of craft.

MM: Since you don’t necessarily want to tell an actor ‘Do this’?

JT: If you give them something to do, and there is an obstacle, and someone else is not giving them what they want too easily, then they can create the feeling or mood you want. But telling someone, “This is the result I want” is like saying “I want you to like me versus doing things to get someone to like you,” whether it’s to be charming or surprising or intimate. You have to find active things to do.

MM: And when you’re the director…

Kate Winslet

JT: Sometimes I don’t say anything, because you can tell they understand right away. A lot of times a brilliant choice comes from the actor. I just worked with Kate Winslet on Romance and Cigarettes; I had a great cast and there are some wonderful performances. Kate did some great things in it that I didn’t ask her to do at all, but they were just so funny and specific for her character. I don’t remember saying, ‘You should clean your teeth when you’re talking to the guy,’ but I would just give her things to do—’Eat a piece of chicken here.’ (laughs)

MM: Do you ever have to be authoritarian as a director?

JT: If someone is really off-the-mark you may have to say, ‘That’s interesting, but this is really what the scene is about.’ Sometimes an actor will go on about what they want it to be about instead of serving the scene. You have to get them focused on the right thing. If they’re floundering, you try to help them.

MM: I recall hearing Scorsese talking about the many demands placed upon a director and how, on top of all that, you have to make sure people are having fun.

JT: You see it in his movies; people really crack up, they’re full of life, there are a variety of emotions. There’s something to be said for that. I’ve been on a lot of sets that are really sterile and you’re treated like a machine. You almost feel like you are an addendum, an inconvenience. It’s important to create an atmosphere where everyone is relaxed. Sometimes the sound guy will make a great suggestion. Everyone needs to know the right channels to go through, but it’s nice when there is a team of people working together. I try to do that, even as an actor, because you are working together. If the focus puller makes a mistake, it’s no good. But actors are taught to work with technicians and vice versa. It can be a lot of fun if you have the right group.

MM: Do you find a commonality between the great directors you’ve worked with?

JT: They’re all different, really. But I definitely think the capacity to understand the whole thing—the music, the shot, the costume, the dialogue, the actors—to have an understanding of the whole picture is an advantage. Each one does it in a different way, with different means. They don’t all have the same amount of time, or the same amount of help. Creating an atmosphere is very important. I’ve been on movies with big stars and sometimes all the energy just goes to one person and they may say something and everybody laughs, but it’s very artificial. I find that very tiring, I have to say. I like it when there is less of that. (laughs)

MM: For you, is the future directing?

JT: I can’t say until I finish Romance and Cigarettes. It’s been the biggest thing I’ve ever done and I feel, hopefully, it’s a step forward. I’d like to do more. It’s very challenging, but I’ve gone back to it, so I must like it. Some people try it one time and say, ‘Never again!’ (laughs) You have to have something driving you, something you want to say, something you feel passionate about. People seem to like working with me, and I like doing it. Sometimes it would be nice to have a little more money. This was a big film and I’ve had to make it for a modest amount. That puts a bigger strain on you—much bigger. And it’s not over yet. But I’m pretty happy with what I’m seeing. I’m fortunate to be able to do it, so I’m thankful about that.