John Turturro Talks 'Fading Gigolo', His Inspirations, and Hardest Roles

The veteran actor's latest project recalls another New York filmmaker, his co-star Woody Allen.

(Millenium Entertainment)
(Millenium Entertainment)

In Fading Gigolo, John Turturro plays the prostitute in question. He directed the film and cast his old buddy Woody Allen to star alongside him. The result is a very Allen-esque portrait of New York (Brooklyn, to be exact) as the two actors play friends who decide to get into the pimp game despite their obviously advanced ages. 

Writing for Allen was a big part of Turturro's construction of the film. But in speaking with him, it was apparent he delved into many influences to get the movie he wanted. 

For Turturro, Fading Gigolo was a chance to create something with a certain nuance, something funny but also tender. We sat down with the respected actor and filmmaker in San Francisco recently about that sentiment and how music was especially important to him before and during the making of the movie. But Turturro is so prolific it was impossible not to probe him about his inspirations, his past roles, and which of them were especially challenging to get through.  

Zimbio: When you were setting out to make Fading Gigolo, what kind of movie did you want to make?

John Turturro: Well, it's hard to apply a giant brushstroke before, but when I was writing it and came up with the idea, I discussed it with Woody Allen and Woody encouraged me to make it as nuanced and as sophisticated as possible and not go for a real broad, shocking type of hook and have something that couldn't sustain itself. So I really had to go in depth to the different worlds that I represent in the film. And I definitely think the music was helpful to that because I play a lot of music as I was writing it. Gene Ammons' Boss Tenor, that album I used a lot of songs from that including the title track, "Canadian Sunset," a really beautiful piece that kind of invites you into this world. It's delicate but it's bouncy and it doesn't dictate the way you feel. So that was very helpful and now it's part of the movie and CD. And then there's this woman Dalida, who I bought a CD of on the streets of Paris, who's a very famous singer. And I also used a couple of her songs in the movie. She's kind of the voice of it and Gene Ammons is the soul. But I wanted something that would be nuanced, that would have humor to it but also delicacy. And I like to use music that's counter-pointal (sic), I don't like to use music that scores what the actor's doing—that repeats what the actor's doing.

John Turturro Talks 'Fading Gigolo', His Inspirations, and Hardest Roles
Woody Allen and John Turturro in Fading Gigolo. (Millenium Entertainment)

That doesn't dictate...

That's right. So the film gets deeper as it goes along and we try to find that balance, of the humor and the tenderness. That's tricky to do. It's not easy to do, so hopefully we've succeeded.

What movies from film history were reference points for you, did you look at anything before?

Midnight Cowboy I've always loved, although this has nothing to do with that, that's really the dark side. A movie like Shampoo, which wasn't about being paid for sex but it was about a guy who was servicing all these women all the time. He's obviously, you know, a haircutter, but that had an interesting tone. But you can't really... there are a lot of films made about street walkers throughout history, a lot of great directors. One of my favorite films is Nights of Cabiria, the Fellini movie and I've always been interested in that but you can't imitate another film you can only let it encourage you, or maybe you'll take the color palette from it or something like that, which I didn't. Sometimes you're looking at films that have nothing to do with it at all like The Conformist, which everybody looks at, I think, for color references. But I had the photographer Saul Leiter, I used a lot of his street photographs as a color palette and Morandi, the wonderful Italian still life painter for the colors of all the walls and things so you know, you have all different references... When i was writing for Woody, maybe I looked at Broadway Danny Rose one time, but I know Woody and worked with him in the theater. It was a two year process so it was very helpful getting to know him because I was writing for him.

You had a small role in Hannah and Her Sisters...

I like things that have complexity, that have humor and humanity too. I think that's what life is like. It's not all one thing.

Yeah, but I also did something else with Woody called Company Man and I was maybe going to do another film. I knew he liked me and I'd never done a big role for him but he liked the idea and like I said, in the middle of it we worked in the theater together on Broadway when I directed these plays ("Relatively Speaking"), one of which he had written. The other two were by Elaine May and Ethan Coen. So that was a good experience for me because I got to know him. And I think some of our relationship is reflected in the film. 

I think so, where did you guys first meet?

I guess in the '80s, around Hannah. That was the first time I'd ever met him. 

Changing up a little bit, you've had some huge scenes in movies over the years. Could you talk about which scene sticks out in your memory as especially hard to get through for you?

I don't know, I mean everyone always talks about Miller's Crossing, but I've done so many things that have been difficult. I guess if there was a scene that would probably be the scene that people talk about because it's so well-edited and structured and stuff...

John Turturro Talks 'Fading Gigolo', His Inspirations, and Hardest Roles
(Millenium Entertianment)

The "look into your heart" scene.

...But as far as roles go and things like that sometimes it's hard to say "a scene" because things are cumulative within a film...

What role would you say?

The movie I made The Truce, that's something that's really close to my heart. There are lots of things. I made maybe—and it may not be, in total, one of the best things I was ever in—but I did The Bronx is Burning where I played (former Yankee manager) Billy Martin and people really liked that including his son and all his former players and I really loved doing that because I was fascinated by Billy Martin and I wanted to do a good job for him. That was something, a really big experience for me to do.

John Turturro Talks 'Fading Gigolo', His Inspirations, and Hardest Roles
Turturro in The Bronx is Burning. (HBO)

He's an interesting character, you're a Yankee fan?

Yeah a fascinating guy. Yeah I'm a Yankee fan and I actually like the A's too and I know he's from Oakland. He's just a very unique and complicated individual and also kind of naked in many ways. There's lots of things, other things that weren't made for real people or based on real people, the work I've done with the Coen brothers, or Spike, Quiz Show, there's lots of things.

Yeah I love Herbie Stempel (from Quiz Show).

But that was based on a real guy and that had a lot to do with Herb.

Do you enjoy playing extrovert characters more?

No, sometimes it's a bore to do the same thing. I like things that are complicated. When you're doing something that's purely comedic, you have to use a tremendous amount of energy and sometimes it's more rewarding later when you see it. Like the character I play in this movie, he's a real taciturn guy. He could be a cowboy and that's hard to do. Unless that's all you do, some people they play it very close, their characters don't vary that much. I like things that have complexity, that have humor and humanity too. I think that's what life is like. It's not all one thing.

Great, thank you so much Mr. Turturro.

Thank you.

See the full interview below:

Managing Editor, Zimbio — entertainment writer, critic, and reporter since 2011. Bay Area. Origin: Shark City.