“I think the most interesting stuff being done is on television,” John Turturro, one of the most highly regarded character actors of his generation — he has been a regular in films ranging from those of Spike Lee and brothers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen to those of Adam Sandler and the Transformers franchise — says as we sit down at the Empire Hotel in New York to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “The types of films that were made in the 1970s are not being done [anymore],” he laments. “Mid-range, character-driven things.” This explains, at least partially, why Turturro wound up playing John Stone, a Manhattan criminal court attorney with health and hygiene issues who winds up defending a young Muslim man (Riz Ahmed) accused of murder, on Steven Zaillian‘s HBO limited series The Night Of, for which he’s nominated for the best actor in a limited series or movie Emmy. He adds, “The miniseries has always been an interesting form.”
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Turturro, who is of Italian-American descent, was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens. He first took seriously the prospect of an acting career when, at a young age, he saw a clip of Dustin Hoffman in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, back when it still was rare to see ethnic-looking actors in prominent screen roles. “I was shocked,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Wow, he looks like someone who’s in our family.” Turturro began acting himself during high school and then majored in drama at SUNY-New Paltz. After graduating, he landed a one-line role in Martin Scorsese‘s Raging Bull (1980), then briefly worked in other jobs (including as a substitute teacher) before ultimately pursuing his MFA at Yale, where he was cast in an unusual number of productions.
Shortly after entering the world of professional acting, Turturro began a long and fruitful collaboration with the playwright/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley and also popped up in small roles in films such as William Friedkin‘s To Live and Die in LA, Woody Allen‘s Hannah and Her Sisters, Scorsese’s The Color of Money and Michael Cimino‘s The Sicilian. His breakthrough screen role was in the Shanley-scripted Five Corners (1987), which brought him to the attention of Lee, with whom he developed an unusually close friendship and in whose films he became a regular, starting with Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and Jungle Fever (1991). Thanks in part to working so often with Lee, and in part to his own interests, race in America became a recurring theme in Turturro’s work early on, right through The Night Of.
The Coen brothers, meanwhile, had been aware of Turturro’s work for years — Joel’s wife Frances McDormand had gone to school with him and they often had seen him onstage — and they cast him in key parts in some of their earliest films that wound up putting them on the map, including Miller’s Crossing (1990) and, shortly thereafter, Barton Fink (1991). In the latter, the actor so effectively played a Clifford Odets-like tortured New York playwright turned Hollywood screenwriter that the film was awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or as well as its best director and best actor prizes. “Here [in the U.S.], it didn’t do huge [business],” Turturro recalls, “but people in the business saw it.” Among them: Robert Redford, who cast Turturro as Herb Stemple, a game show contestant who becomes a whistleblower of the quiz show scandals, in Quiz Show (1994), one of his finest performances. While promoting Quiz Show, Turturro hosted Saturday Night Live and met Adam Sandler. Years later, after Turturro had shown his comedy chops in a small but unforgettable turn in the Coens’ The Big Lebowski (1998), he became something of a regular in Sandler’s films, too.
The Big Lebowski remains one of Turturro’s most popular films — something he never imagined possible during the making of it or even after he saw it for the first time. “When I got the script, I was kind of disappointed,” he reveals. “I was like, ‘There’s nothing here!’ So then I thought, ‘I better make something up because they’re all talking about him!'” Egged on by the Coens, he came up with all sorts of business for his character — a competitive bowler named “The Jesus” who had been inspired by a character the Coens saw him play at The Public Theatre years ago — such as dancing, licking a bowling ball and shining it in a way that resembled masturbation. “The first time they showed [my scenes] to me,” he confesses, I was really embarrassed.” As for the overall production? “I didn’t even get the movie when it came out,” he confesses. “When I saw it, I thought [Jeff Bridges] was great, but it went over my head.” But, with the passage of time, it has grown on him, and he recently revisited it in Going Places, a Coens-authorized film that he directed and stars in as The Jesus, which will be unveiled later this year. “It’s a continuation of the character exploration,” he teases, “but it’s not a spinoff of The Big Lebowski. It’s much more sexual. You find out that he was framed [as a pedophile].”
Turturro had done TV before The Night Of — he won a guest acting Emmy for Monk in 2004 and anchored ESPN’s eight-part miniseries The Bronx Is Burning in 2007, among other projects — but he had never done anything quite like The Night Of. It began as a passion project of James Gandolfini, Turturro’s dear friend who died in 2013. Turturro was at Gandolfini’s wedding and funeral, and Gandolfini had starred in 2005’s Turturro-directed Romance & Cigarettes (and Turturro’s sister Aida had played Gandolfini’s sister on The Sopranos). And then the project fell stagnant after Gandolfini’s death. “When they came to me, I felt a little strange,” Turturro admits, but he was given the blessing of Gandolfini’s wife and managers to pursue it, spent time with actual lawyers, studied and imitated Yiddish-inflected voices of long ago and generally became enamored with the fictional Stone. “I just loved playing the character,” he says, “and if they want me to explore that again, I would.”