MIAMI -- When you think of the long career of actor John Turturro, his many associations with Spike Lee -- from "Do the Right Thing" to "Clockers" to "He Got Game," eight films stretching back to the ‘80s -- should be the first movies to come to mind.
Or maybe it’s the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" connection, his four films with the Coen brothers, including "The Big Lebowsky" and "Miller’s Crossing." But he’s also worked with Woody Allen, and that’s what led to his latest -- "Fading Gigolo." Turturro not only stars in it, he turned the tables on his "Hannah and Her Sisters" director by writing and directing a film in which, as The Guardian newspaper noted, "Turturro has given Allen his biggest and best on-screen turn in years."
"We’d always talked about doing something together again," Turturro, 57, says of Allen, 78. So Turturro cooked up a comedy about a Brooklyn Jack-of-all-trades that he’d play, with Allen as his boss at a rare book shop. The wisecracking boss becomes, sort of by accident, the younger man’s pimp.
"Actors have to reinvent themselves a lot," Turturro says. "And that’s a lot more common in the world at large, now. People have to change who they are to be viable, to make a living. That is something that we wanted to get into the movie. Woody’s character is a guy whose business is out of date. My character is comfortable with women, so out of necessity, these two friends both re-invent themselves."
Allen "gave me a lot of constructive criticism and feedback" as Turturro dug into what would be his fifth film as director. And with Allen on board, lining up a supporting cast became a breeze.
Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara play women who want to enjoy the Turturro character’s company at the same time. French actress Vanessa Paradis plays the widow of a Hassidic rabbi who needs a man’s touch to lift her out of her mourning. Liev Schreiber is a fellow Orthodox Jew who longs to make the Paradis character part of his life. Bob Balaban’s a fussy lawyer, Jill Scott plays Allen’s character’s wife.
"People will do you a favor when you’re an actor and you’re casting an indie film, sure," Turturro says. "They knew Woody and I would be in it. Which helped. But if the material is good, they want to do the movie. Actors like being around other good people, too."
Turturro knows New York well enough to make the city’s Hassidic subculture a major setting and component for the film. In "Fading Gigolo," as Fioravante (Turturro) spends more time with the rabbi’s widow, Schreiber’s character uses his city-sanctioned Orthodox citizen policeman status to harass and eventually kidnap Allen’s pimp for a comical Hassidic Inquisition.
The Italian-American Turturro has taken heat in the New York press for his portrayals of Jewish characters ("Mo Better Blues"). Was he worried about crossing the line with the Orthodox Jewry of New York?
"I poke fun at everybody," he says. "I think the film is very respectful of the Orthodox community. I did a lot of research on it to get a candid and fair depiction of that world. Nobody comes off as a buffoon."
But he laughs when he remembers the ace up his sleeve. "Besides, people in the Hassidic community, they don’t go to the movies!"
The film’s uneven blend of romantic longing and ribald sexuality, family farce (Allen’s mixed-race/vast age difference household has him teaching small black children how to play baseball) and wistful mourning is earning "Fading Gigolo" mixed reviews. "At times the movie’s a mess, but it goes to such special places that you don’t mind," The Boston Globe noted in a typical notice.
But that’s fine with Turturro. He embraces the messiness of this world and the movie he made from it.
"Most movies don’t have a lot to do with life. I like making movies that do."