John Turturro on being pimped out by Woody Allen

The actor-director talks about his sad, sweet New York love letter "Fading Gigolo," and his controversial costar

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 17, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Woody Allen and John Turturro in "Fading Gigolo"     (AP/JoJo Whilden)
Woody Allen and John Turturro in "Fading Gigolo" (AP/JoJo Whilden)

If you get stuck on the premise of John Turturro’s “Fading Gigolo,” or on its cast, it might sound ludicrous: Turturro plays a semi-employed New York florist named Fioravante, who gets pimped out to Manhattan society women by his best friend Murray, a failed bookstore proprietor played by Woody Allen. But if you can get past that somewhat implausible scenario, along with the ripple effect of Allen’s unwanted return to the tabloids this year, “Fading Gigolo” isn’t a sex farce at all, but rather a sweet and sad romantic comedy whose true love object is the fast-fading New York of Turturro’s (and Allen’s) memories.

Fioravante is a mysterious character with no visible connections or past – in some ways, he’s like a person from the past. He picks up his dry cleaning wrapped in brown paper packages and orders egg creams at the diner on the corner, much the way people did in Turturro’s outer-borough childhood in the 1950s and ‘60s. (He was born in Brooklyn, where he lives now, but mostly grew up in Rosedale, Queens.) Murray, his irreverent comic foil, has been forced to close his rare-book emporium, hardly a surprise in a city whose commercial spaces are increasingly dominated by banks, chain drugstores and expensive restaurants. But both of these guys are also thrust into the changing social climate of 21st-century New York: Murray has a Bill de Blasio-style mixed-race family (in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood), with an African-American girlfriend and black kids. (Yes, there’s something inherently comic about seeing Woody Allen in that situation.) And Fioravante learns for the first time that his quiet, sensitive version of masculinity might be a marketable commodity among women of a certain age with ample means.

This uncertain gigolo’s client list begins with charming but brief appearances from Sharon Stone and Sofía Vergara, but when Murray sets up Fioravante with a beautiful Hasidic widow named Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) the film finally generates some mysterious erotic power, without depicting any sexual activity at all. It’s never entirely clear whether Avigal understands what services Fioravante performs for other women, or whether that’s what she wants. But she knows full well that she is transgressing the norms of her community merely by going to his house and eating a meal alone with him, let alone allowing him to touch her. This is a potent screen love affair where every gesture is freighted with significance, one that brings the submerged themes of loss, change, renunciation and reconciliation to the surface of “Fading Gigolo” without needing to express them in words.

I’ve been a fan of Turturro’s slow-brewing directing career since he made “Mac” in 1992, and all his films possess a strange and delicate magic, along with an intense reverence for the cinematic and cultural past. As one of the most accomplished stage and screen actors of our time, it’s no surprise that he provokes his cast to do the unexpected. (If you’ve never seen his insane and thoroughly delightful karaoke musical from 2006, “Romance and Cigarettes,” with James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon atop an amazing ensemble, you need to remedy that immediately.) He hasn’t modulated the mixture perfectly in “Fading Gigolo,” and I'm pretty sure he knows that. During our recent conversation over coffee and water in a lower Manhattan hotel, Turturro repeatedly referred to the movie as “little” or “small,” and told me he didn’t get enough time to shoot with Stone and Vergara, whose characters feel thinly sketched and not quite necessary. The movie went through a long process of rewriting and editing that reflects the way it begins as one kind of story and ends as another.

Even so, “Fading Gigolo” evinces a wistful, delicate sensibility that is almost entirely absent from contemporary American cinema; see it with the right expectations, and you’ll be charmed and then swept away. It’s a lovely visual and sensual tribute to Turturro's native city, both as it was and as it is, shot on actual 35mm film by Italian cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo. Whatever you make of Woody Allen as a person or a parent – and, after all, none of us is in any position to judge -- it’s an unexpected delight to see him set free as a character actor in someone else’s movie.

I talked to Turturro about Allen – and about people’s desire to talk to him about Allen -- but I never directly brought up Dylan Farrow’s renewed allegations that Allen molested her when she was a little girl. Was I buttering up a celebrity whom I know slightly and whose work I admire? Or would it have been obnoxious and uncivil to raise an issue that Turturro cannot possibly know anything about, concerning a person he knows as an artistic collaborator? You can make your own judgment about that, of course, but it struck me that Woody Allen’s past behavior, whatever it was, has no obvious relevance to his friendship with Turturro or his performance in this film, and even less to the delicate spiderweb of Eros, religion and community – of love and loss – that Turturro tries to weave in “Fading Gigolo.”

So how do people approach the question of getting you to talk about Woody Allen? Are they being clever about it?

Not really. Usually they ask me about why and how I came up with this idea, making a movie with Woody. It’s actually pretty simple, you know. He liked me, I liked him, and we shared a haircutter.

That’s how it started? In the barber shop?

It’s the truth. The guy that would cut my hair would say, “You know, Woody likes you.” And I said, OK, I could work with him in one of his movies. Then I thought, you know, it would be interesting for us to be together. I’ve really never seen Woody act with someone like me, my type of guy. I thought, well, we’re different enough, we’re ethnically a little different but similar in some ways, and we’re really different size-wise. Maybe we could have a good chemistry. So when I floated the idea, my haircutter floated it out to him, and he really jumped on it. He said, “Hey, I like this idea, I like your work. Do you have a script?” And I said no, I just have this idea: We’re in this business, this unusual line of work. Maybe we’re pushed into it because of our financial circumstances, or maybe we’re trying to get out of it.

I have a friend, a good friend, who ran a rare bookstore. He had a young black girlfriend, with kids. And then they closed the store, like they close all these stores. My God, you search around for a little shop that you like, a CD store or a bookstore, you know? A place you can go play chess. I was thinking, well, maybe that could be interesting. In the first drafts, I had all these different ideas, and it was too broad. Woody, even if he didn’t like it, he said to me, “I just don’t buy this, this and that, but I like these things.” So I went back and did all these rewrites, he wanted something more sophisticated and nuanced. Because I didn’t know what he would want, and I didn’t really know what I would want yet. And then as I got into the research about [prostitution], he offered me the chance to direct him in a play [“Honeymoon Motel”]. And that’s how I got to know him. I did auditions with him. I did rehearsals, previews.

And then, when we got to the last few drafts he was like, “Wow, these are all good,” and then he gave me specific notes, you know, maybe you could make it shorter. I started to put in all that stuff about the Hasidic community, because I wanted to choose a religion. When he saw where that was going, he said, “I don’t know anything about that, but that is really potent. Have you ever read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories?” I said yeah, but I went and read some more. My friend knew some people in a group of people who have left the Hasidic community. I met with them and I got very involved with it.

That’s when the whole idea started to resonate with me. I’d think about, you know, the whole thing becoming much more delicate and nuanced. I was thinking of my guy, Fioravante, as a quiet physical guy, a regular man. Not a beautiful guy but like a confident guy, not cocky. Like a guy who grew up with his mom, but without a dad, who could see his mother as a person. Who’s comfortable, and likes women, but never trusted the longevity of a commitment. And I thought, well, I know some people like that, very good with their hands. He’s, you know, the samurai as a florist! That type of thing. A guy who’s just in his body. And there’s no doubt I was thinking of some of Woody’s movies, where Woody was the romantic guy. I remember always being surprised and delighted: Like, good. It’s not perfection. As you know, I’m interested in sex and I’m interested in religion, and this developed very slowly out of that.

Then I cast Vanessa Paradis [as Avigal], and what she brought to it far exceeded what I thought or expected. She’s just so innately delicate and graceful. I saw her with Woody early on, and I was like, wow. This has potency. It was in the script and people responded to it. But I said this is even more delicate. Maybe one of the reasons I like films about that world, streetwalkers and prostitutes, is that there’s an exchange that goes on, a real exchange. And sometimes that can be a positive thing. Usually it’s shown the other way, and I wasn’t that interested in that for this little movie. This tale is about the idea of people of a certain age having to reinvent themselves, which people have to do. And being in a situation that they’ve never been in before.

All of a sudden you’re an adult in an 18-year-old’s situation: How do I do this? I’ve never performed sexually for money and she’s never paid someone. She doesn’t have to pay someone! She’s just trying to do something with no strings attached. But even when money’s exchanged sometimes there are feelings. To me it’s a movie about the way people unceasingly need intimacy. And to get back to Woody, what I hoped for was you would see this relationship between us that’s real. What you see is our relationship, in a way, in imaginary circumstances. We’re acting and stuff, but the ease of what goes on very much comes from the two years that we spent together. That’s what I hoped for, and when we cut it, I could see it. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gotten to know each other. I would have been too intimidated by him. Even in the first hour, I was like, “OK, does he know his lines? I gotta talk to him. I gotta tell him, if he changes a line, whether that’s OK or not OK.” And then he was very easy. He was like a prince. He was great. He was very good off-camera, on-camera, with the kids, everybody.

There are a lot of things there I want to get back to, but one that didn’t strike me until right now is that you and Woody sound a lot alike. You have similar speech patterns, similar accents. Obviously you’re a lot younger, you’re from different ethnic backgrounds, you’re physically very different. But you’re both New Yorkers from – forgive me for this! – a bygone era. You have that particular outer-borough sound that belongs more and more to the past. And that really resonates with the themes of the movie.

Yes. Woody’s never worked to lose that, but he’s certainly lost that as a writer. I’ve had to do that as an actor in lots of roles. But yes, that’s true, because the old New York sound comes from a different immigration group, and you do see that going away. I mean, my mother is Sicilian, she was raised by Irish nuns, she grew up in a neighborhood where she knew a lot of Yiddish. She’d go to the store and her girlfriends spoke Yiddish, and there were Jewish people who could speak Italian.

I love that dynamic. My dad was an Irish immigrant in the Bronx who grew up to become a linguist. He always said that started when he learned to read the Ukrainian signs in his neighborhood, because he was surrounded by Eastern European Jews.

That’s it. He’s an Irish person who could order something in Ukrainian. When you read about James Cagney, he said he could speak enough Yiddish to get things in the neighborhood store. So yes, I think that different groups come in and everything changes. I could have called it “Reluctant Gigolo,” but I like the idea of these old images fading, and then sometimes they’re restored. You see young kids now, who go to the farmer’s market dressed like Woody Guthrie! I used to buy secondhand clothes in the ‘70s, but that was from my parents’ generation, so even though it was far away from me, it was still within the realm. All these things today, like slow cooking, our grandparents were doing this stuff. I thought that could be a nice little element here, without hitting it over the head.

Right. I noticed a lot of stuff in the film that felt like tributes to the past. Fioravante gets his dry cleaning back from the store in a paper package. I haven’t personally seen that since the ‘80s. Maybe you can still get it done somewhere.

That’s how it is in that particular shop! I tried to find those establishments that still exist. And I went in there and checked it out: “Oh, you have the paper!”

He orders an egg cream. Those haven’t come back yet, not even in quotation marks. I’m sure a lot of young New Yorkers don’t even know what that is.

That’s right. And so you cover a little bit of history like bookbinding, or the history of women reading. That’s part of knowing what went on before you. I have some appreciation of that. That diner, I think it’s at 82nd and Lexington, they make fantastic egg creams. And they have loyal customers. It was really hard to shoot in there because it was so small. But that’s the right place.

On the other side of it, having Woody have an interracial family, like a Bill de Blasio family – which is inherently very funny -- and having the Hasidic community play such a large role in the film, those feel like more contemporary references. That’s the present, not the past.

Yeah, they’re all butted up against each other. This is the world we live in. Sometimes they intermingle and sometimes they don’t. Like when the kid says, “OK, let’s play baseball: blacks against whites!”

That’s very funny, and very uncomfortable.

And Woody’s like, “No, we can’t do this. We have to do a rainbow coalition.” I really did find Hasidic baseball teams in Brooklyn. They learn the game when they’re older, so they struggle. They’re not as good as the kids who learn when they’re 7 or 8. The more research I did, the crazier and the more complex and the more interesting it was. Sometimes you try to put things in movies, and people go, “Well, that’s ridiculous.” I showed Woody certain things and he was like, that’s unbelievable, this can’t happen. They have more than one police force in the Hasidic community, who are like rivals. One guy will send Christian music into the other guy’s radio, or they curse each other out. Woody was like, “This is interesting – maybe we could do it if the movie was a little longer.” [Laughter.]

Now, I would assume that very few people in the Hasidic community will see this. They generally don’t go to movies.

That’s right, but Orthodox people have seen it. People who used to be in the Hasidic community have seen it. I tried to be respectful. I tried to say that there are people who want to leave and not leave, and choose something in between. I think it’s too easy to be dismissive of things. And there are a lot of religions that have made all sorts of rules for women, how to dress, how to behave, not to show your head, and that interests me.

Well, I imagine you grew up in the Catholic Church when women always wore the scarf.

Always wore the scarf, that’s right. A lot of times when you see movies about nuns you go, wow, I want to know what’s underneath in a way. Is this like suppression? Originally, my idea was to have a nun in this movie. But that would be another genre, another movie. Like, an old nun, who had never actually ever had sex, but who was retired. You know, I like Elaine Stritch, so I was thinking of Elaine. Woody was like, “Oh my god, I don’t know if the film can handle that!” [Laughter.] I said maybe we should just have one religion at a time. Maybe that’ll come out in something else.

Yeah, a sex scene with you and Elaine Stritch -- that might be an idea to hold on to. You decided to – let me issue a spoiler warning to the readers right now -- you decided not to go all the way, in terms of what you show between Fioravante and Avigal. You don’t cross that line.

I never had that in there, that they ever consummated the relationship. But I think that it’s so potent, that he realizes that every little thing is huge. Her sitting alone with him. Him making a kosher lunch for her, which she’s not paying for. Him touching her back. You can have a potent relationship with someone, and sometimes when you sleep with that person that destroys that. I think he realizes that would be such a big thing. She’s in a whole community, everyone’s aware of her, they’re watching her. It’s like a village. And she has six kids. I think if she didn’t have six kids it would be less Romeo and Juliet. She would say, OK, let’s make this happen. I think they fall in love. And I think he gives her something, and he also loses something, you know? I thought that was truer, even though, when we tested the movie people were like, “Oh, please!” The love stories that I remember usually are the ones that are not completely fulfilled. They’re unrequited or they reach an ending. But there was a big battle over that, even within myself.

I think about this a lot. It can be easy to give the audience what they want, or what they say they want.

What they say they want. That's what it is.

That’s what happens with Hollywood movies, where they’ve tested it a dozen times, and they rewrite everything to give the audience what it thinks it wants. But what you’re saying is interesting to me, that sometimes stories that are about renunciation or unconsummated love, or love affairs that end badly, sometimes those are more memorable. Romeo and Juliet both die.

Exactly, and I always thought that was the right way to do it. Even though I wrote it that way and directed it that way, it wasn’t easy to get to that. Because the producers kept asking me about it, and I fooled around with what I had, but I was never 100 percent happy with changing it. They even told me, “We’ll give you more money.” But this is the truer thing, and I think it's going to resonate more. Nobody gets everything. And I think when people think that they always want a happy ending, it’s like eating too much ice cream, you know?

I had a couple of thoughts about your character, and the way you steer away from the obvious comedy of the situation, being a gigolo. Fioravante is a good-looking man who gets to act out these fantasies with rich and beautiful women. But it doesn’t really go that direction at all. When he gets the long-awaited chance to have a three-way with Sharon Stone and Sofía Vergara, like a straight-guy fantasy out of Playboy magazine, he’s not into it and can’t do it.

Because he’s been messed up, because he had this other thing. Because he’s in love. Before that he’s able to say, OK, I can kind of look at each person as a person and do what I have to do once or twice or whatever. What happens in that scene came out of the movie naturally. Originally that scene was longer and eventually I thought, OK, we’ve showed the essence of it, which is that there’s a problem. I wish we’d had another day so I could have tried some more things. But I think in sex scenes, one reason they make us uncomfortable in the movies is because there’s no problem in the scene, it’s just people simulating having sex. Once in a while you see a really good sex scene, or a scene where something happens during sex that’s either funny or surprising or moving. That’s very rare.

Yeah, it’s the most intimate and vulnerable aspect of human life, and in the movies it’s often totally seamless, it’s like an athletic event. I was also thinking about the fact that we never learn anything about Fioravante, his ethnic background or his family or anything. He seems to know bits and pieces of different languages: Spanish, Ladino, Portuguese, Italian. He tells Liev Schreiber at the end of the film that he doesn’t even know whether he’s Jewish or not. So I came up with a theory about that.

OK, shoot. You tell me.

Well, it’s about you, you as an actor and maybe as a person. You have played Italian characters, obviously, but also Latino characters, Jewish characters, Russian characters. You’ve played almost every ethnicity except a black person. This guy is like all those things at once, or maybe none of them. He has no connections and no past, he’s an observer and an outsider. He’s an actor playing a role, a little bit, and not just when he’s having sex with women for money.

I think that’s it. I kept putting in more things, about his mother, for example, and then taking them out. And there’s a scene when he starts to tell Avigal about himself and she stops him. She doesn’t need any explanation, and the movie really doesn't either. What we know about him is enough. He’s alone, he doesn’t have anybody, he doesn’t know who he is. That’s what makes his connection to Woody’s character so precious. And, you know, when it comes to me – I’m half Sicilian, and that's an island that was invaded over and over again. Waves and waves of immigration and invasion; everybody went there. So it’s the truth, I could be anything. I really don’t know what I am.

”Fading Gigolo” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, with wider release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Comedy Fading Gigolo Interviews John Turturro Movies Prostitution Sex Sharon Stone Sofia Vergara Woody Allen