How John Turturro got his moves, from "Do the Right Thing" to "Gloria Bell"

Salon's wide-ranging interview: John Turturro on aging, dancing, acting, basketball and working with Spike Lee

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published March 15, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

John Turturro. Photography by Jill Greenberg, Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at
John Turturro. Photography by Jill Greenberg, Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at

When I sat down with John Turturro this week on “Salon Talks” to discuss his role opposite Julianne Moore in “Gloria Bell,” in which he plays a divorcé looking for love, it got me thinking about how I saw older people when I was younger.

As a kid, I could never see past being a kid. I remember being in the market with my mom back when I was in elementary school and seeing one of my teachers. I started flipping out. “What is she doing outside of the school! Doesn’t she live in the classroom?” That same mentality followed me through high school and college, where I lived in every moment and acted like tomorrow wasn’t coming. People always say life is short, and it can be, but in actuality, life is long — really long — with many different phases and opportunities to grow.

Our ageist society could do a lot better with acknowledging the perspectives of our more seasoned citizens. I’m not trying to preach, but people who are past the age of 50 also party, they have sex, they fall in love, they smoke weed, they create art, they fall out of love, they experience triumphs and fear, and they can be dysfunctional. All of this is on display in the new Sebastián Lelio film “Gloria Bell" (out in theaters now), which follows a free-spirited, middle-aged divorcée played by Moore from her straight-laced office job to her nights on the dance floor where, she meets and falls in love with Arnold (Turturro).

In our "Salon Talks" conversation, Turturro and I discussed the film, age, and how over time he’s found that his relationships with older people, history, and aging itself have made him a better artist. Overnight success stories promoted on social media have so many of our young people thinking that you have to accomplish all of your goals by 25 — and be perfect by 30 — and that’s simply not true for most people. In fact, Turturro tells me, “I'm a better actor now than I was then.”

Watch our “Salon Talks” episode here, or read the full Q&A transcript below.

“Gloria Bell” is actually a remake. Tell us how this project fell in your lap.

Yes, the original movie is terrific. It's about a woman in the middle of her life, no one really pays attention to her, she's divorced, her kids don't pay attention to her, her job is in jeopardy. She goes out dancing, which in Latin culture people do a lot. She's kind of a brave woman looking to have another chance at love or have a relationship that would be meaningful for her. She meets this guy who really likes her, but he hasn't broken away completely, he hasn't severed the cord from his dysfunctional relationship with his wife and his two daughters who are really dependent upon him.

I love the original, and then Julianne Moore was going to do it — and I never worked with Julianne before, even though we were in “The Big Lebowski.” And the director, Sebastián Lelio, he's wonderful. He said he was going to remake it. Because of him I said, well you know, I get to work with both of you, and I said well what can you tell me about the character that you would be helpful?

And he said well, he's a guy who keeps trying. He keeps trying, but he keeps failing. But he keeps trying. And then he fails better. I thought, OK. I'll take a spin with you guys. It was a really wonderful experience working with them because the movie's about what happens between people. It's not like one person's a superhero and the other person's a villain. You see what people's capacity is to change, or to make a change in their life. And some people aren't able to do that. It talks about people as human beings.

For me it had a lot of that everyday magic that sometimes we ignore. You and Julianne Moore, you guys had a lot of chemistry.

Well, we worked together really well. I used to play basketball seriously and I'm a basketball fan. When there's a team that passes the ball, when you have actors who listen to each other and respond to each other, the space between the actors is created. But if you're great at what you do and I do my thing, but we're never really bouncing off of each other, the hole doesn't . . . it's like one plus one can equal two, or it can equal five. And that's what it is. It's really very relatable to a great sports team when you see everyone functioning together. Also, with a love story, it's really important that you put your attention to the other person. If that happens, then you're not thinking about yourself as much.

That's why I didn't make it as a ball player. I played really good with people who understood that I needed to score. [Laughs.]

That's OK. I would pass you the ball when I play with you, I would pass you the ball. But I think there are teammates who make everybody else better.

The Magics, the Chris Pauls.

Yeah, you can be a great defensive player too and make everybody else better. And sometimes you need that person that does all the intangibles to have a good team. And without that, you don't have that kind of team.

Yeah, it felt like you guys had been working together for years. How did you prep?

When I prep, everything is different.

To play a guy like Arnold, though. He's a different type of character.

I do know some guys [like him]. A lot of the women in the movie were telling me they know lots of guys like that, who say they're divorced, but they're really separated, but they're really living on the couch. Maybe they have a little apartment but they never go to it.

And I do know people who have been in dysfunctional relationships who . . . it's not good. And they should get out of it. And some, it takes them years to get out of it and sometimes they can never get out of it. I did think he was sincere in what he was trying to do, but then he couldn't sustain it. He would always get pulled back in. It's like getting pulled back in to a life of crime or back in to a life of drugs. Everyone has their addictions or things that they feel safe.

It feels comfortable.

Yeah, you feel comfortable being miserable. Or you feel something from being abused or something. And you just have too much guilt to be able to say, "Listen. I'm here for a certain amount of time, I deserve something."

Being happy is scary and trying new stuff is scary.

You can have that within your own family. You can have someone, you can have a problem sister or brother and all of a sudden, you have to be able to help them. You can be supportive, you can be even more, but you have to be able to take care of yourself.

For Arnold, he can stay in his failed marriage, but he knows what he's going to get. He can try something with Gloria and she can take him on this amazing ride and bring him even further than he's ever been.

That's right, and I think that happens to people all the time. Even people who are successful at something, you get used to doing the same thing. And it's like a singer, they sing a certain repertoire and then they try to do something else, no one likes it. Maybe they like it and say, "Well I'm gonna go back to the thing that everybody likes." And sometimes they're miserable doing that.

I mean, people don't change, but they can grow. You can grow. I don't believe these movies that say, "Well, I started out this way and now I'm different." You're not a different person. You're born a certain way and then you either grow and then you can make changes within your life.

Do you have a safe space as an artist, like something that you always feel comfortable going back to? A certain type of role?

No, I feel comfortable when I'm in a human situation, you know what I mean? When I'm doing stuff that's really like say, "Transformers," that's kind of almost like a quick sketch. It's so heightened and that's OK for a little bit, but I don't live there all the time.

If I have time to think about something, and it's a big role, like it's 10 hours in “The Night Of,” I had four months to prepare and I spoke with all kinds of lawyers. I even found a lawyer who's a really star lawyer in Brooklyn— Kenny Montgomery, his name is. He's a very handsome guy, he looks like an Idris Elba, he's like a star. But he took me through the whole process in such a succinct way that I realize what it costs him to be good and that my character, that's the lawyer he could be if he had the confidence in himself.

Then I had other lawyers that were closer to the character. But Kenny, he really, really, really, helped me because he's just an eloquent guy and he took me through why my character didn't want to go to court, you know what I mean? Because you hold someone's life in your hands.

It's delicate.

Little by little, I put together that character, but it was very well written. And I connected with Riz [Ahmed], we had a really good relationship. I got lost doing it eventually. That's nice, when you have that experience.

It's interesting that you talk about that human element. You feel most comfortable being human. With Arnold, it's almost like a gender reversal because we in films, it’s typical to see the woman have all of the baggage — they can't get away from their situation — but he was that person.

Well, let's face it, in a lot of relationships, like marriages, a lot of times it's the man that shoots himself in the foot, you know what I mean? It's nice to see both, I think. I think it's nice to see different kinds of thing represented in movies. Because if you don't see that, then you think there are movies that give you the answers. And there's movies like some of Spike [Lee's] movies for example, or a movie like this, that ask the question. That ask questions because in the end, you got to enjoy the moments of your life.

I think it's nice to see different kinds of things represented because all of us are gonna go through that in life. You're gonna have young relationships and young love, best friends and then later on you're saying, "I outgrew that person,” and some people you never do. Some people you stay friends with because you have something essential. I have a few of those friends.

There's a lot of love in “Gloria Bell” too. I appreciated that because I'm a professor and I teach these 22- and 25-year-olds and they often think that once you turn 30 you're a dinosaur and once you turn 40, you're ancient. And I'm like, yo, stop, there's a whole world out there. Stop putting age groups into boxes.

I think what happens is that as life accelerates with technology, everyone thinks they're inventing something new. They aren't inventing nothing new. All these things have been existed throughout history.

To understand what went on before is going to tell you what's going to happen in the future, too. I come from a world where I like to work with people who are older than me and younger than me because sometimes the more you know, the more you know what you do not know. And you say OK, I still have a lot to learn.

When you pass things onto each other, it's like a great trumpet player passing something on to someone else. Or a great singer. Someone can be great and they can be 75, 80 years old. You have a lot to learn from those people. They've sustained their life. Not that they should be the dominant ones and not that you should be close minded, but I think that you lose a lot when you don't see that.

People used to do big apprenticeships when they were sculptors, like for 15 years. So you were the sculptor and you had a 15-year-old young guy working for you for like 15 years. There's nothing wrong with that. It's actually nice when the ball is passed back and forth.

I have to tell you right now, I'm an older actor right now and there's maybe certain things I wouldn't do the same way. But I think overall, I'm a better actor now than I was then. Yes, I definitely think I've gotten better as an actor.

I think if you talk to a lot of actors, there were things I did when I was young, I'm really proud of. Sometimes I would work too hard, I would show too much or this and that. I mean, an athlete can't do that unfortunately. By the time they know too much, their body lets them down. That's the great thing about being in the creative field.

When you were like 20, was that your view of the world, or is that something you just picked up with time?

I was always interested in history, what went on before me, the evolution of music, film. I never thought I had the answers. I felt I had an impulse that I felt I needed to express myself. And I didn't ever know anyone in the movies. It wasn't until I went to the theater. I'd seen movies, I loved movies, but once I saw some plays, I saw, believe it or not Ben Vereen in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Pippin.” And there was something about him, because he wasn't that far away from me. And he just kinda touched me or something and I was like, wow! Maybe I could . . . maybe not dance as good as him or something like that, or sing as good, but he was so inviting in what he did. And then I saw some straight plays too, without music. And that opened my brain up in a way. I mean I've always loved music, I loved dancing.

And you can definitely dance.

Yeah, I've danced. I studied dance, I've danced at a lot of things. When I was a kid I did all those disco dances. Salsa is hard. That's hard, but I love movement because I think movement is revealing, like the Nicholas brothers, do you know who those guys were?


They were in their 30s, they danced with Fred Astaire, these two black brothers. They just made a documentary about it. They're amazing.

I like flamenco, I like any kind of dancing, because especially when you watch people dancing and it's not choreographed and they're not dancers, you get to see their personality. I just think there's something liberating about movement. I do use that in my work.

Man, if I showed you my dance moves you’d say, "His personality is horrible."

But even if you're not the greatest dancer, it shows you somebody can do a little thing with their finger and you're like, wow, that's kind of interesting. I did this dance in this movie, Italian movie, "Mia Madre," with this very heavy-set woman. She was a good dancer. It was like an Arabic thing. There was no crew, we just danced and we did this really crazy interpretive dance with each other. It was fun, but then we had to do it again and again and I was thinking, "Wow, one time it's OK."

When I did “Do The Right Thing,” when I did “Jungle Fever,” when I did “Barton Fink," I had this big hairdo. I told Larry Cherry, the guy who cuts my hair in “Do The Right Thing,” I said, "Larry, keep the height and give me the fade."

The curly top.

He invented that. It was with the big fade and I had all these curls and it was like a big mushroom cloud. And we looked at Kenny Walker who used to play for the Knicks. I used the way I walked in that movie, I based it on Kenny Walker. Because Kenny Walker used to have this walk, he walked like he bounced. They used to call him Sky Walker.

Like he was walking on his toes.

When I did it on the set, Spike was laughing, "Oh, like Kenny Walker!" Because I thought wow, that would be interesting to see this guy because he looked like he was so open, Kenny Walker. There was nothing defensive about the way he walked, and I've tried things like that. Sometimes you have to do it and then you have to bring it back a little bit because it's maybe too much.

It was great to see Spike get the Oscar this year.

Very, very happy. I was very happy.

“Do The Right Thing,” and your role in it, taught me about racism and micro-aggressions and just the difference in communities and how these things work.

You know, when Spike asked me to do the movie which, like I said, I grew up the opposite way that he grew up. He said, "Well, who do you want to play?" And I said, "I want to play the racist. Because that's what the movie's about,” And I said, "It's important that that character is human and you see him as frustrated and limited in some of his ways. But it's important that you see that he's a real guy."

Yes, and he has own problems outside of that.

He has his own problems.

He’s worrying about what his friends say

Yeah, he doesn't want to work in a pizzeria. I worked in a pizzeria and the guys were miserable. I worked with a few guys and I was like, wow this is interesting. Once we started doing the movie, I started bringing him and Ernest [Dickerson, the cinematographer] more things that wasn't even in the script. A lot of us did that and it was hard at first with everybody. But then once we all got to know each other, I felt like this is real, this is in the world and we're gonna do it. It was an exciting movie to make. Except for the end, the end was a little upsetting.

It was a tough reality check.

Some people, a few people, got tense. But I think if you don't do that and you're always pussyfooting around, you always say, "Well, here’s the nice white guy." It's like, yeah well some of those people are, but maybe some of those people aren't.

This is the story of our country. It's the story of our country for 400 years. Unless you grow up with people and you have interaction, you have to know people as people. And then you say, "OK, this is a wide variety. I can never group one person in this color, religion, whatever." But if you don't have that, then it's all theoretical. And people revert to their fears of other.

All these different groups of people in the film and they all had their flaws.

Spike, he was attacked for that movie. Lots of people don't realize he took a lot. I was worried, I was thinking wow, are people going to really get upset when they see the movie? And then it was just the opposite. People were happy to see it.

It probably made corporate America look at Hollywood.

Well, they opened it up for a while and then John Singleton got in there and the Hughes Brothers and . . . but then it didn't continue. And Spike, because he wanted to push the envelope, I wound up —  and listen, we're really good friends — but I defended him many, many times. Because I know him as a full human being. Strengths, weaknesses, I know what kind of person he is.

Who was the better ball player? You or Spike?

Well, he plays baseball. He doesn't play basketball. We used to play basketball all night with a bunch of us guys. Robin Harris, who passed away.

I love Robin Harris, he was hilarious.

He was hilarious. He would have had a huge career. He was a good player. Was a good athlete too. Good athlete. It was a couple guys who could play ball.

In 2019, does Pino meet a black girl from the neighborhood and become a Black Lives Matter activist? Or is Pino a Trump supporter?

That's more interesting.

Make Brooklyn great again?

Make Brooklyn great again. Wow. You know, I don't know about that. That's really interesting. I could see him going in either direction.

As you said, people grow. People change.

He could. Also, the difference between Queens and Brooklyn. He lives in Brooklyn, right? Queens is different. The Queens that I grew up, a lot of people wanted to get to the city, and other people would only go to Long Island. They would never go to the city. Because they would be like, "Wow, the city is dangerous." It was dangerous but it was also exciting.

I'm writing something now that has a lot of those themes in it and that Spike will be the executive producer on, if I ever get the money to do it, that deals with some of that stuff.

That sounds amazing. “Gloria Bell” is in theaters right now. Tell everyone why they should go see it.

It’s a movie that celebrates appreciating the moment. You have to appreciate what you have and it celebrates life and that the moment that's at hand is to be embraced and not to live in the future or in the past. You're never too old to try.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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