In the new film Fading Gigolo, John Turturro (who also wrote and directed) plays an unlikely escort pushed into the world’s oldest profession by his cash-strapped friend (Woody Allen) — though when your clients include comely women played by screen beauties Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, and Vanessa Paradis, you don’t remain a reluctant gigolo for long. And since there are some similarities between the life of a gigolo and the life of an actor who is paid to occasionally kiss beautiful actresses from time to time, John Turturro rang up Vulture to look back at some of the women he’s romanced onscreen, as well as to ponder the nature of the love scene itself.
Do you remember with whom you had your first screen kiss?
Wow, that’s a really good question. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that! I may have had a quick kiss in The Sicilian, but it wasn’t anything big. Certainly, I didn’t have any kisses in Five Corners, but my character was in love with [his attempted-rape victim] Jodie Foster — I carried her around unconsciously, but it wasn’t reciprocated. Miller’s Crossing? No. It must have been around 1990, when I did a movie with Kathy Borowitz, who became my wife — that or Judy Davis in Barton Fink. Or in Sugartime, when I acted with Mary-Louise Parker. After that, I had Emily Watson in a few movies, Cate Blanchett in The Man Who Cried, Judy Davis in Barton Fink, and onwards from there. I’ve also directed a lot of actresses in sex scenes — Kate Winslet and Susan Sarandon among them.
You had played romantic parts on the stage before you became a film actor. Are the elements of romance different on the big screen?
Yes, it is. I think when you have good chemistry with someone, it really shows on the screen — and that can be with a guy, as well. You can see it with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Woody with Diane Keaton. I’ve had that with Mary Louise Parker and Emily Watson, and sometimes you have that when you’re directing someone — Kate Winslet, for example.
After a particularly convincing love scene, are those lines between actors ever blurred?
Well, in real life, you have to be careful of that. A lot of times, people mistake that chemistry in the scene for something real — they think, Wow, now we should really hook up. When that happens, the chemistry can go right out the window, because the actor is thinking, Does she really like me? Should I do this? It does happen that people really get together, but the job is that you’re playing imaginary people in imaginary circumstances.
Were you ever intimidated by any of the actresses you were cast opposite?
Yes, I played Sophia Loren’s son, and I was very intimidated by her. She was so beautiful. I kept trying to tell her that we should have an incestuous relationship. [Laughs.] It’s different when you grew up with them, when they’re ten or so years older than you and you’ve had this fantasy relationship with them. I’ve met some of these women now as I’ve gotten older and gotten into the business, and working with them has been difficult for me, because they were a part of my awakening, so to speak. But with Sophia, I found a way to make her laugh, and I saw that she appreciated me and treated me like a normal person. If you’re intimidated by a person you’re working with — and I also had that when I first started working with Paul Newman or Robert De Niro — you’ve got to get over that. You can be shy around them outside work, but within work, you’ve got to try to engage with them and get past it.
Let’s discuss some of your love interests. I’ll start with a random one: At the end of the third Transformers movie, your character comes on to Frances McDormand. What’s it like to woo her while Michael Bay is standing to the side, supervising you?
Oh, it’s fantastic. [Laughs.] First of all, I’ve known Fran a long time — we went to Yale Drama School together. We did a play where I played her father and she was an 11-year-old! And when I work with Michael, I basically just watch him and imitate him anyway. His relationship to women and mine … they’re two different things. That would be an interesting subject to explore, but he gets a kick out of me. He likes craziness; he likes stirring the pot.
What about your love interest Catherine Keener in Tom DiCillo’s Box of Moonlight? It was a much sweeter, softer role than she normally plays.
I really loved making that movie. It was Sam Rockwell’s first big role, and I could tell that Catherine was a very special actress. Now she plays much harder roles a lot of the time, but she obviously has a range of work. There’s something appealing about her, something offbeat-sexy. And she’s imaginative with a good sense of humor. Tom was a big supporter of Catherine, a big champion of her work — she did another film with him and Steve Buscemi, Living in Oblivion, that she was wonderful in.
You’ve cast your wife, Katherine Borowitz, as your love interest more than once.
When I make my own movies, I work with my wife a lot, and that’s been easier … although sometimes, not so easy. If you bring too much of your private life into it, it will get in the way. They have to learn to see you as the director and you have to see them as the actor, and not as your husband or wife. You’ve got to separate yourself so that you can be strangers, so that it’s like you’re rediscovering each other, in a way. Which can be good.
And you really lucked out with the women you got for Fading Gigolo. Or maybe they did — this is the most fun Sharon Stone has had onscreen in quite a while.
Actresses are so underused, it’s amazing. Obviously, we live in a very male-oriented society, and as actresses get older, they get better, but their parts get smaller. I’ve really liked working with women because women don’t always get the opportunity to have great roles, so when they do, they really come with all of themselves to give. It’s a different dynamic. I enjoy that.
There’s a lot of foreplay in Fading Gigolo, but not a lot of sex.
I think romance can be shown in all sorts of different ways, which I try to do in this film with me and Vanessa, Sharon Stone, and Sofia Vergara. When you have to do a love scene, those scenes can often be failures because there’s not enough of an obstacle to make the scene actually work once you get into bed. Usually, it’s the scene leading up to it that’s more interesting. But a sex scene is a strange thing to be reenacting. Sometimes I’ve gotten massive headaches afterwards. [Laughs.]