John Turturro is such the ultimate Brooklynite that one sometimes forgets the 58-year-old has a lifetime of accumulated wisdom from globetrotting under his belt. Vulture met up with the veteran actor for a stroll along the beach to pick his brain on what he’s learned since his first of six trips to the Cannes Film Festival in 1991, when both Barton Fink and Jungle Fever debuted and Fink swept the top awards. Turturro was at Cannes this year as the comic relief for Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre, playing the disastrously unprepared, big-name American actor shipped in to star in an Italian film about labor unions directed by a woman (Margherita Buy) whose mother (Giulia Lazzarini) is dying. It’s Turturro at his zaniest, spouting off dreams he’s had about Kevin Spacey trying to kill him, singing Italian songs about milk with his head out the window of a moving car, and throwing glorious temper tantrums on set. And while the film got a somewhat lukewarm reception, Turturro remained blissful: seemingly happy just being in the South of France, catching up with old friends Joel and Ethan Coen and Frances McDormand, eating good food, and taking long walks in the sun. What’s the secret to his Zen-like Don Draper–ness? We compiled our conversation into an easy guide.
1. Be happy to participate and be surprised with success.
Turturro missed attending Cannes when Do the Right Thing was in competition in 1989 because the movie company wouldn’t fly him out and he couldn’t afford it himself. But he remembers Spike Lee not being incredibly pleased about Sex, Lies, & Videotape winning that year. “I don’t think he was happy,” says Turturo. “Some directors are more into the competition, and I always think, Listen, if you actually were selected, that’s a pretty cool thing. Twenty films selected, that’s a huge thing. That’s fantastic. What you want, really, in the end, is a life for your film.” When he finally made it to Cannes with Barton Fink, he says, “I thought, Really, who’s gonna dig this film? And we were all surprised. I think it’s better to be surprised. People tell you, ‘I really wanted you but you lost by two votes,’ and then you start feeling bad. And then you think, What am I feeling bad about? People liked what I did and that’s it. They didn’t fall asleep.”
2. If you do get competitive, don’t handle it like Lars von Trier.
The year Barton Fink won, Turturro says, “I remember Lars von Trier was pissed off he didn’t win [for Europa] and he insulted [Roman] Polanski” — head of the jury — “and then he was in the press conference sitting next to us and insulting us, and then he apologized to me. People get carried away with these things.”
3. Call your mother if you’re lucky enough to have one.
What drew Turturro to this year’s Moretti movie was how it was centered on a female protagonist losing her mother, and that the mother, he says, was not “a celebrated person,” but rather someone who everyone loved and who had a great impact on everybody she met. “It reminded me of some of my teachers, or my mom, and you go, Wow, there’s these people who are really important in life and they’re not on the cover of magazines. I thought it was really beautiful when the student comes at the end and says, ‘Your mother was just like my mother.’ That’s a big thing. I had a close relationship with my own mother and when you don’t have that, your whole life changes in a really big way.” In other words, appreciate the uncelebrated people in your life, and call your mother!
4. Remember that people on coke are crazy.
Turturro is sympathetic to his bad-actor character’s behavior in Mia Madre because he’s been around long enough to see so much worse, from famous actors who make everything on set about them to great actors who come to set not knowing their lines. “I’ve seen things that are, like, really extreme. I mean really, really extreme,” says Turturro. “I’ve seen directors really humiliate actors, physically. I’ve seen directors be good with men but terrible with women. I’ve seen actors really behave irresponsibly. I’ve had a couple of bad fights over the years with directors [because] I didn’t like the way they were shooting me or shooting other people. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. I had battles and I was pushed around when I was younger, and I was like, You know what? No more of that. That’s not gonna happen anymore.” Mostly that happened in his early career. Why? “In the ‘80s, people were cocaine-fueled and really manhandling a lot of actors.” So just remember, it’s the coke, not you.
5. Do rather than think about doing.
Turturro’s eager to get back into directing this fall after having spent the last seven months playing “the eczema-plagued defense attorney” in the yet-to-be-released HBO limited series Criminal Justice, with Steve Zaillian and Richard Price. “I think it’s good to exercise the [directing] muscle,” says Turturro. “You become less precious. It’s good to just get on with it, get on the horse.”
6. Self-consciousness is the enemy.
Turturro refuses to watch playback on his acting in films because once he does, all he can think about is how the director is shooting him. (And he cautions that the pressure to look beautiful on camera and then feel self-conscious about it is even worse for women.) “To make someone look like they look in real life is hard,” he says. “You think, Okay, this is how I look. Like a normal person. Then you see yourself and you’re like, Oh my God, what are they doing to me?”
7. Don’t read reviews while you’re working.
While recently performing in a concert version of Zorba! for Encores! at City Center, Turturro refused to read anything written about him. (Such as, from the New York Post, how he can’t sing, but he sure can sell.) For one thing, he knew the reviewers were coming much earlier than they do in a normal Broadway run, after only two weeks of rehearsal and a single dress rehearsal, and he knew he’d be getting better long after the reviews came out. “At least if they’d come the last night — man — I’m not a singer, but I sung all the notes and I wasn’t flat at all,” says Turturro, “And by the end the audiences loved it.”
His philosophy: “If you read any reviews when you’re trying something new, then you’ll never try anything.” And being onstage, you’re trying something new every time, so you have to stay away from reviews the entire time. “Sometimes I’ve done straight plays,” says Turturro, “and it’s taken you a month until all of a sudden you go, I got it. You’ve got to try to be brave and try things.” Plus, he says, it’s good to remember that reviewers and audience members aren’t the ones who are being brave and putting themselves on the line. “They’re just watching it,” he says. “They’re not doing it, and they can’t do it. So it doesn’t really affect me. It only affects you if you have to do a commercial run. [With Zorba!] we were sold out every night and the audiences loved it. But if the audiences fall asleep or throw tomatoes at you, then you know.”