The actress Aida Turturro studies me intently. We are looking at each other from our laptops — she in Connecticut filming a movie in which she plays a 1960s nun involved with a group that provides black-market abortions, me in my New York bedroom wearing one-half of an outfit. “You’re like a new-breed dog with very white teeth,” she declares with glee. “Look at you. I should have straightened my teeth, but I liked them. I was never a coffee drinker, but then I went to Italy and got addicted to the espresso, so I got a Nespresso machine and started making it at home. Now I whiten my teeth, but they’re still not white because the coffee, the coffee, the coffee!”
She takes a breath, apologizes for her hair (“My hair has to be back because I wear a habit. It’s all good, babe”), and squints at me again, kindly. “You little baby! When’s your birthday?” I tell her it’s in August, and she gasps. “You’re a Leo!” she says. “Those Leos … When they’re powerful, they’re powerful. I think you’re one of the powerful ones, right?”
Lately, Turturro has had a lot of practice giving oddly specific compliments to strangers. In the early days of COVID-19, Turturro — who is best known for playing Tony’s chaos-agent sister, Janice, on The Sopranos but has had a career of supporting TV and movie roles — joined Cameo, the online service on which you can pay anywhere from $5 to thousands of dollars for a personalized video message from more than 40,000 celebrities, ranging from Caitlyn Jenner ($2,500) to former NFL coach Mike Ditka ($600) to Chewbacca Mom ($50).
Like most Cameos, Turturro’s are usually purchased as a gift for a birthday, retirement, or graduation, but sometimes they’re meant as a pick-me-up for someone in the throes of addiction recovery or grieving a death. Regardless, Turturro, who charges $90 a Cameo, is always thrilled to be there, referring to the recipient as “beautiful” despite having never laid eyes on the person, pretending to have received a “call” from the gift giver as if the two were old pals, then launching into an improvised monologue about any number of topics: The Sopranos, mostly, but also other things, such as how she took care of her parents before they died, or how much she loves Ireland, or how riveted she is by Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy. Sometimes she free-associates her way into disarmingly personal territory, remarking, for example, that she wishes she had children of her own or that she misses her “mommy and daddy.” She’ll offer bits of wisdom or tell a story about herself that connects to the recipient, even in an incidental way. To conclude each video, she launches, cabaret style, into an ad-libbed song, cycling through various accents and characters (Marilyn Monroe, an effusive Italian aunt, and several unidentifiable others) until she skids back into her own body, apologizes (“I’m not a singer”), and blows the recipient a big juicy kiss.
I ask Turturro how much planning goes into her Cameos, and she confirms that all she does is write down a few notes: the recipient’s name, the gift giver’s name, any personal details provided. Then she goes off. In one of my favorite Turturro Cameos, she turns faux solemn and says, “Don’t get shot. Like my two husbands [on The Sopranos]. Just don’t do it.”
Turturro was introduced to Cameo just before the pandemic by her Sopranos co-star Jamie-Lynn Sigler ($150) and became curious about it as jobs dried up and the world shut down. “You needed to do something,” she says. “You needed to feel like you had a job or something to do that day. And it helped me a lot to put on some lipstick and look at my script.” At first, she was confused by the whole thing. “Then you realize there are people who are fans, and if it’s something that makes them happy, why not?” The money didn’t hurt either, especially in the pandemic’s early days. She admits things have been financially tighter since The Sopranos ended, despite her recurring roles on Law & Order: SVU and The Blacklist, an upcoming stint on What We Do in the Shadows, and the nun role she plays in Call Jane, Phyllis Nagy’s upcoming film about a real-life clandestine abortion group. Over the past 14 months, Turturro estimates that she has made more than 450 Cameos — roughly one or two per week, though the requests pile up more during the holidays.
Unlike TikTok or Instagram, Cameo doesn’t make or inflate stars — instead, it functions as a sort of nostalgia marketplace where fans can shop for moments with a celebrity, many of whom trade on a past character for relatively easy cash. (Indeed, some of the most popular celebrities on Cameo are people who played their most iconic role years ago, like Brian Baumgartner from The Office and Sean Astin of The Lord of the Rings.) Turturro has noticed an uptick in young people requesting Sopranos-related videos, which she attributes to the next generation binge-watching the series for the first time during the pandemic. At first, when she got requests to “do Janice,” she was reluctant; she didn’t want to resurrect her character in a way that felt outsize or cartoonish. Turturro herself hasn’t been able to rewatch the series since it first aired — she tried a few years ago with her friend and former co-star Edie Falco but found it too painful. “It was maybe too soon after Jimmy died,” she says, referring to James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack in 2013. “There’s so many memories when you’re watching yourself — it’s where everybody else was, where the world was, how young we were.”
Nowadays, she will gamely pop back into character as Janice but only if she “feels it” in the moment. “It’s been 20 fucking years!” she says. “I can’t be Janice in two minutes!” In a recent and deeply surreal moment, she filmed a Cameo for an older man named Frankie and, halfway through, remembered that one of his granddaughters is Mattea Conforti, who plays young Janice in the upcoming Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark. “I heard your eldest one is playing me — well, not me, the character Janice in the movie. I think I met her?” she says in the video. “Lovely, beautiful girl. Bravo to her. What is the name of it? Many Souls of Newark?” (Turturro isn’t in, nor has she yet seen, the movie.)
I ask Turturro what it was like to film a personalized video for a stranger who happens to be the grandfather of the young woman playing a character she made famous. “It’s so weird sometimes. But this is life — it’s a cycle,” she says. “I still think I’m unbelievably sexy. I forget I’m old.” She reaches her hands over her spiraling curls. “Fifty-fucking-eight years old, babe! But I don’t look it, right?” She admits that during her early days on Cameo, she took pains to make sure her hair was perfect or the lighting was flattering. “Now I’m like, Look, I’m not 25. I try to put some makeup on, but I tell everyone, ‘It is what it is.’ Sometimes the hair’s sticking out.”
Still, Turturro’s reflexive vulnerability means she is sensitive to others’ opinions, which is why she stays away from all other forms of social media. That’s why Cameo, specifically, appeals to her — a sort of closed loop where she is safe from wilder fluctuations in taste or mood and where she has total improvisational freedom and creative control. Turturro doesn’t treat her Cameos as financial transactions so much as genuine connections — and as reminders that she still has something to give and that there’s demand for it. “If I get a five-star review, it touches my heart,” she says. “It’s been a gift to get these requests. When I’m old and gray, I’ll be going, ‘Look, they liked me! They said they liked me!’ I don’t have any kids, so I’ll be talking to my dog. My dog is like, ‘I don’t speak English.’ ”
“It is hard being older,” Turturro says. “In other cultures, they respect it. In this business, forget about it.” Often, when roles are hard to come by, she calls upon the spirit of Gandolfini for guidance. “When things are bad, I’m like, ‘Jimmy, can you help me?’ I just ask him to get me work,” she says. In many Cameos, she refers obliquely to “having chemistry” with Gandolfini the moment they met, while playing spouses in a 1992 Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I ask if she means they were once romantically involved. “When I met him, I was young. He was young. He was sexy … [I said], ‘We cannot be together until this play is over.’ Then shit happened in life, so we didn’t sleep together. Thank God!” she says. “It was better to be best friends.”
When her conversations with Gandolfini do nudge her into film and TV auditions, her attitude is Zen: “My heart is here. You want me, you don’t — what am I going to do?” It’s not dissimilar to the philosophy guiding her Cameos. “Sometimes I go on tangents and I’m like, Oh my God, maybe it’s too much. They might be like, ‘I just wanted a simple fucking Cameo, and look what I got,’ ” she says. “But if they’re asking for something, you just put your heart out there and do the best you can.”
Without warning, Turturro turns her attention back to me. “You are pretty special. Let me just see something. Hold on,” she says, closing her eyes. “There’s a little block with the love thing. You’re not wide open lately — not quite open for love. Right?” I realize I’ve now become the subject of a spontaneous Cameo, a sort of hypertargeted, psychic intuitive reading. I go with it, and I tell her I’ve been with the same person for a long time. She nods as if she already knew. “When you have some moments, take a walk, go somewhere beautiful, and meditate or whatever. And take the time and try to find out, maybe, what’s that block for you.”
I tell her I will, and she nods again. She explains that she “isn’t psychic” (despite the fact that she has played many psychics — including, in one film, two separate psychics) but can “read energy” and felt that she simply had to share her reading of me before we parted. “Life is hard lately, Rach. It’s been hard for everyone,” she says. “If you ever need me or need a friend, you’ve got my number, okay?” Before we hang up, she blows me a kiss.
*This story has been updated to correctly identified the granddaughter who plays young Janice in The Many Saints of Newark.