John Turturro, Sofia Vergara and Vanessa Paradis Don’t Want To Fade Away
by Jay S. Jacobs
You can thank John Turturro’s barber for connecting him with Woody Allen.
Turturro is a well-known character actor, who in a career that runs for well over 30 years has been in such varied projects as Do The Right Thing, Barton Fink, Quiz Show, the Transformer movies, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and Anger Management. In the past decade, Turturro has been making more of a name for himself behind the camera, directing five movies including the surreal musical Romance & Cigarettes and the lovely documentary Passione.
He had come up with an interesting idea about a film revolving around the Brooklyn Hassidic Jewish community and a quiet, courtly male escort. He discussed the idea with a few friends, including his barber. The barber mentioned that one of his other clients was Woody Allen, and this sounded like something right up Woody’s alley. Later, when Allen was visiting the barber, he told the filmmaker about Turturro’s film idea. Allen agreed to meet with him.
Allen is a legendary writer, director and actor, but he does not often work on other directors’ films. However, occasionally he will, if he is really intrigued by the role. In the 70s, he won critical accolades in Martin Ritt’s The Front, and in the 80s he starred in Paul Mazursky’s Scenes From a Mall. Still, the most recent work he did which was not his own was providing a lead voice in the 1998 animated filmAntz. When he came on to work with Turturro in Fading Gigolo, he did not take a hands-off approach to the project. He contributed to the writing and determined to help make the film the best that they could. Allen and Turturro worked hard together to make the film an off-beat, but sweet and strangely perfect view of the culturally-diverse New York area.
“Off-beat, but strangely perfect” is a term which could also be used on the casting of the film. Beyond the obvious against-type casting of Turturro as the soulful sex worker and Allen as his befuddled pimp, Turturro put together an impressive and unpredictable cast. Tough guy actor Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) gets to play a love-sick Hassidic cop. Sharon Stone (Fatal Attraction) and Sofia Vergara (Modern Family) get to play some of his bored rich clientele. Perhaps most surprising of all, French actress and singer Vanessa Paradis(Heartbreaker) took on the role of a repressed Hassidic widow who is searching for more in her life.
About a week before Fading Gigolo was released, we were one of the outlets who were able to talk to Turturro, Paradis and Vergara about the film at a press conference at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York.
How did you get into the Hassidic community?
John Turturro: I did a lot of research on my own first. Then we found this organization called… I think you say it Chulent, which is [named after] a dish. There’s a lot of different elements in the dish. It’s an organization that people who have left the community go to. To gather, so they have some kind of community, because they have been raised in a very strict environment. We met different people there. I introduced them to Vanessa, and then we went to a… what was that?
Vanessa Paradis: Sukkot.
John Turturro: Sukkot dinner together. Then she met someone and she was very helpful.
Vanessa Paradis: Oh, yeah. I met this young woman who escaped a Hassidic community when she was about 22. She was beautiful and so generous in sharing her life story. I had no clue. [I] did not know much about this community and the religion. She told me about her life, the rules, the everyday life. It was a tremendous help.
John Turturro: The more research you do about something, the more interesting it becomes. There are people who are happy in that world and there are [those] who aren’t. The women who usually have left, they don’t have children. They knew they wanted to leave, so they’d prepared for that.
Sofia, you always do so well playing a funny, sexy role. But, do you ever feel type-casted? Would you like to try a more dramatic role?
Vanessa Paradis: That’s not bad, though…
Sofia Vergara: (laughs) Oh, I don’t know, I don’t think looking like this I can play a scientist. (She runs her hands over her breasts. They all laugh.) Or an astronaut.
John Turturro: Maybe an astronaut.
Sofia Vergara: [Maybe] an astronaut. I think you have to know your limitations. Of course I’m not going to tell my agent, “You have to let them see me. They’re casting Schindler’s List II. I want to be in that movie.” I know where I can have fun and do a good job. I met John. I’m very insecure about the acting, because I’ve never done it until recently. I knew I like to be directed. He told me exactly what he wanted from me, and it was a lot of fun. It was. I don’t care. I think you have to be grateful. I don’t think after all the opportunities like this movie that I have gotten [it would be right] to be complaining, “Oh, they don’t let me cry or be raped in a movie.” (Turturro laughs.) It would be ungrateful. I take it and maybe someday he’s decides he’s doing another movie and he calls me and gives me the opportunity. Maybe I can do it very well.
John Turturro: Okay. I don’t doubt you. I didn’t doubt you. That’s a good answer.
What’s great about John as a director, actor and scriptwriter?
Sofia Vergara: Well, I saw a side of John that Vanessa didn’t see. (They all laugh.)
Vanessa Paradis: Oh? What’s that?
Sofia Vergara: It’s okay, Vanessa. Maybe one day he’ll do another movie and let you see that side of him.
Vanessa Paradis: Well, it’s amazing to be directed by John Turturro. He just makes us do what he wants us to do, but in such an easy way and such a fun way. There’s his energy and he is brilliant with words. And he’s an actor. He’s a damned good actor. (She turns to Turturro.) So it just happened so easily, with your words, your energy, your body language. (Turns back to us.) You just want to make him happy, too.
John Turturro: I like to treat people the way I would like to be treated. I’ve been mistreated on many movies. Sometimes people kind of objectify you, in whatever way. So you try to create an atmosphere where people can be relaxed and have some fun at the same time. Even if it is a serious situation. Not to put too much pressure on them.
Sofia Vergara: I loved it. I was worried. I had this worry about the scene I had to do with him and Sharon [Stone]. I’ve never done anything like that. So, I was becoming a little bit nervous, but he made it seem so easy. I think he was more nervous than I. When I saw him nervous, I got relaxed. (laughs)
I really loved how you shot a lot of the Brooklyn scenes. What motivated you to choose the communities and shoot them so lovingly?
John Turturro: First of all, we chose to shoot the movie on film. We tested a few different ways and standards. We saw that film was a softer medium on everybody’s skin. I think that really helps, in a way. I used different photographs, different paintings, as inspiration. I looked at a lot of Saul Leiter photographs. He was a fashion photographer, who also took a lot of street photographs in the 30s and 40s. Then I looked at these [Giorgio] Morandi paintings, these still life paintings. They were just helpful for the visual palette of the film. We tried to have all of the characters balance each other; lots of reds and blacks in it. So, inch by inch, that’s how you create a visual palette. Then we all work together on that to you have something cohesive and almost like a storybook that you go into.
Vanessa, were you nervous to work with a legend like Woody Allen?
Vanessa Paradis: Oh, boy. The first day was the lice scene. I actually met Woody on the set, in my turban, and everything. There was this little boy with the big afro hair and my tiny little lice comb. I think that was brilliant, John, because I was so nervous to hurt the kid’s hair that I was really focused on that and forgetting, “Okay, there is Woody Allen! I’ve got to act.” Of course, he was very impressive, but everything I had to do made me feel a little bit better, if possible, on the first day. Woody was so sweet and really nice with me. The hard part was he improvised all these lines and they were really funny. They’d be more funny one after another. I had to play with that super [serious character]. I didn’t know how, because I had to smile or laugh.
John Turturro: You don’t know sometimes, because he does the lines but he kind of massages them. (He imitates Allen ad-libbing sounds.) He adds something. It could be good. You’re like, well, should I say? Should I tell him? I’m just sorry he wasn’t available that day, I would have liked to have a scene with him with Sofia. That would have been very good. Talking her into it, I’m telling you about this guy… (laughs) He’s a very good actor with everybody. He was great with those kids. They treated him like they didn’t know who he was. They were like: you’re was just an old man. (laughs again) One of the kids was with Vanessa, he would step on his foot. His name was Isaiah [Clifton]. Whenever Woody would forgot any lines he would step on his feet. We have all these outtakes of Woody saying, (imitates him again) “Why are you stepping on my foot?” [The kid would go] “Because you’re not saying the line.” That really helped, too, having kids sometimes is a common denominator.