My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
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Twenty-four years ago I puttered uptown in my mother’s old Toyota to pick up a man I didn’t know. The man was John Turturro and our destination—14 car hours and one blizzard away—was Kentucky, and The Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Festival of New Plays. John and I had been cast opposite each other in the premiere of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, a two-character play by the unknown (but not for long) playwright John Patrick Shanley.
After some awkward chatting in the blue fabric cage of the front seat, I shoved a cassette of Judy Garland’s Greatest Hits into the tape deck. John’s face lit up. His beloved mother was a Judy devotee. I had definitely scored a new friend. But I wasn’t really prepared for the depth of intelligence, sensitivity, humility, humor, and most of all artistry that John would come to exemplify over the years. Working with John was electric. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea was hugely demanding both physically and emotionally; we got on the horse and rode it hard. That production captured the attention of the festival and four months later it moved to Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City, playing to standing ovations.
In the years since Danny, John has become legendary for his riveting portrayals of wildly different characters in all sorts of movies: Spike Lee social dramas, Joel and Ethan Coen meta-yarns, and Adam Sandler laff-fests. He has also continued to act on stage, memorably inhabiting Estragon in Waiting for Godot in 1998 and Henry in Yasmina Reza’s Life (x) 3 in 2003. He has directed several plays and three films, including Mac (which he co-wrote, and for which he won the 1992 Cannes Camera d’or) and the forthcoming Romance and Cigarettes. When I met up with John at New York’s Classic Stage Company this past January, the new play he is directing—Reza’s A Spanish Play (translated from the French by David Ives)—had just finished its first week of previews.
The five characters in A Spanish Play are disillusioned stage actors rehearsing a family-reunion drama called A Spanish Play. The character Zoe (Zoe Caldwell) plays the hopeful widow, Pilar; Larry (Larry Pine) plays Pilar’s upbeat landlord-cum-fiance, Fernan; Linda and Kathy (Linda Emond and Katherine Borowitz) play Pilar’s depressed, middle-aged daughters, Aurelia and Nuria; and Denis (Denis O’Hare) plays Aurelia’s lush, antic husband, Mariano. Further complicating the meta-narrative is that both daughter-characters are actors. When Linda’s character Aurelia fretfully rehearses an emotional scene from A Bulgarian Play, the audience finds itself responding all at once—with sadness, tense chuckles, and vertigo—to the frazzled Aurelia, to the character Linda’s empathetic portrayal of Aurelia, and to Aurelia’s melodramatic Bulgarian character. The intentionally frustrating structure of A Spanish Play would have given some directors nightmares. It probably gave John nightmares, too, but he has risen admirably to the challenge.
June Stein You follow in the great tradition of men like Sidney Lumet and Elia Kazan, who were actors and then went on to direct, but unlike them you kept acting. You act for—
John Turturro Money. I act for money.
JS (laughter) I was going to say, you act and direct for the stage and for film, not to mention that you write and produce. I’m curious how one medium informs the other. How does your acting experience influence your directing?
JT First of all, I haven’t really directed that much theater. I directed a few plays in college, and when I worked with you at the Westbeth, I directed Love of Don Perlimplin and Belisa in the Garden, by Lorca, and Verga’s Cavalleria Rusticana. I have acted in many plays, and as you know, a lot of times you wind up directing yourself. It’s like what the character Zoe says in A Spanish Play, you’re the one with the training. I directed and acted in my first film, Mac. It came out of doing a play, Steel on Steel, three times over. I always thought of it as a film, and although I didn’t direct the plays, I did wind up having to kind of co-direct them. I looked for an experienced director for the film but couldn’t get one. I thought, Well, I’m going to tell the person what to do anyway…. We rehearsed it a lot, but still, it was hard for me to shift gears between the acting and the directing; I was inexperienced. There were a lot of fights on that particular movie.
JS Do you mean fights over the script or fights outside the script?
JT Fights outside. Different personalities, and I was a little hard at times. Our cinematographer, who was very good, was very stubborn. We really clashed, typical small guy/tall guy kind of thing. (laughter) I didn’t have those problems at all with the second movie I directed, Illuminata. I wasn’t playing the main character; I was working with even more experienced actors—
JS You had an incredible cast.
JT Rehearsing that was really a joy. I mean, I enjoyed doing Mac, but it was all new for me.
JS You have directed three films and they are all distinct in tone: Mac is a drama; Illuminata is a period piece, basically a comedy; and Romance and Cigarettes is a musical.
JT They have similarities. They are all love stories. There are certain directors, like John Cassavetes—his movies are sometimes arduous to watch, you have to be up for them. He’s said he was only interested in one subject, and that was love. My films are just outgrowths of things I wanted to share. I didn’t really set out to be a director. I still don’t feel like a director. There’s a part of me that feels like a novice.
JS It’s the directors who seem to “know it all” that are the hardest for actors to work with.
JT Yesterday, in rehearsal for A Spanish Play, I was able to articulate a lot of themes that I had not been able to articulate before. I was very upset, because certain things didn’t work. I had originally read for a part in the play, and after the reading Reza asked me if I would think about directing it, because I really am too young for the role of Fernan, which Larry plays. I said, Maybe, if I had the right cast. Linda, Kathy, Zoe, and Denis were at the reading, and if I could get these people to do it, then yeah. This is the kind of play that would be a complete disaster without a great cast. Because it’s about the experience of them trying to create something together. What’s illusion, what’s reality? How do people live with each other in this crazy, painful existence? Larry’s character actually says some wise things. That’s the theme of the play.
JS Quite a few characters say a bunch of wise things.
JT He says, Listen: you have to enjoy what you do, to be recognized a little bit for what you do, that’s what makes life bearable. This play has been a real collaboration. When we were thinking about scrims and projection, I said, Well, maybe we can do some of the play as interviews. The set designer, Riccardo [Hernandez], came up with the idea of using multimedia.
JS It’s brilliant. We are introduced to Kathy’s character—the character playing the aging movie-star, Nuria—through the use of a live, handheld video camera. All of the characters playing the family members get a chance to speak to and through the camera. With Kathy, the camera actually captures her backstage, in her dressing room. That image is projected on the theater wall, huge, up on that scrim, and the sound is projected, too. She sometimes talks directly to us through the camera, but we get the impression that she’s really talking to herself and that the camera is spying. It feels larger than life. The trajectory from that first projected image of Kathy to the point when she becomes comparatively small in the downstage corner saying, “You look up and time has passed” is powerful. The journey from her opening to that moment wouldn’t have had the same impact without the use of the video camera. Was that your intention?
JT We interpreted the monologues as imaginary confessions, imaginary dialogue. If the actor is actually standing there talking directly to the audience, you eventually think, well, are they really supposed to be there? So all the soliloquies are mediated by video.
JS I was trying to distinguish between what was reality and what wasn’t, and I was so relieved to feel that I had permission to give that up. To say: there is no distinction, really. The interaction of the actors with the camera were those moments when the characters were talking to themselves rather than to another person. They were existing in an interior plane of reality, whereas when the characters were rehearsing the Spanish Play, they became the actors who were playing yet another character.
JT Yesterday we prerecorded one of the monologues, then projected the video for that same character on stage. The character watched and listened to herself on the video, as if imagining a conversation. So we have a duality. It’s the only prerecorded video scene we have. Both video and live performance are in the same costume, on the same stage, but in the video there’s no audience. There are three shots, so there’s even a little progression in your mind. What was interesting is that we had her watching the video, and our sound recording was too low, so for the last part I had her repeat what she had just said. It worked really well; sometimes the mother of invention is necessity. We could have used a better camera, but I kind of like the roughness of it.
JS It was actually a very bold move to introduce the beautiful movie star on video. Every actor’s nightmare is video. Everyone looks so bad on video.
JT And she is talking about, how do I look? What she’s trying to say is “Do I look good enough to play a part like this?” We tried it other ways, but we were rehearsing a lot of this in the dressing room where the video camera would be shooting her opening monologue each night.
JS How did you go about rehearsing for this play?
JT We sat around a table for two weeks. For almost two weeks we did not stand up. When people started to stand around the table, it was really clunky because when you block and there’re five people—
JS And no furniture—
JT The actors decided that it would be better not to be drinking, so you’re imagining them drinking.
JS I love the plate of cake with no cake on it.
JT I said, Just give me a prettier plate. (laughter) You know, when you came, on Sunday, Larry started his first speech. I had given him all these notes—when he stopped and started again, that was not in the play.
JS Oh, I assumed it was directorial.
JT No, I had given him enough freedom to try that, and he did. He said, “I’m rehearsing,” and then started again. It was so much better. We’ve had the actors call, “Line!” in the previews to see if that would work. It does occasionally.
JS That’s risky. It’s a very tricky play, so delicate.
JT It’s tricky to get actors to work together and not be separate. Linda and Denis know each other, they are good friends, so that really helps. The director has nothing to do with that.
JS You can’t direct chemistry. But having been such an incredible actor, and being able to enter into the world of a character so intuitively—how does that affect you as a director?
JT I’ve given up trying to say that this is the way I would do this or that. I know sometimes how something needs to be or could be done. But it’s too bad when the director thinks, I could show this person how to do it. First of all, in America, actors don’t like that. Certain European directors will act it out for you.
JS It’s kind of a shorthand at times.
JT I don’t think it’s so bad. A couple times I’ve said, What about this? For example, when Denis was building this beach, I said, What if you just run and jump—
JS That was one of the most joyful things I have seen on stage.
A friend of mine once said that the great thing about directing is you get to play all the roles. Not out loud, or not that you show them how to do it. But you have access to characters; you know how to work with an actor’s tools.
JT Sometimes I’ve made the mistake of telling the actor: this is where the scene could go. It doesn’t really compute because your frame of reference is different from theirs.
JS That’s the trap of being an actor who is directing.
JT So last night we got some really good stuff. I was able to say a simple thing to Linda about her anxiety attack, to add a little more about the idea that you’re trying to keep your balance … . And she did.
JS Usually when you see an actor have an attack like that on stage they are making it happen, even if they’re very good at it, but with her I felt like she was trying to stop it from happening. You know, they couldn’t be more different, but in some way I was reminded, in watching A Spanish Play, of your work in Francesco Rosi’s film adaptation of Levi’s memoir, The Truce. You played Primo Levi. That was such an extraordinary performance; your work was so relaxed and understated. Did Rosi influence you a lot as an actor/director?
JT I have to say it was freeing. I had spent five years reading Primo Levi’s books, so I was so ready to do it, but I was intimidated, too. Right now, in A Spanish Play, I am trying to keep a certain privacy. I want to get the actors to share their privacy with the audience rather than make it into this public event. We tried that the other night, and it was loud, but loud and empty. I want them to be trying to reach each other, to be heard in their own way, and that encompasses any kind of expression, from the craziest to the subtlest. Delicate acting is the hardest acting to do. The Truce is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was a breakthrough for me as an actor.
JS Your performance was so delicate and fragile and beautiful.
JT Well, it’s a European screenplay, a European writer—when I did the de Filippo play last year, Souls of Naples, there were things in that play that I just loved doing, that I felt so connected to. There is a different sensibility. When I was in the Ukraine, I was watching and thinking, Yeah, that’s how Chekhov should be done. That’s why Andre Serban had some successful productions: The Cherry Orchard in New York, for example, because he was close to it in sensibility—the buffoonery, the heat, and the delicacy of it. But usually in New York, it becomes much more of an English approach to a Russian sensibility, which is very different. The Russians are much closer to the Latins. Really, really crazy. Yet you don’t see that kind of work. I like working with those kinds of writers. When Yasmina asked me to direct A Spanish Play, she said, I think you understand something about me, instinctively. When I read the play I was like, I don’t know what she is talking about. Intellectually, Linda has been able to mine certain things in the play that actually helped me map some sections of it. But I think Yasmina asked me because I have the right irreverence for it.
JS When I started directing, I was so surprised when people came to me and said, Oh, that is such a June Stein production. I couldn’t see myself in it. I thought that this is what anybody would do mounting this play. Then one day I was standing there and I saw it. I could suddenly see me all over the place. Has that ever happened to you?
JT I have actually seen it in movies. Yeah. I mean, I try to serve the piece rather than impose on it. Like the video stuff, I think, actually helps the play.
JS Not to mention all the photographs at the beginning. What an incredible intro to this play those were. When we come into the theater we see a large projection of a poster for a play, Hojaresca by Piñero, with five actors’ names on it. Before bringing the lights to full black there’s a parade of iconic photos projected. It’s a celebration, a crazy collage of actors playing characters from Marilyn to Sophia Loren, Chaplain, Brando, masks, turbans, even Samson! … the effect it created was that they all belonged to the same tribe. When Larry wanders onstage to watch the slide show with us we are prepared to enter the actors’ world.
JT There are a lot of European actors in there. I like that tradition.
JS It reminded me of your film Illuminata; the whole idea of an acting troupe.
JT You know, Larry’s character says actors are cowards, and yet maybe through his “role” in the play within the play he can find something that’s not cowardly. He actually speaks out for what it is to be able to do something well. Each one of the characters is a different kind of actor. One is looking for a breakthrough, one is pursuing this role that maybe she isn’t going to play. The other one is saying, I don’t want to play this part anymore. Some of the speeches are really hard to figure out.
JS That’s why you sat at a table for two weeks.
JT And we’re still figuring it out.
JS I think this is one of the most challenging plays to direct. In terms of collaborating with the actors on these roles, Kathy told me that you have given them a lot of freedom.
JT I’ve given them freedom. Linda at one time was struggling, and she said, Give me a result and I will fill it. I said I wouldn’t do it; I am not giving anyone any results. It doesn’t have to do with the other people on stage. It has to do with the design. I would rather the rhythm of the play come out of what they are pursuing, what they are trying to do. If you are trying to affect someone, then you are not going to bore them. The other night Larry was a little too muscular in the seduction scene with Zoe. I said, Don’t forget, this is the first impression you’re making on someone. There are all different ways of seducing, but open up, show someone: this is who I am. The guy is a pool player. He can talk about a pool stick all day long. (laughter) So I’d rather the rhythms come out of that, because then they’ll know what they’re doing.
JS Everyone was in the same play, in the same space.
JT There’s a New York trap. When I watch New York acting—and I have been a victim of it myself—people want to act well; they are trying to be good. There is a kind of sweaty, ambitious thing.
JS I find acting in New York very muscled. That was completely absent in this production.
JT Well, it’s a small space. It’s intimate, like a chamber for a piece of chamber music. It really is designed that way.
JS When is your film Romance and Cigarettes coming out?
JT That’s a really good question. That’s been a long, hard journey because we lost our distributor. It’s done well in a few countries in Europe, but … I took a calculated risk because I had the backing of a group. But when there are these big mergers, things disappear, and we got crushed in the middle of it. I have to say, doing this play has gotten me back on my feet with my instincts. Because when something like that happens you start to feel like, Why should I expose myself?
JS A lot of your earlier work as an actor is with Spike Lee and the Coen Brothers. Did they each work very differently with you?
JT With Spike we did a lot of improvisations. We rehearsed and talked. Guys like Joel and Ethan, they write really, really tight. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try ten different ways of doing something. So you’re improvising in the how. With other stuff you’re actually improvising the content. I just did this miniseries for ESPN where I played Billy Martin. I read all these books on Billy Martin, and every day the director and I would go through the scenes, and I would rewrite them based on the books. Not from scratch. I would work with the writer; we would argue it out while I was getting my ears glued on. It became a daily process for us. It was exhausting, but good. The director just said, You guys bring me the content. He was the receiver and the orchestrator. With Spike, he likes doing that early on, and then he incorporates it into the script. The older I get, the more I realize that it’s a team effort. I don’t want to be right or wrong. I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong. Whatever works best.
JS What are the similarities and differences in directing actors for film and for stage?
JT It’s not that different except that actors on stage have to be able to sustain things and be very disciplined. Working in stage is really exhausting, but it’s less mechanical. It’s more physical. It’s more about the actor’s relationship with the director, and it’s much more intimate. I think that’s why a lot of good directors used to act. In a movie you have to stage things more for the camera. There are a lot of movies where all you do is sit, or just stand. There’s no staging, no movement. My experience from the stage helps me; I come up with all kinds of things to make the physical life happen—
JS If you were to give advice to young directors—
JT I used to read all these books and keep journals and take my work seriously, and that doesn’t hurt. But also to keep your eye on what’s going on around you, what’s going on in the world, and what’s going on in life, interactions with people. That’s where you get your fuel for the material. Kazan used to take each actor out and spend time with him or her. So he knew the human material; he knew whom he was working with. You can’t ask for trust, you have to create an atmosphere so that there’s openness.
JS This is a great-sized theater. Have you directed in three-quarters before?
JT Well, I’ve acted a lot in three-quarters. I actually like acting in it. Maybe not this close—I like the audience a little further back—but I like it, almost better than proscenium in some ways. It’s harder with five people, because someone’s always going to be a little blocked, so I’ve tried to keep it on as much of an angle as I can.
JS What first led you to direct, and what do you see yourself doing next?
JT That’s a good question. If I could direct more, and interesting things, I think I would. Obviously I have to make a living. It’s probably easier for me to make a living acting than directing, but I think you learn more about who you are when you’re directing.
JS The canvas is so much larger.
JT Yeah, and you’re really much more exposed in some ways. This is nice because it’s a kind of combination: it’s a play, and you have the translator, David Ives, and you have the actors, so you feel partly exposed. Whereas if you make a movie, that you wrote, directed and produced, that’s like—
JS That’s like getting naked.
JT On the other hand, I don’t think I would give up acting completely. I like acting.
JS You were really young when you did Mac, and the performances in Mac were amazing.
JT Yeah, but I had been acting a long, long time. And we rehearsed the movie for, like, a year.
JS You had this very emotional scene in Mac. It was at the auction, when you wanted the land, and you went crazy outbidding the other guy in order to get it. What was so great about that moment was that it was never just like, I want to win. It was born of the need to get the land so that you could pay tribute to your father. That’s the underlying thing that drove you.
JT That was born out of me knowing where the source comes from.
JS Are there any great roles that you would want to play, if somebody offered?
JT You mean on stage? I was kidding with Zoe because she directed Hamlet, years ago. David Thornton had a small part, and Christopher Noth played Hamlet. I said, you know, “I’m so angry that you didn’t—” And she said, “Well, I didn’t know you then!” That’s a role I would have liked to take a shot at.
JS I could see you playing Hamlet.
JT I wouldn’t do one of those plays unless it was really the right kind of cast. Because they’ve been done well. I love Uncle Vanya as a play. I thought the film of the play Uncle Vanya that Larry was in by Louis Malle and Andre Gregory was beautiful. I’ve always liked The Cherry Orchard. I mean, Chekhov. Then there are Shakespearean roles. There’s Pinter and Brecht. You really have to work on getting the right group together who would sacrifice their time to do the right thing. I did Godot that one time, and that’s a play I could revisit very easily.
JS I saw that right here in this theater.
JT Something I really wish I had done: Phillip Roth had asked me many years ago … I did a reading of Portnoy’s Complaint —
JS Oh, my God!
JT Now I’m getting a little long in the tooth for it. I think the guy’s supposed to be 30 or something. I really regret not doing that. He had chosen me, personally, to do it. And I just couldn’t give up a year of my life at that time. But I should have just, somehow—
JS Shoulda, coulda, woulda. (laughter)
JT But that is something that I regret.
JS Do you want to direct more movies?
JT Yeah, I have scripts. I have scripts that I’ve written, or worked with a writer on, or co-written, or adapted.
JS So you want to keep doing everything.
JT I like to try to balance things out. I could see myself doing more plays, but it’s hard when you have a family. If I did a play for a year on Broadway I don’t know when I would see my children. There are a lot of things that interest me. I like to be in a situation where I have a venue to show in. That’s all.
JS Which brings me to that question; what first brought you to directing?
JT I had a story that I wanted to tell. I worked with a lot of student directors at Yale, and it was an uneven group because we were too young to be in charge of something. There are certain things that maybe you’re very good at at that age, and then there are other things that you have less knowledge of personally. You don’t have experiences. I did a play like Life x 3, and a lot of us didn’t have experience with raising kids. And that was a big part of that play. And Chekhov, when I saw it early on, like Raul Julia doing it with Serban. And then I went to Russia and the Ukraine—I’ve rarely seen a great Chekhov production. It’s really hard. I actually saw one that was a pretty good production at Yale. The guy who looks like Ed Koch—Lee Wallace—played Uncle Vanya, and Glenn Close was Yelena. I saw Dianne Wiest play Hedda [Gabler]. That was one of the great performances. She was brilliant.
JS What an interesting piece of casting. Where did you see that?
JT At Yale Rep, when I was a student. James Earl Jones was Judge Brock, and the guy who played Hedda’s husband was a sexy French actor. He wasn’t a nerd at all. It was a good production. You need actors with skill and complexity. I’m interested in directing something with people that I’m going to have a real encounter with.
JS Well, it’s like an artist working with paints from the dime store. It doesn’t—
JT As a young director you have to understand what you don’t know.
JS That’s a big one, to understand what you don’t know.
JT Exactly, to say, I really don’t understand that part; I don’t know what that means. Humility is a very attractive quality. I keep telling Riccardo, I would never have thought of the slide projection if you hadn’t brought me to it.
JS Well listen, I think you’re tired.
JT I’m retiring.
JS (laughter) You’re going to retire. Right. You’re going to keep going until the day you drop.
June Stein is a director, actress, and poet. She has directed premiere productions for The Vineyard Theatre, Circle Repertory Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and The Magic Theatre. She has appeared in films directed by Tim Robbins, Sidney Lumet, Bette Gordon, and John Turturro, and is on the faculty of Columbia University’s Graduate Film School.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.