He has played a screenwriter with writer’s block, a competitive game show contestant, a racist pizzeria employee and even the figment of a novelist's imagination.
John Turturro’s latest challenge in a career that spans more than three decades, however, has the Brooklyn-born actor-filmmaker going into untested waters: He needs to be convincing as a male escort.
Turturro is being honored Sunday night with a Career Achievement Tribute award as part of this year's Miami International Film Festival, and the distinction extends not only to the 90-plus roles the character actor has brought to life in front of the camera but to the five features he has directed.
In his latest effort, the wistful comedy Fading Gigolo, the Golden Globe nominee plays Fioravante, a plumber who has fallen onto hard times.
The solution to his money troubles comes in the form of a proposal by Murray, a longtime friend who has been forced to shutter his rare book shop and is played, in quite the casting coup, by Woody Allen. In what sounds like a ludicrous notion, Murray suggests that his would-be business partner offer his services as a male prostitute to his dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone).
What follows is not a broad farce or a ribald sex comedy but a mellow, surprisingly melancholy New York story with a strong sense of time and place. Turturro gradually integrates the Orthodox Jewish community in Fioravante and Murray’s neighborhood when Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a devoutly observant widow, emerges as a potential love interest for Turturro’s character. (Sofía Vergara, Liev Schreiber and Jill Scott round out the eclectic cast.)
It’s a notable change of pace for Turturro, 57, both as an actor and the man calling the shots. He is, after all, best known for his unhinged, jumpy screen persona. Starting with an uncredited bit part in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Turturro made a name for himself as the go-to actor for intense, unsavory and typically neurotic character roles, giving his breakthrough performance in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
He was everywhere you looked in the ’90s, a staple in critically acclaimed productions by Lee ( Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues) and frequent collaborators Joel and Ethan Coen ( Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski), who gave him his first starring role in Barton Fink as a New York playwright hired by a Hollywood producer in 1941 to write a wrestling movie. The film went on to win three awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, including the prestigious Palme d’Or.
Turturro, however, is equally at home in more mainstream studio films. Multiplex audiences will probably recognize him as paranoid government agent Seymour Simmons in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, a role the actor reportedly based on the Bad Boys director. Fans of lowbrow humor will immediately associate him with a string of Adam Sandler films such as Mr. Deeds and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, which gave him the opportunity to unleash his id, unrestrained by restraint or good taste. (In Mr. Deeds, a remake of Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, he played a butler with a foot fetish.)
The MIFF award represents an opportunity for South Florida audiences to become better acquainted with Turturro the director. Mac, his 1992 debut feature, was a drama about three working-class brothers who start their construction company after their father dies. While it didn’t find much of an audience stateside, the film garnered Turturro the Camera d’Or at Cannes for best first feature (and also screened at MIFF in 1993). Perhaps his most high-profile directorial effort was Romance & Cigarettes, a brash musical starring the late James Gandolfini as an iron worker kicked out by his wife (Susan Sarandon) after she finds out he’s having an affair with a lingerie salesgirl (Kate Winslet).
Turturro’s talent seems to run in the family. His younger brother Nick, who co-starred with him in Mac, is a prolific TV vet ( NYPD Blue, Blue Bloods), and fans of HBO’s The Sopranos have become intimately familiar with his sister Aida, who played Tony Soprano’s baby sister in the Jersey mob series.
Entering his fourth decade in film, Turturro shows no signs of slowing down. Upcoming projects include Ridley Scott’s biblical epic Exodus opposite Christian Bale and Aaron Paul, as well as directing and starring in one of the segments in the anthology film Rio, I Love You.