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"Fading Gigolo" director John Turturro talks women, love and aging

JOHN TURTURRO IS A GENTLEMAN. Genuine. That is not noted for kiss-ass effect. Few actors are as polite, authentic or courteous. He escorts departing interviewers from a suite. When you talk to him you sense he's not biding his time for the next interviewer to arrive. Except for questions about Woody Allen's personal life, which some have been foolish enough to ask him, John Turturro will talk about anything. He's a disarming figure to such a pleasant degree.

Actor-director John Turturro on the set of his documentary "Passione" (2011).
Actor-director John Turturro on the set of his documentary "Passione" (2011).
Courtesy: S.F. Film Society
John Turturro as Fioravante in his comedy-romance "Fading Gigolo".
John Turturro as Fioravante in his comedy-romance "Fading Gigolo".
Millennium Films

On a late afternoon Mr. Turturro, 57, a bespectacled Brooklynite, sits comfortably, nattily attired in a medium-blue suit. Distinct yet indistinguishable.

In feel and scenery very familiar to New Yorkers is "Fading Gigolo", the new film that Mr. Turturro wrote, directed and starred in. The film is familiar as a celebration of the Big Apple and some of its lonelier, more isolated, lovelorn, love-crazed and diverse people. The comedy-drama looks at two New York filmmakers in the roles of pimp, Murray (Woody Allen), and gigolo (aka "ho") Fioravante (Mr. Turturro). Murray and Fioravante are long-time friends whose shifting economic circumstances as bookseller and florist find them reviving their off-the-books partnership in the world's oldest profession.

"My character's kind of like a samurai guy. He really likes women but never committed . . . he's very comfortable with women. And he's not a guy who's cocky, but who's like, confident, you know. He's not looking for the end result all the time," Mr. Turturro observed, noting the physical rhythms of his film. "There's rituals that go on with it but I like things that are physical without them being just violent, you know?"

Here in San Francisco the easygoing John Turturro is, as you would expect, relaxed. At the start he offers water to a guest. He's greatly appreciative and thankful when asked how his family is doing. At times his hand gently hits the table he sits at to emphasize a point he makes. He's a compassionate, sensitive and thoughtful figure. These qualities come through in "Fading Gigolo", which opened in San Francisco on May 2.

In the film Vanessa Paradis plays an Orthodox Jewish widow in Brooklyn, sheltered from the outside world, imprisoned by a lack of interaction and emotion. On the other end of the spectrum are Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara who play women looking for sexual adventure. Then there's Tonya Pinkins as a "matronly" stereotype character who is homemaker and girlfriend to Mr. Allen in the film.

"I love women. And I love, you know, there's nothing wrong with lust and sex and all that stuff too, but I think that women -- in order to understand a woman -- it's for a man a lot of times a big mystery. Certainly love is a very big mystery," Mr. Turturro acknowledges. "I think people who can listen to another person and can let that person be, allow themselves to come out -- then you're starting to appreciate someone on different levels. Not just on one level. You know what I mean? And that's something that interests me. And as you get older, that does."

John Turturro has been acting for 35 years. He's instantly recognizable on the big screen or on stage. Many remember him in "Four Corners" and Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" playing memorable New York types, infamous ones. He's had the bit parts ("Raging Bull", "Mr. Deeds", "Transformers"), the leads ("Barton Fink"), the voices ("Summer Of Sam") and the director's chair ("Illuminata", "Romance & Cigarettes", "Passione", "Mac".) He was in Mr. Allen's "Hannah And Her Sisters". It's surprising he hasn't been in more Allen films. He has children with wife Kathleen Borowitz, herself an actor and filmmaker. Ms. Borowitz was in "Internal Affairs" and starred with her husband in "Illuminata".

There's a distinctly feminine pulse throughout "Fading Gigolo" that registers and resonates. In a film world chock full of testosterone Mr. Turturro's latest directorial effort marinates, evokes, smells the roses and takes a few breaths. The breaths are enriched by affection, longing and warmth. The filmmaker himself now takes a moment to comment about members of his own gender.

"Lots of guys, they're interested in getting it, or whatever, and I don't think they actually like being with women that much. I actually have a lot of women friends. And I like, work with women designers and producers. I enjoy working with women. I really do. I feel freer. Honestly. And there are guys that I feel free with too. But they have to have a strong, like, you know, like, feminine-masculine side, you know what I mean? I just don't like innately, you know, macho, macho, macho. That doesn't turn -- I don't like being around it. And it doesn't bring out the best part of me."

There's more discussion about masculinity, about how it is often false and misleading, especially as depicted in American society and culture.

"Even the models of women being free, it's so in your face sometimes, you're like, 'whoa, I don't want to see everything, man, I want to discover a little bit.' And that's why I chose a woman who was oppressed as being one of the major characters, because I thought, 'wow - that's something interesting to go up against.' But yes, I think we're all victims of being, you know, sold very base ideas of things. And you've got to be exposed to other kinds of representations of that, whether it's in a book or a magazine. And I really don't see it that often."

Mr. Turturro is endlessly keen and philosophical as he describes his worldview and opines on the sexes and people in general. He makes his native Brooklyn his home, specifically Park Slope. The new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, is a neighbor. The actor-director is a supporter of Mr. de Blasio, whom he's known since the former's days as New York's Public Advocate. Like his gigolo character Fioravante Mr. Turturro isn't one to take people purely at face value.

"You can meet a great person and they can have the worst job in the world, you know? You can meet a very wonderful person who's a prostitute. And that person could have gone through a lot of things." These words are spoken somewhat as if a revelation but Mr. Turturro is simply passionate about connection, people, love and more expansive ways of viewing all of these. "You can't assume that you're better than someone else or you know more than them."

He laments a "greeting card mentality" toward people where nothing is hidden and everything is explained. Occasionally he is surprised when films or other representations of women or people in general show depth and range while moving or entertaining him. "'Wow, I have to think about that,'" is his typical reaction after such an experience. The characters in "Fading Gigolo" "have some real-life counterparts to them sometimes, and sometimes that was after I wrote them," he says. "These characters I could write another 90 pages like that for." He snaps his fingers for emphasis.

New York City is populous but can be a place of immense loneliness despite its sea of humanity. It isn't something Mr. Turturro expressly says but perhaps this more general comment could easily tie in: "I think it's a hard thing. And especially with aging, too, it can be a hard thing. And people don't realize there's this need for human contact, or companionship -- it never goes, man. It hits you in puberty and then you can be 85 years old and lose your -- and you're like, wow, people are still dating, and looking for, and falling in love."

Age and a lack of respect for elders in American culture is also something that's touched on. The topic prompts Mr. Turturro to talk about his new film and reaction to it. "It's interesting because everything has been skewed down to younger people. I've screened this movie for a lot of younger people, and they like the movie. And I'm thinking, 'well, why do they like it? It's not about them.' I was thinking, you know, when I was 20 I didn't want to see movies about 20 year olds. I wanted to see movies about people, you know, 35, 40 years old. I want to know what's going on, what's going to happen to me. And I tried to put these characters in situations that they had never been in. In some ways they were like they were 18 years old again."

"I think you know, people don't get it sometimes. And they're sold -- I mean for me I can meet women I had on my wall when I was 12 and I'm still like, wow, you know, man I mean I would like to --" He almost says say b as if to say bang -- "go out with them, you know what I mean? They may be 75. It doesn't matter to me man, I'm like - that would be. I still think they're beautiful. They're older, you know, that's all. And I don't know if they are interested in doing that, but maybe some are. But I think in America it's, sometimes can be very shortsighted. And when you skew everything and you feed that it's like giving people junk food."

This story can also be read here.

Omar P.L. Moore is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the editor and creator of The Popcorn Reel movie review/interview website. He is on Twitter @popcornreel. He can also be reached at editor@popcornreel.com, read at www.popcornreel.com and seen reviewing films at www.youtube.com/popcornreel.

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