Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Few actors have gotten do a second round of Random Roles, but when the opportunity to speak to John Turturro came around pegged to his latest film, The True Adventures Of Wolfboy, there was plenty more to cover from his work since our last chat with him in 2011.
The actor spoke to The A.V. Club during a few hours off from night shoots on The Batman in London. In addition to Wolfboy (now available to rent on demand), his current secretive work, and his recent roles in The Night Of and The Ridiculous 6, we also dove into his resumé to discuss favorites like Clockers and O Brother, Where Art Thou? that we didn’t get the chance to touch on the first time around.
You can hear the entire conversation—including a few credits not included in the text below—on the latest episode of The A.V. Club’s podcast Push The Envelope.
The True Adventures Of Wolfboy (2020)—“Mr. Silk”
Transformers (2007)—“Agent Simmons”
John Turturro: I just really liked the script. I thought it was about identity, someone being a real outcast, and explored a lot of different kinds of sexuality and transitioning and things that are in the public discourse. But I thought it was told from a very personal point of view, and I thought there was something special about the script. I’m playing sort of the antagonist of it—someone who takes advantage of someone’s difference and basically exploits them, which was done a lot years ago in the circus or freak shows and things like that. I feel like we still do that to a certain degree. Not as much, but people look away still, [from] handicapped people, other kinds of people—people have been fighting to have their voices heard. So I think it’s always good to be involved in something that comes out of someone’s experience.
AVC: You’re working on a film with a much larger budget right now. Do you enjoy one over the other? Do you feel any difference in preparing for one of those kind of pieces compared to a smaller project?
JT: Well, I could have—early on in my career—been in a lot of big budget movies, and I basically never did, for years, because there were medium-sized films. So I would do medium-sized films, low-budget films, I would do theater, and I’d go back and forth to independent movies. But the medium-sized film has disappeared. I hadn’t really done a big movie until I did Transformers. My kids both said, “You always turn down everything.” I got offered a lot of big movies and I never did them. And then I kind of enjoyed doing the Transformers. It’s more like you’re working in two dimensions. It’s not really three dimensional. It’s like a fine oil painting versus a really good sketch. But within that, there’s a lot of challenges to make it fun. So I think you have to bring with it the child within you and my own sensibility. I like things that have everything in it—has humor and darkness. You know, like life. Life is like a black comic tragedy. I’ve done Beckett and Chekhov, so I kind of know what I really like. But you have to make a living and do different things. And you can enjoy it all. Each thing is a challenge. That’s what I’m doing now. It’s different, but it’s a challenge, so you try to feel it out, for the sensibility that it requires.
AVC: When we spoke to you for our Random Roles interview in 2011, you spoke about your very first credit on IMDB, which was an uncredited, one-line part in Raging Bull. But there’s a second credit listed there, which is “Guy #1” in 1984’s Exterminator 2.
JT: Oh no, that’s not my credit. I never did that movie, for some reason. I auditioned for it, and I think they wanted me for it, but I didn’t do it. I wound up doing something else. That’s that’s a false credit.
AVC: So we’ve got to yell at IMDb. But you mentioned for Raging Bull that you did multiple auditions.
JT: I was in college when that happened. I was doing a showcase with my friend Michael Badalucco, and Robert De Niro—who was one of our heroes—came to the showcase. They were looking for all different young actors. So I got my first professional audition. I didn’t have a resumé, a picture or anything. And we took pictures and my girlfriend’s garage—Michael and I—and we decided to prepare a scene from the book, which I had read as a kid, because my father was a big boxing aficionado and an amateur boxer. I collected 8mm, 5mm films from Jim Jacobs, who was Mike Tyson’s manager. I used to subscribe to Ring magazine, so I knew a lot about boxing. So we adapted a scene between Jake and his best friend, which was like his brother in the movie, but from the book. And we told them we had a scene prepared. We’d rehearsed it all different ways. And then they we met Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. And Bob was really supportive of us doing the scene. I think they appreciated that we had been prepared. And so they kept calling us back, both of us, for about a year. Michael Badalucco is one of my best friends, but I have a very long relationship with Bob and and Marty, too.
AVC: They probably appreciated the initiative that you all took.
JT: That’s what happens when you’re naive and innocent. I think a lot of great things come out of innocence, you know, with the right intentions.
Clockers (1995)—“Larry Mazilli”
JT: Unfortunately, a lot of what we did in Clockers was cut, because the book is so long. Now, it would be a six-hour miniseries. A lot of what I did was cut, and Spike [Lee] felt really bad about that. But, you know, I love the book. It was really fascinating to do. And the most fascinating part of the whole movie was, I rode with the homicide squad and I still have friends that I met there. All the actors would go one at a time, but I was the lucky actor: Whenever I went, there was a killing. They would put things up my nose for the smell, wrap my feet in plastic. The detectives were really black comics—they had to survive, you know? Actually, on the last murder they asked me to take some fingerprints off the wall. “It’s about time that you do something, not just watch.” It made such an impression on me, and I’ve drawn on my research from that film plenty.
Summer Of Sam (1999)—“Harvey the Black Dog” (voice)
AVC: One of the things that you’ve been asked to pull out of your box of tricks time and time again has been your voiceover talent. You did Monkeybone, and narrated a couple of documentaries for Biography in 2001. But we wanted to talk about Summer Of Sam.
JT: [Laughs.] Spike talked me into doing because he wanted me to be in it, and I wanted to take a vacation. So someone else did the part he wanted me to do. I think maybe he felt like I was his good luck charm or something, so he made me play the voice of the dog that drives [David Berkowitz] crazy. And my friend, Michael Badalucco, who we mentioned before, was in Jungle Fever also, he plays David Berkowitz in the movie—and I’m the dog. I couldn’t believe that he asked me to do that. I was dying laughing. We tried different kinds of tacks on that.
You know, Monkeybone was very hard because they wanted me to pitch my voice so high. I kept thinking, “Well, why don’t you just get [someone with a higher voice]? But the guy really worked really, really hard and he worked so hard on that movie and, you know. It didn’t meet the expectations that he wanted it to. But it’s hard. There’s a real skill to doing a voice or voiceover.
AVC: Had you studied voiceover?
JT: I studied voice at Yale and studied singing afterwards. But I’d done lots of different accents sometimes. You know, I did Quiz Show, for example, and the character had a very high voice, Herb Stempel. [Puts on a nasally voice.] He talked very, very high. I can’t really do it right now, because I have to warm my voice up. [Switches back to normal voice.] I had to work really hard because I wanted to match his voice.
Right now, my voice is a little husky because I’ve been working nights. And then you have to sustain it. That’s the hard thing. When I did Jesus, too [in The Big Lebowski], my voice was high. That was based on somebody that I knew.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)— “Pete Hogwallop”
AVC: This film had such an impactful tone, but that soundtrack just had such staying power.
JT: When I listened to the music, I thought it was terrific, but I never thought it was going to take off like that. It was a blast making the movie. [The Coen brothers] are very organized. They always have enough time to do what they’ve imagined. And it was a great cast. I remember I had to learn how to play the songs on this little mandolin. And then at the end, they told me, “You’re not going to play it. You’re going to yodel.” And I was like, “I don’t know how to yodel!” So I had to kind of fake it. But I did do some of the choreography, because I’m a closet dancer.
When that film came out, it did okay. The reviews were like, “This is a shaggy dog tale.” They weren’t getting the wonderment of it all. And then the album took off and they asked them to put a little money into certain states where the album was doing well. And that kind of brought the film back. But I always thought it was a family movie. And I think that if they would have presented it that way… You know, little kids like that movie. They do. They don’t get everything, but they like it. It’s a family movie. When I watch it now… Many of [the Coen brothers’] films are better on second, third, fourth, fifth viewings. It’s a really funny movie, and the music is great. I mean, certain directors really love music, and the soundtrack just was great.
You know, the only one who is really on the soundtrack is Tim [Blake Nelson], because he sang that one song [“In The Jailhouse Now”]. But when we sang “A Man Of Constant Sorrow,” we were all replaced because they wanted it to be a hit record. Though it sounds like us, actually.
Flight Of The Conchords (2007)—“Credits Cop”
AVC: You did a cameo for a credits scene on Flight Of The Conchords.
JT: I just showed up! I thought it was a funny show, and they asked me to do a little something, and I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Those guys were fun. I don’t really remember that much about it because when you just do one day, you’re just trying to make sure you get your lines.
AVC: That’s great that you were a fan of the show and the opportunity just came to be.
JT: Some people have a plan, you know? I mean, I have a plan, like things that I really want to do and I try to do—whether it’s in the theater or with a film I get behind. Everyone does that to a certain extent, if you’re industrious. But sometimes I am a fan of some people. Like, I’m a big fan of Larry David. I love him. I mean, he just makes me laugh. And especially in times like now, you need that. And he’s really truthful. I was a big fan of Seinfeld, too. So if Larry David said, “Hey, John, I want you to come on and do something crazy for me—I don’t want to say what that would be,” I would do whatever he wanted me to do.
The Big Lebowski (1998); The Jesus Rolls (2019)—“Jesus Quintana”
JT: [The Big Lebowski] is another thing that emerged after it was released. And it just goes to show you, you have these movies that win Best Picture. They win this, they win that. And then you forget about it. It never goes into the zeitgeist. And Lebowski… People carry that with them when they go to serve, when they go to war, you know? So you never know.
AVC: We discussed The Big Lebowski with you in our previous interview. But since then, you got to write and direct The Jesus Rolls. What was it like expanding your Lebowski experience?
JT: Well, that character was originated in a play that [the Coens] saw, and then they incorporated it into The Big Lebowski. It was a little different version of it, but it’s like a very close cousin to what I had done. So then everyone, because I had a small part, wanted me to do something with that character. And because I had done it on stage, I knew there was way more depth to it and dimension to it. And so, I always wanted to be Joel and Ethan didn’t want to write it. And we had this crazy idea once about [Jesus] being a bus driver getting on a show, but it didn’t come to fruition. And then I adapted this French book called
Les Valseuses, which has been translated into Going Places—a crazy movie that I saw when I was, like, 19. It was really shocking, it still is. But I liked something about it, because it was about underachievers—men like in The Big Lebowski, who live without ambition. They live moment to moment. They live and they enjoy life. It was really hard to do it, to get the rights, but Joel and Ethan [Cohen] helped me. But I did it, and I’m really happy I did it.
The Ridiculous 6 (2015)—“Abner Doubleday”
Mr. Deeds (2002)—“Emilio Lopez”
Anger Management (2003)—“Chuck”
You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (2008)—“Phantom”
AVC: The Ridiculous 6 reunited you with Adam Sandler…
JT: That was another one-day thing.
AVC: You have such a moment in that film, for it to be a one-day thing.
JT: Sometimes I can’t do it, but he really asked me to do it. I must have said no, like, 20 times. “I can’t do it.” And then finally, we found a window that I could come in, and I did it. And I guess people enjoy it. It’s about the beginning of baseball.
AVC: What is it about your working relationship with Adam that makes you both want to keep working together?
JT: Well, I met Adam when I hosted Saturday Night Live in 1994 [while promoting Quiz Show]. And I thought he was good in his movies. I think he’s done some great work—I thought he was terrific in Uncut Gems. And when he asked me to do Mr. Deeds, I think they originally asked me to do a big part. But I liked these two smaller parts and I said, “Could you put them together?” And he had a similar idea. And they basically let me do exactly what I wanted—whenever I wanted to do. And and I did. I designed the costume and everything. And I had a really good experience that first time, on Mr. Deeds. That’s a really good character. Playing a butler is always a good part. So I think that kind of cemented that we had a really good time.
And then he asked me to do Anger Management, because he told Jack Nicholson I was going to be in it. He sort of blackmailed me. I was like, “You told him I was going to be in it already?! I don’t know if I can do it!” And anyway, I did that. And then I had a lot of fun doing Zohan. That, I knew he was obsessed with. He’d always talk about it. In fact, we leave messages for each other, the Phantom against the Zohan.
You know, we like to play basketball. He’s a good guy. I think he’s very talented, and I’ve always had fun with them. I think Adam’s done some really, really terrific work as an actor, not just as a comedic actor, you know. Maybe he’ll be in one of my movies one of these days.
The Night Of (2016)— “John Stone”
The Plot Against America (2020)— “Rabbi Bengelsdorf”
JT: [The Night Of] is one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done. I thought the material was fantastic. They want to continue that character, but they just haven’t figured out the story they want to do. But working with Steve Zallian and Richard Price, the material was fantastic. It was a great cast. And I had a lot of time to prepare. I did a lot of research. My research from Clockers helped me; it had a lot of connections. I loved doing it, and people were obsessed with the series. I think sometimes you just hit something. It just spoke to me and I really got lost in it. I would really love to revisit that character, and everybody—including HBO—really wants to. But I just really want to do it with those guys, so we’ll see. Riz [Ahmed] and I had terrific chemistry together, but the whole cast was a really, really excellent group of people and Steve did a fantastic job in directing.
AVC: A few years later you did another HBO miniseries, The Plot Against America.
JT: You know, there are more stories that work perfectly for two hours, three hours. But there’s a lot of books that have been adapted that have been truncated. It’s kind of like a massacre of the book in two hours. Some stories are more episodic, and it’s closer to novelization. It’s closer to reading a novel. You pick it up, you put it down, you pick it up. Charles Dickens used to write in installments in newspapers, and people would read maybe a chapter or not. And The New Yorker, when it was really thick, did the same thing. It’s a form that the BBC has done for years, going way back. And I think people have picked up on it, and they love it. If you love the characters and there’s a specificity and a complexity to things, it can really sustain for four, five, six episodes. There are some stories that you can’t tell in two hours. People get obsessed with it. I mean, I saw it on The Night Of. People would write to me, “What’s going to happen with the cat?” They were so concerned about the cat. I was like, “They’re not even concerned about Riz, but they’re concerned about the cat!” But I was like, “I can’t tell you. My lips are sealed.”
I just think it’s like a novel: If you like reading novels, it’s a great forum for some things. Sometimes the story is stretched to make it work, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t. And then sometimes you see everything’s going perfectly, and then it has to rush because they only had so many episodes. The Night Of was a great case of not rushing. I mean, our last episode was like an hour and 40 minutes. That had the richness, the canvas. The Plot Against America, there is rich story there, too. Maybe could even have been longer. But you get a certain amount of money to do it within that. But I did think there was plenty to tell within it.
AVC: I know you can’t talk about plot or anything like that, but what can you tell us about your experience filming The Batman?
JT: Well, it’s been a little surreal—just because everyone has masks on around the set and we’re making a film with people who wear masks and stuff. But it’s got a great cast, which everyone knows. And the director’s terrific, Matt Reeves. And I’m enjoying it. I never thought I’d be in a Batman film. I was a big Zorro fan. I was a big Batman fan from the comics and the television series. My sons both love Batman, and my older son, he works at DC Comics. And so I’ve played with these figures, with them and by myself. So it’s kind of bizarre to say, “Wow, this is like playing make believe as a kid, or with my kids.” And so it’s fun. They’re working very hard. But all I can say is it’s got a beautiful look and I’m enjoying it.
Subscribe to Push The Envelope for new episodes every Thursday. And if you’re a fan, remember to rate and comment as well. And thus ends our shameless plug.
The True Adventures Of Wolfboy is now streaming on demand.