At 67, veteran character actor Dennis Farina (“Out of Sight,” “Midnight Run,” “Get Shorty”) has played his fair share of weathered tough guys. In Joe Maggio’s “The Last Rites of Joe May” (out this Friday, November 4), he plays another — but this time, the Chicago-born actor takes center stage.
In the gritty drama, Farina stars as Joe May, an aging, short-money hustler clinging to the belief that he still has a future in the game. The film opens with May being released from the hospital with no one there to greet him. Returning to his neighborhood in Chicago’s Patch District, May finds his car gone, his possessions pawned by his landlord and his apartment rented out to a single mother in an abusive relationship. With no one to turn to, May finds himself struggling to make one last shot at redemption before it’s too late.
A game Farina spoke with indieWIRE in New York about shooting in his hometown and why May is a different cat from the rest.
So this marks a real passion project for you. You not only star in the film, but you played a large part in getting in made by backing it with your production company You’re Faded Films. Why did it speak to you strongly?
Joe [Maggio] had written the script about five of six years ago. I read it and I fell in love with it right away within the first five pages. It was set in New York, in Brooklyn. I met with Joe and I asked him if there was any possibility that we could shoot it in Chicago. Number one, there’s better tax incentives in Illinois than there is in New York State. I also hadn’t worked in Chicago in a long time. So Joe came to Chicago, looked around and he adjusted.
Was it the character, the plot that you reacted to?
You know what it was to me? When I was reading the script the first thing that struck me, was that when Joe May was leaving the hospital, he knew that no one was waiting. Usually when you leave a hospital, there’s somebody. Even if it’s a friend who comes to pick you up. But he just walks out, looks around and goes to a bar. The first words out of the bartender’s mouth are, “I thought you were dead.” That was very interesting to me. He [Joe May] thought that he was very important in his little world, his bar. But then he finds out that everyone thought he was dead. So his self worth is just stripped from him. He’s a fish out of water. Guys like this don’t exist too much anymore.
Do you know guys like Joe May?
Oh yeah. There are still guys like Joe around. If you know who they are and you take them for their worth, then they’re fine. I mean Joe May is not a bad guy. He’s not a killer. He doesn’t hurt people.
They’re very likable people and I hope Joe May is. But they’re people who’s time is coming on. In a large part, that’s what this movie is about.
What kind of flavor do you think Chicago brought to the production?
Here was the one thing we knew going in. We wanted the weather to be a character in the movie. Joe wears a jacket that’s completely inappropriate for that time of year [winter]. But that doesn’t matter to him. Looking good is better than feeling good to him.
You’re from Chicago. How familiar are you with the Patch District where the film’s set? How would you characterize it?
Oh yeah, I am. It’s going through a lot of gentrification now. It’s a neighborhood that I didn’t grow up in — I grew up in Little Sicily, the adjacent neighborhood — but the Patch was a small Italian immigrant community that through the years has grown up. It was a neighborhood that was filled with little bakeries, beef stands and grocery stores.The neighborhood is pretty vital now.
You’ve played your fair share of mob types. May’s a rough guy like the rest, but he’s also lost and in a really vulnerable spot.
When I read it, I realized it was a much subtler character than I’ve been involved with. If Joe had been more successful in his life, he would have been somebody, like the guys I played in “Get Shorty” or “Snatch.” He would have taken a step up. But he never did.
I like the idea of underplaying everything. I enjoyed doing it. Because I’d done the other, I’ve enjoyed doing the other. I don’t know if broad humor is the right term. Every character I’ve enjoyed doing, but this was another kind of character. Everybody likes to do that. Switch it up.
What kind of prep work went into playing Joe May?
I have to say, it was all pretty much there. The situations were all there. Joe and I pretty much agreed on everything. We did have some lengthy discussions on a few things, but not a lot. Joe said to me, “If you want to do something, say something, go ahead and do it.” I have to say, the character and the situations were all there. You read a lot of scripts and you know a good one. They really stand out, they pop.
Some critics are touting your performance as a revelation, akin to the sort of praise Mickey Rourke was lavished with when “The Wrestler” came out. Does this feel like a milestone of sorts for you?
Well, it’s always nice to be challenged. You always want to do good work, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve been very fortunate in my career that certain scripts have come my way. If “Joe May” means I have to challenge myself a bit more, I’m all right with that.