John Turturro had Woody Allen’s voice in his head when penning the script for his latest directorial effort, “Fading Gigolo,” but the film owes as much to comedic collaboration as it does to the fact that their mutual barber couldn’t keep a secret. “Don’t tell Woody,” Turturro apparently instructed his coiffeur after spilling the idea during a routine trim. Of course, telling Woody is exactly what he did and luckily Allen was sold on the concept almost immediately.
Acting for a director aside from himself for the first time in 14 years, Allen plays Murray, a bumbling bookstore proprietor who resorts to pimping out his younger friend, Fioravante (Turturro), when his business goes under. A jack of all trades who works primarily as a florist, the gentle Fioravante is able to satisfy the needs of his upper class clients with relative ease until Murray procures a Hassidic widow (played with great sensitivity by Vanessa Paradis) for his services.
For a premise that promises all shtick and no substance, “Fading Gigolo” offers a surprisingly tender portrayal of loneliness and connection in the big city—for every outlandish situational set-up there is an equally touching reminder of the base human need for companionship, both emotional and physical. Indiewire caught up with the affable Turturro to discuss sex, religion, and what it’s like to direct Woody Allen. [“Fading Gigolo” opens in select theaters Friday, April 18.]
Fioravante is in many ways an everyman but there’s also something indescribably magnetic about him—what inspired the character?
He’s a quiet man, he could be in a Western…more of a taciturn guy. I thought it would be interesting to take a more verbal guy like Woody and pair him with someone quiet. Not that I’m not verbal at all—but exploring a man who’s very good physically: he’s good at cooking, making things, fixing this and that but he’s not an ambitious person. I know people like that and they interest me. They’re very attractive because they can do so much, they’re not afraid to investigate. If a car breaks down most people don’t know what to do but they get right in there.
Is it easier writing a script knowing you’re going to play the main character?
Well it was really for me and Woody so I was concentrating on that dynamic initially. It was conceived for us. Woody liked the idea and I liked the idea, and in the end it was difficult to figure out how to skew it—how quiet to make [my character], would he be able to laugh and relax with his friends and then be quieter and more reserved with others? He’s not a cold person; he’s more a good listener. Once I figured that out—and Woody helped, obviously—I think the chemistry really worked. In some ways it’s easier because I don’t have to explain everything [to myself] and in some ways it’s harder because I can’t really watch myself. So it’s trial and error and your cinematographer and editor have to help you a lot.
The idea of Woody Allen playing a pimp seems to promise caricature but I was pleasantly surprised to find his performance very toned down—he seemed entirely comfortable and natural.
I’m glad to hear you say that. Originally when I wrote the role it was broader, and Woody said “No, I’d like to something a little more subtle and sophisticated,” and I was like “OK, I got it.” That made it easier in some ways. What you see between us is what you see between two friends who can joust with each other or share an inside joke. You have to be able to have that between two people when you’re working, you can’t act that. So I think our enjoyment of each other, and having worked together in the theater, that helped a lot.
You had Woody’s voice and your own voice in mind when you were writing the script but how did you go about casting the other roles? The chemistry between you and Vanessa Paradis also seemed very natural.
I saw [Vanessa] in this movie “Heartbreaker,” it was a very emotional but very charming French movie and I knew her a little bit as a singer. And then I met her and we just clicked and I was like wow, she’s great. When we worked together I brought her to Williamsburg to meet various people who had left the [Hassidic] community and she so enjoyed that process. We were scouting and it was sukkot–everyone was sitting around in the little cabanas they build. She met a lot of people because I used to go to this organization for people who had left [the community]—a place for them to connect and not feel ostracized. I just think she’s a very rare person and she brought her empathy to the character. She’s so graceful; she’s one of those people who bring you to her. She doesn’t go after you. Everyone on the set felt the same way about her.
I knew I wanted to have these different types of women, someone like Sharon [Stone] who’s sophisticated but maybe lonely and someone like Sofia [Vergara] who’s more of a free spirit (she’s based on a friend of mine who designed my glasses). We really needed a balance and we have nice representation—even the smaller roles like Woody’s girlfriend Tonya Pinkins and the girl at the end. I would have like to have more women—if it was a three-hour movie, maybe.
Speaking about the film previously, you’ve said something along the lines of “if I make a film about sex I have to make a film about religion”—can you elaborate on the relationship between the two?
I’ve always like movies about religion, because movies about religion have to deal with rules usually that men have made—the women haven’t made these rules. So there’s suppression, or you could say oppression. And sometimes you see a movie like “Black Narcissus” that’s very erotic…anytime I see a movie about a nun I’m interested. I’ve always wanted to make a movie about a nun and [Vanessa’s character] is in that [same] position. She could be a Muslim woman, a Jewish woman…anything orthodox.
So sex and religion are connected, because of the fear of women. Yes there’s been a lot of progress, but there’s still a tremendous amount of misogyny in some ways. And the most overt representation of that is in religion, which reduces the dialogue or perception of what a woman is. That’s just something that interests me. Religious movies usually stay within the community, but whether your religious or not, the whole question of spirituality—of God and rules—is an interesting one.
For a movie that’s purportedly about a male gigolo the second half really shifts to focus on Vanessa’s character.
She’s the heart of the movie. When I stumbled onto that in my first draft Woody encouraged me—and my son did too, he said: “that’s the best thing in the movie.” I could write a whole movie about her. I still find myself wondering what her life is like now, as if she really exists. Maybe that occurs when the right person is in the right role, I don’t know.
The Hassidic tribunal scene feels very reminiscent of an old Woody Allen short story…absurdist and almost fable-like.
Yeah, but these things really do exist. Now, usually people are not kidnapped to go to them, but there are many more extreme things that happen in reality that I don’t show in the movie. When I read about them and would tell Woody he’d say “I don’t think people will believe that” and I’d say, “well yeah, but it’s real.” But yeah, I think that’s what he liked about it. When he first read [the script] he said have you read Isaac Bashevis Singer and I said yeah, but I’ll read some more. And then when I was actually going and doing research he got nervous and would say “you’re actually going and talking to these people? You’re not afraid?” And I’d say “…a little…”
But you managed to escape without getting stoned to death.
Yeah. As Bob Balaban says, it only happens once every seventy years.
It’s so rare that Woody Allen acts in a movie he hasn’t directed. Was it difficult to direct him?
This is only the third time in his life that he’s ever done a big role for someone else—but no, after about an hour it was so easy. I mean you have to wet your feet the first day—everyone was just kind of dipping a toe in the water. Sometimes he’d go off the script a little bit and I was a little bit hesitant to correct him, because I thought maybe that’d throw off the way he memorized it or something. But he was very easy to work with. Very professional: always on time and ready to go. He really made the movie possible because he’s so quick. Vanessa was also like that, very fast. Having those two helped me so much.
Were you concerned about the commercial prospects of the film given the recent resurfacing of the accusations against Allen in the media?
I don’t like to talk about other people’s personal lives or about things I’m not informed about. This is something that happened a long time ago and there are going to be people on both sides of the dialogue. I hope that people can just watch the movie. Nobody knows anything really, he’s my friend and he’s been working for 20 years since this all came into the papers. I’m just another person working with him. Most people if they’re going to go, they’re going to go. He’s wonderful in the movie and I look up to him in certain ways, he’s been very generous to me and I’d work with him again.
It’s definitely a fruitful partnership.
Oh good, I’ll tell him that: “people are saying it’s a fruitful partnership, Woody” and he’ll say “yeah, sure” [in an entirely convincing Woody Allen impression]. I’ll tell him we need to have something else ready to go.