MOVIES : More Than Just an Ethnic Face : John Turturro wants to broaden his career but stick with people he can trust; a Cannes award for the Coens' 'Barton Fink' may help.

Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Sunday Calendar.

John Turturro climbs into a limousine looking as edgy as the urban homeboys he has played. His leather backpack is jammed between his sneakered feet, and he plucks restlessly at the sleeves of his black T-shirt. His wife, actress Katherine Borowitz, and a writer are already in the car. He looks at them with sidelong glances. "Yeah, yeah? You and Kath? Really?" he says, struggling to make small talk.

Turturro, et al., are en route to a lunch interview--one of the few he has agreed to do since winning the best actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his performance in "Barton Fink," the new period comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen that opens this month. The film, in which Turturro plays a Clifford Odets-like playwright adrift in Hollywood of the 1940s, also won this year's Palme d'Or, and interest in the 34-year-old actor, who has most often been cast in small parts as ethnic street toughs, has surged.

Turturro has been in Spike Lee's current "Jungle Fever"; "Barton Fink," which opens Aug. 21, and the upcoming comedy "Lame Ducks," produced by the Zucker brothers.

But Turturro seems nonplussed with this overnight acclaim. Like many an actor, he resists discussions of his personal life and even his craft. But unlike those more accustomed to the media, he has no public persona at the ready. On this afternoon, an oppressive summer day in Manhattan, his manner is awkward, like that of an unhappy teen-ager being dragged to Sunday lunch with grandparents.

"Come, come with us, Kath," he says in his garbled New Yorkese, looking at his wife. Borowitz, who has heard these entreaties before--and indeed has appeared in most of the interviews that Turturro has given--demurs.

"Just come. Come on," he tries again. "Come to lunch. You can leave early." Borowitz, a study in serenity compared to her husband, allows a faint smile to cross her pale face, and Turturro slumps back in his seat with relief.

On the one hand, the actor's plea, touching in its sincerity, speaks volumes about his unwillingness to face the press alone. But in a more fundamental regard, it reflects his desire--some would say his need--to work only with those whom he knows and trusts. As Turturro puts it later, "You have a trust that someone you know will not take you somewhere and abuse you."

It is, perhaps, an unexpected statement coming from this New York-born-and-raised actor, who has spent most of his professional life playing, well, abusers. From big movies to small, Turturro has become one of Hollywood's busiest character actors, most often cast as patently ethnic--Jewish or Italian--urban types. In Tony Bill's "Five Corners," Turturro played a sociopathic rapist; in "The Sicilian," a Mafia mobster; in "To Live and Die in L.A.," a garden-variety criminal. Until "Barton Fink," Turturro had been perhaps best known for his work in three Spike Lee films: playing Pino, the volatile, racist pizza maker in "Do the Right Thing"; Moe Flatbush, the avaricious Jewish club owner in "Mo' Better Blues" (a role that contributed to accusations of anti-Semitism directed at Lee), and Paulie, the sensitive Bensonhurst shopkeeper in "Jungle Fever," which also was one of the contenders at this year's Cannes festival.

Even Off Broadway, where the Yale-trained actor continues to work between films, critics singled out Turturro's professional debut in 1984, an Obie-winning portrait of a potentially homicidal lover in John Patrick Shanley's drama "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea." In the New York Times, Mel Gussow described Turturro as "an astonishing newcomer" and "a poet in the rough" whose performance was "frighteningly real." This year, the actor had the title role in a New York production of Bertolt Brecht's darkly comic anti-Nazi parable "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," in which he played a charismatically vicious Al Capone-like stand-in for Hitler.

Turturro suggests that with the exception of his work with Lee and the Coen brothers, his roles have come uncomfortably close to ethnic stereotyping. It is no surprise then to discover that his work with the Coens--playing the double-crossing homosexual bookmaker Bernie (the Schmatte) Bernbaum in their period gangster film "Miller's Crossing," and now the insecure but ambitious playwright in "Barton Fink"--has provided Turturro with his most satisfying and most critically praised performances to date. Both parts were written specifically for the actor, and although both required him to again play Jewish characters, their ethnicity, like Bernbaum's sexual orientation, is incidental to their personalities.

"I have always looked at myself as an actor," says Turturro, who was born in Queens, the middle son of a working-class Italian-American family. "I don't want to play myself; you want to use yourself in your art. . . . With Joel and Ethan I have tremendous freedom. They have given me two wonderful roles; I have never done any roles like what I have done with them--not on stage, not on film--never, ever. It's like a huge gift."

Brandon Cole, a playwright and screenwriter and one of Turturro's closest friends, suggests that the Cannes award signals the first public awareness of "John being a richer actor."

"He has been fighting a perceived prejudice that has to do with his looks and his ethnic background," Cole says. "He thought for many years that he was being treated unfairly, that producers only saw him a certain way, and that offended him. I think he hopes that will change with 'Barton Fink.' "

"People make the mistake of thinking of John only in terms of his raw energy--of thinking that he is the character he plays in his films," says Carey Perloff, director of "Arturo Ui" and artistic director of New York's CSC Repertory Company, where that production was staged. "But John has fabulous training, and he really learned how to channel his complex emotional life into dramatic poetry and physicality. He is really a craftsman."

Yet Hollywood, so far, has been slow to follow the Coen brothers' lead in casting Turturro in real leading-man roles. Since "Barton Fink" and winning the award at Cannes in May, the actor has been deluged with scripts, "most of them wanting me to play Italian guys from Brooklyn," he says without a smile. "Wait, wait, wait," Borowitz says, wryly interjecting in what will be the first of several assists. "You were offered the part of playing another gay Jew."

"Oh, yeah, I have this thing where I would really like to play a British aristocratic quadrisexual--some repressed British guy with four different sexual orientations," he says, slipping easily from his normal Queens dialect to the Queen's English. "I could do it too."

To his agent's dismay, however, Turturro has turned down nearly every script, preferring to keep to his own agenda, working with directors and actors he knows, on projects, frequently low-budget, that he respects. "I just hope to continue to evolve as a person in my work," he says. "It's fun to do something intelligent."

Turturro's immediate plans call for him to direct his first film this fall, "Mac"--an homage to his father, a carpenter who died in 1988--which he co-authored with Cole. He is also working on a possible film version of the "Arturo Ui" production for public television, and there may or may not be a role for the actor in the new screenplay being written by the Coen brothers.

When an actor doesn't work with people he can respect, Turturro says, with more than a flicker of anger in his voice, "you can be abused really easily. . . . You can go to a looping session and they say, 'Do this' or 'Do that.' Well, maybe I don't feel like doing that." He is alluding vaguely to post-production work on "Lame Ducks." (In the words of one friend, Turturro found the movie "rankly commercial.") "It's like, 'I'm not a toy.' If you don't connect with other people on those basic levels, a lot of resentment builds up. But if you trust the person, like with Joel and Ethan, if they would ask me to do different things, I would do it immediately because they weren't saying, 'Do it my way.' We were all hooked up."

Talk to Turturro long enough and it quickly becomes obvious that being hooked up, as it were, is of paramount concern for the actor, on screen and off. Among friends and co-workers, he is considered an intense and painstaking craftsman, and an equally intense, loyal friend.

"John has this real feel for outcasts," says Shanley, who wrote "Five Corners" in addition to "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" and has been a friend of Turturro's for nearly 10 years. "That's the thing that has always made him a terrific actor--that he is extremely compassionate. When he was doing 'Danny,' he and June Stein (who played the love interest) came off stage and sobbed for 20 minutes after every performance. He was giving so much to the role that it was killing him."

"John is extremely particular about how and where he works," Perloff says. "He can't just play monsters; he has to know what makes them that way. He works very slowly, very internally at first, and he likes to work with the same people over and over again. John would never work with anyone he didn't know well."

Take this interview, for instance. By the time the limo arrives at the TriBeCa Grill, a chic downtown eatery owned by Robert De Niro, whom Turturro knows slightly, the actor seems less on edge. He is on familiar ground. Recognized by the maitre d', he has been shown to a corner table across the room from Spike Lee, who is coincidentally also lunching in the restaurant--and, more significantly, Turturro has determined that he and his interviewer have several acquaintances in common.

Although he will refer, and occasionally defer, to his wife throughout the next hour or so--"I don't know, Kath, what do you think?"--the sidelong glances are replaced by a certain stillness. He sits quietly at the table, his black T-shirt a stark counterpoint to the linen-and-crystal dining room, repeatedly thanking the busboy for water and bread and apologizing as he reaches across the table for the butter. Yet Turturro will end the interview doing impersonations and mimicking accents--most of the mini-sketches are hilarious and most are performed in concert with Borowitz. That ease is testimony to the actor's methodology--and to the fact that he does his best work with those he knows and trusts.

It was through a mutual friend and another Yale alumnus, actress Frances McDormand, that Turturro and the Coen brothers first met in New York more than five years ago. The actor was performing mostly in Off Broadway plays with frequent interruptions to do bit parts in big movies--films that he says he dislikes today--while the Coens were young filmmakers with only two low-budget movies to their credit--"Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona."

"We work almost exclusively with what Hollywood calls 'character actors,' " says Ethan Coen, co-writer and producer of the films. "It is important for us to establish a kind of trust with them, and it makes it easier to write with certain actors in mind."

There were several dinner parties, and the next thing Turturro heard, the part of Bernie the Schmatte in "Miller's Crossing" was being written specifically for him. That film, which starred Albert Finney and Gabriel Bryne, was the Coens' most expensive and ambitious undertaking. When it was released last year, it earned extensive critical praise, and critics singled out Turturro's performance as a virtuoso turn in a very talented cast.

That film led to "Barton Fink," which the Coens had written "in three or four weeks" as a bit of comic relief when they became bogged down in "Miller's Crossing." "We were sick of the convolutions of that film, so 'Barton Fink' was like a vacation," says Joel Coen, the directing half of the team. He says the title role in "Barton Fink" was also written for Turturro, not because the actor's personality resembled the character, but because "John is a very engaging and funny guy and he has a certain physicality that sparked us. He's a talented comedian and a really good mimic, given how distinctive his voice is."

While the comedy, which also stars John Goodman, is ostensibly about a New York playwright who travels to Hollywood only to become bogged down with excruciating writer's block, it can also be seen as an exploration of the artistic process. Turturro describes the film as a metaphor "about growing up--the merging of the life of the mind (played by Turturro) and the life of experience (played by Goodman)."

"Barton Fink lives in his head, and I have to figure out how to make that specific," says Turturro, who prepared for the role by taking typing lessons and assembling a reading list that included the historical narrative "Jews Without Money." "Playing Barton was the hardest thing I ever had to do, and the richest."

It was also a rare foray into comedy that Turturro hoped to capitalize on by playing the Groucho Marx-like figure in "Lame Ducks," which he shot in Los Angeles last winter after he completed work on "Jungle Fever." Although the Paramount comedy will be the first major studio feature film in which Turturro receives top billing, the actor has been less than happy with the project. "I thought it would be something good to try," he says, declining to elaborate. "Whether it comes out or not, I don't know. 'Barton Fink' is more my style."

Working for Lee, another low-budget auteur , who became interested in the actor after seeing "Five Corners," is also more his style. Turturro says the rewards of working with the filmmaker have to do with helping create a character at the script stage. "Although the Coens give me tremendous freedom acting, they've done all their work as far as writing goes," he says. "Spike, sometimes he'll write a really solid scene and other times he'll let you rewrite it."

Paulie, from "Jungle Fever," for instance, is largely a character of the actor's own creation. "He's not a fabricated good guy," Turturro says. "I took an imagined liberal person and tried to turn him into a real person living in a real situation."

As he has in previous roles, Turturro played Paulie by bringing to the surface those emotional aspects of his own personality that matched those of the character. "Obviously there are certain elements I could draw from myself," says Turturro, who describes his acting methods as "an amalgamation of a lot of different approaches."

He says Paulie and Pino, from "Do the Right Thing," are "different but parallel characters; both of them are really powerless. I would not disassociate myself from Pino--that would be a lie--but I would say there are things in Paulie that are closer to me. He's a character full of possibilities who hasn't articulated them yet. I know what it's like to be a minority in your own community, the only white person among a lot of black people, and I know what it's like to feel a lot of anger."

That anger has its roots in the turbulent childhood Turturro experienced growing up in the Rosedale section of Queens. The second of three sons born to Nicholas and Katherine Turturro, a builder and an amateur jazz singer, Turturro was the proverbial quiet child, a meticulous keeper of scrapbooks--his heroes ranged from Frankenstein to Elvis Presley to Marlon Brando--and a closet mimic in a family headed by a man given to frequent, volatile outbursts. "John's father was extremely difficult," Shanley says. "John's position in the family was one of responsibility. That's where he gets his understanding and feeling for other people."

As in the polarized social landscapes portrayed in Lee's films, Turturro early on experienced racial prejudice when he and his brothers, Ralph and Nicholas, were among the few Italian-Americans to attend a mostly black junior high school. By the time he was in high school, Turturro was channeling much of his energies into performing in school musicals and doing impressions at small neighborhood clubs. "I used to do Burt, Burt Lancaster," he says, lapsing into an imitation of the actor, "and other guys, guys that I liked. I used to do them seriously (not for laughs) with my cousin. The impressions were good, but the material wasn't always successful."

He attended the State University of New York's College at New Paltz--he says he couldn't afford to go to New York University, a private institution--with the intention of becoming an actor. After graduating in 1978, Turturro returned to New York, where he began working in Off Off Broadway productions--often mounting plays with his friends in rented halls--while teaching history at a Harlem high school and tending bar to make ends meet. He applied to Yale University's prestigious School of Drama "because I was a little shy about all the hustle of (Off Broadway)," he says, recalling: "One time I was supposed to go up to a producer's office and drop off my resume, and I couldn't do it."

Although Turturro says he eventually became disillusioned by "the level to which everyone at Yale was thinking about their careers" and not their craft, it was Lloyd Richards, then dean of the drama school and head of the Yale Repertory Theater, who invited the young actor to the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in 1983. There, he was cast in the first workshop production of "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea." That production moved to the Actor's Theater of Louisville and then Off Broadway, where it led to roles in "The Sicilian," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Gung Ho" and "Off Beat," among others. By 1987 he was working on "Five Corners," and by 1988 Lee had cast him in "Do the Right Thing."

Now, Turturro seems content to wait for the public response to "Barton Fink" while working on small projects amid a company of family and friends. He and Borowitz, who met as students at Yale, live in a comfortable but unostentatious apartment in a period brownstone in Brooklyn's Park Slope district, where they are the parents of a 1-year-old son, Amadeo, born during the shooting of "Barton Fink."

The two actors still find time to play opposite each other, most recently in that production of "Arturo Ui" and the film "Men of Respect." "That's when you can take risks together," says Turturro, who has also acted with his younger brother, Nicholas; they played brothers in "Mo' Better Blues."

As for "Mac," which Turturro says will contain parts for both his wife and his brother, the actor describes it, not surprisingly, in familial terms. "It is based on my dad's experiences as a builder. It's really about the worker, an independent guy who cares about what he does," he says, speaking as much for his own life as his father's. "It's really about being the last craftsman."

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