John Turturro has played a United Nations’ worth of characters: Hispanic (Jesus Quintana, the bowling-ball-licking, hairnet-wearing creep in The Big Lebowski), Jew (the lamentable Moe Flatbush in Mo’ Better Blues), southern yokel (the rednecked Pete in O Brother Where Art Thou?), and, memorably, Howard Cosell (in the TV movie Monday Night Mayhem). Currently, he’s starring in Souls of Naples —a newly translated 59-year-old play by Italian playwright Eduardo De Filippo—and, by day, editing his film Romance & Cigarettes, a musical starring James Gandolfini. Adam Sternbergh spoke to him about playing Italian and resurrecting Jesus.
Can I start by asking, A musical? Starring James Gandolfini?
It’s got musical elements. We’re calling it a down-and-dirty musical.
Do you sing in it?
I wrote it, directed it, produced it, but I only have a small part. It’s got James, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mandy Moore, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi. On and on.
And they’re singing?
It’s kind of Dennis Potter–esque, but not exactly. People sing tunes to escape their reality. Tunes in their subconscious. The way everyone does, to the radio, in the shower. They sing along.
Is it a comedy?
The best way to explain it is Charles Bukowski meets The Honeymooners, with music by James Brown and Bruce Springsteen. How’s that?
Hmmm … Souls of Naples is more of a straight-up farce.
Well, it’s human, too. It’s touching. And it has a little vaudeville. That’s what I like the best—stuff with both. Like Waiting for Godot. Things that have humanity with the humor.
Did you find it hard to switch back and forth from being in charge on your film, and being directed in a play?
No. The play’s a collaborative situation. I’ve known the director, Roman Paska, for a long time. And I brought the theater the play, so I have some input. And it’s a relief not to be in charge of everything.
And the play’s from Italy. Did that make a difference to you?
Sure. It’s a literature that hasn’t been introduced here. A lot of it has never even been translated. And this play is not what you might normally think—breast-beating and operatic. This is a very delicate play.
Do you have a dream project you’d love to see realized?
Well, this play, and my film, I guess. Usually, if I put my mind to something, by hook or crook I get it done. I’ve made a career of doing that. Maybe I’d be better off if I took an easier way out and took some money once in a while.
What about Jesus Quintana? I have to ask about him.
Everyone wants to know about him. For such a small part, one of the smallest I’ve ever done, people have a very crazed relationship with him. Sometimes it’s even kind of sexual. I’m like, Holy mackerel. But that character may yet re-emerge.
Yeah. I’ve been talking to Joel and Ethan Coen about bringing him back. Not exactly a sequel. But a film exploring the Jesus.
Starring in Souls of Naples
At The Duke on 42nd Street.
Through May 8.