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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.

August 11, 1991|HILARY DE VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Sunday Calendar.

"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."

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