Who would cast John Turturro as a gigolo?
The bespectacled 57-year-old is a character actor, not a sex symbol. He has played numerous roles, generally colorful and eccentric, for such directors as Spike Lee and Joel and Ethan Coen. Among Turturro’s more than 60 movies are also mainstream hits, including several Adam Sandler vehicles and the “Transformers” series, in which the actor plays a space-robot expert who is, yes, colorful and eccentric.
Yet in “Fading Gigolo,” he’s a quiet man whose low-key studliness attracts a client list that includes women played by Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara and Vanessa Paradis. It’s a role that probably wouldn’t have gone to him if the movie’s director had been anyone other than John Turturro.
“Fading Gigolo” is Turturro’s fifth feature as writer-director and already his most-discussed. That’s not only because the comedic drama, which opens in Washington on May 2, is about a guy who gets paid to have sex with attractive middle-aged women. It’s also because of the role, on- and off-camera, of Woody Allen, who plays the protagonist’s best friend — and pimp.
The movie’s premise, Turturro acknowledges as he sits in a conference room in the Jefferson Hotel, “was a crazy idea, but it could have turned out to be a completely silly idea. Once I talked to Woody about it, he encouraged me to develop it in a more sophisticated way. He said that would be something he would be more interested in. And in the end, I was more interested in that, too.
“I think this film is a step forward for me, in some ways. It’s the most delicate film I’ve made. As I got more involved with it, it actually became more about friendship and people’s desire to connect with each other.”
While Turturro wrote and rewrote, he recalls, Allen “was very generous. He wasn’t writing it with me, but he gave me his time and his merciless criticism.”
More romantic than erotic, “Fading Gigolo” observes many facets of life in New York. Paradis, who’s probably best known as Johnny Depp’s former paramour, plays a lonely Hasidic widow who becomes involved with Turturro’s character, Fioravante. It’s the movie’s depiction of a Brooklyn Hasidic community that brought Turturro to town, where “Fading Gigolo” was featured at the Washington Jewish Film Festival in March.
“Every Jewish film festival in the world has invited me,” Turturro says with a smile. “I’m very big on that circuit. Which I think is nice.”
Although the Italian American filmmaker specifically researched Hasidic sects before writing the script — “I chose the Satmar, because I like their hats,” he notes — he was not unfamiliar with Jewish culture.
“My wife is Jewish, and I’ve grown up with black and Jewish people my whole life,” he says. “And people always think I’m Jewish. Especially since I started playing Jewish characters with Joel and Ethan. I played Primo Levi, I played Herb Stempel [in “Quiz Show”], I played Barton Fink. Some of the best characters I’ve played. One Italian guy told me once, ‘You only play Jewish guys!’ ”
Turturro was raised Catholic, but says “I’m not really religious, dogma-wise.” What he finds most interesting about Judaism is “the debate that goes on. There’s something healthy about that. I’ve always had, maybe not an attraction to the religion, but to the mind-set.”
Among the movie’s more recent inspirations were Turturro’s bike rides through his neighborhood. “I live near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. You see all these different communities. You hear all different kinds of music, see all different kinds of people and different kinds of dress. I thought, ‘If I’m going to place it in New York, I should take advantage of that.’ ”
Another impetus for the script was the disappearance of modest New York cultural landmarks. “All these stores that I love, they’re all going out of business,” Turturro laments. “Record stores, CD stores, book shops especially. And then they’re replaced by banks and real estate offices.”
So he conceived the character of Murray, a rare-book dealer whose store is about to close. The older man, played by Allen, decides to develop a new trade for his friend, Fioravante, who’s subsisting on the pay from a part-time job as a florist.
“I thought we would be interesting together, Woody and I,” says Turturro. “And I don’t think I was wrong about that.”
“When you see the movie, you do see something between us. A lot of times in a movie, you watch people act together, and they’re trying to create that. They don’t really have that. I think we sort of have it, naturally.”
Ultimately, though, another performer became just as essential to realizing Turturro’s vision. Paradis, who’s acted mostly in her native France, is both engaging and entirely credible as the bewigged Avigal, the culturally isolated Brooklyn widow.
“I think her presence kind of changed the movie,” the director says. “Everybody was sort of in love with her on the set. I had a hard time saying goodbye to that character at the end of the movie. I didn’t want that character to go. What’s going to happen to her now?”
“Woody didn’t know her at all,” Turturro adds. “He was convinced that she was a Hasidic Jew. He kept telling me she was. The whole spirit of the character, she embodied perfectly. The fragility of the character.”
For the filmmaker, the narrative path from gigolo to cloistered woman was straightforward. “I’ve always been interested in movies about sex. As a kid, I saw clips from ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ I couldn’t see Midnight Cowboy, but I was fascinated by Dustin Hoffman.”
When devising “Fading Gigolo,” he continues, “I thought, if I make a movie about sex, it’s got to have religion. Because sex and religion go hand and hand, it seems to me. So many actresses have had career-defining roles as a prostitute or a nun. Vanessa’s character is like that, in a way. She doesn’t have a habit, but she has a hairpiece.”
That Paradis’s character is Hasidic adds something else: dramatic conflict. Antagonism arrives in the form of a Satmar community police officer played by Liev Schrieber. He has a crush on Avigal and suspects that Murray was lying when he told her that Fioravante is Jewish.
Finally, the policeman confronts the gigolo, asking if he really is Jewish. It’s a question that, to Turturro, doesn’t have a simple answer. “I know a lot of people in Italy who are half-Jewish. Maybe not practicing, but one of their parents is Jewish.”
“I like that idea,” muses the character actor. “The idea that all of us are kind of everything.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema. Rated R. 90 minutes.