Joe Pantoliano Interview

Joe Pantoliano, affectionately known as “Joey Pants” to many, wears his roles like few others from his generation. His breakout role was in 1983’s Risky Business, with the indelible role of “Guido the Pimp”, and from there he consistently made films and shows better with his very appearance. He often plays wise-cracking, quick-to anger characters bemused by the idiocy around him, and it’s this acerbic yet intelligent takes that leap off the screen. Midnight Run saw him spend much of the movie on the phone, while Bound and The Matrix solidified his working reputation with the Wachowskis. His take in Bad Boys continues into 2020, while his portrayal of Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos provided him with a truly iconic, immortal role that it’s near impossible to see any other actor portray.

His latest film, From the Vine, is the story about a man who leaves his career and his family to head to Italy and find himself, screened at the Whistler International Film Festival. It was there we got a chance to speak with the legendary actor. When he walked into the room he decided I looked somewhat like his therapist, so he lay on the couch, I pulled up a chair, and we began a conversation that felt more like a therapy session than a regular chat about a given project. It’s clear that he’s an actor that deeply thinks about the larger issues of his craft and career, yet he very much comes across as a survivor, one that has run the gauntlet of fame, addiction and the other trappings of this life and can reflect with a degree of wisdom that’s both earned and impossible to fake. 

We began our conversation for /Film, of course, with talk of food.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and concision

You helped changed my life in one significant way when you taught me to make scrambled eggs by putting sour cream in them on The Sopranos

Well, that was David Chase.

I’ll still give you credit. I wanted to talk about your interaction with food, wine and travel with the characters that you’ve played over the years. 

I’m lucky enough to have a job where I can travel to the amazing locations. My work has taken me to places that were just unbelievable opportunities that I would have never been able to as a young man afford, I’ve worked in China, in Spain and Italy many times. When I talk to actors, whenever getting ready to go on a job in, say, Chicago, they’ll say well, okay, you got to go to this restaurant and you got to go to this restaurant. It’s always been food oriented. Actors are always scouting places to go to eat, to hang out, to run into colleagues. Over the years I worked in Vancouver in Toronto. You had the Sutton Place hotels and they were the happiest places on Earth for actors! It was the only establishment where everybody in the room had a job. For me, food was always very important and that kind of ties into From the Vine. We shot that in Acerenza, Italy, in this village up in the crest of the mountains in Basilicata region South of Italy during the off season. There was only one restaurant that was open so we ate our breakfast there. They catered our lunches, and then when we finished work. We would go there for dinner. As far as wine is concerned, I stopped drinking alcohol about 12 years ago…. 

[Pause] So, uh, you’re doing a film about wine and…

I’m doing a film about wine, yeah 

…and, you stopped drinking because you’re a recovering alcoholic?

Yeah, I’m recovering.

So what is that like to do film about the love of the vine in conflict with your own struggles with recovery?

Well, you know, my being mentally challenged, emotionally, or spiritually, it wasn’t the fault of the wine by any means. If anything, all the years, I never really liked the taste of the alcohol. It was the effect that I craved. I also love the process of putting things together, whether it’s the wine or cigar making, growing from the earth to the barrel to the bottle. I’ve always been drawn to the craft of putting pleasurable things together for the consumer. 

To dive deeper into that, is there a challenge when your own personal struggles or activities or whatever comes into connection with the requirements of the story that you have to go places emotionall? 

There’s a sublimation of your emotional history. When you’re building a character it’s drawn from a library of unresolved emotions, understanding what he’s going through and the similarities of your character and yourself. It’s not like inventing a character as much as it is more finding yourself in the character. In From the Vine, Marco is quite happy with his life and his work. He’s grown within an industry as a result of his relationship with his mentor who created this small automobile company. Then you find out that the mentor took ill and gave it to him with the promise that he would honor this guy’s dreams and then in order to walk the corporate line, he has to betray that trust, that emotional handshake that he made. He has a breakdown, a mental, psychological breakdown as a result of that betrayal. He veers off course and discovers, now without a job, that his relationship with his wife has been strained and loveless and that his relationship with his daughter has been also non-existent for the last three years because he’s been pig-headed about her needs. So when he goes away, he doesn’t even know why he goes there he doesn’t even know how he got there.

Again, you’re lying here on a couch, it seems fitting that I ask you more psychologically probing questions. Your own career has gone through ups and downs, your own career has gone from larger Hollywood productions to more independent fare, you were the equivalent of an executive of a car company deciding to choose your own path for some of your films. Can you talk about navigating the new Hollywood, navigating roles that you choose to take, what still drives you to perform? 

The driving factor is my simple love for the work, the atmosphere of it, the challenge of it. The process is always the same whether it’s a a million dollar picture or a hundred and seventy million dollar picture. With the new technology and the speed in which you can make these movies it affords me opportunities that I wouldn’t be able to get in the open market. If From the Vine was a $90 million dollar movie, Tom Hanks would have been playing my role. The line would be much longer before that opportunity was afforded to me. For that I’m grateful. The opportunities that I had in the 1980s and 90s, with Bound and with Memento, these were all gigs that came my way only because five or ten bona fide movie stars said no. If anything, in today’s marketplace I think that my ability to be a good performer has less meaning than it did ten years ago. In terms of the way people are being put in movies, it has much more appeal to the finance or based on their Instagram following than it does on any ability to create a role. Most people have forgotten the minutiae of performance, with the creative aspects of creating of a character. The quality of work that you see often now is much more naturalistic than realistic. 

How do you bifurcate naturalism from realism?

Naturalistic is just kind of monotone and quiet and not really connecting your own emotional life through the characters. Two great realist examples that I’ve seen recently was Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story. They took extraordinary leaps – I mean, talk about sublimating their own psychic pain through those characters! That wasn’t fake. They know what it’s like to be really heartbroken. That’s the kind of acting I’d love to be able to be a part of again, because a lot of times I’m doing a film because it’s going to cover my winter, that a given job will pay the mortgage and finance the car for another two months.

You’ve been in a number of films, from Risky Business to The Matrix, where a fellow performer became a megastar. You didn’t end up like Keanu or Tom, that wasn’t the trajectory that your career followed. And yet your gifts is to dramatically elevate the films that you’re a part of. That’s the role of any great character actor, but was there a part of you that was on Risky Business and was annoyed you weren’t getting out of it what Tom Cruise god? Or is it that you could apply your craft in a different and more fulfilling way by not being center stage but being there as part of a greater whole?

If I’m completely honest, I think that as a young man, I had those opportunities. I got in the room, I got to show my wares and I was passed by. There came a time where I realized that there was a market for character actors, and that was a market that was achievable for me,. The big picture and the master plan was to be able to continue to work and get better and better parts in better and better movies. the secret to success is having good parts in good pictures, or at least good parts in pictures that make money.

Not always the same.

You know, what movie stars are up against now, either the Tom Cruises, the Brad Pitts, the Keanus, the Will Smiths, is a volume of work and dedication. They’ve got to be an athlete, and I just don’t have, I don’t have what it takes. I believe that all good actors are character actors. I don’t define acting by that. There are lead actors and then there are supporting actors, so I’m a supporting actor.

But there’s never any hesitation or even jealousy about being designated as such?

It’s what I am. I mean, yeah sure, I’d love to be a movie star. I’d love to, you know, make real money

Yet any resentment never actually comes through in the work.

Well, I never resented it. You know, I had a great acting teacher who always said it’s very important to understand and embrace your limitations. Make your limitations your strengths. All my great lessons have been from my failures.

What would you say are your most educational failures? 

Going into a room and not being able to leave my best work behind – Those were failures. The job is about being able to prepare and get into a room and achieve what you wanted to say in that five-minute window, to be able to give them the best that you had, so that when they don’t pick you, it’s not for lack of trying. 

Within many of your films you’ve provided some absolutely iconic roles, be it in Sopranos, or Memento. That film doesn’t work without you there. You are not the central character, and yet you help drive throughout our emotional focus and the narrative…

[Interrupts] …If that’s the case then more filmmakers should take advantage of my powers and actor and make me the central character.

This is what I’m trying to get at – In From The Vine you’re absolutely the lead character we are drawn into your emotional journey or drawn into your journey as you take it with your family. Yet some of your most indelible roles have been when you are there to actually inject something into a larger narrative. I’m just wondering if you see the collision between those two things?

It’s just screen time. I don’t see a difference. It’s just a matter of how many scenes you’re. I want to kill in those moments, I want to be remembered. 

As mentioned, your job has afforded you the ability to travel. You got to go to Italy, you get to eat great food, you get to work with the DeNiro’s of this world, the iconic characters. What is on your restaurant menu that you haven’t yet tasted? What performances are out there that you still wish to taste? 

The truth is I’m at a place in my life that I’m really content that anything that comes my way. I’m not banging on doors anymore, I’m not calling my agent. My desire to work no longer defines me. I think for many years I was defined by what I did and not who I was. I wish I made more money, so I could have a bigger retirement plan. One of the things that I resent is that for some people, for some fans or audiences, my level of celebrity has become such a driving force that I’m not even an actor anymore. That was never part of the scenario. I wanted to be an actor because I wanted to be immortal. I wanted evidence that when I died that there would be evidence of my existence inside my mother’s television set. When I was a kid I would see these old black and white movies and I would think, those guys are dead, but they’re still alive. There they are, they’re still there and I wanted that dream.

If you were to do a “Joey Pants Film Festival” of your five most indelible performances, what films would they be

I’d start with Bound because it was the Wachowski’s first film. It said so much more about stylized filmmaking. I had been around a long time, but I learned from them the whole idea of how you tell a story frame by frame and utilizing your departments, lighting and editing and all that stuff. I was a one-track mind. I was just about the acting but you know. Then there are the comedies: Risky Business, The Goonies, a movie I made called Canvas with Marcia Gay Harden… 

What do you remember about Canvas? 

Canvas was a real important film for me. I kind of came to grips with my own mental disease and began my journey to the life that I have today. I thought that success would put out the fires in my soul and the more success I achieved, the fire still raged. I thought that an Academy Award would make that go away. When I won my Emmy, I was up on the stage literally thinking why is this feeling still in the pit of my soul? And it’s because it’s a goddamn Emmy, if it was an Academy Award, I wouldn’t be feeling this way! [laughs]

When you were in Goonies did you get to interact with Spielberg much? 

 He directed half of it. It was just a matter of economy. They had a firm date and they needed to get the movie done, so you know, he had the B unit and Richard Donner had the A unit. I learned so much about collaboration from those guys. 

What about Risky Business? 

Paul Brickman, and, you know John Avnet he did second unit on that!

Was there a sense on that film of what Tom Cruise would become?

No, no. I just thought it was a stupid kid movie. They were making kid movies left and right. I was just grateful I could be in it. By then I was 29 years old, so you know, and Rebecca De Mornay. If anything, it was Bronson Pinchot that I thought, this guy’s going places! He stood out. He’s amazing, and I got to work with him again years later when we did another movie together. 

Yet Tom was the one that became the megastar.

He knew where he wanted to go you know. I’ve seen that in three colleagues: I’ve seen it in Ben Stiller, Tom Cruise, and Will Smith. These guys had a plan, a plan to achieve stardom. There was nothing that was gonna dissuade them of that. You know, in my heart of hearts, I never thought I could be a big star. 

But you knew that you could move audiences.

I did, and that was my goal and I prayed. All I wanted was a 30-year career. If I could work and make a living and feed my family for 30 years, I would have considered myself a success. That was 10 years ago. So, you know, I’m still going strong. Thank God! 

You talk about Oscar versus Emmy, but do you do things differently for small versus big screen? 

No, not at all. It’s all the same. 

You don’t get bigger or smaller based on how your work is going to be projected?

No. Especially now with what’s happening with all these ancillary outlets like Netflix, they may start on the big screen but end up on the small. You know who got it right? Billy Wilder. When Gloria Swanson said, her answer to William Holden who says oh I remember you, you used to be a big star and she said I’m still big. It’s the pictures that get smaller. Now people are judging my work on their iPhones. If you think about it, you know Academy screeners, they come in and people are watching them on their laptops on a 12-inch screen. 

What’s the first film that you saw that said I want to do this? 

On the Waterfront. 

Did you see Brando and think I can do that

But there’s a lot of characters in that movie! They shot it in my hometown, so you know…

Hoboken.

Yeah. 

So there’s another guy another Italian from Hoboken, I believe. 

Yeah, a singer, Frank something. Sinatra once famously said, “Joey Pants, poor son of a bitch, he’ll never be the most famous guy from Hoboken!” [laughs]

Another Italian from the other side of the Hudson got in a lot of trouble when they asked him about whether he was gonna do a Marvel movie. He said he described them as a theme park ride, rather than cinema. I’m wondering if in your own heart of hearts, whether you and you look at what’s happening now in films and the domination of the box office, whether you still have this divide between what entertains and the character stuff that drives you?

I think it’s like a diet. If you have a steak you need a little bit of mashed potatoes and vegetables with it. Those kinds of movies enable people like Scarlett Johansson to do A Marriage Story.

Adam Driver is of course in Star Wars.

You do one for the art and you do one for the money and exposure. Hopefully, with Bad Boys 3 opening next month, that’ll introduce me to a whole new audience and ride me through right to the Screen Actors Guild old age home. 

It’s real a pleasure to meet you. 

Thank you. And nobody puts fucking sour cream in eggs. That’s bullshit.

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