John Turturro – not a Jew – has portrayed a number of memorable Jewish characters. In his latest film, “Fading Gigolo,” which he wrote, directed, and stars in, he plays a male prostitute named Fioravante who pretends to be a Sephardi Jew who comes into contact with the Satmar sect. He sat down to talk about what it was like to direct Woody Allen, whether Liev Schreiber’s payess in the film were real and why his sex scenes in the film weren’t as glamorous as you might think.
What was the biggest challenge in this role?
Finding the fine line between keeping things gentle and not too heavy and being confident without being too cocky. When you play someone quiet, you have to learn how to express things through your face and physical actions. You have to find the right balance. It’s tricky.
Do people ask you if you’re Jewish and does it bother you?
All the time. It doesn’t bother me. Sometimes people ask me to pray. I’ve been in the (Lubavitcher) “mitzvah tank.”
Why do you think you’ve had so many Jewish roles, and which was your favorite?
I grew up in a neighborhood that was black, Jewish, Italian and Irish. It started with Joel and Ethan (Coen) with Barton Fink. And one role led to another. I’ve played Primo Levi, Herb Stempel and Howard Cosell. With this character, nobody knows exactly what he is.
It is rare for Woody Allen to act in a film he isn’t directing. Were you nervous or intimidated?
No. After the first hour, I overcame my shyness. I am always very respectful and I know who he is. But he’s a person and everybody needs to be helped at times. You want to try variations and he was great at that. It was imperative for me to treat him like a fellow worker. I think he wanted that and I think that by asking him [to do the film], he got a kick out of that.
Why do you think people are so fascinated with sex and the haredi community?
I could have done sex and Catholics or sex and Muslims. I just picked that. But I don’t think you usually see the religious world intersecting with the secular on film but it does in real life. To me it’s a metaphor for any religion.
Why did you choose Satmar over Lubavitcher for the haredi characters?
I like their hats better. I’m of Italian heritage so hats mean a lot.
Who did you speak to in researching the film?
A lot of people. I talked to people who have left the community and who are still in the community. We went to the Chulent (a social group for religious Jews exploring the secular world) spoke to people about their experiences. The people were very nice. I am interested in religion and I’ve studied the Baal Shem Tov. We spoke to some of the Shomrim (a squad that polices communal behavior). To me, it’s fascinating to have their own moral police force. In life, things are so much more absurd and crazy and complicated and in a movie you have to make the absurdity of life credible. I wanted to poke fun but at the same time be respectful.
Can you talk about Vanessa Paradis and her performance as Avigal?
I investigated two Jewish actresses. But I can’t imagine anyone doing what Vanessa did. She just has something about her that she doesn’t have to [affect] – the delicate nature, or the gracefulness. She just has it. It’s really special.
Liev Schreiber plays Dovi, one of the Shomrim. He is in love with Avigal and is frustrated by his lack of success with her. Are his payess real?
No, those were made but we worked really hard on them and wanted to make him look attractive. I think he looks great. I think he showed he is a strong character who just doesn’t know how to talk to a woman or court a woman.
What was it like to do sex scenes with Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara?
People don’t realize there are a lot of people around. There’s all this lighting. You want to make sure people look good and comfortable. They’re a little nervous. You don’t want people to feel exploited. The scenes leading up to it are more interesting. But I do think one of the interesting things about the film is exploring the sexuality of a regular guy.