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John Turturro: A director's good luck charm

The actor ‘Frankensteins’ his way into the skin of his characters, piecing together bits of other people he comes across until he finds a combination that works.
/ Source: The Associated Press

John Turturro is like the mad scientist of character actors, a performer who says he “Frankensteins” the individuals he portrays.

He draws different elements from real people, adds his own dose of idiosyncrasies and imagination, then stitches the different parts into a performance.

You’ve seen him as a thickheaded pizzeria worker in “Do the Right Thing,” a sniveling playwright in “Barton Fink” and a yodeling escaped convict in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Now the veteran character star appears in “Secret Window” as mysterious man whose quiet exterior conceals bad things to come for Johnny Depp, a popular fiction writer who is accused by Turturro’s mild-mannered stalker of stealing a short story.

AP: The guy you play is described in the Stephen King novella that inspired “Secret Window” as being both deadly and “patient and serene.” Is that a tough combo to pull off?

Turturro: I just approached it as someone who’s been wronged, and they feel like they’re in the right. People who feel like they’re in the right don’t have to get bent out of shape about it. They may cross the line of privacy, but they feel justified in their actions. That can be more intimidating than someone who’s screaming at you.

AP: Then later you go over the top.

Turturro: Well, people do go over the top. You walk down the street and you see people going over the top. Within each story, you want to have variety in it.

AP: What was the key to getting under the skin of a creepy guy?

Turturro: Well, everybody thinks they’re justified. This guy knows he’s from a different class, that’s all. “You think you’re better than me, because you have more than me.” But that happens everyday in life.

AP: In “Secret Window,” you play a Mississippi dairy farmer — and you’ve done a lot of accents in your career. But you have a light Brooklyn accent in real life, so how do you train yourself for a different dialect?

Turturro: I had done a Mississippi accent in “O Brother,” and I taped people. But that was a little bit of a broader accent there, you know: “Dew nawt sake the tray-sure!” (“Do not seek the treasure!”) So I worked with my (dialogue) coach, Charlotte Fleck, so we could get away from that. We taped some (Mississippi) people again, I had different people read it — some of them didn’t have much accent at all — but I found one guy who had some things I liked. Then I had Charlotte turn my whole script into a phonetic script. I just sort of do it every day until I can go off the script if I have to. Then you can achieve some freedom.

AP: Is it hard to find the inspiration for the perfect voice?

Turturro: If you look for just the exact person, you’ll never find him. So you have to kind of Frankenstein it together. It’s like you’re looking for body parts, and then you stitch it together, and you start to use yourself and adjust all that to the camera. It’s always a bit of a dance, unless you’re always playing people who are very, very close to yourself.

AP: Have you ever met someone and said, “That’s the guy, that’s the character”?

Turturro: I’ve gotten whole characters by meeting someone, even though they had nothing externally in common with the character. Sometimes I’ve played a really dishonest person but it came from somebody who is very honest. When I did “Miller’s Crossing” (as a conniving bookie) I used somebody who was very honest, he was actually my accountant, a very honest guy. But I used a lot of him. I made him do the whole part for me.

AP: How did you become such a favorite of directors like Spike Lee and the Coen brothers?

Turturro: You don’t cultivate it. You either hit it off or you don’t. You become friends through work and they know that they like working with you and you like working with them, then maybe they write you something else. It’s a big advantage to work with someone a second time.

AP: And a third and fourth and fifth time?

Turturro: A lot of great film relationships over the years had continuity. When you start out on a film, everybody’s got to learn to trust each other. It’s like reinventing the wheel. Sometimes it takes half the movie to learn how to work together. Even if you spent time in rehearsal, you really don’t know that person under pressure.

AP: Do Spike and Joel and Ethan Coen seek out parts for you to play?

Turturro: It depends. Sometimes they’ll talk about it with me. I haven’t done a big role for Spike, but I’ve done a lot of little things to help him out because he needs somebody. But when there’s something really for me, they’ll usually let me know.

AP: You’re almost like being a good luck charm for them.

Turturro: (Laughs) Yeah. That could be. That could be.