Plus: Why he was hesistant to take over the role after good friend James Gandolfini's death

By Joe McGovern
Updated August 13, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Somewhere there should be a statue in honor of John Turturro.

There are few, if any, American actors with as many overlapping lines in the Venn diagram of his career. He has long-standing professional relationships with Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Clockers), the Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski), Michael Bay (the first three Transformers movies), and Adam Sandler (Anger Management, Mr. Deeds, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, The Ridiculous 6).

Yet the Brooklyn-based Turturro, 59, still seems under-appreciated for how skillfully he has explored the American experience in all its crazy, poignant, idiosyncratic colors over the course of his four decades as an actor. Unbelievably, he has never been nominated for an Oscar — not even for his stunning turn in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, one of the most sensitively rendered supporting performances of the 1990s.

But this summer, audiences have been gifted with a ripe opportunity to watch Turturro weekly at his absolute best. As the broken-down, eczema-plagued lawyer John Stone on The Night Of, the actor uses all the tricks in his toolbox, creating an indelible character who we love despite all his foibles. Stone is part Peter Falk’s Colombo, part Paul Newman in The Verdict, part Walter Matthau, and more, thanks to Turturro’s splendid ability to find nuance, humor, and even heartbreak in virtually every scene.

In a conversation with EW, Turturro talked about his influences on the character, the agony of filming in New York City in the winter without shoes, and his friendship with James Gandolfini, who was originally cast as John Stone.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re the kind of actor who a lot of New Yorkers have seen around, like riding on the subway. I’ve seen you at the farmers market.

John Turturro: Yup, I was there today. I know a lot of the people there.

And that’s part of the appeal of John Stone in The Night Of. This is a guy who’s not larger than life. We recognize him.

He’s a real survivor. He’s got all these problems, he’s got the eczema problem, but he’s got a sense of humor about himself. And we were shooting in New York in the winter, so I was cold. Especially on my feet.

Did that help you with the state of frustration he’s experiencing?

It kind of did. But I thought he was such a beautifully written character within this beautifully written piece. So then the “how” of how I did things was given a lot of room for my imagination. And I had time to look at a lot of different people, some who were close to the character and some people who weren’t at all.

Who’s someone like that?

Well, I met with this one star defense lawyer in Brooklyn. His name is Kenny Montgomery. You gotta see him, he looks like Idris Elba. Big, strong guy, handsome, so charismatic. He should be a star of a show. It’s oftentimes the guy who doesn’t look like who you’re playing that can really help you.

What did you two talk about?

He was able to articulate for me the cost of what he does for a living. He told me he can’t compartmentalize quite so easily when certain cases take a lot out of him. He was so precise — and it was exactly the things that John Stone is experiencing. He took me through what was going on in his head when he had someone’s life in his hands. I was like, “Wow, now I understand a little bit.”

Did you see him in the courtroom?

No, he wasn’t in trial at the time. But I almost didn’t need to. He spent a lot of time with me, just talking about the things he’d felt. I would talk to him occasionally while I was working and he was very generous.

Did you look at lawyers in movies too?

Oh, yeah. I looked closely at Paul Newman in The Verdict. I felt like this was the world of Newman, Walter Matthau, Jack Warden. You know, Sidney Lumet characters. Guys who were eating sandwiches and holding walkie talkies. That’s an older New York feeling and a color – but the complexity is there.

It’s great that you mention Walter Matthau.

I loved him. I was looking at The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, as well. And I listened to the way that Matthau used his voice. He’s like John Stone, he’s a verbal jouster. A lot of times in movies now people just talk with the top half of their voice, and you don’t really get that bottom half. In the ’70s we didn’t have cell phones, so guys were always shouting.

Yeah, there’s a real burnt-out, blasted quality to your voice on the show. That was intentional?

Oh, yeah. I did a big vocal warm up everyday. I wanted Stone to talk with that lower bottom part of his voice, the most growly part.

You have an amazing facility with Richard Price’s dialog. It just rolls off your tongue.

I know Richard well. I’ve worked with him on a few things. I’ve done readings and I’ve read his books. I was in The Color of Money, which he wrote, and I’m in Clockers, which he adapted with Spike Lee. Clockers, you know, as good as that film turned out, that would’ve been a perfect candidate for an 8-hour series. It’s such a tapestry.

What is it about Price’s dialog that you respond to?

It comes from somewhere. There are the words that John Stone says — and then there’s where the words are coming from. He’s sarcastic, but it’s to protect himself. He’s very observant of the world around him, though he doesn’t show off. And it’s as powerful when there’s less dialog as when there’s more dialog.

There is a scene in episode 5, when Naz (Riz Ahmed) is swallowing the pellets of drugs during a jailhouse meeting with John Stone. And Naz thinks Stone hasn’t noticed, but then Stone whispers, “I understand why you have to do it, but if you get caught, this case is over.” It’s such a dramatic moment, yet it’s not overplayed.

Not at all. That’s where the whole things lives. It’s all in the minutia and the moment-to-moment life and the cost. So many things are plot driven, and this has plot and a whodunit quality, but it also shows you the effect on the person accused and his family. Plus, I play this guy who’s not used to holding someone’s life in his hands. Then you have a prosecutor who is. A detective who’s about to hang it up. That’s a big thing in life — the cost of things.

What was the working relationship with director Steven Zaillian like? You both seem to share a sensibility.

Well, I knew Steve. I almost participated in Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was his first movie as a director. We were completely on the same page. I mean, we talked about sometimes how to stage things, but there was no discussion about the sensibility. Both Richard and Steve had watched The Staircase, for example, and they showed it to me and said, “This is what we want.” And I was blown away. I couldn’t stop watching it — but not just because of the story but because of the behavior. And The Night Of is very behavioral.

And what was it like to be a part of this ensemble?

What can I say, it was wonderful. I found a real connection to Riz as a person. He’s really talented and a very hard worker. That made it easier to care about Naz as a character. Bill Camp as Detective Box, just wonderful. I know him from his first job. And how many times have I seen him on stage? It was great to see him, because we already had a history. And if you look at Jeannie Berlin, she’s so unique and completely believable as a prosecutor. She doesn’t look like an actress playing a prosecutor. She seems so real. I worked with her mom, too, Elaine May; I directed a play on Broadway that Elaine May wrote. I’m a huge, huge fan of both of them.

You’ve acted in nearly 100 movies and directed a few, but you haven’t done too much TV.

Well, I did Bronx is Burning (an 8-part ESPN series about the Yankees). And a TV movie where I played Howard Cosell [Monday Night Mayhem], which was two hours. And I did a TV miniseries with Sophia Loren [The Fortunate Pilgrim] a long time ago, which I think was four hours.

And you almost didn’t do The Night Of, right? James Gandolfini was originally cast as Stone. And after he passed away, they came you.

Yeah, and I was like “Oh, no, guys, I can’t.” Because of James.

He was a close friend of yours?

Yes. He was wonderful. We worked together on Romance and Cigarettes. I went to his wedding. I went to his funeral.

How did they convince you to take on this role, which he had started?

Well, they showed me the pilot and I was like, “Aww I don’t want to watch this.” It was the pilot and he only had that one scene at the end. I was watching it with one eye closed, obviously. But I was like, hmm, alright, it wasn’t like he had done Hamlet and now I was doing Hamlet. That was freeing.

Did you talk to people who knew Gandolfini?

Of course. His managers were encouraging to me. And I talked to his wife. My makeup guy on the show worked on the Sopranos and we’d talk about James on the set. We would laugh because James hated makeup and I was in that chair for hours a day. I kinda kept that makeup guy as my rabbit’s foot. I wanted to do a good job for myself and for my friend.

The Night Of airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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The Night Of

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