A family affair

John Turturro sheds some Illuminati on his role as writer, director, and -- oh, yeah -- actor

John Turturro may be best known as an actor, having appeared in such films as Do the Right Thing, Barton Fink, and Quiz Show, but the man speaks like a writer-director. He likes to talk about the themes of his films, and about the way one character's actions and personality mirror another's. He talks about the way his films look, mentioning such painters as Munch and Solberg when discussing the way he frames his shots and sets his scenes. The man is infatuated with the details that create the big picture -- in this case, his film Illuminata, which, on the surface, is a behind-the-scenes theater farce. But, in truth, Illuminata, is far more than a peek behind the velvet curtains: Turturro and co-writer Brandon Cole (who also penned the play on which the film is based) tell the story of an actress at the top of her profession (Rachel, portrayed by Turturro's wife Katherine Borowitz), a struggling playwright in the middle of his (Tuccio, played by Turturro), and the fragile parapet upon which hangs their relationship.

Oftentimes during the film, it's difficult to tell whether Rachel and Tuccio are speaking to each other or rehearsing lines from Tuccio's play -- which is, of course, titled Illuminata. Theirs is not an idyllic romance: He nearly succumbs to the wooing of an actress, played by Susan Sarandon, who wishes to make Tuccio her personal playwright in exchange for fame and romance. But ultimately, theirs is a real and recognizable relationship, full of the good and bad that separates lovers from partners. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Christopher Walken is in the film, offering comic relief as a bitchy critic with a fright wig for hair and a stiletto for a pen. He energizes each scene in which he appears -- no more so than when he collapses at the feet of an actor, begging for love.

Turturro is in currently filming O Brother, Where Are Thou, his fourth film with Joel and Ethan Coen, in which he co-stars with George Clooney. But Turturro the actor envisions a day when the writer-director gets more work. "I didn't want to finish making this movie," he says, laughing. "When you create, you're breathing." Turturro -- whose first film as writer-director-star, Mac, was well-received at Cannes in 1992 -- is a think-big kind of guy. Even when his movies are very small, very intimate, and very personal.

John Turturro has worked with all the best directors: Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers, Peter Weir, and John Turturro.
John Turturro has worked with all the best directors: Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers, Peter Weir, and John Turturro.

Dallas Observer: Much of what's been written about Illuminata deals with the more farcical aspects of the film -- the zany backstage life of the theater. But it seems the film is more about the relationship between Tuccio and Rachel, with the behind-the-scenes drama as more of a framing device than anything else.

John Turturro: The farce or the circus-like atmosphere is more of the dressing of the story. Most movies are about flirtation, falling in love, the first attraction. What I wanted to show was what really can occur after that, all these remarkable things that are possible and that we rarely ever see explored. I thought about what love is and about all these aspects of love and how do you keep something like that alive and breathing. You never see really what we go through as human beings and the juggling act that goes on between people. And then I put them in the same profession, which was in the original play. I thought, "Well, let's keep that, because that's going to be an added pressure."

DO: But at the same time, they have different stations in the same profession.

JT: That's exactly right. Let's face it, if your wife does one thing and you do another, someone has to give something up in order to support the structure of the relationship. Or, sometimes, neither one does, and there is very little time for each other. It is this juggling act that goes on. I don't think people are in equal positions in relationships.

DO: Since the film was based on the beginnings of an existing play, how difficult was it for you to maintain that balance of themes -- to keep the world of theater as a part of the story, but not let it overshadow what is in essence a love story?

JT: Well, it's not easy. Obviously, it would have been easier if we would have done it just about two people or three people, but I thought that world is a very small community -- a very incestuous community. It's histrionic, and everybody has their hopes and ambitions and desires. I thought maybe the other characters could reflect different aspects of a relationship -- whether it's with a person they love to hate, a relationship that's sort of in its initial stages, people who have been together for too long, or people who are very lonely and how they go about filling their loneliness in different ways.

DO: Yet it seems much of what's been written about Illuminata deals with the more absurd aspects of the play, with much attention paid to Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon's sort of over-the-top characters.

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