Though he cuts a swath quite different from that of your average musical-theater star, James Gandolfini worked hard to improve his hoofing skills for his new movie, Romance & Cigarettes.
But as he’ll happily tell you, it wasn’t easy.
“I would leave the dance lessons going: ‘Holy Christ, I’m so incredibly bad at this,’ ” said the former star of “The Sopranos.” “It was like me doing algebra or something. I had no clue about any of this.”
Judging by the film, he had a good teacher.
Starring alongside Kate Winslet and Bedford’s own Susan Sarandon, Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, a construction worker who uses songs – often very funny ones – to work out his feelings for the two women in his life. The film, playing now at Clearview’s Cinema 100 Twin in Greenburgh, is set in Queens and features several great actors. In addition to the headliners, there’s Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro, Bobby Cannavale and Eddie Izzard – who bring to life an untamed band of foul-mouthed charmers.
The film was written and directed by John Turturro, an actor best known for his role in Do the Right Thing and, most recently, as former Yankees manager Billy Martin in the ESPN miniseries “The Bronx is Burning.”
Sitting at a conference table in Manhattan along with Gandolfini and Winslet, Turturro said he’s been thinking about the ideas and characters that came to inhabit Romance since Barton Fink, a movie he appeared in 16 years ago.
And so he did what any actor with an idea for a screenplay would: He got professional help for his sorry typing skills.
“I had done a lot of research, and I decided that I wanted to type these things for real,” Turturro said. “So I went to secretarial school; I was typing with all these secretaries.”
Winslet interrupted with a question. “Is that the real reason you went, John?” she wondered. “You were the only man in the room.”
“It sounds like heaven actually,” added Gandolfini.
In some musicals, all the dialogue comes in the form of song. But that’s not the case in Romance. Characters talk to one another (and sometimes curse at one another) – then, with little warning, break into a tune. Turturro said he opted to include the songs because he thinks they do what conversation sometimes can’t.
“I grew up in a tiny house,” he said. “Everyone had their own soundtrack, which I’m sure is very usual for most people. My brother was playing Hendrix, I had on Sam and Dave and my mother had Frank Sinatra on.”
The movie, set a few decades in the past, derives its plotlines – there’s a spicy love triangle, a mother who hates her daughter’s future husband, a lech who’s a source of bad advice – from Turturro’s own youth in New York City’s outer boroughs.
“When I was really small,” he said, “I used to crawl down the hallway, like, when I was 7, 8 years old, and I used to like to listen to my mother talk to all her girlfriends, talk about all their husbands and the infidelities going on – who wasn’t doing it and who resisted it.
“I was saying to James before: I was going to make this documentary once about all these women that my mother [was friends] with. One was English, one was German, a Jewish lady, a black lady.”
Instead of a nonfiction approach, Turturro wrote a screenplay that draws on humor that’s alternately clever and crude, and characters who feel real, even as they jazz-step through life.
“Just to give you some kind of an idea of how much of a labor of love this was for John – and then eventually for all of us – when I first received the script I was pregnant with my daughter, and she just turned 7,” Winslet said. “I was going on vacation to Italy and I remember leaving a message for John and saying: ‘Thank you so much for the script, I haven’t read it yet, but I’m about to go on holiday, and I’m going to take the script with me.’ And so I did.”
Winslet, nominated for five Oscars for movies like Titanic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, said Turturro’s dialogue displays a measure of appealing unruliness.
“One of the strongest feelings I had when I first read the script – I’m turning the page and I’m literally going: ‘He cannot be [expletive] serious,’ ” she said. “I was incredulous: ‘How can this be in a script?’ I’ve never experienced this before, just this very, very specific, individual, unique vision combined with unbelievable fearlessness and daring to just put in every [expletive] thing that he’d ever hoped and dreamed he could stick into a movie.”
For example, there’s a character who disciplines her children in a way that would horrify many a 21st-century parent. This comes from Turturro’s family.
“There used to be an exercise show when I was growing up called ‘Jack LaLanne.’ He had a one-piece jumpsuit, he had a white German shepherd and he had ballet slippers,” said Turturro, who recalled that LaLanne sold a piece of pliable exercise equipment called the Glamour Stretcher.
“I used to watch this show, my grandmother would watch it, and my aunt Tessie, who was one of the greatest characters of all time, she had one of these,” he said. “But instead of using it, she would beat her kids with it. She would whip the kids with it, like a belt. She was a very dramatic person. When I would go over there, she would scare my cousin. She would say: ‘You did something wrong. I’ll get the Glamour Stretcher!’ And he’d be going: ‘No, Mom, not the Glamour Stretcher.’ So for years I was obsessed with getting that in a movie.”
Turturro’s casting impulses are equally unusual. He said he chose Winslet in part because he liked her performance in a movie called Holy Smoke.
“She did this one thing where she danced and she, like, sniffed her armpit – it was the way she did it,” Turturro said. “I was like: ‘That girl could do this part.’
“I talked to my mother about it. She said: ‘Oh yeah, she’s hot.’ I said: ‘Who do you think is sexy, Ma?’ She said: ‘That girl’s sexy. I’m not a lesbian, but she’s sexy.’ ”
For a man who spent most of the last decade as the iconic head of a fictional New Jersey mafia family, the role of a singing laborer is a major change for Gandolfini. But he said it’s not one he made with the intention of reinventing himself.
“No, I don’t do that,” he said. “Life is difficult enough, and I come from a blue-collar place. I don’t like movies that are too wallowing or too serious. There’s too much [stuff] going on in my life. When I read this thing, basically I was laughing my [butt] off.”
It was humorous and, because it was new territory, somewhat frightening.
“When I get scared, I get pissed,” he said. “I was scared to death of this thing, and I got angry and I said I’ve got to do this.”
His concerns were assuaged when it became clear how important the film was to Turturro.
“On a lot of other movies, you can see directors even getting cynical while you’re doing the damn movie, in the middle of it,” Gandolfini said. “You never saw that for a second. That’s what I enjoyed.”