John Turturro’s portrayal of Manhattan criminal court attorney John Stone in HBO’s The Night Of is one of the Brooklyn native’s most sublime 180-degree turns. Wrinkly clad and plagued by eczema like it’s a cross to bear, Stone is a joke among cops and his legal peers. But one night the attorney encounters Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American academic college student who has been accused of murder. In a racially divided post-9/11 city, Stone may be Naz’s only hope for a fair trial. Based on the BBC drama Criminal Justice, The Night Of was a passion project of late Sopranos actor James Gandolfini, who both executive produced and starred as Stone in the initial 2012 pilot. To date for his turn in The Night Of, Turturro received a best actor limited series Golden Globe nomination.
Let’s talk about how the project came to you. I know that you starred in Spike Lee’s Clockers which was also penned by Richard Price.
I was also in The Color of Money, another Richard Price screenplay, and I almost did Mad Dog and Glory which he wrote. I’ve known Richard since ’85 and I know his books, and as far as Steve Zaillian, I talked to him about being in Searching for Bobby Fischer and that didn’t work out schedule-wise, but I really loved that film. They approached me, and then obviously I was really close with James [Gandolfini]; we knew each other from the early ’90s. When he was on The Sopranos, he was the lead in the film I directed, Romance & Cigarettes, and we became very good friends.
I read the first couple episodes and then I saw the pilot and I was like, “Oh God, I don’t know if I want to watch this,” and it was a very long cut of it. James only had one scene as Stone, the character I would play. I read a couple more episodes and then I met Steve. He was very happy I was interested, and then I asked to read all the episodes. It’s Richard and Steve and I thought it was like reading a novel.
You completely wore this character. It’s like you stayed up for five days straight. Did you already know this Stone?
I know a lot of people in different professions who have tremendous abilities and are tremendously talented and skilled and capable, and they’ve never had the stomach for it, or the constitution to survive what may be in Stone’s case: to hold someone’s life in his hands, and maybe it didn’t work out the right way.
But I thought there was something so human about that; a guy who’s a wiseass and has all this black humor and everything, and his body is betraying him. He’s got all these obstacles, and yet he has this connection with this kid. And I think it helped that Riz and I had a nice connection, we had an organic one.
By the end, I had so much stuff to do with my feet and my makeup every day, I was there so early, and I was always the last person to leave because of everything to take off. It’s like my attrition—you sink in. And sometimes something happens and you feel very, very free and you feel like you can do it anyway; you can do the scene ten different ways.
Was there a particular prosecutor you consulted in crafting Stone?
Kenny Montgomery, who is a star prosecutor and a defense lawyer, he really helped me a lot because he was able to delineate what he actually goes through. And even though he’s really successful, it does cost him a lot. We met a bunch of times, and he showed me films of cases, and he was able to pinpoint certain things for me. He’s like the guy maybe that Stone could be, you know?
But a lot of these people, their lives are a mess. It’s hard to have a family. Sometimes people are divorced three, four times, and they’re nightcrawlers. You don’t get material like that. I’m a big book reader so it’s like I’ve been in a lot of adaptations of books and in two hours you’re always thinking you lost this and you lost that, and in this case you didn’t lose anything.
Given the prevalence of racial profiling post 9/11, do you think we’ll ever be able to fix this problem?
I think that’s the question. The world right now has literally hundreds, thousands and millions of refugees, so that’s a problem for countries to absorb because the countries that they’re from are in disarray. So that’s a big problem that the whole West is facing. We are facing it in a much smaller way than the people in Europe are facing it. If you live in Italy people are coming every day to go to Sicily from all different places in Africa and the Middle East.
But as far as our country, our country is more of an experiment than a lot of other countries, and it has been the question in our country and the problem in our country and the original sin of our country. I just finished reading White Trash which is a fascinating book because it talks about the white underclass that was here right from the beginning and how they were almost beneath the slaves. And it was fascinating because I’m a history buff, I was a history teacher for a very short amount of time and learned so much about what is the cause of where we are today.
So, I do think when you see interesting stories, it doesn’t change people, but it does help humanize you and maybe sensitize you a little bit and you say ‘Well, that person is a real person, comes with a family and hopes and dreams and wants and desires.’ People are no different. Culturally you could be different, but we have a lot more in common. But I do think, unless you see it delineated, unless you have interaction, and you have to have real interaction with people, otherwise it’s the other. You know, people saying well, this is the other, this is not me.
They see it in our own country and we’ve seen it a long time. And it’s just like the atrocity of people getting wiped out because they are a certain, even the same religion but they’re a certain sect of that religion or whatever and it’s never stopped. So, it’s like people need to be civilized on a daily basis.
The eczema, it’s obviously his cross to bear but did it symbolize something else?
I don’t know, I think one of the original creators of the BBC series suffered from it and put it in. It’s a stress-related immune deficiency and those who suffer from it can go out of their minds. There’s a brand new drug that was just developed which many have a lot of hope for. The trials have gone well, but people can’t sleep. A lot of times they want to check out because they can’t take it. Your life can be basically unbearable because you’re in tremendous discomfort and it’s really debilitating. I thought it was an interesting part of the story, but obviously John Stone has it when things are okay, and it gets worse later on when he’s put in the hot seat at Naz’s trial.
Tell us about the short film you directed, Hair, that played at the Tribeca Film Festival. Also when it comes to making independent films nowadays, were they easier to mount back in the 1990s when you first directed Mac?
Mac wasn’t easy to do because it wasn’t a story about mafia guys, you know? I’m sorry to say that but that’s the damn truth of it. It was about a family of Italian-American builders. It wasn’t easy to make Mac but when I did get the money with Larry Estes from Columbia Tristar Home Video who did Sex, Lies, and Videotape and One False Move, he was single-handedly the man responsible for like 50 independent, interesting movies.
We had 43 days to shoot Mac. It cost around $2.3 million. Nowadays, you have a shorter amount of time to shoot. I mean, I just finished making a movie and it’s harder. It’s harder to do it now because you have less time to do it and less money to do it, and also the medium-sized film has kind of gone away. It’s been replaced by a lot of good, great stuff on television I guess. I don’t think it’s easier. The technology, you can say it can be a little cheaper here and there, but if you’re actually going to shoot a movie in a city like New York, there’s all these different tiers and you still have to pay all the different unions, and it’s expensive and you get less bang for your buck. If you have 50 days to shoot a movie, you have time to make mistakes and you can go back and fix something. If you have 40 days; it used to be eight weeks was a short shoot. Now a short shoot is like five to six weeks which is unbelievable. You’re really like a tightrope walker.
It’s really hard to make a short, but it sharpens your skills. And Bobby Cannavale and I are friends and we did a movie after this that I just finished. And so I worked with Fred Elmes. We didn’t know what it was going to be because basically we didn’t really have a script. You know, we had kind of all these things that we were going to improvise off of; topics and stuff. Then Bobby came up with something, because he was concerned about something that I felt was humorous or not. Hair is a big part of peoples’ lives until you actually get into it. There’s a great interview with Don King where he talks about the power of hair. And he actually talks about Trump in this interview. He has a power helmet and it’s the power look. But everyone has their own crazy relationship with, I mean, now there’s so many different kinds of hairdos, so it’s fascinating the whole history of hair and wigs.
Before earning your MFA at Yale School of Drama, when did you get the acting bug?
I was a little kid. I always played small parts in plays. But watching old movies, I think; watching the Million Dollar Movie, watching Channel 5, watching movies from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. Yes, that’s what gave me the bug, because I never traveled anywhere, so it was a form of emotional traveling. In high school I used to do impressions, and then I wound up doing a version, not the full play, of Pippin. I was obsessed with Pippin.
Who were you?
The leading player; the part Ben Vereen played. I just thought, what an amazing presence on stage he was. And I had the record of Jesus Christ Superstar—he played Judas—and then I started going to see plays. I saw a lot of great actors, I saw Pacino when he was really young; my mother took me to see his play. So when I saw theatre I thought, Wow, maybe this is something I could do, because I never knew anyone who was in the movies.