O, Madon: An Interview with Joe Pantoliano

Features, FILM, Interviews
A sit down, via Skype, with “Joey Pants” to discuss Tony Soprano, Tommy Lee Jones, mental health advocacy, and screen violence.

That distinctive high raspy voice comes clear down the line from Connecticut: “My kid’s in the fuckin’ hospital. I don’t hear you complainin’ when I bring you a nice, fat envelope. You don’t give a shit where that comes from,” Joe Pantoliano is reciting to me Ralphie Ciffareto calling Tony Soprano out just before The Boss whacks him. (“Don’t give me that look: it was a fuckin’ horse. What are you, a fuckin’ vegetarian? You eat beef and sausage by the fuckin’ carload.”)  It’s a memorable reminder of one of his classic Sopranos scenes, puncturing T’s Romneyesque hypocrisy. Unlike Ralphie, Joe is a really nice, big-hearted guy. The villain of Christopher Nolan’s Memento known for dodgy blokes— since early ’80s Risky Business’ Cruise- pimp Guido— is now an ardent mental health advocate.

In May, Weinstein Books published Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression, Mental Dis-Ease, Recovery and Being My Mother’s Son. The notoriously taciturn Tommy Lee Jones endorsed it: “Joe has written a brave, fascinating book. It is astonishing what people will put themselves through for the privilege of acting. Maybe we just can’t help it.” Joe says of his old friend: “He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t mean it,” before describing acting with him on The Fugitive (which he’s just recorded a twentieth anniversary DVD commentary for). “It was great. I’ve learnt more from working with him than any actor. I really like his style. He’s a generous actor, loves actors, unless you’re an asshole. He doesn’t suffer fools well.” What about No Country for Old Men? “Yeah, it’s terrific. But my favourite was his own film, his directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquaidas Estrada. That showed the deep rooted, great humanity to the man. I’m sure he will direct more movies, hopefully with me in them.” Midnight Run’s Robert De Niro? “Another great actor, another giving guy. I just like doing good parts in good pictures.”

It was on the set of Joseph Greco’s 2006 film Canvas that the guy who started out as Billy Bibbit in a play of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest began coming to terms with his clinical depression. “Canvas is a serious film about mental illness and a sentimental heartwarmer, and succeeds in both ways. It tells the story of a 10-year-old whose mother is schizophrenic, and whose father is loyal and loving but stretched almost beyond his endurance,” Roger Ebert wrote. “Canvas is a heartwarmer, as I said, a touching story of these people for whom the only response to mental illness is love.” Joe’s bipolar mother left his father when his was young, and shacked up with her Mafioso cousin Fiore.

Through The Sopranos Seasons Two and Three, Ralphie had many hilarious, horrifying and memorable scenes. Lines like “I caught the clap from some hippie broad I was fucking. My dick was dripping like a busted pipe.” Then there’s that thing Ralphie/Tony’s goomah Valentina said about a cheese grater. Joe comments: “Ralphie is an insane sociopath. Because he was raped and abused as a young boy, he could not enjoy normal sex, had to have pain involved.” One of the toughest guys—and staunchest Sopranos fans—I know had to stop watching for a few weeks after Ralphie brutally murdered stripper Tracee. Eventually, Ralphie apologised for disrespecting the Bing. Joe points out with everything Ralphie did, it was ironic Tony killed him for something he didn’t do (the death of racehorse Pie-O-My), at a time when Ralphie was showing his better side (“He’s so upset about his son Justin in hospital”). The 61-year-old grandfather recalls Ralphie’s Sopranos introduction as “passionate and obsessive about gladiator movies. When he dies, it’s a real fight to the death.”

One of The Sopranos talking points was Tony visiting psychologist Dr Melphi. “Everybody in that show needed to be talking someone. Tony’s asking for help, but he doesn’t change any of his behaviours.” For Joe, change has meant life has become very good. “I’ve learned how to delegate, and manage my sanity on a daily basis. I know what’s good for my brain. I’ve implemented positive behaviours. Part of my depression was that I was addicted to painkillers and alcohol. Once I stopped doing them I started getting better. I’m exercising, stopping white sugar, and doing increasing amounts of advocacy. Doing anythin’ that keeps you out of your own head helps.”

“We’re a very violent group we human beings. We immortalise bad guys, and make movies about real crumbs, fictional or otherwise, those are the people we want to watch,” Joe reels off a long list of characters including Al Capone, Don Corleone and Bugsy Seagal. “We need a spiritual dimension. That’s why Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death is powerful. We have a cognitive understanding we will cease to exist, so we are constantly searching for something. We need hope to survive. We’re losing faith. There’s so much shit going on, it’s overwhelming. You discover it takes more strength to admit your weakness. Helping others. To love others. Acceptance and forgiveness. The Buddhists got it right. Jesus got it right; the power of forgiveness. You’re as sick as your secrets. You’ve got to let it out.”

Joe’s affectionate mental health advocacy includes his documentary No Kidding! Me 2!, a website of the same name, and the Stomp the Stigma campaign. He has called upon friends from through his career to support, including this striking video contribution from Harrison Ford. “Everybody’s touched by this, through family or friends. There’s not a soul who isn’t,” Joe exclaims. He thinks it is the last bastion of civil-rights. “We’re looking for equal rights for the all-American brain. You can’t replace the brain. It’s an equal rights issue.” He adds that mental illness is too often not respected like physical health problems, and food addiction not acknowledged and helped like other addictions. “If you give a shit about what came first, the egg or the chicken, it’s the disease that came first, before the addiction.”

Another motivation for Stomp the Stigma was Joe’s close friend’s Charles Rocket’s suicide. He is concerned about rising suicide rates of U.S. soldiers (“more than combat deaths”), and has visited mentally ill troops in the Middle East. It’s pleasing seeing the Two Towers again rising high above mighty New York, isn’t it? “They are beautiful. The mirrored glass reflects the beauty and diversity of the city, the friends lost. My country’s pretty much been constantly at war since World War Two. These Afghanistan GIs are killing themselves.  They’re going to start killing us. You can quote me on that.” On a more hopeful note, Joe remembers Abraham Lincoln—“I am now the most miserable man living. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better”—came through wartime depression.

Driving around Los Angeles with Greco last month, he explained why he chose Joe for Canvas. “I’ve always been a fan of Joey. He is, after all, in my favourite film, Empire of the Sun. He’s played a lot of tough guys over the years and he brought that edge to the film. I wanted the audience to feel that Joey’s character, John, might snap under all of the family pressure. Joey also has a very big heart and I thought it would be an opportunity for him to do something unexpected and reveal that softer side. Finally, I wanted to tell an Italian-American story and Joey is one of the finest Italian-American actors working today. Canvas was inspired by my childhood so all of these things were important.” Greco described his lead’s distinctive qualities. “Joey puts all of himself into everything he does. He is incredibly courageous in his work, and in his life. Joey has done so many films so his craft is impressive, and he isn’t afraid to go deeper and tap into those raw emotions. When he finds that well, he gives 100 percent.”

Robert Irvin, Harvard Medical School Instructor of Psychiatry, also praised Asylum: “A model of inspiration and courage for those who suffer from mental illness in silence to come forward and seek the life-changing help that is currently available.” Joe is pleased to hear about John Kirwan’s mental health advocacy, and would like to visit New Zealand to share his own message of hope. While filming The Matrix (“Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, cos Kansas is going bye bye”) sequels in Australia, his then cigar club partner shouted him a holiday to Taupo’s Huka Lodge “New Zealand’s something. The fishing. The hot springs. The rafting. So good.”

The emotional man who expressively accepted his 2003 Sopranos Emmy (from three minutes) is palpable through his interview with The Lumière Reader. He’s currently shooting with Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta (“another good Italian boy from Jersey”) on Nashville-set The Identical. Discretely chowing down a healthy dinner smoothie as we talk (“my cholesterol’s gone down 70 points following that Australian diet!”), Joe concludes your health’s your wealth. “I was out on my vespa earlier, enjoying a beautiful day here in Conneticut. The most valuable thing is your health.” He is buoyant after just acing his annual physical. “We are all going to die. None of us are going to get out of this alive. We are motivated by fear. Mentally, spiritually, physically, you have to accept your disease, and enjoy life.”

Filed under: Features, FILM, Interviews


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.