Consummate character actor John Turturro has pumped life into so many memorable roles that it's difficult to pick a favorite.
Yet if the veteran performer, who has appeared in more than 60 films, has his way, there will be one he finally deems worthy of resurrection -- his juicy turn as Jesus Quintana in the Coen Brothers' cult-turned-classic film The Big Lebowski.
The profane, bowling ball-licking, hairnet-wearing maniac fleshed out by Turturro for the 1998 film was based on a real person, according to the actor who received the John Cassavetes Award at the Denver Film Festival on Nov 12.
"I can't really announce it, but because I had done this character and now people are obsessed with it ... but I know there's a lot more dimensions, I'm hoping to now do something, but with a lot more dimension, with Jesus," Turturro said in a crowded Sie FilmCenter theater during an entertaining one-on-one interview with Denver Film Society resident moderator and former Rocky Mountain News film critic Robert Denerstein before the award ceremony.
Joel and Ethan Coen, who Turturro said would be involved but not as directors in his possible film project, saw the genesis of Jesus (above) in a character portrayed in an hourlong play.
"When I saw (the script), there was nothing there, it was so small," said Turturro (right), whose other Coen Brothers films include Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing and O Brother, Where Art Thou? "So I thought, well, maybe I better try to do something extra with it. They gave me some extra time. And then I did all these crazy things just kind of to make them laugh, and then I saw that they put it all in the movie. And I was really embarrassed the first time I saw ... they were mixing it.
"They said, 'John, can we show it to you?' And I was like, 'Holy, shit. You actually put all this shit in there.' I was just fooling around. ... Who knew when that movie, when it came out. ... It was a bomb here. Now it's become like a religion."
Turturro was preaching to the choir, or in this case, a bunch of film fanatics, many of whom also attended the earlier sold-out screening of Mia Madre, an Italian film from famed director Nanni Moretti that won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes this year.
John Turturro portrays egotistical film star Barry Huggins in Mia Madre.
Playing an egotistical film star who can speak both English and italian, the Brooklyn-raised Turturro calls his character Barry Huggins an "asshole" and references in the movie the late Stanley Kubrick and Kevin Spacey, using real life as source material.
"I did have a dream in Rio (while directing one of the segments for Rio, I Love You) that Kevin Spacey was trying to kill me," Turturro said during the interview. "I woke up in a cold sweat."
The Kubrick mention was inspired by Turturro's once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with the legendary director on Eyes Wide Shut.
In shock after hearing from his agent that Kubrick would be calling to discuss the role, Turturro said, "And after talking to me for two hours, I told him I may be doing a film the following year. I said the wrong thing because he liked to shoot for more than a year. And the next day I heard that I was unavailable."
That rare disappointment is overshadowed by superlative work as not only an actor on stage and screen but also in other creative positions such as director and screenwriter. Though there are no Oscars, he has plenty of awards, including this honor from the Denver Film Festival that "is presented annually to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the world of filmmaking and whose work reflects the spirit of the late John Cassavetes."
Past recipients include lead and supporting actors alike such as Sean Penn, William H. Macy, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, J.K. Simmons and Elliott Gould.
In a wide-ranging conversation that included his thoughts on racism, religion and oppression of women, Turturro spoke more about his enduring partnership with the Coens ("They have such great imagination"), in addition to working with Spike Lee (on nine films ranging from 1989's Do the Right Thing to 2008's Miracle of St. Anna) and, most recently, his role reversal with Woody Allen.
In 2013's Fading Gigolo, Turturro, who wrote the script, also acts while directing a cast that includes Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, Liev Schreiber, his cousin (and significant player in The Sopranos) Aida Turturro and, of course, Allen, who rarely jumps to the other side of the screen for anybody but himself.
After doing an spot-on impression of the Woodman, Turturro said, "I loved acting with him. He's a wonderful actor."
Asked by Denerstein what makes Allen so capable, Turturro said, "Because he's got gravitas. He can hold a full screen. He's a musician, he's a stand-up comic. I mean Jerry Seinfeld couldn't hold a full screen and neither could Larry David, who I love. Both of those guys. I love those guys. None of them can. But Woody's got, he's got vulnerability. ... And he can be really deadly serious. I told him, 'We should do a movie where you play a killer.' He's like, 'Me?' "
If anyone knows what it takes to portray a diabolical villain, it's Turturro, who even did it for comic relief in 2003's Anger Management with Adam Sandler and three-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson. As Chuck the explosive ex-con, he expresses rage at the drop of the hat, but Turturro apparently had some pent-up feelings about an experience that was less than fulfilling, though he didn't reveal the name of the film or its director (Peter Segal).
Arriving later in the production, Turturro, who said his first serious role was as Chief Bromden in a stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, recalled introducing himself to Mr. Nicholson ("Call me Jack") by asking, "What's kind of the tone of the film?"
Nicholson replied, "Man, there is no tone. It's every man for himself."
That was a signal of distress for Turturro, who summed it up by saying, "When you have a good director, he's gonna keep the horses in the corral. Otherwise, there's one horse on top of the mountain, one's in the river, one's taking a dump, one's sleeping. That's how it goes sometimes."
Luckily for him, those acting episodes don't happen too often, and his career can be best expressed in a line Turturro's professional Don Juan character hears in Fading Gigolo:
"You bring magic to the lonely and you get paid for it."
At the age of 58, those defining roles hopefully will keep coming for Turturro.
After all, there's really only man qualified to bring Jesus back to life on film.
Award ceremony photos by Michael Bialas. See John Turturro in his Mia Madre role as Barry Huggins impersonate Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro: