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JOHN TURTURRO - Unleashing Kate Winslet

The first person I asked to play Tula was Kate [Winslet], and the reason was I saw her in Holy Smoke and I thought she was very uninhibited, and I wanted someone who could really play a wild character like that but also turn it on its head. When we met she was really, really skinny, because she had done Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I was really disappointed. I was like, ‘Oh man, she’s really skinny.' But then she got pregnant after she had signed on. Everyone panicked, and I was like, ‘This is exactly what I wanted.' 

So thank you, Sam Mendes.

John Turturro makes no apologies for Romance & Cigarettes being possibly the rudest musical ever. “I try not to censor myself,” chuckles the Barton Fink star, recalling how he once turned down a request to adapt Charles Bukowski’s book Women, because it would have been “far too pornographic”. Not that the fast-talking Brooklynite is against the author’s explicitness, of course. Turturro admires Bukowski for going “the whole hog”, and for writing about the working classes with humour and compassion. “That was encouraging for me,” he says, “and I used like two quotes from him in the movie.”

However, it was Kate Winslet who helped Turturro create some of the film’s filthiest dialogue. Perfectly cast as Tula, a randy lingerie saleswoman whose sexual patter is as subtle as a pair of crotchless knickers, she cheerfully tells her exhausted lover, Nick Murder (the Soprano’s James Gandolfini), “Next time the flag rises you can put it up me stovepipe.” Coincidentally, the last time Winslet was this funny, she was doling out advice about phone sex while dressed as a nun in Extras.

The idea was to be “risky and shocking”, Turturro explains, but in an interesting, not a crude way. “I kept telling Kate, ‘If you want to improvise, go ahead. Do and say whatever you want.’ When she said to James: ‘You used to be an athlete, didn’t you? Come on, I know you can do it,’ while riding him, I was like, ‘What the hell was that?’ Everyone was laughing so much people had to put towels in their mouths.” He gives a toothy smile. “I really unleashed her, didn’t I?”

Turturro knew from Winslet's uninhibited performance in Jane Campion’s erotic psychodrama, Holy Smoke, that she could be wild yet vulnerable. Exactly the combination Tula required. What she did not have when he cast her, though, were Tula’s curves, having lost weight for Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “I said, ‘Hey, you look great, Kate’ and to myself I was saying, ‘Oh, she’s skinny.’ I was really disappointed. But then she got pregnant. Everyone panicked, but I was like,” rubbing his hands together like some horny teenager, ‘This is exactly what I wanted.’ When we started filming she had just had the baby and was breastfeeding. So thank you, Sam Mendes.”

Romance & Cigarettes is no ordinary musical. Set in the kind of blue-collar New York neighbourhood Turturro grew up in, it mixes dismayingly disparate tones, moving from breezy at the beginning to downright downbeat at the end. In between there is lust, love, sex, betrayal, redemption and death; the stuff of life, in other words. “You see movies about love but you never see the damage it does, too,” says Turturro. “I wanted to show that.” So while there are traces of films like West Side Story and Saturday Night Fever, he prefers to think of Romance & Cigarettes in terms of opera, or Greek tragedy. “They did everything in those plays. They tore their eyes out, had sex with their mother. Maybe they weren’t that funny,” he laughs. “But those Greek plays, there’s a Chorus, there’s song, and now it’s like everything is one thing; life is not like that. I wanted it to be like a big circus that winds down and everything gets distilled, because everything does get distilled some time in your life.”

Authenticity has always been Turturro’s stock-in-trade as an actor, and he tries to deliver the same as writer-director. When people break into song in Romance & Cigarettes, they sing along with the likes of Dusty Springfield, rather than singing solo, or even terribly well in most cases. Thus Gandolfini surprisingly accompanies Engelbert Humperdink on ‘Man without Love’, surrounded by dancing dustmen, while Susan Sarandon, playing his wife, belts out Janis Joplin’s ‘Take Another Piece of My Heart’ in a church.

Turturro was after rawness rather than slickness, for people to sing like they do in the shower or their car. “I wanted to use the power of popular songs as a means of language or escape or fantasy,” he says. “For some people it’s like medicine or prayer, especially when they don’t have a lot of money. It’s a magical thing.” Meanwhile, if the choreography ever looked too Broadway, he would go in and “rip it to shreds and loosen it up, to keep it more like when you’re in your bedroom. I wanted it to have that spontaneous feeling to it.”

Romance & Cigarettes is the actor’s third outing as director. His freshman effort, Mac, was a very personal project set in the world of construction in the 1950s. Where that film was imbued with his father’s spirit, his latest owes more to his mother. However, Turturro disputes Sarandon’s claim that she is playing her. “I told her one thing,” he sighs, rolling his eyes. “She never met my mom, and I didn’t write the characters like that. What I will say, though, is my mom’s a very musical person and like a big spirit, very irreverent. So there’s definitely something of my mom’s spirit in the film.”

And something of his home life growing up, too? “Well,” he says, tapping the table nervously, “there was a lot of music, everyone had their own music in my house, and a lot of dancing, and a lot of fighting. You know, there was opera, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Jimmy Hendrix, Cream, my brother [actor Nicholas Turturro] had a band. I was in a rock band, too, when I was a kid. I played the drums for three years.”

While he had appeared in Mac and his second directorial effort, the backstage drama Illuminata, Turturro decided to stay behind the camera on Romance & Cigarettes. He has since acted in two upcoming films about the CIA: Robert De Niro’s The Shepherd and Santiago Amigorena’s Quelques jours en Septembre. Meanwhile, Romance and Cigarettes is yet to come out in the States. Despite the conservative climate there, he believes the film is perfect for now.

“It’s a film that should be screened at the White House. I mean it’s honest. Obscenity coexists with romance and tenderness. I guess it’s like what Mel Brooks said in an old interview I read with him in Playboy magazine some while back. He was like, ‘When I have sex, it’s got to be dirty. I like it dirty!’ I was reading this and thinking, ‘Well, you’ve been married a long time. You have to use your imagination. You can’t just be romantic all the time.’ It’s part of life, you know?”

Romance and Cigarettes was released in the UK on March 24th 2006