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John Turturro on ‘Plot Against America’ and Resurrecting Jesus Quintana

The actor talks about bringing his ‘Big Lebowski’ character back from the dead, the art of directing sex scenes and what he hopes viewers get out of HBO’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s book

John Turturro in 'The Jesus Rolls.'

Atsushi Nishijima

Like a lot of actors who’ve had long, incredibly varied careers, John Turturro gets approached by a number of different folks when he’s out in public. The 63-year-old can usually tell what they recognize him from within a few seconds. “If they have kids, it’s almost always Transformers,” he says, referring to his recurring role in the action-figure film franchise. “Parents watch those movies with their kids a hundred times! Those are the folks that usually want to take a picture with me — they want to prove to their children that they met me. Then there are a lot of The Night Of fans — I feel bad that I have to keep telling them, ‘Sorry, I do not actually have eczema.’ You get the hardcore Coen brothers fans, the Spike Lee group, the Quiz Show group…it goes across the board. But it’s usually one specific thing.” And for a lot of people over the years, Turturro admits, that one specific thing has often been a sleep-eyed guy in a purple jumpsuit, blessed with an impeccably manicured pinkie nail and one hell of a bowling game. They call him “the Jesus.”

Essentially a bit part in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 stoner-noir extraordinaire The Big Lebowski, Turturro’s flashy, singularly fashionable, nobody-fucks-with Jesus Quintana has attracted its own sub-cult within the larger group of cosplaying Lebowskites who worship the movie. The amount of times that someone has quoted one of the character’s lines back at him, he says, is incalculable; so is the number of fans who’ve asked if there would ever be a sequel. “People love the character,” he admits. “Like, really love him.”

It’s not a surprise, then, that Turturro finally got around to resurrecting the Jesus — what’s shocking is how he did it. The Jesus Rolls brings Quintana back, older if not exactly wiser and fresh out of a second stint in prison. (That sex offender rap? It was all just one big misunderstanding in a public restroom.) Picked up by his best friend Petey (Bobby Cannavale), the duo embark on a series of misadventures involving a hairdresser (Amelie‘s Audrey Tatou), a female ex-con (Susan Sarandon) and a gaggle of other oddballs who come into their orbit. Turturro also directed it. Nobody else from the Lebowskiverse is here, though Jon Hamm, Pete Davidson, J.B. Smoove and Christopher Walken all drop by for cameos. There are shenanigans, tomfoolery, a number of threesomes and, in one crucial scene, bowling. It’s also a cover version of an extremely controversial 1970s’ French film that gave Roger Ebert conniption fits. This is not the “sequel” anyone expected.

After a brief theatrical run, The Jesus Rolls hits the VOD-sphere at almost the exact same time that a different, very high-profile Turturro project also hits the airwaves. The Plot Against America, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 alt-historical novel from The Wire‘s David Simon and Ed Burns, imagines a world in which famed pilot Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940. His pro-isolationist stance keeps the U.S. out of World War II as Hitler’s army blitzes its way across Europe; his noted anti-Semitism helps seed a homegrown Nazism on our soil as well.

Turturro’s role is peripheral to the New Jersey-based Jewish family at the center of the narrative, but it’s a key part: He’s Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a Southern Jew insinuates himself into Lindbergh’s inner circle. It’s a rich portrait of a collaborator, someone who thinks their presence in proximity to power can temper what’s coming, even as his “everyone stay calm” stumping is slowly making things worse. (The six-episode miniseries premiered on HBO last night; the first episode is now streaming on HBO Go.)

The day before he was supposed to fly to London to start filming the Robert-Pattinson-as-the-Caped-Crusader movie The Batman — a trip that the coronavirus has, like a lot of things, now put on hold — Turturro called from his Brooklyn apartment to discuss the return of the Jesus, the inspiration behind his eccentric pet project, the thought process behind his Plot character, the art of directing sex scenes and a lot more. This conversation has been condensed for clarity, sort of.

The Jesus Rolls is technically a Lebowski spin-off — but it’s also a remake of Going Places, a somewhat obscure French film from the ‘70s. When did this film first come on your radar?
It’s not that well-known anymore, is it? I saw this when I was a freshman at [the State University of New York at] New Paltz…it was at the Academy Theater, which would show revival screenings and all these movies on their second time around. [Actor] Michael Badalucco and I saw it together; he’s in The Jesus Rolls. I was seeing a lot of crazy movies at that time, stuff like this, Taxi Driver, Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties. This was around the same time I got turned on to Pauline Kael — I loved her writing and I’d read her review of Going Places. That was what put it on my radar, though it didn’t quite prepare me for what I saw.

It’s a rough movie, even for that freewheeling, anything-goes time period.
Yeah, I mean…I was shocked. But I also laughed a lot at it. It’s incredibly funny in a lot of ways. And the performances by Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere by are just amazing. That led me to see a few of Betrand Blier’s other movies, notably Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978) and then, later Menage (1986). Those three movies have been huge influences on me over the years. Huge.

At what point did the idea of remaking Going Places occur to you?
I was doing a documentary in Naples called Passione (2010), about the music there. And I was hanging around with a couple of guys, these friends of mine, who sort of reminded me a little bit of the characters in Going Places. Then I showed the movie to my wife, and she was just laughing hysterically at it. I mean, I knew she was a fan of the actors, but it surprised me — oh, she finds this really funny, too? From there, I picked up Blier’s book and read it, and thought: You couldn’t really get away with putting this out right now, but there’s something about the irreverence of it, the sense of living in the moment…I wondered if there was a way to explore that in a different way. There’s a lot more stuff in the book — a lot of different angles you could take.

The idea was to adapt Blier’s book rather than his movie, then?
Wanting to put my spin on what he’d written over what he filmed, yeah. So I reached out to him — he’s still around — and apparently he knew who I was and liked my work. He basically said, “You can do it…but the guys, they have to remain stupid. [Laughs] Stupid and perplexed.”

Perplexed about what?
About the world around them, but also, and this is key, about women — the mystery and power of women and what they want, how their worldviews and desires are different. So he gave me the rights to it, and I starting working on adapting it. I did a few readings, and it wasn’t quite happy with what I had. It just wasn’t quite working. But then I thought of this character I’d done on stage a long time ago…

Was this the one Joel Coen saw you do at the Public [Reinaldo Povod’s Nijinsky Choked His Chicken], who inspired Jesus Quintana?
Exactly, he’d seen me in the play and the character I played in that sort of bled into the Jesus. I was actually thinking of using the guy from the play as a sort of way into my version of Going Places, and then I realized: Well, if I do it that way, people are gonna think it’s the Jesus anyway. What about if it is the Jesus?

So it was less about doing a spin-off of the character and more like: He fits in this thing really well?
Well, people have been coming up to me for years and asking me to do something with the Jesus, or to make a sequel centered around him. It’s such a small role in a movie that’s somehow become part of the cultural zeitgeist, but people really love the character. Like, really love him.

I went to Joel and Ethan and told them, I have this idea, what do you think? And they both loved it. I showed them what I had so far and they thought, this is a great idea. It’s its own thing, but it’s also irreverent and about the classic notion of underachievers, which is something they like. Getting them to sign off on it was the easy part. They helped me get the studio [Universal] to give me the rights to use the name “Jesus Quintana.” That was a very long negotiation. But I got the rights.

Suddenly, you had your Going Places and your Jesus movie in one fell swoop.
Right, though my version is…it’s a much softer version of the story. But I do think there’s something about the generosity of the powerless here that I think works. You don’t see a lot of films about men trying to understand women. These characters are doing it stupidly and haphazardly, but they are trying. Even people that are considered losers — almost everything they do backfires on them, but they can often do good deeds along the way. There’s a line that’s in both the book and the movie, where one of them says to the other, “We’re good together, right?” I kept going back to that. These guys are screw-ups, but they have each other.

Plus I just didn’t want to do the same old exploration of the way that men and women interact. I’ve also met women who are older that have, for one reason or another, never experienced pleasure in their lives. I was fascinated by that, too. And I think sexuality in movies in general — but especially American movies — is kind of stunted. There was a lot to get into with this.

This country has never really figured out how to deal with sex and sexuality — especially when it comes to women.
And that does not help men, either. Especially younger men. They’re not really being encouraged to understand these kinds of things, either. There’s a really good book by Peggy Orenstein called Boys & Sex that gets into this. I have two sons, one who’s 30 and one who’s 20, and we tried to make sure they didn’t have the sort of attitudes that a lot of young men have about these kinds of things. But I find it all very disturbing.

You’re one of the few who can say they’ve directed themselves in numerous sex scenes featuring threesomes.
I have that distinction, yes. [Laughs] But there’s an art to directing a sex scene that I think a lot of people don’t realize. It’s important to keep a relaxed atmosphere on set. “Here, this is how it’s going to be done,” so people are comfortable. Trust me, I’ve been on both sides of this situation, as an actor and a director. I know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable doing one of these kinds of scenes. People have intimacy co-ordinators for a reason. But even before then, I had a pretty good idea of how to direct a sex scene, and what not to do if you want your actors to be comfortable. It’s choreography. It’s like doing a dance scene.

And honestly, a good sex scene should always be, first and foremost, a scene. It should have an objective and an obstacle. Without that, what’s the point? To me, it’s usually the moment that leads up to the sex scene then the sex scene itself that’s the most interesting part. That was kind of how we went into the Jesus Rolls scenes as well. And for that first one, the one with me and Bobby and Audrey — there was a monitor so we kept looking and going, “Ok, what can we see here? My butt’s here, but where’s your leg?” It helped us all kind of understand what was in the frame and how we could work with that.

How was it going back to this character again?
It was actually a lot of fun. I mean, I knew there was a lot of complexity in this guy that didn’t really get to come to the surface. In Lebowski, you get the highlights of the Jesus — like the greatest Jesus hits. [Laughs] But I had played a character like this before in the theater, and I knew there was a lot to this guy. He’s really the sort of person that you could drop into almost any situation and have fun with it, you know? And I can’t say that about every character I’ve played.

You know what it is? He’s like Don Quixote to me. And Bobby’s guy is like his Sancho Panza. I’m a huge Don Quixote fan. That story is so great: Two dreamers who keep blowing themselves up over this idea of who they think they are, but they’re so lost. There’s a sweetness to it I really love.

You think a lot of people associate the Jesus with Don Quixote?
I think they love the movie — and they love the lack of ambition he has! They love his look. But what’s funny to me is…there’s a scene where in the new movie where he goes to see his mother, who’s a sex worker. And he says to his friend [in Jesus voice] “Watch how you talk to her — she’s a lady.” Think about how so many bourgeois people act polite but they’re animals. He’s a guy who acts like an animal but he’s polite.

John Turturro in The Plot Against America.

Turturro in HBO’s ‘The Plot Against America.’

Let’s talk about The Plot Against America.
From Jesus to the rabbi! [Laughs]

There’s a lot going on with Bengelsdorf…
There was a lot about him the book that was only alluded to…people talked about him but it wasn’t like Bengelsdorf got a whole chapter that explained everything. There were a few things he needed for his voice to be in there. He needed to be developed a bit.

Is your performance of him based on anyone in particular?
The first time I read the script, it reminded me of this Primo Levi book The Drowned and the Saved. He wrote this section on Chaim Rumkowski — he was called “the King of the Lodz Ghetto.” He tried to save all of the people living there. At the same time, he had his own gestapo and had his own money with his face on it. He’d tell people, “Give me your youngest children so your older children could live. He was thought he was a god and was totally protected. He ended up going to the gas chambers just the same as everybody else who was there. Yet when Levi wrote about this man, he sort of put him in this moral gray area as opposed to just good or bad. I feel like Rumkowski bled into Bengelsdorf a lot. And like Rumkowski, I think he’s completely misguided. But he’s not the villain of the piece. That’s what makes him interesting.

I mean, think back to the people who created the Vietnam War. They were “the best and the brightest,” right? They were so smart, and yet so clearly flawed. That duality was in the front of my mind a lot. And there was always the question of, “What is a collaborator?” A collaborator is a negotiator. Someone who thinks, “I know best.”

It takes a while to try and understand what his motivations are: Is it power?
Is he just being opportunistic?

Then he eventually tells this story about a Jewish relative of his from the South who was in Jefferson Davis’ cabinet, and you think: Ah. It’s about trying to inoculate this situation from the inside and still being on the wrong side of history.
Inoculate is a good word for it. I think there is an attraction to the proximity of power with him — he’s close to the President. Look at how that’s playing out now. So many people are jockeying for position around the nation’s current leader, including representatives from groups that have been maligned by him in the past.

Roth wrote this in the mid-aughts, when Bush II was president. The situation we’re currently in is much different, and feels uncomfortably resonant with the story that’s being told here. What’s it like for you to be dealing with this material right now?
It’s disconcerting. Very disconcerting. My father fought in World War II, so when I’d see a Nazi symbol on set…that means something to me. My wife is Jewish. So yeah, it’s…I don’t think people know enough about the past to let it inform us now. I don’t know that the way history is being taught is particularly effective. I feel like I got lucky because I was able to educate myself about things thanks to various projects, from playing Primo Levi [in 1996’s The Truce] to working on this. You have to know what’s come before. You have to look back.

Look, there have always been groups that have born the brunt of prejudices and persecution. There’s nothing new about the world that Roth imagined. You have to be vigilant about recognizing when these kinds of things are starting to happen. But how do you know they’re happening if you can’t recognize something that’s been used over and over again?

David Simon has gone on record about what he hopes people get out of this. What do you hope they got out of this, ideally?
[Pause] I just want people to take it in. I want people to see what could happen — or what will happen if we don’t become aware of reading the signs. I want people to realize that you have to reach out to people who maybe think differently than you. I don’t know if those people also have HBO, but… [Laughs] Whether you’re left, right or undecided, that you watch this and think, maybe I should put thought into who I vote for, or really pay attention to what somebody stands for. It’s why I’m always suspicious of sentimentality. It’s too easy to hypnotize people with it. And once you’ve done that, it always feels like it’s one step away from brutality.