John Turturro doesn’t speak Italian. He didn’t really have to for the movie “Mia Madre,” despite it being an Italian film. The latest from acclaimed filmmaker Nanni Moretti (“The Son’s Room,” “Caro Diario”) concerns a film director (Margherita Buy) dealing with the fact that her mom is about to die while shooting her latest picture. Making things worse is Turturro's Barry, an obnoxious American actor who terrorizes the crew and especially her. It’s a movie that splits its time between on-set antics and the grieving process, though the latter can be funny, too. That mix is how Turturro likes it.
How do you tend to work with actors when you don’t share the same language?
When you work with people in different languages, if you get the sensibility, then that’s the main thing. I’ve worked with people who speak English, and I have nothing in common with them. The language may be a challenge, acting-wise. But it becomes almost secondary.
On top of that, you’re improvising here and there.
I don’t normally do that. Sometimes you do that with scripts that aren’t so well-written. With “Mia Madre,” the first time he was still doing revisions. Even when he was done I was surprised he wanted to me to add things. It was interesting to riff on something that was good. [Laughs]
I don’t want to stereotype Italian humor, but it’s often very big, very loud. Moretti is unusual because his sense of humor is very dry and deadpan, quiet.
That’s right. He’s very smart. If you’ve seen the movie more than once you can see how well-written it is, without being sentimental. He said he didn’t want to make a “significant film.” [Laughs] Those films can be torturous. And he didn’t do that. There’s an almost radical gentleness to it. There’s a scene where Margherita’s on set and she takes a long pause and asks, “What’s going to happen to all these books [her mother had]? Where are they going to go?” And she’s saying it on set and to Barry. It’s a fantastic thought, because that is a thought you have when you’re going through these things.
Barry’s an American actor terrorizing a European film set. You’re definitely not like that, but I’m sure you’ve seen actors who are.
I’ve seen way more extreme behavior than that. You can’t imagine. When you really study lives, the things you see, if you put them in a movie no one would believe them. Some of the behavior you do see in movies, of someone being likable or being one-note or being consistent — that’s really a caricature. That’s my very strong opinion about that. Some people are quiet, but performers? Forget about it. They’re scared people. Even the biggest people imaginable can be frightened of someone else, frightened about being found out, or frightened to use their voice. Some people are polite, but it’s a crazy business. Nanni wrote this about his own experiences.
Sometimes I think it’s better to draw on life rather than do a full-on docudrama or biopic.
I love movies that are “based on a true story.” You watch it and think, ‘There’s nothing true about it. There’s not a moment that was true.’ It always cracks me up. If you’re making a film about a true story, you can’t just say, “This is true.” Make us believe it. Tell us a story and take us somewhere. That’s our job.
I wanted to ask about the scene where they’re shooting you driving a car. It’s a hilarious scene, with lots of screw-ups and a part where he has to drive a vehicle with a camera inches from his face.
Oh my god, he nailed that. I’ve driven when the camera’s attached to the front of the car. I always prefer to really be driving, but with the camera in the backseat or on the sides — when it’s done in a way that you can forget a camera’s on you. A lot of actors don’t want to do that. They want green screen or rear-projection. But I’ll tell you something, that scene isn’t too far-fetched. Sometimes I’ve almost been blinded completely [by the camera]. Sometimes you’re being towed with a chain — it’s terrible. I’ve done scenes where the camera ran out [of film] and we didn’t it. We just kept doing it. We had all these great takes.
At least that’s less likely to happen with digital camera.
Oh, it happens. Along with all the other problems.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge