Like many character actors, Joe Pantoliano is one of those “Hey, it’s that guy” guys. But the guys you probably know him as are tough if not outright villainous. Guido “the Killer Pimp” in “Risky Business.” Jennifer Tilly’s evil mobster lover in “Bound.” Cypher, the turncoat who almost gets Neo killed, in “The Matrix.” The scary-even-for-the-mafia Ralphie Cifaretto on “The Sopranos.”
He does have a soft side. He was Frankie Valli’s kindly manager in “La Bamba,” plus Guy Pearce’s reliable but doomed aide in “Memento.” He’s possibly never been nicer in “The Identical,” which is such a nice film it’s an actual low-budget Christian production, albeit one with real actors and even lots of rock ’n’ roll. The story concerns a man (played by Blake Rayne) who is the secret twin of an Elvis-like superstar. Pantoliano plays his mechanic boss who coaxes him to follow his dream of playing music.
“It’s a feeling type of movie,” Pantoliano says. “Nobody gets blown up. It’s a story about dreams coming true.”
He says he’s not attracted to characters who are good or evil. “I like complicated characters. I like them being grey more than black or white,” he says. Even evil characters he’s played he’s been careful to portray as strangely human.
“Ralphie [on ‘The Sopranos’] is a really complicated guy. He’s a byproduct of his violent environment. Madness is a byproduct of what you’re exposed to,” he says. Pantoliano even maintains that he’s no worse than Tony Soprano. “Ralphie wasn’t doing much that was different from Tony. But that was the power Jimmy [Gandolfini] had. He was lovable. There was nothing he could do that would make us not love Tony Soprano. With Ralphie there were many conditions. He was the guy who loved to hate and who you hated to love.”
Pantoliano even says his character in “The Matrix,” as Jean Renoir put it, has his reasons. “Cypher gets an opportunity to get everything he ever wanted and not have any guilt or memory that he did it. Who wouldn’t take that deal?” he offers. “When I play complex characters, my approach is that I’m doing the right thing. I find that fascinating. [Cypher] is not going to get the girl. He’s stuck with a guy who he doesn’t think is Jesus, he thinks Morpheus is a f—ing idiot and he’s going to get us all killed. He wants to make a deal with the devil and not even have remorse.”
In real life, not only is Pantoliano nice, but he’s also actually charitable. In 2007 he revealed he had been suffering from clinical depression, and as a result launched the non-profit organization “No Kidding, Me Too!” intended to encourage people who suffer from mental illness to come out and not hide their problems. He also directed a 2009 documentary with the same name, which he says is getting even more exposure thanks to its availability on streaming video.
“I get letters every week from people whose lives have been touched by this documentary,” he says. “But it’s getting worse. Robin Williams was one of our advisory board members — one of the first people to get behind it.” The whole idea, he says, is to get people to talk openly about it. “The more we have a frank conversation about spiritual and emotional unrest, the less alone we are. When you don’t talk about it and withdrawal into a stagnant world, you become trapped in it.”
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