Minus the pink bodysuit and hairnet he donned as Jesus Quintana in the 1998 hit film "The Big Lebowski," John Turturro is thoughtful and self-composed.
Turturro arrived at Princeton yesterday clad conservatively in a black sweater and white button-down shirt, hardly looking like a man who can bring to life violent gangsters and wildly crude bowlers. In a smooth voice — familiar from his many movie roles — Turturro articulately discussed his career with the intellectual perspective of an academic.
But that is Turturro — an actor who can become any character he wants.
This week's on campus celebration of the work of Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi included the East Coast premiere of "The Truce," Rosi's film version of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi's autobiographical novel of the same name. The 1996 production starring Turturro as Levi was not released in the United States. But, according to Rosi, the film met with success around the world.
Yesterday, Turturro participated in a roundtable discussion of his collaboration with Rosi. After fielding questions from the audience at 185 Nassau Street for an hour and a half, Turturro took time before dinner to answer some more questions about the film and his career.
"It will be with me forever — forever," Turturro said of his portrayal of Primo Levi in the film — a project to which he devoted five years of his life.
"I don't have a tattoo on my arm, but I have a tattoo on my brain," he continued, referring to the numbers that were tattooed on the arms of concentration camp inmates. Playing the part of a concentration camp refugee traveling from Auschwitz to his home in Turin required intense effort. To depict a newly liberated survivor, Turturro lost 30 pounds.
"Each thing is a challenge," he said. "It's hard sometimes physically or you have to learn an accent or this and that. But emotionally it's the hardest thing."
Aside from sacrificing his diet for this role, Turturro devoted significant emotional energy to Levi and his life, reading and re-reading Levi's work in preparation for the project.
Ironically, when Rosi first contacted Turturro about his intention to direct a film version of "The Truce," Turturro was playing Hitler in Bertold Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" — a part Turturro researched extensively.
Turturro has a personal connection to the subject matter. His father — an Italian immigrant — fought for the Allies during World War II. Because of his experiences during the war, Turturro's father showed his son Holocaust and World War II documentaries at a young age.
"The Truce" is based on the real-life story of Levi's journey home from the death camp. The unembellished truth of the script attracted Turturro. "I just loved the tone of it, because I didn't think it was histrionic and overly dramatized." he said. "I think you can't do that because once you do that, it's not right. There's almost something about it that's . . . almost sacreligious."
A seasoned actor, Turturro has become adept at jumping in and out of the personalities he plays — from an animated and eccentric bowler to the experienced hustler Joey Knish in "Rounders."
Despite his vast acting experience, Turturro said playing Levi was an intimidating proposition. "The first day my knees were shaking," he recalled. "He's someone who is a hero of mine."
Though he is not Jewish himself, Turturro has played Jewish characters several times in films such as "Barton Fink," "Unstrung Heroes," "Miller's Crossing" and "Quiz Show."
"It's not something that feels very foreign for me," he said of his experience playing Jewish characters. "It was really probably Joel [Coen] and Ethan [Coen '79] who put me into that first. Then I got other roles from that. They said 'you're going to play a Jewish gangster in Miller's Crossing,' " Turturro said. "Once I did one role for Joel and Ethan, then, they wrote other roles for me. You're cast the way you look in movies."
Turturro studied at the Yale School of Drama, where he met his future wife as well as Francis McDormand, wife of director Joel Coen. Turturro caught Coen's attention during his performances at Yale.
Turturro's latest Coen brothers film, "Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?" is slated to be released in the fall. "I play like a country" — he stopped in mid-sentence and adopted a southern twang — "you know a country boy from Mississippi."
And like that, Turturro is back in character.