John Turturro is another one of those people who I sort of picture first as a floating head, a platonic ideal of John Turturro-ness. What’s more, I can’t even see his hairline when I picture him, just his face, because his hair is such an important aspect of certain characters. Picture Barton Fink, you picture the hair. But eventually, as with pretty much all of his costars, the image of him in artificial sepia tones rises in my head; this is true even for the costars where I get somewhere else first, and he isn’t one of them.
He is a remarkably talented and versatile actor—well, that’s the sort that the Coens like, after all. But even of theirs, I’m not sure anyone else’s Wikipedia page mentions their frequent work with the Coens, Spike Lee, and Adam Sandler. He’s also worked with William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Redford. He’s been in Michael Bay movies and Woody Allen movies. He has a long and distinguished career, with a lot of noteworthy roles.
His characters are capable of great cruelty and great empathy. Frustration. Amusement. Introspection. Callousness. The range is remarkable—and in many cases, I would not be surprised to know that the roles were specifically written for him. Tell me that the Coens and Spike Lee aren’t writing deliberately for Turturro. You don’t believe they aren’t, either, do you? Because after the first time working with him, they probably figured they could get the performances they needed out of him, and so you’d get these roles.
I mean, I do tend to assume he’s taken some for the money—the man’s been in multiple Transformers movies, after all. Not to mention Exodus: Gods and Kings. But he’s still taking independent arthouse-type roles, even between those cash-grab types. And since he also spends his time every year as a jury member for the New York International Children’s Film Festival and has directed both plays and movies, you know, I can forgive a cash grab or two.
A role of his I’d like to draw particular attention to is in fact a TV one; he played Ambrose Monk, brother of Tony Shalhoub’s Adrian Monk. It was mostly while the show was in decline, in my opinion, but Turturro’s performance was never the problem. It’s not uncommon to make the wacky star of a show suddenly turn out to be the “normal” sibling, and so Ambrose turned out to be a hoarder with agoraphobia because why not. But Turturro brought a warmth and empathy to the role that I’m not sure every actor would. It’s a fine performance that I’m not sure many people know about.