Elusive Illumination: Whether acting or directing, John Turturro is drawn to exploring, not just explaining, complex characters.

John Turturro is a difficult person to interview-not because he's not a nice guy, and not because he doesn't have a lot to say. It's just that you get a sense that he isn't sharing his whole story with you when he answers your questions. He holds back and leaves the reporter wanting more-a habit which seems to parallel his approach to acting. His signature is his restraint, and that doesn't mean that he doesn't let loose occassionally (did you see his crazed performance as Jesus, the obsessed bowler, in The Big Lebowski?). He just knows when to bare his soul, and how best to bare it.

Turturro admits that he wasn't always the master of his craft. It took years of training, first in high school, followed by college, where he majored in drama at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He later continued his education at Yale's graduate drama program, and eventually moved back to his native New York, where he honed his craft onstage in such productions as John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and in an Off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime, in which Robert DeNiro spotted him and suggested him for a very small part in Raging Bull, Turturro's first film appearance.

While the 42-year-old thespian has returned to the stage over the years-most recently in last year's Off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot-his career over the last dozen years has centered primarily in film. His many screen credits include Rounders, Box of Moonlight, Grace of My Heart, Unstrung Heroes, Quiz Show, Being Human, Fearless, Hannah and Her Sisters, Five Corners, The Sicilian, The Color of Money, To Live and Die in L.A., and Desperately Seeking Susan. His upcoming film projects include Tim Robbins' The Cradle Will Rock, 2000 and None, and the Coen brothers' next opus, O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Turturro has had a loyal relationship with Joel and Ethan Coen on three other projects: Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, and the aforementioned The Big Lebowski. The actor has also repeatedly collaborated with filmmaker Spike Lee on Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, Girl 6, He Got Game, and Summer of Sam, as the voice of the infamous dog that torments killer David Berkowitz.

The last time I spoke with John Turturro (about his superb performance as a Holocaust survivor in last year's The Truce), he told me what he thought made a good director. Turturro, who wrote and directed the acclaimed 1992 film Mac, opined, "A good director is someone who has vision and a story they really want to tell and a craft that they can tell it with. I like people who have a sense of humor and understand how to tell with images; someone who sets a tone that is pointed, but also can be relaxed, but not completely frivolous. I think you can have fun by digging deep."

Turturro took his own recipe for directing and applied that to his latest directorial effort, Illuminata, which he also co-wrote and stars in with his wife, actress Katherine Borowitz. The comedic and heartfelt film depicts the insanity and humanity of a community of stage artists in New York, circa early 1900s. Turturro, who plays a resident playwright in a struggling theatre company managed by his wife and lead actress (Borowitz), capably steers the performances by his ensemble cast, which includes Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Georgina Kates, Rufus Sewell, Beverly D'Angelo, Ben Gazzara, Bill Irwin, David Thornton, Aida Turturro, and Donal McCann.

Back Stage West: Illuminata seems to me to be a love letter on a number of levels-a love letter to your wife; a love letter to your fellow actors; a love letter to the theatre, and a love letter to the creative process. Am I reading too much into your film, or am I on the right track?

John Turturro: You're on the right track. I mean, I didn't think that literally while I was doing it or while I was writing it, but something was propelling me. To love someone that you know well is a difficult thing and a wonderful thing, and how that love survives is a major dilemma in our lives. And to love what you do is very important.

It was hard for me to let go of the film, because I loved every minute of it. I loved the people who worked on the design-Donna Zakowska, who was the costume designer and helped me with sets, and Roman Paska, who did the puppets and also helped with the sets. I loved my relationship with [co-writer] Brandon Cole. I loved working with actors who I've admired. I think more things should be done this way, because it was truly liberating.

BSW: Illuminata is an homage to the stage process and to the behind-the-scenes action that goes on backstage. Is the theatre something that's quite precious to you?

Turturro: Yes. It has such a simplicity to it. It's an old form of storytelling. And to do it requires great concentration and great writing, usually. That's a world that I love.

BSW: A lot of young actors these days do not hone their craft onstage, as you did. What do you think they're missing?

Turturro: They're missing learning about certain elements of the craft that have to do with their voice and their body. [Onstage], you know when you're making someone laugh or not or when you have the audience in the palm of your hand. You are the editor. You are controlling the music of the writing. You're sustaining a complete performance. I think the theatre is not only a great training ground; I think it's a great place to return to, because it's truly humbling.

BSW: Illuminata also explores the challenges of two artists living and working together, as you and your wife/co-star Katherine Borowitz do. Was this a therapeutic experience for the two of you to do this film together?

Turturro: Much of her sensibilities influenced my creation of her character Rachel, and Kathy knew that I had used certain aspects of herself. [When I was writing the script,] I kept seeing Kathy's face and her strength and her delicacy. She can convey things a lot of times without speaking. So she knew that and she wanted to obviously please me.

I think we discovered aspects of each other working together. And then when I was editing, I discovered other aspects of the person I thought I knew so well. It was exciting. It can be strenuous and challenging, but it can also be very life-affirming and delightful. I found it a very healthy way to exist. And that's extended to some of my other close friends [in the film]. I have to say it's been one of the happiest working experiences of my life. I hope I can touch on that again.

BSW: I think the actors you cast in Illuminata really served the material well. It was quite an eclectic bunch-from Christopher Walken to Beverly D'Angelo to Susan Sarandon to Ben Gazzara. What do you think binds these actors together?

Turturro: It's not an ensemble where people are devoid of their personalities. They could move; they had a real physicality. I looked at people who have a sense of humor, warmth, and a depth, because that's my sensibility. I couldn't do something that had a very thin veneer. It's just not me. It's not the way I see the world. There are scenes in the movie that I look at and think, That fascinates me to no end. So I was looking for those kind of actors.

Like Chris [Walken] has a tremendous element of surprise. Or someone like Rufus [Sewell], who is very handsome and charming and funny, also has this real warmth to him. Or Donal [McCann], who's normally this deep guy, was playing this clown. Leo Bassi, who's never been in a film before, is a fifth-generation clown and a one-man performance artist. He brought a whole different tradition to the movie.

So, yeah. I am attracted to certain kinds of people. I don't like glib performances. I'm not interested in that. I never have been.

BSW: Did you learn anything during or after the making of this film that you can share?

Turturro: I think some of the things that I've learned are in the movie, hopefully. I was encouraged to continue pursuing things that are worthwhile, with people I believe in and care about. And to be open to new people. I've realized how exciting, fulfilling, and enriching it is to do something like that.

And I realized that there is a place for something that is fragile and beautiful, and to achieve that is a difficult thing. But it's worthwhile to pursue that-with humor and with craziness. Because life is a circus-sometimes it's delicate and sometimes it's ridiculous. But to pursue what you love is so worthwhile. I feel enriched.

BSW: In what ways does directing fulfill you as an artist that acting may not?

Turturro: With the two films I've done, I pursued things that meant a lot to me-one world I grew up in (Mac) and one world I chose (Illuminata). I think to see how you look at the world or what you value or what you think is really interesting-to pursue your own sensibility and sense of humor with visual aesthetics and to see that projected back to you is humbling, educational, even shocking.

When I first saw Illuminata after the rough cut, I couldn't believe how strong the ending was. I thought, My God! This is really personal. This is really powerful. I knew then and there, Oh, that must have been why I was pursuing it. You can't put a price on that.

BSW: What do you love about acting? What does it give back to you?

Turturro: When it's been really rewarding has been when I've had a great collaboration with someone, and that hasn't always been the case. But I try. When you tell a story and take people somewhere and make them forget that they're watching you, that's a nice thing. What I really like about acting is when I'm able to pursue something and really search and go somewhere new and help the storytelling in the process of it. I think I did that with The Truce, which was one of the best things I've ever done.

BSW: Do you have a certain process you follow as far as developing a character? I realize that you've played such a diverse range of a roles, but if there's anything you could share about that process, I'd love to hear it.

Turturro: It depends how much time I have. It depends who's doing it. But usually I just read a script a lot and try not to jump to conclusions. I try to hold back as much as I can and then talk to the director and see what's in mind. I mean, you can't apply the same approach to everything. Except that you have to interact between people and listen and respond. And you have to learn how to develop what that character's point of view is-what they're listening from.

BSW: Are you surprised by the success you've had as an actor?

Turturro: I've been very fortunate and I'm very blessed. When I came out of Yale Drama School, I thought, Well, if I work and make a living I'll be happy. I never imagined that I would be able to do the kinds of things I've been doing. There's a part of me that's surprised and there's another part of me that thinks, This was my hope that I could do this. So I'm appreciative. I didn't know if I'd have the opportunity or not.

BSW: What words of encouragement would you offer your fellow actors?

Turturro: I studied acting for almost 10 years before I ever made a cent. I think it helps to study with different kinds of teachers, to work and to practice whenever you can, and then to try to discover what you do well. It can take a long time. Sometimes, in the beginning, you imitate other actors you're impressed by, but that's really not you. Find your strength and find out what's special about you.

And eventually all actors come to the conclusion: Well, is this what I have to do or do I just want to do it? In my case, I always thought acting was something that I had to do and I'd be unhappy if I couldn't do it. But it's a long, hard road and you can certainly lose your desire and love for it. I don't know if this is encouraging or not, but there are people like me who have done well and haven't had the typical trajectory. I didn't just step out into a movie. I started studying when I was 17.

If you feel that people respond to you and that you can hold people's attention and you're aware you're holding their attention and they like what you're doing as you're holding their attention-if it's something that you have a deep, deep need to do-then I think [acting] is worth pursuing. But I know how hard it is. That's why I went back to graduate school, because I thought, I want to work; I want to get better. Maybe I could teach if I don't get a job acting-just to be around the profession that I love.

But like I said, I've been fortunate. Doing one little thing led to another little thing. My first job out of Yale was at the Eugene O'Neill Center's National Theatre Institute [in Connecticut]. I did a play by John Patrick Shanley-Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. And eventually I got to do that play in workshop form and then at the New Play Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. And then it played in New York and I won an Obie award and a Theatre World award. That's how I got into the movies. So training and working never hurt.

And do it for the right reasons-not just to get ahead, but to do something that's good. BSW