“There is a whole inside my soul that has never been quenched”
These are the words that Joe Pantoliano, — aka Joey Pants, aka Cypher, aka Ralph Cifaretto — chose to begin his interview with me. Simply deep!
I met up with Mr. Pantoliano at the Illini Union Sunday afternoon [April 27], following his dual appearance at Ebertfest — first as a panel member for the film Canvas, then later as an audience member who asked Ang Lee a question following the screening of The Hulk. He was chilling in the Union Lounge, chatting casually with an entourage of several female [student] fans.
“Is that really the guy from The Matrix?” asked a passerby.
While interviewing Tarsem Singh — the [utterly hilarious and friendly] director of The Cell, whose interview should appear next week or two (I wasn’t able to get back in contact with him in time to fill in some remaining questions I had, for our interview was cut short by a plane he had to catch) — earlier that morning I saw Joey sipping coffee at Expresso Royal across the room from us. I thought to myself “damn, I wonder if I could get an interview with him too.” Alas, he left before Singh and I concluded our conversation, so I couldn’t ask in person. However, one handwritten note at the Illini Union reception desk later, I was in.
Actually, there’s a slightly funny story behind how we actually set up the interview. It was around 3 pm and I was sitting around the apartment watching the Cubs game with a few friends when I got a call from an unrecognized number.
“Hey, is this Jeff?” asked an unknown, but familiar sounding voice.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Hey, it’s Joe Pantoliano…I got your note and was wondering if you wanted to get something to eat. I’m starving and could really use a sandwich or something.” What a queer, but awesome way to say “yeah, I’ll do the interview.”
My friends of course, did not believe that I was talking to Pantoliano, so I had to put him on speaker phone.
“One hour from now OK?” I asked. He, of course, accepted
Flash forward to where this article began. I met up with Joey at the Union and we settled on Qdoba as a place to eat/interview. One burrito and photograph with the lady working the cash register later, and we were ready to begin.
Before we start the interview, Pantoliano pulls out a sapphire encrusted pocket knife that he likes to carry around with him. He shows me the very sharp, very beautiful object, telling me that he likes to carry them around with him wherever he goes. At first, I’m not sure what to think of this, but I later realized that it perfectly set the tone for our conversation. Joey Pants is a different kind of guy; he’s come to terms with who he is and become very comfortable in his skin. As such, he’s very open about many things, including his passion for these knives.
Pantoliano proceeds to tell me that he came to Champaign to promote his film Canvas and to raise awareness for mental disease. He runs an organization called “No Kidding, Me Too!” that is running an anti-stigma campaign to challenge disability discrimination and promote education and awareness of mental disease. You can check them his organization on the web at http://www.nkm2.org.
I quickly flip on my audio recorder, afraid to miss anymore, and ask Pantoliano to continue.
Joe Pantoliano (JP): There is a whole inside my soul that has never been quenched. It’s been there ever since I was a kid. I thought I was a piece of shit as a kid. I didn’t know any better and thought I was going to get even with my mom by proving to her that I wasn’t a piece of shit because I thought she thought I was.
When I was a kid, I was dyslexic and I didn’t know how to read and I couldn’t learn how. I was told by my teachers — well, they didn’t tell me anything, but they told my Mom — they told her that there wasn’t anything actually wrong with me, but that I was just lazy. Truth was that there was so much going on in my head that I just couldn’t concentrate. And I believed them, I believed what I heard. I was taught to believe that I was lazy…and a good for nothing. Then I wanted to do this play in high school, desperately, but I pretended like I didn’t care. I was a tough kid; I chose be like the tough guy even though I was kind of an outcast because I wanted to be cool. I was 18 and my sister, who was six years younger than me, helped me memorize the monologue that I needed to do for the audition. Eventually, I memorized it; she read the whole play to me until I did. [Come the audition] I pretended as if I was reading off the page and I got off with it. Then the teacher asked me to read another part that I had not prepared and I was so embarrassed. Kids were giggling and I was just devastated. The teacher, however, was kind enough and smart enough to give me the part. In a lot of way, I guess she saved my life. I felt like I found something that I wanted to do and I never felt that way before. I never had the feeling of being in front of an audience and having the ability to make them laugh or make them cry. That speech that I memorized was the closing speech that my character had and we only did the play twice — maybe three times — in February of 1970. I could hear kids in the audience crying and my friends and everybody loved it and I was popular for the first time.
My teacher told me that I needed to learn to read if I wanted to be an actor and I was going to do whatever it took. I kept finding angels along the way that helped me, and now I’m identified as an actor.
After that, I went to New York — I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey. I didn’t go to college, though; I went right to acting school. That was really another blessing because I had so much ground to pick up that I was taking acting classes with guys who were just getting out of college. While I was learning how to read and speak and act, I was auditioning for people in off-off-off Broadway productions that took place in rooms smaller than this [note: this refers to the upstairs backroom of Qdoba on Green Street]. I’ve done plays that sat twelve people and there was enough room for three people on the stage.
JG: How did you go from these small venues to playing Billy Bibbit in the theatrical version of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest?”
JP: The Ken Kesey book was originally done as a Broadway play that failed. It was owned by Kirk Douglas, who played McMurphy. Gene Wilder originated the role of Billy Bibbit. Then it was done years later, directed by Lee Sankowich and the role of Billy Bibbit was created by Laurie Driscoll in San Francisco which made the play a hit and brought the play to New York City as an off-Broadway play. By then, Michael Douglas’ dad, Kirk, had given him the rights to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Michael and Saul Zaentz decided to do the movie version. So it went way back, based on the novel. Billy Bibbit would probably be diagnosed today as bi-polar with Asberger tendencies. The first time I ever got a play, I wound up in a mental institution…because I was doing research. I hung out at the ward in Creedmoor. The characters that I’ve been drawn to play — I’m finding out now — more and more, I always wind up in nut houses. When I did Canvas, I wound up at a place called…it’s now called…
You know, Regan shut down all of the federal hospitals for the mentally insane. Now there are only state hospitals. Most of these things are actually taken care of by private individuals that raise money to help the needy for nothing. Like the mental health place across the street from the theater [he is referring to The Pavilion Foundation on Church Street, I think]. They actually paid Ebertfest $25,000 to show this film [Canvas] again today. We [No Kidding, Me Too!] are announcing — this is a scoop for you — we have an anti-stigma campaign and what No Kidding, Me Too is about is teaching kids like you about the stigma related to mental disease and that it’s OK to talk about it. What year are you?
JG: I’m a senior.
JP: Kids, usually in their last year of high school or first year of college, that is when they melt down. It could be due to the stress of crashing for a test or whatever; they don’t know. Schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder — these kind of illnesses rear their ugly head around that age. I remember having a nervous breakdown when I was 21 years old. I never thought I could be crazy; I thought being crazy was a minority illness, that only a few people got crazy. You know, “what is crazy?”
When researching my role, I wanted to see what “crazy” people looked like. I remember this one guy — Henry — I’ll never forget him. I based my character of Billy Bibbit on this guy Henry. He was at Creedmoor and I spent four hours with him and he couldn’t stop moving his hand and he would say “you-y-you-you-you’re powerful Joe. You’re powerful.” When I asked him “Henry, why are you here?” he said “I-I-I’m here because I have the CIA and they come into my head.” Then he would take out a cigarette and he’d say “and they come and they come.”[Joe does a physical impersonation of Henry]
When he would talk, he became alive. I tried to imitate that when I played Billy Bibbit. I even made Billy Bibbit a smoker; that’s how I started smoking. Billy was also all about his mommy. He was deathly afraid of his mother, though you never saw her in the play. He actually kills himself at the end for fear that his mother is going to find out that McMurphy got him laid. Nurse Retched threatens that she’s going to tell his mother and he says “no” and runs off and somehow gets into a cabinet and cuts his wrists and he’s dead. Nurse Retched used his own fear against him…she was diabolical.
Ralph Cifaretto of The Sopranos is a sociopath. He was probably bi-polar too. He was abused as a kid by his mother’s boyfriends. Ralph was addicted to cocaine. Christopher was a drug addict. You aren’t just a drug addict. What makes a drug addict is a tremendous pain in one’s heart. Anybody that’s attracted to addiction, it’s because there is something that is going on inside their soul that is destroying them. They feel that being high is the can only quench that pain. The problem with drugs and alcohol, however, is that they cannot quench it forever. It’s that one drink, that one hit, that you are always chasing after. Gambling, eating — they’re both addictions too. We’re always looking for more. More is not enough; it’s never enough. “When Too Much Is Not Enough” is a book that I’m reading right now.
JG: Would you say that you are typecast in the role of the psychopath or the “scumbag” or do you find yourself attracted to these kind of roles? You seem to be able to identify with fractured personalities.
JP: You are judging the characters I play. You say I play a scumbag. Would you describe Ralph Cifaretto as a scumbag? When you say that, what characters are you referring to? Pick a character.
JG: Cypher, in The Matrix, for example. He was a traitor. He betrays his friends because he cannot conceptualize with his own self and live outside the comforts and pleasures of the matrix. He needs to be inside that world; he is addicted to it. He even goes so far as to kill his friends for his own personal pleasure. You wouldn’t call him a scumbag?
JP: You think that makes him a scumbag?
JG: Well he did betray and murder his friends. He just pulled the jacks out of Switch and Apoc’s head while they are still connected to the matrix. It was pretty cold blooded.
JP: But he was going to have no memory of that. He made a deal with the devil. When people make those kind of assumptions, like you did, you are really just commenting on your own fears. In The Matrix, Cypher is the most human character in the story because he has doubt. Cypher was born of Morpheus. Cypher didn’t just show up. He was allegedly “the one.” If you look at the movie again, Morpheus had picked Cypher as “the one” even though he was not the one. By the time Morpheus finds Neo, Cypher says “six guys, he thought, and they always die.” Cypher explains his whole attitude when he says “I know this steak isn’t real, I know that it’s not real, but when I put it in my mouth, it’s juicy and delicious.” Cypher tells the story of The Matrix from his perspective when he says “ignorance is bliss.” Your question is born out of ignorance. Cypher scares you, so you label him as a scumbag so you don’t have to be afraid of him. You don’t want to be him; you would never do that to your friends. But the truth is that he’s got such a seductive choice. He says that he doesn’t want to remember anything. “I don’t want to remember anything,” he says. “I want to come back as somebody famous…like an actor.” An actor is the most benign thing — it is the biggest joke in the world. When the Wachowski’s were writing that line, they were talking about Joey Pantoliano because they knew me so well and they knew that I’ve led a blissful existence. I’ve been so fuckin’ lucky. The problem is that I’m not ignorant anymore and because I’m not ignorant, Joey Pants realized that he’s got so much pain in his life. Life will tear you apart; it will beat you up and get the best of you. Now I’ve got four kids I’ve got to worry about and I’ve got to worry about my wife who was sick and thank God it turned out she didn’t have cancer. Life is always throwing you tricks that you have to handle and it’s hard. Cypher was human and because he was human, he had a sense of humor, which none of the other characters did. If you study the matrix now — I want you go to back and see it — every other character in The Matrix is determined in their proof that the matrix is a bad place and that they are better off in the “real” world, which is pain and suffering and eating that goop every day. And then Neo winds up going into a room two movies later with the white haired guy who tells us that he is still in the matrix. So who was right? Was Morpheus right or was Cypher right? Morpheus though that Neo was “the one,” the Christ figure, the savior. Cypher was really merely Judas. The girl was Marry Magdalene. This movie is based on a bunch of myths; it was the Christ-myth. There always has to be a villain in every story. Cypher sold his friends out for a bag of gold. What’s the difference between what Judas did — Christ’s best friend — and what Cypher does?
JG: Well if not a “villain” in the traditional sense, would call Cypher a misguided soul?
JP: Cypher was not misguided; he was confused. He was human and he made a human error and he died. He had the knowledge that he made a mistake right before he died. Cypher says that if he [Neo] is the one — if he is really the one — then something is going to happen. A miracle is going to have to happen. Cypher says that someone is going to have to kill me if Neo is truly the one. When Tank shoots him, the last thing Cypher says before he dies is “fuck.” He says fuck or shit or no or something. [It is at that moment] that he realizes his mistake.
He was also in love with Trinity. He was a man and he had feelings for Trinity. Morpheus didn’t get a hard on for her. Cypher was jerking off in that hub. He was seeing beautiful hookers when he was in the matrix. When he had five minutes to kill, he would probably go to a whore house and find the lady in the red dress. Life is not as simple as you tried to characterize it. We simplify everything. He’s a scumbag. What makes a scumbag? What made Hitler? Do you think Hitler was a bad guy when he grew up?
I am a character actor. My job is to break down the character based on the given circumstance and find out who they are. I am not a movie star. A movie star looks great and carries the movie. I’m the “villain.” Why do you think I get the best lines in the movie? In The Matrix, I’m the villain. In Canvas, I’m not the villain.
JG: How did you prepare differently for Canvas than you did for The Matrix? What did you do to change character types?
I change types all the time. My career began playing sidekicks and comedians in television. My first lead in a TV movie, I played an anti-hero. I played Maggio in From Here To Eternity — the part that Frank Sinatra played and won him an Academy Award. When I did that, they said “oh he’s a serious actor, he can’t do comedy.” I couldn’t get any work as a comedian, but I’m a comedian too — I do comedies. I’ve since played the bail bondsman in Midnight Run. I played a scoundrel, but not a bad guy. I’ve played many different types. I was the US Marshall in The Fugitive and the sequel to The Fugitive [U.S. Marshalls]. Not a scumbag — a sidekick. There’s a difference. I’ve done a hundred movies — and I usually do play the bad guy, I’ll give you that — but as an actor, if you are a decent actor, you can’t go into the role playing the bad guy. You have to be creative. You know what my job is these days? How do I take this bad guy character and make him different. I am typecast — everybody is — but I am a victim of my casting opportunities. It’s not like I get to pick the roles, they get to pick me. I get a choice and sometimes I have to say yes because I’m yearning to act or I need to pay the rent. But the best roles, the ones that I say would define me — like in Memento, Teddy — my character is hardly a scumbag. I also played a good guy in Daredevil…the reporter. He’s the only guy who knows who Daredevil actually is, his true identity. He doesn’t sell it for a bag of gold. The truth is that the character I play in Canvas I did to wash the stench of Ralph Cifaretto out of my hair.
JG: Some might not call Teddy [from Memento] a good guy. He did sort of use Guy Pearce.
JP: Teddy gave Leonard a reason to live. Leonard killed his wife; there was no Sammy Jankis. Teddy even says “I gave you a reason to live.” Motion pictures are a subjective medium. You are going to see what you are going to see and I’m going to see what I’m going to see. It’s like looking at a painting. When looking at a painting, it could move me and not move you. We just see the characters differently. Did you see The Passion Of The Christ?
JG: Nope. Not much interest in seeing it either.
JP: You know, a lot Jews were offended by that movie, many of whom had never seen it. Having never seen the movie, they were offended by its content. I always found that bizarre, but not uncommon. Such are people’s perceptions. A lot of Italian Americans are angry at me for being in The Sopranos because they found my character offensive and derogatory to Italian Americans. Everyone who ever said that to me, however, never saw the show. “I don’t need to see the show,” they’d say. But they loved The Godfather. Why is it that they love The Godfather, but they hated The Sopranos. Or why was it that they loved Tony Soprano, but they hated Ralph Cifaretto? People should see something before you cast judgment. You should see The Passion Of The Christ.
JG: I probably should, but I’m just not exactly Mel Gibson fan. I didn’t much care for Braveheart.
JP: Oh, then you’ll hate this movie.
JG: Everyone tells me its blasphemy to not like Braveheart — especially since I’m a quote unquote film critic.
JP: Stanislavski talks about film critics in his book “My Life In Art”. There’s a chapter about the critic and how important the critics roles is. Roger Ebert, for example, is somebody who is revered. He takes his job very seriously and people turn [to him for advice]. In the old days, the newspapers would go to the guy doing the weather and say “hey, we need a film critic. C’mon, you be the film critic. You like to go to movies, right? You’re the critic.” You know, people here at Ebertfest this weekend like Paul Schrader — who was a film critic and became a writer — or Joshua Logan — who was a theater critic before he became a producer and director — these are men that did and didn’t just judge. Even Ebert wrote some stuff. You should act. You need to do if you want to judge and taken seriously. Even if it’s acting in a play in college. You should at least take an acting class; it will help you appreciate the art.
JG: Oh, I’ve taken a few acting classes. I learned very quickly how much I suck at acting. I never really wanted to be an actor though…I wanted to be a director…maybe a cinematographer. What sort of advice would you offer a person with dreams of Hollywood? How do you hone your talents?
JP: I don’t mean to be a wise ass, but the truth is practice. It’s like the old joke, how do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. Just keep doing it. It’s about learning and living. You just have to find yourself. Joseph Campbell is the guy I love best; he had it right. He studied to be a Roman Catholic Priest and he said he learned too much and he was no longer blissfully ignorant. He said these stories are just fables, myths with a moral. “Eternal life” is what you leave in the souls of the people you touch. I wanted to have eternal life through movies. 100 years from now, someone will see me doing a movie supporting Tommy Lee Jones or starring in Canvas or whatever. There I am, still living. I’m dust, but I live on through the movies. As Campbell says, “follow your bliss.” If you can do that and make a living out of it, holy shit. That is the greatest success that anyone can have. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the world is miserable and unhappy and paying their rent and stuck in a life they can’t afford to get out of.
My crime in life was that I had all my dreams handed to me — everything I ever wanted I got. I got the house on the lake, the runway model wife that loves me, the four kids who love me. I got so much that I couldn’t feel good and I was miserable. I couldn’t even feel my own kids love and I contemplated taking my life. I mean, what was the point of staying here if that was it? If that was it, I was done. I had no desire to live anymore. That’s where I was. But I got help. I saw a psychiatrist and now I’ve got some kind of religion — I believe in a high power greater than myself. Now I control my fits of sadness with the aid of friends and my children and exercise and pharmaceuticalogy [sp] and today is a pretty good day. It’s almost as if I can say anything now. I feel as if I have nothing to hide. There is an expression that you are only as sick as your lies and the lies you hold inside yourself. Do you know how that feels? The smartest thing ever said was “to thine own self be true.” You cannot lie to yourself no matter what you are doing. You just can’t do it. That voice is always going to be there saying “what the fuck?”
JG: Would you say you’ve achieved your dream?
JP: Of course. As a person, I will live forever in the hearts of my children and my friends. As an actor, I will live on through my films. I will be remembered because I’ve been in a hundred movies. Will they remember my name? Maybe. Some will — film connoisseurs will. I’ve been in ten movies that have made over one hundred million dollars. Even if I’m not remembered through my films, I’ll still live on forever through my family.
JG: You know what I’ll always remember you for? It’s actually not The Matrix or Memento or The Sopranos. It’s for Tales From The Cryptkeeper. You starred in one of my favorite episodes of the show growing up, in which you played a bum who got cat glands implanted in his brain. That [“Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone”] was an awesome episode.
JG: Yeah. That’s when I time I saw Joey Pants. On pre-Sopranos HBO.
JP: Richard Donner directed that
JP: Yeah. It was first episodes of that show.
Pantoliano, realizing he was late for the second screening of Canvas, signed my copy of The Matrix, took a quick photo with me and headed out to field questions at the Virginia Theater.
I learned a couple of things about Joey Pant’s personality that I would have otherwise unexpected about him. He’s a very meticulous, profound person with a lot of knowledge about many people and many things. He is a very formidable person to chat to about film and art with. I also learned that you should not underestimate him, or he will call you out on it. All in all, Pantoliano was an extremely interesting person to chat with. He turned out to be infinitely cooler than I already thought he would be.
He later followed up with me in email on a few lingering questions I had.
JG: What did you think about Ebertfest?
JP: I love your campus and you kids are an elixir of creativity for me. It was a great to watch some really good movies. I loved the Tom DiCillo flick [Delirious].
JG: What did you think about The Hulk? Putting aside the biasing personal connection that Ang Lee had to the film, do you think it was truly worth a screening at Ebertfest? Do you not think a different Lee film like Lust, Caution might have been a better overlooked choice?
JP: Man, you are such a fucking snob! Do you think that Ang Lee worked any less on this film than any of his others? Ang Lee made The Hulk to channel the issues he had with his father. It was a personal film for him.
JG: I’m not saying that Lee worked any less on The Hulk than his other movies but rather that the final outcome was not up to the quality of his other movies. I don’t know what more you could have done with the material for The Hulk, but I (and most people I know) found the final piece to have a ridiculously uninteresting story and poor casting. I strongly feel that neither Connelly nor Bana belonged in the movie. Perhaps it was just the source material that limited the potential of the movie — The Hulk, in my opinion, has never exactly been the most interesting comic in the Marvel universe. That may sound snobbish, but I’ve seen the movie three times and did not enjoy it any of the three times. I greatly respect Lee’s work, but this one was just a flop in my opinion.
JP: We all have flops! I’ve done over one hundred films and maybe eight have been great.
JG: Early in your career, you got to work with Steven Spielberg a few times — in Goonies and again on the set of Empire Of The Sun. How would you describe the Spielberg experience? What is his directorial style like?
JP: I really liked working with him. He is a very inclusive director and has embraced long lasting working relationships. He really is a student of film.
JG: Is your favorite work the more cult stuff or the more mainstream work?
JP: I like them all, especially when the move is a winner.
JG: What was it like for you when The Matrix exploded and became a huge phenomenon?
JP: I was very happy. The Wachowski’s worked soooooo very hard on that movie. I
personally did not expect to see it to get that big.
JG: Is Keanu Reeves different in real life than the characters he plays on screen? He always seems so…aloof.
JP: You know, he is nothing like that [in real life]. He is one of the hardest working actors I have ever worked with. He is a very kind, very sensitive person and I value his friendship.
JG: What was it like to work with Christopher Nolan?
JP: It was great. I so hope to have a chance to work with him again. He has offered me jobs on the last two Batman movies, but I didn’t think the roles had anything to say.
JG: How did you feel when you found out you were going to get killed off in The Sopranos?
JP: I knew i would die when they offered me the job. It was a two year gig. The toughest part was keeping my trap shut for two years.
JG: What’s next for you?
JP: I’m starting a job in Detroit with Ron Perlman [The Legend Of Secret Pass].
JG: What is your favorite movie and TV show?
JP: Maybe His Girl Friday…I like too many movies. I love the TV show Monk.
JG: If you could work with any actor or director right now — alive or dead — who would it be?
JP: Ang Lee and Cary Grant.
JG: In real life, would you take the blue pill or the red pill?
JP: The blue one. Ignorance is bliss.