DID YOU READ

Interview: Chazz Palminteri on “Yonkers Joe”

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01072008_yonkersjoe1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

If New York-born actor (and sometime writer/director) Chazz Palminteri were just a decade older, he probably would’ve been an Italian-American staple in the ’70s films of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Instead, during that time he studied at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, then made his way to off-Broadway and TV shows in the ’80s before writing the 1988 play “A Bronx Tale” that would eventually be adapted for the screen as Robert De Niro’s directorial debut and offer him his breakout movie role. Now one of the most prominent Italian-American actors working today, Palminteri currently stars as the titular Vegas shark in “Yonkers Joe,” an entertaining drama about a con man whose seedy world of palming dice, cheating casinos, and conning any poor sucker is uprooted when he’s forced to look after his adult son with Down’s syndrome. I took a seat with Palminteri (while writer/director Robert Celestino quietly looked on) to talk about his cultural background, fatherhood and his New Year’s resolutions.

Are you a gambling man?

Yeah, I like to gamble. Am I like Yonkers? No, but I’ll go to Vegas and gamble a little bit. Why not? I like playing roulette, I like dice. I grew up with gamblers. But the way Yonkers is, which is really fascinating to me, it’s kind of this subculture of people, like magicians with dice and cards. Here’s this guy who’s great at what he does, but he can’t tell anybody because if he does, he’ll get killed. And if he tells his friends, his friends won’t use him anymore. So he lives a life of being kind of lonely.

How long did it take you pick up those sleight-of-hand tricks you perform through the film?

Well, obviously, could I do it like the real Yonkers Joe? No. But Bob, the writer-director, that was his father. Bob can do it as good as his dad can because his father taught him — Bob was teaching me. The beauty of film is that I would study it for hours and hours, but if I do it one out of ten times, that’s the take we’d use. I would screw up a lot, but the one that I did it right, that’s the one we used, so it was okay.

I like that the film never feels obligated to judge this character’s moral compass, considering he regularly rips people off.

01072008_yonkersjoe.jpgNo, that’s what he does. There’s no apologizing, that’s what it is. When you read the script, some people would say: “How do you root for a guy like this?” You end up rooting for him because you don’t have to like him as much. But if you understand him, you’ll start to like him.

You’ve taken a lot of roles that reflect your Italian-American background. Are you offered a ton of projects that play into cultural stereotypes, like gangster movies?

Yeah, and I usually don’t do them. [laughs] That’s why I do movies like “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” “Yonkers Joe,” or “Once More with Feeling,” that I have at Sundance. I don’t want to play a goombah character if he’s just one note. I’m very proud of being Italian-American, but people don’t realize that the mafia is just this aberration. The real community is built on the working man, the guy who’s the cop, the fireman, the truck driver, the bus driver. This is my father. These mafia guys get all the press because they’re fun to write about, they’re fun to watch. That’s why I wrote “A Bronx Tale.” The working guy’s the tough guy: “It doesn’t take much strength to pull the trigger, son.” He says that in the movie, that’s why it was important for me.

Not that you’ve had to take care of a child with Down’s syndrome, but can you think of anything in your own life that has been a tough responsibility?

Not like that. God bless the parents who handle things like that. I’m astounded by them. I have a friend who has a son with Down’s syndrome. He’s about 30 years old, the boy, and the things that they went through in the very beginning: in school, in talking with girls, and the things that he would say in front of people — they would just say anything. You’d get embarrassed: “Oh my god!” And you know what? The child has brought them nothing but joy. So my heart goes out to anyone who has a special needs child, and the work that they must have to do, the constant supervision, and the love. I’m so grateful to be a father, and I have two healthy children, and it made me even more grateful for my kids when I saw how hard it is.

Well, but what about you? What frustrating obligations have you personally embraced?

Well, I think… [deep breath] I don’t know if I should talk about this, but… yeah, I guess so. My father, who was 89, passed away a year ago. He was the inspiration and essence of Lorenzo Anello in “A Bronx Tale,” the character played by Robert De Niro. He was healthy all his life, and then he got sick. For six or seven weeks, he deteriorated, and we knew it was time for him to go. That was it. Holding the family together, I thought I’d be the basket case of all the kids, but I ended up manning up and taking control with my mom and my sisters. I guess I had to, for whatever reason. No one else could. I was looking for someone else to take over, but I had to do it. I’m happy I was there at the end, and I never thought I could do that, but I thank God everyday that I did.

01072008_yonkersjoe2.jpgBesides Celestino, you’ve worked with other up-and-coming filmmakers before. What do you like about working on a project where you’re the veteran and they’re a bit green?

I love people who just started making movies — first-timers, second-timers. They take chances. Usually, they have a script that they’ve had for 20 years that’s really good that no one wants to make, so you want to do it. I think Bob wrote the script maybe 10, 15 ago years, Bob? [Celestino nods.] 15 years. You try to make it and it falls through. You get the money and you don’t have the actor, or you get the actor and you don’t have the money. It’s a nightmare. So finally, if the right actor comes at the right time, I don’t know. I’m happy with the movie, and I can’t picture anybody else doing “Yonkers Joe.” Could you, Bob? [Celestino shakes his head emphatically.] Well, he wouldn’t tell me anyway. [laughs]

How did you two get connected?

He sent the script to the agent, and the agent gave it to me and I read it. Great material gets a response right away because you don’t read much of it. I read a lot of scripts, and most are bullshit. Most scripts are 60% written — you like the ending, the beginning, you might like the middle, but then you read it, and you get 30 pages before you put your head down. I just like a good story, and a character that has flaws and complexities. Could you compare the Yonkers Joe character to anybody in the history of films? “Yonkers Joe is like the guy in…” I can’t do that. I say that honestly. So when I see a movie that’s so original and has three-dimensional pull to it, this subculture of gamblers and the guy has a son with Down syndrome? Show me a movie like that, I haven’t seen it.

Entering this depressing economic year, how much does the potential SAG strike affect you and your upcoming projects?

Obviously, the country is having a tough time right now. Is now the time to strike? I hope not. But I’m only one voice here. There are other actors who have different agendas, and maybe they want to strike for whatever reason. I mean, could we give away the store? No, we can’t give away all Internet rights and things like that. I want to hear both sides a little more. I just don’t think now is the time to strike. I think it would make a bad situation worse.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?

Yeah, I just try to be better than I was the year before. I know that sounds lame a little bit, but I go: “Okay, well, what could I do this year that I didn’t do great last year?” I try to be the best father I can be. You could be a billionaire and live in the biggest mansion, but if your kids don’t love you, what success do you have?

01072008_yonkersjoe3.jpgWhat’s been most surprising about fatherhood for you?

I think checking yourself because you are a mirror to your children. You have to get yourself in shape because whatever you are, your children will become. If you’re mean to people, your children will be mean to people. If you’re an asshole, your children will become assholes.

My children are good kids. I taught them that [skin] color means nothing. I have friends who are African-American, and I wanted them to talk to them, hang with them. I don’t want them to one day say, “Oh, gee, there’s other people with different colors than us?” I wrote “A Bronx Tale” because of racism. It’s a big issue with me. You’re not born a racist. You’re taught to be a racist. When you see, like in the South, those five-year-olds walking around with sheets on their heads, what’s more despicable than that? So you teach your kids not to be racist, and they will teach their kids, and their kids will teach their kids. My legacy as a father, I hope, is that our children will welcome everyone.

You’ve played so many tough guy roles. Are you a strict father?

Yes, I am. Sometimes a little too tough? I can be. But I work on that. My wife isn’t as tough, but she balances me out a little bit.

[Photos: Chazz Palminteri in “Yonkers Joe,” Magnolia Pictures, 2008]

“Yonkers Joe” opens in New York and Los Angeles on January 9th.

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Brock Hard

Brockmire’s Guide To Grabbing Life By The D***

Catch up on the full season of Brockmire now.

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“Lucy, put supper on the stove, my dear, because this ballgame is over!”

Brockmire has officially closed out its rookie season. Miss the finale episode? A handful of episodes? The whole blessed season?? You can see it all from the beginning, starting right here.

And you should get started, because every minute you spend otherwise will be a minute spent not living your best life. That’s right, there are very important life lessons that Brockmire hid in plain sight—lessons that, when applied thoughtfully, can improve every aspect of your awesome existence. Let’s dive into some sage nuggets from what we call the Book of Jim.

Life Should Be Spiked, Not Watered Down.

That’s not just a fancy metaphor. As Brockmire points out, water tastes “awful. 70% of the water is made up of that shit?” Life is short, water sucks, live like you mean it.

There Are Only Three Types of People

“Poor people, rich people and famous people. Rich people are just poor people with money, so the only worthwhile thing is being famous.” So next time your rich friends act all high and mighty, politely remind them that they’re worthless in the eyes of even the most minor celebrities.

There’s Always A Reason To Get Out Of Bed

And 99% of the time that reason is the urge to pee. It’s nature’s way of saying “seize the day.”

There’s More To Life Than Playing Games

“Baseball can’t compete with p0rnography. Nothing can.” Nothing you do or ever will do can be more important to people than p0rn. Get off your high horse.

A Little Empathy Goes A Long Way

Especially if you’ve taken someone else’s Plan B by mistake.

Our Weaknesses Can Be Our Greatest Strengths

Tyrion Lannister said something similar. Hard to tell who said it with more colorful profanity. Wise sentiments all around.

Big Things Come To Those Who Wait

When you’re looking for a sign, the universe will drop you a big one. You’re the sh*t, universe.

And Of Course…

Need more life lessons from the Book of Jim? Catch up on Brockmire on the IFC App.

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Oh Mama

Mommie May I?

Mommie Dearest Is On Repeat All Mothers Day Long On IFC

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The cult-classic movie Mommie Dearest is a game-changer. If you’ve seen it even just once (but come on, who sees it just once?), then you already know what we’re talking about.

But if you haven’t seen it, then let us break it down for you. Really quick, we promise, we’ll even list things out to spare you the reading of a paragraph:

1. It’s the 1981 biopic based on the memoir of Christina Crawford, Hollywood icon Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter.
2. Faye Dunaway plays Joan. And boy does she play her. Loud and over-reactive.
3. It was intended as a drama, but…
4. Waaaaaay over-the-top performances and bargain-basement dialogue rendered it an accidental comedy.
5. It’s a cult classic, and you’re the last person to see it.

Not sold? Don’t believe it’s going to change your life? Ok, maybe over-the-top acting isn’t your thing, or perhaps you don’t like the lingering electricity of a good primal scream, or Joan Crawford is your personal icon and you can’t bear to see her cast in such a creepy light.

But none of that matters.

What’s important is that seeing this movie gives you permission to react to minor repeat annoyances with unrestrained histrionics.

That there is a key moment. Is she crazy? Yeah. But she’s also right. Shoulder nipples are horrible, wire hangers are the worst, and yelling about it feels strangely justified. She did it, we can do it. Precedent set. You’re welcome.

So what else can we yell about? Channel your inner Joan and consider the following list offenses when choosing your next meltdown.

Improperly Hung Toilet Paper

Misplaced Apostrophes

Coldplay at Karaoke

Dad Jokes

Gluten Free Pizza

James Franco

The list of potential pedestrian grievances is actually quite daunting, but when IFC airs Mommie Dearest non-stop for a full day, you’ll have 24 bonus hours to mull it over. 24 bonus hours to nail that lunatic shriek. 24 bonus hours to remember that, really, your mom is comparatively the best.

So please, celebrate Mother’s Day with Mommie Dearest on IFC and at IFC.com. And for the love of god—NO WIRE HANGERS EVER.

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Breaking News

From Canada With Love

Baroness von Sketch Show premieres this summer on IFC.

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Breaking news that (finally) isn’t apocalyptic!

IFC announced today that it acquired acclaimed Canadian comedy series Baroness von Sketch Show, slated to make its US of A premiere this summer. And yes, it’s important to note that it’s a Canadian sketch comedy series, because Canada is currently a shining beacon of civilization in the western hemisphere, and Baroness von Sketch Show reflects that light in every way possible.

The series is fronted entirely by women, which isn’t unusual in the sketch comedy world but is quite rare in the televised sketch comedy world. Punchy, smart, and provocative, each episode of Baroness von Sketch Show touches upon outrageous-yet-relatable real world subjects in ways both unexpected and deeply satisfying: soccer moms, awkward office birthday parties, being over 40 in a gym locker room…dry shampoo…

Indiewire called it “The Best Comedy You’ve Never Seen” and The National Post said that it’s “the funniest thing on Canadian television since Kids In The Hall.” And that’s saying a lot, because Canadians are goddamn hilarious.

Get a good taste of BVSS in the following sketch, which envisions a future Global Summit run entirely by women. It’s a future we’re personally ready for.

Baroness Von Sketch Show premieres later this summer on IFC.

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