John Turturro has been regarded as one of America’s best character actors ever since he burst onto the scene in Spike Lee’s classic 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” Since then, the 60-year-old New York native — born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens — has won Obie and Emmy awards for his work, and been nominated for Golden Globe, SAG, Independent Spirit and Cannes Film Festival honors. Turturro has appeared in everything from gangster films (“Miller’s Crossing”) to Holocaust dramas (“The Truce”), even Adam Sandler flicks (“You Don’t Mess With the Zohan”). He is up for an Emmy Award for his mesmerizing performance as a hustling, low-level lawyer in the HBO series “The Night Of,” and also stars in the new film “Landline,” as a harried 1990s Upper West Side dad cheating on his wife.
In “Landline,” you play a New York City father whose grown daughters suspect him, with justification, of cheating on their mother. What was it about the role that attracted you?
I thought the script was good, but the role was a little underdeveloped, but I liked what the piece was about, and it was from a female perspective. And they developed it more for me, his experiences. I felt I wouldn’t have to go out of town to shoot it, and it was well-observed. I wanted it to not just be the guy who commits adultery.
You were recently Emmy-nominated for your outstanding performance in HBO’s “The Night Of,” playing a lawyer used to defending low-level cases who accidentally takes on a major murder case. How did you feel about the character?
The character is what you see. People relate to him because he has so many obstacles, and he’s this competent guy who doesn’t have the constitution to hold someone’s life in front of a jury. I know a lot of people in other professions who are competent and don’t have that constitution to sell themselves. He’s like a detective, yet he wants to stay in the background.
Is he a shyster?
No. He’s an idealist, he’s cynical but underneath he’s an idealist. But he knows the system. This is his deal; he deals with people a lot of times they’re guilty, and he tries to get the best case for them. This kid [Riz Ahmed, also Emmy-nominated] resonates with him, he thinks there’s a chance, and it’s hard to take a chance in life. It just spoke to me, it felt so human, and people’s response to him is so incredible.
You’ve been Emmy nominated before, and won, for a supporting role on “Monk.” How did it feel to get the nomination this time?
It’s good, it’s nice, there are three of us who have been nominated [Turturro, Ahmed and Bill Camp] I only wish Jeannie Berlin was with us, because she’s brilliant in the show. It’s nice to see how people are involved in the show; even a lot of lawyers.
You recently finished directing and starring in “Going Places,” a film about Jesus Quintana, the outrageous bowler from “The Big Lebowski.” I have to ask — how good a bowler are you?
I’m one of the best bowlers around [laughs]. I’ve learned a lot of things in my life as an actor, and sometimes I forget things. I’m a fairly decent athlete. I can horseback ride, and I love to dance. But bowling, I throw a bunch of strikes and then fall apart.
You’ve appeared in multiple movies directed by the Coen Brothers and Spike Lee, including real classics like “Do the Right Thing,” “Barton Fink,” “Clockers” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” How do their styles differ?
Joel and Ethan don’t improvise. With Spike you rehearse, you improvise, it’s a little more of a jazz approach. The schedules move for all of them, everything’s organized. Joel and Ethan are more black comic, Spike is more tragic.
Who were your film idols growing up?
I liked Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, James Cagney, then Brando, Hoffman, De Niro, Hackman. Then I got introduced to Italian and Swedish movies. I don’t get turned on the same way when I go to the movies now; TV people are doing more challenging things. And there were very adult movies back then, anti-heroes and heroines. I think a lot of modern films I find to be a little more self-conscious. I like things that are unconscious.
What’s the best advice you ever got about acting?
To don’t give up your inner voice, your inner urges. Once you do that, you don’t have anything. I think I still have that. I like being free, like you’re walking on a tightrope, but it’s very dangerous.