In the security line at a Manhattan courthouse, Jack Stone empties the pockets of his floppy overcoat and piles the plastic bin to near capacity. A lawyer always on the run defending hookers and drug dealers, he bares his life for the X-ray with a stash that includes his keys, Purell, business cards, breath mints, cream for his eczema — and a hard-boiled egg.
This fleeting scene early in the second episode of “The Night Of” tells you much about Stone, the hero of HBO’s dark and irresistible murder mystery (airing Sunday at 9 p.m.).
It also tells you something about John Turturro, who plays him so masterfully.
“That hard-boiled egg — it gives me a lot of joy,” he says, flashing his signature lopsided grin. No wonder. It was his idea (and his own boiled egg, a snack he often brought to the set). And however wide the gulf between him and his character, he sensed that it would be a telling prop for Stone, “who didn’t seem the type to eat granola bars.”
The series focuses on Naz, a Pakistani-American college student (Riz Ahmed, “Nightcrawler”) who “borrowed” his father’s cab to go to a party, but en route met with a distraction — an alluring young woman who ended up brutally murdered in her Manhattan bedroom, with all the evidence implicating Naz, her overnight guest, as the killer.
A veteran NYPD detective (Bill Camp, “12 Years a Slave”) caught the case. Naz began his life-changing incarceration.
But not before Stone, who ran into Naz getting processed at the precinct house, had scored a career breakthrough: his first murder client.
That episode, the series’ pilot, was filmed in 2012 with James Gandolfini set to star. After his sudden death a year later, the project was shelved. Then it was revived with Turturro in the lead role and Gandolfini’s brief scene reshot. (Gandolfini, a friend who starred in Turturro’s 2005 film, “Romance and Cigarettes,” retains a posthumous credit as executive producer.)
In the show’s second episode, Stone came into his own — as did Turturro. Accordingly, “The Night Of” tightens its grip with the same addictive properties of true-crime podcast “Serial” and the Netflix docuseries “Making a Murderer.” Co-created by Richard Price (“The Color of Money,” “The Wire”) and Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”), it lands Turturro in a role that, once again, demonstrates his peerless gifts for authenticity and the unexpected as previously displayed in such films as “Barton Fink,” “Quiz Show,” “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother, Where Are Thou?”
Now 59, Turturro grew up in a working-class Italian household in Brooklyn surrounded by family members he remembers as larger-than-life. The acting bug seemed to come from an urge to entertain his friends the way he loved amusing himself: “Even when I played basketball, I’d invent the character who was playing.” And, early on, he sussed out a key principle of acting: “You have to keep people’s attention. That’s your job. Your audience is tired by the end of the day. You have to keep them awake.”
In his first school play, “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he recalls, “but I realized I could hold their attention.”
Recognizing that wasn’t enough, he continued to explore the actor’s craft, including enrollment in the Yale School of Drama.
Even now, after more than three decades, he’s still learning.
“Every time, it’s new,” he says. “But by now you have the confidence that you will figure it out, that you’ll find what’s truthful and what’s not.”
To prepare for “The Night Of,” he met with a variety of lawyers, “some successful, some not so much, and eventually I felt like I got lost in what I was doing. That’s what you strive for.”
In Turturro’s hands, Jack Stone has carved out an acceptable if marginal life for himself representing clients from whom cash is usually demanded (though, according to his ads in subway cars, there’s “No Fee ’Til You’re Free”).
The case of this young murder suspect could mean a better-than-usual payday. But there’s more than money driving Stone this time. Despite telling Naz, “The truth can go to hell, ’cause it can’t help you,” he begins to see this as a righteous cause. The system is stacked against Naz in every way. Stone demands justice for his client, who, rightly or wrongly, he believes in.
Stone sustains his air of implacable nobility even while tormented with unsightly, itching eczema on both feet, a condition that obliges him to plod about in sandals, even in the courtroom, and draws stares wherever he goes.
“Any trouble with your feet changes your whole posture,” says Turturro, who found a certain lumbering gait to suit Stone’s plight. He also needed character-appropriate sandals, which he found at a shoe store promoted as a “foot comfort center.”
“Then every day we had to do the makeup,” he says with clear sympathy for what his character endured. “It was disgusting.”
It gets everyone’s attention, all right. But as with any performance by Turturro, that’s only the start.