BACK STAGE WEST
April 01, 1999
by Rob Kendt
Most actors expect extra credit for underplaying. When they make the choice not to go big in an emotional moment, or omit actorly expressions and inflections from their line readings, we're meant to notice the choice, and we often laud them less for what they're doing than what they're not doing. For an actor who wants attention, especially on film, nothing succeeds like restraint.
You won't catch Joe Pantoliano at that passive-aggressive actor's game. An offhandedly brilliant character player best known as the pimp in Risky Business, as Tommy Lee Jones' sidekick in The Fugitive, and as the dim but scary cuckold in Bound, Pantoliano--who will reach a much wider audience as a villain in The Matrix, the cyber-fi thriller opening wide this week--always gives his characters an organic, lived-in quality that doesn't seem effortfully underplayed. As the crime boss Jimmy Murtha in the short-lived series EZ Streets, Pantoliano held forth from Murtha's saloon headquarters with the comfort of a barfly. Here was clearly a man, and an actor, with nothing to prove.
Pantoliano in person is exactly the same--there's no gladhanding or fuss, no small talk or big talk, just talk. Indeed, in a recent interview at Mauro's Caf , his cellphone, beret, and new-and-expensive-looking clothes made him look more like a manager than an actor. And in the wizened, dispassionate way he can speak about himself and his career, he could be his own agent talking.
"I have a legacy of good performances in bad movies," he said frankly (big-name credits excluded, of course). "I've made a career of playing non-interesting characters--shallow, underwritten characters--and fleshing them out."
It's often said in this town that no one sets out to make a bad movie. Does Pantoliano know when he's on board a strictly routine vehicle?
"You know when you're making a shitty movie, yeah," he confessed. "Sometimes you think it's shitty but it turns out to be great. We all thought that on The Fugitive. We shot that in Chicago, and Tommy Lee Jones said to me, "Joey, you find us the best Italian restaurants and bars in town. I intend to have a good time on this shoot, 'cause let's face it--none of us is going to win an Oscar for this.' "
Which is, of course, exactly what Jones did, in a career turnaround that's obviously a touchstone for Pantoliano.
"We're the real guys," he said of Jones and his ilk. "The movies need us. It's great to see the Tommy Lee Joneses, the Duvalls, the character guys, get recognition. Let Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt make a movie every other year, but they need us, the real guys, to do the acting. I tell people I work harder than movie stars, 'cause I have to."
A native of Jersey City, Pantoliano has worked hard to get where he is. He studied acting with Bobby Lewis at the Actor's Studio and with John Lehne on the West Coast, when he came out to star in a short-lived TV series with Rob Reiner, Free Country, in the late 1970s. He went on to star in the 1979 miniseries of From Here to Eternity (in the Sinatra role, no less). Roles in The Idolmaker, Eddie and the Cruisers, Risky Business, Empire of the Sun, and Midnight Run followed. Then came his latest career boomlet, which culminates with The Matrix.
There's also the lead in Avi Nesher's peculiar indie thriller, Taxman, scheduled for limited release later this month. Pantoliano plays a needling state tax investigator who gleefully entangles himself with the Russian mafia and the NYPD because he finds his desk job so enervating. It's a typically low-key Pantoliano performance in a flawed, overly expository film (he's not happy with it, he confessed), but one of the taxman's voiceover lines, in the middle of an unpromising stakeout, could sum up the actor's philosophy: "I've always believed that perseverance creates opportunity. No matter how hopeless the situation seemed, I never felt desperate."
Pantoliano (who, by the way, goes by the self-appointed nickname "Joey Pants") agreed that that phrase could sum up his early days as an actor.
"I was too busy trying to make something stick, I didn't have time to think, What if I don't make it?" he recalled. "When I was 18, I said, I'll give myself 10 years to make a living as an actor. That's all I did for 10 years, and it worked. But I was stupid.
"My advice to my kids now is: Be everything. Be a director, build sets, act. Cast a big net and let shit fall into it. As you get older, the net gets smaller anyway, so why start out limiting yourself to one thing?"
Pantoliano is fortunate that his opportunities are narrowing to better parts in better projects, such as the current Gary David Goldberg pilot, Sugar Hill. From the Matrix Theatre, where he starred in the award-winning world premiere of Orphans in 1983, to The Matrix, Joey Pants may have worked hard for his success--but he's succeeded precisely because his acting doesn't look like hard work.
"People ask me which films are my favorite," he said. "I say the ones I had the most fun doing. That's all you have at the end of the day. I'm just a fuckin' actor. If you have the gift to be able to pretend, to create this illusion and have somebody watch you and pay you to do it, it's the best job in the world."