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Joe Pantoliano is lying across his bed at home in Connecticut with a little black shih apso puppy named Scout happily nuzzling at his chest. He’s spent the last two decades living in the countryside 45 miles north of the George Washington bridge, but in his mind he’s back in the hardscrabble New Jersey of his youth. “Growing up, I was always led to feel shame about being the son of an immigrant, like I wasn’t really American,” remembers the 69-year-old.
“The kind of Americans I knew from television were John Wayne, Robert Redford, Paul Newman and James Dean.” Dreaming of seeing his own face on screen one day, the young Pantoliano took comfort from the fact that at least the close-knit Italian-American community of Hoboken had already produced one famous son. “Frank Sinatra comes from the same town I was from,” he says. “So I thought, well, if he could get out, maybe I could too, through this avenue of entertainment.”
That road turned out pretty well for the actor affectionately known to fans as “Joey Pants”. It first took him to Hollywood in 1976, where he made his name playing ruthless toughs with a comic edge. There was Guido, the pimp who delights in torturing a baby-faced Tom Cruise through 1983’s Risky Business, and then Francis of bungling crime family the Fratellis in 1985’s The Goonies. His talent resisted typecasting, and he stole scenes as a scummy bail bondsman (1988’s Midnight Run), a US marshal (1993’s The Fugitive), a furious police chief (1995’s Bad Boys) and a duplicitous freedom-fighter (1999’s The Matrix). In 2003 he picked up an Emmy for his role as mobster Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos.
His latest film is something of a change of pace after all the aforementioned police and thieves. From the Vine, from director Sean Cisterna, is a lovely, gently magical-realist movie about Marco, a man driven to a breakdown by his job at a Canadian car company, who immediately moves to his ancestral home in rural Italy, where he sets about rejuvenating his grandfather’s dilapidated vineyard. Memories mingle with reality, the vines begin to whisper to him, and romances are enthusiastically rekindled in the grape vats. Pantoliano is frank about what first attracted him to the project. “I wanted to go to Italy!” he hoots. “I would have gone to Italy to open up an envelope.”
He’d been offered work in Italy before, but it had always fallen through for one reason or another. “A lot of times, you know, it’s laundered oligarch money that they make these movies with,” he says, by way of explanation. “It’s the truth!”
By the time he got involved in From the Vine, there were only three weeks to go before shooting began. Fortunately, Pantoliano already saw a lot of himself in Marco. “Because I had so little time to build a character, I said: ‘Let’s just turn this into a documentary,’” he says. “I know what it’s like to have a nervous breakdown.” He’s referring to the period after 9/11 when he collapsed and was belatedly diagnosed with clinical depression. He says he strongly empathised with Marco’s desire to find a simpler life closer to nature and away from the unfulfilling rat race, and believes society as a whole is headed towards a similar reset. “There’s got to be some kind of correction,” he says. “There’s gonna be a financial correction, and a spiritual correction. But for the time being this kind of lighthearted movie provides some kind of relief, where you can forget your troubles for a couple of hours.”
The role led Pantoliano to reflect on his own Italian heritage and how his view of it had been shaped by where he grew up. He suggested changing the character of Marco from a Canadian to an American who, like him, doesn’t speak much Italian. “He’s no longer retained his native language,” he explains. “That’s very typical for America. They shame you for where you came from. In Canada, they encourage you to maintain your root identity.”
Pantoliano had to confront his own identity when David Chase cast him in the third season of The Sopranos in 2001 and brought him back to film in Hoboken. Pantoliano felt so awkward about the amount of time he had to spend filming in his old neighbourhoods that he had the props department make him a wig, with hair modelled after Christopher Nolan, with whom he’d just made Memento. Two decades on, he thinks The Sopranos remains widely misunderstood. “What always upset me was that the majority of the audience didn’t get the genius of David Chase, and what David Chase was saying about these monsters,” he says. “Tony Soprano becomes a hero, when he’s a broken down gangster and a murderer. Scumbags like Trump and Roger Stone, all these white-collar criminals, continue to be quoted as using The Godfather and The Sopranos as a blueprint for being douchebags! I mean, how f***ed up is that?”
The world of The Sopranos was one Pantoliano knew well. His stepfather, Florio Isabella, was a Genovese crime family associate whom Pantoliano described in his 2002 memoir Who’s Sorry Now as “the sweetest wiseguy I ever knew”. Whether aided by that family history or not, Pantoliano’s performance as Ralph Cifaretto is an astounding achievement, combining moments of wild-eyed humour with others of blood-chilling menace. “In my design of putting Ralph together, I always decided that he was sexually abused by his alcoholic mother’s boyfriends, that he was addicted to watching The Godfather, and that he really wanted to be Michael Corleone,” remembers Pantoliano. “That’s why I had him wear those ascots. I said to David [Chase, Sopranos creator] that I didn’t want to look like those other guys. I wanted to look like a politician. Ralph was gonna be in business with politicians so I wanted to be able to fit in, in that way. That was the part he was playing.”
He’s not involved in forthcoming prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark,but says he expects the film to dive deeper into the events that shaped the psyche of Tony Soprano. “I think the emotional trauma of his youth will come into play,” he says. “Don’t forget, when we meet him, he’s seeing ducks in the pool, he’s going crazy and he’s passing out. He needs help, and he gets some. There’s been a lot of talk about emotional trauma – look at the Olympics alone – and the idea of talking about your emotional distress is no longer seen as being shameful like it was then. You think about the misogyny of guys like Tony. What drives people to hate in that way?”
But while he won awards for Ralph, if there is one scene above all that Pantoliano is known for, after the countless he’s made his own over the last four decades, it’s “the steak scene” from The Matrix. Pantoliano’s treacherous Cypher is dining in an expensive restaurant with Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith. He has decided to betray his closest friends in the resistance in exchange for a life of luxury within the virtual world of the matrix. He doesn’t want to remember anything about the horrors of the true dystopian reality, and he no longer cares that the pleasure he experiences within the matrix isn’t “real”. He takes a bite of bloody steak: “Ignorance is bliss.”
The scene, like the part, was written specifically for Pantoliano by sibling directors the Wachowskis after he’d appeared in their 1996 noir Bound. He adds that, at the time, they “might have had a twinkle in their eye to give me this job, because they saw me as blissfully ignorant”. He gives an example. Shortly before production began on The Matrix, he was having a meeting with the Wachowskis when they told him that Warner Bros wanted to cut “the steak scene” out of the movie, but leading man Keanu Reeves was lobbying hard for the scene to be kept in.
Pantoliano, who hadn’t read the script, assumed this must have been out of self-interest. “They said: ‘Keanu’s really upset, and he’s telling them they can’t cut it,’” recalls Pantoliano. “I said: ‘Well, tell him to get the f*** over it. He’s in 99 per cent of the movie.’ They just started laughing because they realised I hadn’t read it.” Later, they joined the rest of the cast for a party at co-star Carrie-Anne Moss’s house. “We’re all just bulls***ting around, I’m trying to be interesting,” says Pantoliano. “So I say to Keanu: ‘Hey, I’m glad they kept the steak scene! We’re gonna have some fun with that!’ It goes so quiet you could hear a pin drop, except for the Wachowskis who are on the floor laughing with tears coming out of their eyes. Finally they’re able to catch their breath enough for Lana [Wachowski] to say: ‘He didn’t read the f***ing script!’”
Pantoliano will turn 70 this weekend and says he’s incredibly grateful to “still put on my gun belt and play these different characters”. He’s given up trying to predict the future. When they wrapped production on From the Vine, he points out, it was still pre-pandemic and nobody was interested in the sweet-hearted film they’d made. “Nobody wanted to feel good, because their lives were good,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone was into dystopian stuff like The Walking Dead. Then the entire planet is hit with a pandemic, and now we’re literally living in that reality.”
Suddenly, the idea of spending a couple of hours with Pantoliano and some talking vines in the lush Italian countryside sounds a lot more appealing. “It’s like in the Thirties and Forties when people wanted to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” he says. “This is a feelgood movie, and it’s being embraced everywhere.”
‘From the Vine’ will be in UK cinemas from 10 September and available as a digital download from 13 September