The Batman opens on Friday, and the cast is everywhere promoting the movie. By now, you’re probably aware that the superhero reboot stars Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano and Colin Farrell, but I’ve been pleased to see special attention paid online to another of the film’s supporting players. Watch out, everybody: The John Turturro love affair is underway.
On one level, this isn’t surprising: The respected New York character actor has been doing press for the film, including appearing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and anything attached to this forthcoming Batman is exploding on social media. But Turturro, who turns 65 on Monday, is ripe for Twitter love for other reasons. He’s part of Apple TV+’s acclaimed new series Severance as well, and he’s been a fixture in popular culture for decades, even though he’s never been a superstar — you know, the guy whose name appears above the title on the movie poster. Still, everybody loves him, partly because we all think the rest of you don’t appreciate him enough.
A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Turturro spent the first few years of his career working in theater and indies, getting his first major role in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, playing Pino, the racist son of Danny Aiello’s goodhearted pizzeria owner. Cocky and awkward, Pino was such a vibrant New York dude — always talking shit, fiercely loyal to his hometown teams — and Turturro played him with wiry, non-judgemental energy. “I grew up in a Black neighborhood before I moved to a white neighborhood,” he’d say later, “so I’d had an experience [of racial divides] first hand.”
From there, he started popping up in Lee’s films regularly — as well as the Coen brothers’, showing up first in Miller’s Crossing as Bernie, the scheming bookie who begs for his life in that moody gangster picture’s most memorable moment.
In those early days, Turturro established himself as a chameleon, never playing the same guy twice. Pino and Bernie were nothing like Barton Fink, the arrogant, creatively stifled playwright who goes to Hollywood in the Coens’ Palme d’Or-winning 1991 psychological dark comedy. Barton Fink gave Turturro, who won Best Actor at Cannes, the chance to be a leading man in a film that satirized Tinseltown, theater and pretentious artists as we watch Barton slowly lose his mind. It was a nervy performance, and proof that Turturro could carry a whole movie — something he’s rarely been allowed to do since.
It was easy back then to peg him as a “serious” actor. (Even in something that was funny, like Barton Fink, he approached the role in a studious, intense way.) So it wasn’t a surprise that he was great as Quiz Show’s petty, defeated quiz champion Herb Stempel, who quickly grows bitter when he’s replaced on top by the far more charismatic, handsome Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). But there was also a hint of the comic in the way Turturro played that vain little loser — although Turturro really showed off his comedic chops in The Big Lebowski, portraying registered sex offender/bowler Jesus Quintana. It was an inspired bit of lunacy that turned a small side character into a beloved fictional figure. (Turturro even made a spinoff film, The Jesus Rolls, in 2020 because he enjoys Jesus so much.)
But as iconic as “The Jesus” has become, I’m also quite partial to his turn as the Phantom, the seemingly unkillable Palenstian terrorist from Adam Sandler’s truly bonkers 2008 action-comedy You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Turturro and Sandler have hooked up a few times over the years, but his utter willingness to play a character this dumb is really quite beautiful, setting it apart from his work in other Sandler projects. “I had a lot of fun doing Zohan. That, I knew he was obsessed with,” Turturro told The A.V. Club in 2020. “He’d always talk about it. In fact, we [still] leave messages for each other, the Phantom against the Zohan.”
Turturro doesn’t have to do broad comedies to show off his sense of humor, though. How else to explain his decision to star in multiple Transformers films, playing the extraordinarily dickish government agent Seymour Simmons? “I got offered a lot of big movies and I never did them. And then I kind of enjoyed doing the Transformers,” he said in that same A.V. Club piece. “It’s more like you’re working in two dimensions. It’s not really three dimensional. It’s like a fine oil painting versus a really good sketch. But within that, there’s a lot of challenges to make it fun. So I think you have to bring with it the child within you and my own sensibility.” However, in an interview a year earlier, he was perhaps a little more honest, admitting, “I do them, it helps me take care of the family, and after that, I need to recover because my ears are ringing.”
Surely those Transformers flicks paid well, but Turturro, despite his character being a total prick, actually seemed to be amusing himself — and for longtime fans of the actor, there was the undeniable WTF pleasure of seeing him mix it up in brain-dead Michael Bay movies. Plus, there’s a whole generation of filmgoers who came of age watching those blockbusters who don’t know Turturro from anything else. It’s very endearing.
As he’s gotten older, Turturro has been on a bit of a hot streak, which started because of tragic timing. The excellent 2016 HBO crime series The Night Of starred him as disillusioned, down-on-his-luck defense attorney John Stone, who ends up representing a scared kid (Riz Ahmed) accused of murder. Initially, it was going to be James Gandolfini — who starred alongside Turturro’s cousin Aida on The Sopranos — but when he died, Robert De Niro was cast, until he had a scheduling conflict, which gave Turturro the opportunity. Gandolfini and De Niro would have been great in the role, too, but there was something deeply despairing and worn-down about how Turturro played Stone that made the character seem profoundly broken — which only made his shot at redemption that much more affecting. Ahmed beat Turturro for the Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy, but I wouldn’t have been upset if they’d both taken home the prize.
But maybe the real win was that The Night Of seemed to spark a late-career renaissance, finding Turturro in acclaimed series like The Plot Against America and the touching romantic drama Gloria Bell opposite Julianne Moore. Even rarer than being a leading man, that latter film let him be the love interest, playing a divorced man who, like Gloria, is giving relationships a try later in life. (There were echoes of his sweet, naive character from Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, who also struggled with love.)
If the younger Turturro was intense and edgy on screen, the latter-day Turturro can be a little softer, more reserved — although his characters can summon up some menace when the situation presents itself. Nonetheless, with his gray hair and sheepish grin, Turturro is now a wholesome silver fox who’s been married since 1985 and can casually admit to having a threesome in the 1970s that, adorably, sounds like it didn’t go great. (“I was younger. It was awkward,” he recalled. “People do that, they say, ‘Let’s have a threesome,’ and your brain is going ‘yeah yeah,’ and then they go, ‘Dude, this is a fucking disaster. … This is not what I thought it was going to be.’ People get jealous, this and that.”)
Between the good reviews he’s getting for Severance and the anticipation for The Batman, it’s a very good time to be John Turturro. He’s made his mistakes. The films he’s directed got panned, and his past support of Woody Allen (who’s he worked with over the years) was criticized in the wake of #MeToo. But all in all, he’s gotten through life with his reputation relatively unscathed, emerging as a Stanley Tucci-like older sex symbol who seems like a good dude.
Because he’s never been a huge movie star, he’s never been overexposed, and so anybody who loves his work feels like they’re the ones who discovered him — that they alone get how great an actor he’s been for decades. Presumably if The Batman is huge, expect a lot more people to jump on the John Turturro bandwagon. Welcome them aboard: If they’re just now discovering the guy, think how lucky they are. They have no idea how many great performances they have in store.