NEW YORK — In more than three decades on-screen, much of it as a go-to guy for Spike Lee and the Coen brothers, John Turturro has portrayed myriad oddballs, toughs, and creepy characters. But romantic leads? Sexy roles? Not so much.
At 57, he’s cast himself in an unaccustomed light with his new movie. In “Fading Gigolo,” a wistful comedy that Turturro wrote and directed, he stars as Fioravante, a quiet man who becomes an unlikely escort: tall, dark, and if not conventionally handsome, alluring nonetheless.
“I am not a beautiful man,” Fioravante protests when his old friend and would-be pimp Murray (Woody Allen) tries to talk him into the gigolo scheme, a potential solution to financial problems for both of them.
“Did I say you were beautiful?” replies Murray, an antiquarian bookseller who’s had to close up shop. “But you have a different quality. You have a certain kind of sex appeal.”
Sharon Stone and Sofía Vergara play two of Fioravante’s customers. French actress, singer, and model Vanessa Paradis plays Avigal, the client who walks off with the gigolo’s heart: a young Hasidic widow with six children and an admiring neighbor (Liev Schreiber).
“Every one of us has our own private sexuality. In movies, most times it’s represented in sort of the perfect physical representation,” Turturro said the other morning at a hotel in Soho, one of several New York neighborhoods that are the backdrop of his tale.
“It’s actually not that sexy sometimes,” he said, “because sometimes a beautiful person, you know, they’re just used to always receiving attention, not giving attention. So I thought it’d be nice if you just had, like, a regular man who was a confident man, but not cocky.”
And, he said, he liked the idea of putting middle-aged characters with plenty of sexual experience into situations akin to first dates.
“It never stops, this sort of unceasing need for intimacy, whether you’re 18 or you’re 80,” he said, seeming a little shy as he suddenly attended to his macchiato. “There’s still the need for that bare shoulder in the middle of the night, you know what I mean, in the darkness.”
That Turturro ended up writing himself a hot-guy role in “Fading Gigolo” is a point he preferred to elide, though he acknowledged it’s been called to his attention. His initial objective, he said, was to write a movie he and Allen could star in.
“I didn’t really know him that well, but I always knew he liked me,” said Turturro, who had what he called “a tiny part” in Allen’s 1986 movie “Hannah and Her Sisters.” “I knew he liked my work. And Anthony, our barber, kept saying, ‘You’d be good together.’”
Elegantly turned out in a dark suit, Turturro spoke in the mellowed accent of his native Queens and gave off a courteous, menschy vibe: movie star as actual human being. No surprise, really, that he would listen to his barber.
So Turturro got in touch with Allen, who liked the idea but repeatedly pushed him to strengthen the script. Allen’s feedback took the form of “blistering criticisms — which were valid, actually, I have to say, ’cause I hadn’t really, really gone deep into it, and he wanted to do something sophisticated,” Turturro said.
“I have a real affection for him,” he added. “You know, even when he didn’t like my initial drafts, he always read everything, and he always wrote back to me these long e-mails. So there was something, yes, very tough about it, but also very generous, that he would take the time to do that.”
When he was in the middle of writing “Fading Gigolo,” Allen asked him to direct “Relatively Speaking.” A trio of short plays, one each by Allen, Elaine May, and Ethan Coen, it premiered on Broadway in 2011.
“And that’s when we really got to know each other quite well, and that really, really helped,” Turturro said. “So I think what you see in the movie is a little bit of our relationship.”
Allen’s character, Murray, lives with a younger girlfriend, played by Tonya Pinkins, and her small posse of children — a domestic setup inspired by a real-life bookseller Turturro knows. When one of the children gets lice, Murray takes him to Avigal for treatment, thus setting up the love story.
And yes, Turturro said, before the question was even fully asked, he did worry when the controversy around Allen reignited in February. Dylan Farrow, the daughter Allen and Mia Farrow adopted, wrote a letter that Nicholas Kristof posted on his New York Times blog, accusing Allen of having sexually abused her when she was 7 in the early 1990s.
“Anytime anything is in the news that’s personal about anyone, you always go, ‘Oh, God,’” Turturro said.
“I have no information about it, Woody’s my friend, and I value my relationship with him,” he said. “You know, he wrote a response to it. The film is a fiction, and he’s made a lot of films since all this allegedly occurred. You just want people to be able to receive the film in the spirit in which it was made. And I think it’s good enough for people to do that.”
Turturro wrote much of “Fading Gigolo” listening to the jazz saxophonist Gene Ammons, some of whose music is on the soundtrack. His previous movie as both writer and director was the exuberant, bittersweet musical “Romance and Cigarettes” (2005): James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, and Bobby Cannavale dancing in the streets. Since then he’s also directed the documentary “Passione” (2010), a history of Neapolitan music shot through with dance.
On the set and outdoors, Paradis said by phone, there was a lot of music during the “Fading Gigolo” shoot. For a scene in which she walks down a Manhattan street, Turturro created the ambience — just for her, not for the soundtrack — by having a technician follow her with a speaker, playing music. That, Paradis said, was a first in her experience.
“You know how music is something some people need to live?” asked Paradis, who sings a song on the soundtrack. “I think he’s one of those.”
That may be something he and Allen have in common.
“I’m a huge jazz fan. Maybe I’ll make another jazz movie,” Turturro mused. “I don’t know. I’ll have to talk to him about it: ‘I have an idea about a jazz movie.’”Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.