John Turturro has one of those faces that you just know. Whether he’s showing up with anything from bit parts to lead roles in Coen Brothers films, or stealing a scene to make a point for Spike Lee, or hamming it up in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, or even making pseudo-cameos in Adam Sandler vehicles, you see him and you just know him.
An interesting phrase that people use for character actors, sometimes, is to refer to them as a ‘that guy’. Typically, I’ve found that a that guy is someone who will appear in popular or well-received films, but for one reason or another, do not give the viewer a compelling reason—until he or she gets curious enough to check IMDB—to learn their name. A that guy comes with a sharp contrast to someone like John Goodman, or Paul Giamatti; few fans of film or television don’t know those names, even though they rarely take the spotlight.
A Park Slope native, Turturro probably finds himself a bit between those two spaces. He’s taken lead roles before, shining a few times throughout the ‘90s in standout films like Quiz Show or The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink. But with HBO’s The Night Of, which just concluded its eight-episode limited run, Turturro shined as bright as he ever has in his 30-plus year career.
At first glimpse, Turturro’s character, John Stone, should be an archetype. He’s a lawyer in a crime story/murder mystery. A highly-stylized, genre-subverting murder mystery, but a murder mystery nonetheless. But Turturro is one of the finest character actors in the business: if there wasn’t a quirk about his character, he wouldn’t be playing it. Stone, as the viewer saw almost immediately, was more Saul Goodman than Atticus Finch—he’s no hero. Initially, he’s only looking out for himself: hanging around a downtown police precinct, merely seeking the next in a series of clearly-guilty clients, charging $250 for minimal work. He’s a bottom-dweller, eventually placed in the right place at the right time for Riz Ahmed’s Naz to fall right into his lap. Finally, a big case is in his hands and, initially, it’s framed as an opportunistic endeavor for the scummy attorney. But over the course of the show’s run, that opportunism eventually becomes real passion and genuine care. He sacrifices his mind, his time, and his body for the case, and Turturro’s fully-committed performance doesn’t evoke one shred of doubt.
The story of Stone’s character has been much detailed, but if you missed it, here it goes again: originally, the role was to be played by James Gandolfini, who himself developed the show and had even begun filming in the role. After the Sopranos star’s untimely 2014 passing, Robert De Niro briefly stepped in before dropping out due to scheduling conflicts. Enter Turturro. Frankly, it became increasingly tough with each passing episode to imagine either of the former men–or,really, any other performer–playing Stone. Dealing throughout the series with not only the case at hand, but also his son, ex-wife, and a much-discussed eczema subplot, the weirdness that exists both intrinsically and on the outskirts of the role were much more catered to someone like Turturro than De Niro or Gandolfini.
In the end, the series had outstanding acting wherever you looked, from Ahmed’s portrayal of a young man transformed at the hands of the flawed criminal justice system, to Michael K. Williams’ wholly convincing and fully magnetic portrayal of a powerful convict confined to the prison where he’ll spend the rest of his days, to fellow that guy Bill Camp masterfully playing an astute detective with one foot in retirement, the other convinced that the case may hold more than meets the eye. But in his brilliant final episode—wrapped around a show-defining monologue—Turturro’s The Night Of performance still manages to stand above the rest.
It’s not hard to imagine a viewer starting The Night Of, and having to look up that guy on IMDB. They’ll get their result, see the name and face, and remember: oh, of course, him. But after these eight episodes, I don’t think a 2002 Adam Sandler movie is going to be anyone’s first thought anymore. That viewer knows the name is John Turturro now.
Photo courtesy of HBO