With a rugged Italian charisma, and gravelly sonorous voice that’s made him a man to be reckoned with in such movies as Bullets Over Broadway, Mulholland Falls, Analyze This and Running Scared (let alone the cat de capo of Stuart Little), one of the nicest casting surprises in Chazz Palminteri’s formidable rogues gallery is having him play the head of Mighty Fine’s family- be it two daughters (Jodelle Ferland, Rainey Qualley) and a Holocaust survivor wife (Andie MacDowell). Based on the Jewish father of writer-director Debbie Goodstein-Rosenfeld, Joe Fine leads his clan from Manhattan to the new promised land of New Orleans, circa the early 70’s, to set up a clothing factory. But if you think Goodstein’s cinematic father figure is just a nice guy looking out for his loved ones, then you haven’t reckoned on the threatening aura that’s helped make the Oscar-nominated, New York-born Palminteri into one of Hollywood’s finest character actors.
Here Palminteri skillfully blends lovability with fury as a man who can’t handle his daughters’ growth into adulthood, treating their rebellion as if he was fighting a war of psychological, and sometimes physical, aggression. As the creator of A Bronx Tale, his one-man, multi-character show that made for pal Robert De Niro’s striking directorial debut, Chazz Palminteri certainly knows how to bring warts-and-all true characters to the screen in a period movie. And Mighty Fine continues to impress with his portrayal of dad who can’t come to grips with his lack of self-control, conveying sad vulnerability through the tough guy shell this actor inhabits so well. It’s a bigger-than-life presence that does well by this likable, heartfelt little film, charisma that makes Joe both the kind of magnetic guy anyone would want to be around, as well as a man who repels those closest to him. And like all of Palminteri’s characters, it’s his explorations of Joe’s shades of grey that prove riveting, and poignantly human.
Daniel Schweiger: Having created, and acted in such an intensely autobiographical work as A Bronx Tale, what kind of responsibility do you feel in playing Debbie’s father?
Chazz Palminteri: I think the responsibility is always to the script. You just want to make it good and dramatic. If you can embellish your own ideas to make it better, then you should absolutely do that. When Debbie was working on her screenplay, I said to her, “Look, you need to do whatever you think is right to service this material.” She was really able to collaborate on some of the ideas I had, and it’s that ability which helps make Mighty Fine such a good film.
DS: Did you have any callback to your own relationship with your father playing this part?
CP: What’s funny is that I had a totally opposite relationship. I had a great father, who was very quiet. But I’ve seen those relationships that Mighty Fine deals with, especially with friends of mine who had fathers like Joe I was able to tap into that.
DS: How can you relate to Joe in your own experiences?
CP: Well, that’s part of being an actor, of crawling into somebody else’s skin. I can assume from conversations of talking with people what it’s like to be them, and then I eternalize that into my emotions.
DS: What’s so interesting about Joe is that even though he’s obviously not a gangster, he certainly exhibits that kind of behavior without getting physically violent. It makes you well suited for the part.
CP: Joe was a touch guy, a tough Jew from Brooklyn who really came up the hard way, and believed in hard work. It was tough times for any guys like him. They all grew up the same way.
DS: What kind of research did you do to play Joe?
CP: I just asked Debbie a lot of questions about her father, because I never met him. That helped me a great deal. I discovered that Joe was such a paradox. He could be so kind and wonderful, and then the next second, he’d have all this rage that was just crazy. He never put his hands on his family, but that didn’t matter. You can mentally hurt people just as much by just that rage. No teenager or child makes life happy for you all the time. Let’s face it. Joe was used to always getting his own way. So it was important for me to understand, and feel for him. It’s the same reason why his daughter Natalie writes a monologue about the abuse Joe’s put them through. It’s a kind of abuse is passed down from generation to generation. We understand that in a scene where Joe talks about how his own father knocked him out.
DS: Do you think it’s a “New York”-kind of abuse?
CP: I think that happens anywhere. It’s not locked into any particular age or time. I think physical abuse or rage from your parents could happen with anyone.
DS: There are not a lot of films made about Jews from the south, let alone New York Jews who end up there. It must have been a completely different environment for them.
CP: You’re right. Just like it was for Italians, Catholics or blacks, Jews in the south were not welcome. It was a little different for them, that’s for sure.
DS: Even thought you’re not the “good guy” here, Joe Fine is the kind of “family man” role that you don’t often get to play. Is that one reason that attracted you to the film?
CP: Oh absolutely. I like playing antiheroes and people who are flawed, because in the end, you feel for them and understand them. I’ve always said that it doesn’t matter if I play a character you don’t like as long as you understand me, I’m okay with that. If you happen to end up being the hero, that’s fine, and I don’t mind that. But all of life is not you being the cavalry and getting to kiss the girl. Sometimes life isn’t so black and white. Sometimes bad things happen, and people can overcome that and become better as a result. I particularly like playing those kinds of characters.
DS: Was it hard for you to get roles like Joe’s?
CP: No, not at all. You just have to want to do it and not get so concerned about how much money you’re making. If the work is really good then it should be seen. That’s all I care about. I try to pick good projects. I’ve done movies like A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Hurlyburly and Yonkers Joe, which I thought were movies that needed to be seen. Hollywood would rather spend a hundred million dollars and make four hundred million then to spend five or 10 million on a smaller film. They really don’t care about good scripts. They care about profits. But I totally understand that. People want to keep their studio jobs in Hollywood, so they have to do that. Yet there is a place for independent movies like Mighty Fine. That’s where all the creative growth comes from, and all of the people who take chances. They’re young, innovative and some of them are just too stupid to worry about the rules. They do things that don’t make sense. Sometimes art comes out of that. And if we don’t support that, then we’re just doomed as a culture. There’s nothing wrong with Iron Man, Terminator and all those other movies. Those are fun movies and I enjoy them. But that’s not all there is. There are other types of art and movies that have to be seen. I do what I can to support that as an artist, actor, writer, or a director. I owe it to my craft to do that.
DS: From Keanu Reeves’ documentary Side by Side to a recent LA Weekly article, a lot’s been made about how film is disappearing in favor of digital, a format which is allowing movies like Mighty Fine to get made. Do you think that kind of change is a good, or bad thing?
CP: That’s kind of the double-edged sword. There’s always something negative coming out of something positive. The positive is that people can make a movie for not a lot of money. If you have a dream and you have a vision, you don’t need a fortune anymore to make a movie. So I don’t think you can call it a “bad” thing. It’s just that there are a lot of bad films. That’s the problem. A lot of people are just making anything now. But out of all of that, you can come across a real gem. So I’m okay with that.
DS: In terms of your own work as a playwright, are you working on anything projects?
CP: I wrote a new play called “Human.” which I’m very excited about and I hope makes it’s way to Broadway. It’s called “Human” because it deals with how people in this world have forgotten to behuman. It’s about how the age of greed and this toxic stuff they put on television has become the way of life. It’s my way of talking about that.
DS: I was really sad to read about how Lillo Brancato, the actor who played “you” in A Bronx Tale, was involved in an officer shooting that he’s now serving time for. When you work with young kids now, do you feel a need to impart any kind of wisdom to make sure this kind of downfall won’t happen to them?
CP: Robert De Niro and I both tried to give to give that wisdom to Lillo when we were doingA Bronx Tale, to guide him through this. But nothing you can say to somebody can help them if they really if they really don’t want to help themselves. There’s just nothing you can do.
DS: Like A Bronx Tale, Mighty Fineis about escape, whether it’s finding a life beyond the “neighborhood” or your own family.
CP: You can’t be a victim all your life, or a product of your parents and the neighborhood you’re from. Is it harder to make it when you’re from that kind of background? Yeah. Probably. Maybe a little. But if you really want something, you can do it. I believe in that. I think you have to really work hard. And if you really want it bad enough, you can make it happen.
MIGHTY FINE opens Friday, May 25th.
Interview transcribed by Peter Hackman