Chazz Palminteri and Richard Kohnke in Debbie Goodstein’s Mighty Fine
Writer, producer, director, and Oscar-nominated actor Chazz Palminteri has a body of film, stage, and television work that includes writing and starring in A Bronx Tale and acclaimed work in dozens of films including The Usual Suspects and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. His best-known role was in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, for which Palminteri received an Oscar nomination and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor. After appearing in two recent episodes of TV’s Modern Family, Palminteri returns to the big screen this Friday in Mighty Fine. Palminteri plays Joe Fine, a businessman who relocates his family from Brooklyn to New Orleans in early 1970s. Fine’s love and devotion to his family knows no bounds, but when his business starts to fail, his loving nature collapses under the weight of his inner demons. In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently sat down with Palminteri for an insightful chat about Mighty Fine and his body of work. Here’s what Palminteri shared with me about his love of working in independent films, finding the humanity in unlikeable characters, and crafting his character in Mighty Fine.
Jackson Truax: Because of your physicality and the on-screen persona of some of your best-known roles, I would imagine it’s easy for people to want to type cast you in what may or may not be very one-dimensional or stereotypical roles. How do you combat that as an actor?
Chazz Palminteri: I won’t play somebody who’s a stereotype… The roles I’ve done, even though he might be a wiseguy or a cop, I try to make him vulnerable, three-dimensional. I try to give him some kind of depth, some kind of humor, and do the best I can… I won’t take a role if it’s totally one-dimensional.
JT: Your recent films Mighty Fine and Once More with Feeling find you playing the patriarch in these family dramas. When you’re playing roles like these, are you flexing the same acting muscle as when you’re acting in broad comedies or genre films, or is it a different kind of artistic expression?
CP: That’s a very good question. Sometimes it’s the same muscle. Sometimes it’s something new that I discover as an actor… Every part is different. Sometimes every scene can be different. And you have to call on certain things. You [say], “Wait a minute. Wow. That’s different. I never really felt that emotion like that…” Acting is an evolving art form.
JT: What was the process of finding the character of Joe Fine? How did you find the humanity of this character, but also understand how he could be so abusive toward his family?
CP: That’s the most important thing, is to find the humanity of him. I don’t mind playing someone that, people…read it on paper and they [say], “Chazz, how can you play this guy? He’s horrible. People are going to hate you.” I [say] “I don’t care if they hate me, as long as they understand me. As long as they…see the humanity in me…” [Joe Fine] had a sickness. He had anger issues that he could not control. He needed therapy. He needed medication. This is real. This is real life. So I get the essence of it. If he’s going to be angry, there has to be this underlying thing that comes from an organic source. Otherwise it doesn’t mean anything.
JT: Mighty Fine is a very personal story for writer/director Debbie Goodstein-Rosenfeld, and very much based on her father. How much did you talk to her about that? To what extent did it inform your performance?
CP: I told her… “Obviously this is very personal to you. But sometimes the truth is not as exciting as something that you can embellish. So even though your father didn’t do this, if this way works better, we’ve got to go that way.” She was okay with that.
JT: In various scenes, there are ways Joe’s mood swings are very subtle and ways they’re more pronounced, and his anger is expressed in different ways throughout the film. How did you navigate how far Joe would go and how he would express his inner rage in different scenes?
CP: At times I would say, “I’m going to go this far, Debbie. It might be too far, but let me know.” We did it and I said… “It felt right.” And she’d [say], “It did feel right. It’s okay.” So you experiment. You try to go far. If you don’t go far enough, you try to go further… You do that with actors who can do that. If you’re dealing with inexperience actors, that’s very difficult.
JT: You have a long history of dividing your time between studio projects and independent films. What was the biggest challenge of shooting Mighty Fine on such a limited schedule and budget, and conversely, did you find any creative benefits in it being an independent film?
CP: Oh, God yes. I think the best stuff is the independent world. Because you have these first-time directors and first time writers who are willing to try things. They’re not afraid. Sometimes you have a big director who’s so worried about making a hit, he’s not willing to try. But first time directors, sometimes they’re oblivious to some things. [They say], “Oh let’s just give it a try.” They don’t care. They’ve got nothing to loose. So I enjoy working with first-time directors.
JT: The shoot was scheduled for twenty days, but days kept getting rained out and as a result, scenes kept needing to be changed. How did that affect you or your work?
CP: It makes you uncomfortable at times. You’ve got to keep your head down. You can’t get angry. But you just say to yourself, “We’re in it. We’ve got to finish it. We’re not going to finish it unless we keep doing it.” A movie’s like a strange animal… It’s like a big boulder. Once it starts rolling down the hill, you can’t stop it. You’ve got to finish.
JT: Debbie has talked a lot about Joe Fine being a product of that era. Did you ever know anyone with problems like that?
CP: Yeah, one of my friend’s fathers was like that. He was a pretty dangerous guy… He was nice. But then he could go [off]. [I spoke with] people who were on medication, or who were manic depressive… I spoke to a shrink about it. So I had a pretty good sense of who this guy was.
JT: As you’ve continued to write and direct and produce throughout your career, how have those experiences impacted either how you read scripts to potentially act in, or how you approach roles?
CP: I read it first for the quality of the script… I’m reading my part, but I’m really looking at the script… Then I’ll read it again for my part… Then I’ll meet with the director, and he tells me how he’s going to shoot or what he sees. If all those things come out [well], I’ll say, “ Okay. Let’s do it.”
JT: You recently reunited with Jennifer Tilly on TV’s Modern Family for the first time since Bullets Over Broadway almost twenty years ago. What was it like to reunite with her?
CP: As we saw each other we starting laughing. We just went right back in it again, starting ad-libbing things. There we were again, camera… They’re all terrific actors. Modern Family is an incredibly well-written show… It’s one of those rare shows that’s for everybody. My ten-year-old daughter loves it. And my mother, who’s ninety-one loves it… Everybody loves that show.
JT: Are there any plans for you to appear in any more episodes?
CP: They talk about it, but nothing yet. If they want me, they’ll call, and I’ll go back… I would love to go back. But we’ll see.
JT: You’ve also recently returned to screenwriting with the upcoming Mob Street. What can you share about that at this point?
CP: That’s about the scams in the late nineties when the mob infiltrated Wall Street… I just found that fascinating that these mob guys could take over Wall Street. You would think that could never happen. But it did.
JT: Is there anything in particular that you hope audiences will be thinking or feeling as the credits roll on Mighty Fine?
CP: I think they can look at that and see, if they know people like that, or are themselves like that, that seeking help is not a crime. If you have anger issues or you have mental issues, seek help. That’s really what it’s about.
Filed under: LiC Interview