Actor, writer, director, artist and activist Paul Sorvino chats with Paula Jessop - NYC Splash on his newest film release, acting, art and knighthood.
How did you become involved the newly released film ‘How Sweet It Is’?
They sent the script to my agent. I liked it and that’s how I became involved.
What drew you to the character of Big Mike?
He was very well written. He was also different from the mobster roles people associate me with, films like Goodfellas and couple of other movies. I’ve done over 150 movies and only about 8 or 9 are mobsters (roles) but they remember those. What appealed to me was (laughing) Big Mike had a love for musicals. And the character Joe Piscopo plays was his favorite guy. A has been Broadway Musical writer, director, producer. He was his hero worship. He had a shrine to him in his house. It was really a very interesting take on it and Big Mike is not a dope he’s a smart guy and that appealed to me too. Joe Piscopo is a really nice guy we’ve known each other a long time and it was a chance to work with him.
I was going to ask you about playing the Mafia types and wanted to know your take on it. It’s interesting to me because I really thought you had played more of those characters than just 8 or 9. I wanted to know your take on playing that kind of a stereotype of character?
The reason I liked that role (Big Mike in ‘How Sweet It Is’) was as I said it wasn’t that stereotype. He’s a mob boss that has a tremendous love of musicals. And so I thought that was a very interesting conflation. Putting that together was very interesting for me. Everybody has to do roles that their offered and you pick the best of those that are offered. As far as the mob roles it’s very interesting because my family is noble, our coat of arms goes back to the 12th century. I’m actually an Italian Knight. I think its interesting that if my noble family could see far into the future they would look and say what is he doing? There was a time when I said no more Mafia that’s it, because it’s so far from me. I am a poet, a musician, a pianist. I play the guitar, I sing, I write, I’m a director, and a sculptor. There are so many things I do and none of them is gangster. You know it can get a little tiring. But then in the last couple of years the roles got better. So you just take the better role. I realized you can’t categorize yourself or a form of writing. You have to look at what’s best. You can’t say this is all I do, and that is what I don’t do. You take the best material that you can get and you do it.
Most people don’t associate you with being musical or musicals. But you got your start in a stage musical. You’re an Opera singer and have done movie musicals as well as stage. As a musician and performer is there one form you prefer over another?
I’ve sung in opera as you said and I am going to start doing some touring in Canada and Australia doing songs from the American Song Book and Neapolitan Italian songs. I like what I’m doing. It’s kind of funny I do a great many things. I like what I’m doing when I’m doing it. It’s hard to answer your question because when I am doing what I am doing, I like that the best.
I am intrigued with the fact that you are a Knight in Italy.
I am a member of the ‘Order of the Carinzia’ which was started by Saint George in the 3rd century for the protection of the Pope. We can be called on ceremonially to protect the Pope. It hasn’t happened but I actually would like to do that. I am the highest ranking knight in the Order its called ‘Cavaliere di Gran Croce’ which means ‘Knight of the Grand Cross’ I was knighted by Count Morano mostly from my work with asthmatics.
I wrote a best selling book in 1985 called ‘How To Become A Former Asthmatic’. I’ve worked with asthmatics. I have an asthma foundation called the Sorvino Asthma Foundation. We are doing a big event in Nappa at the Whitehall Winery on July 14th. I am always doing things involving that particular charity and lots of others. I have been honored twice by the Pope and had special papal blessings, as have my family over the last several hundred years.
Being a knight is an interesting thing because in a certain sense you do carry that with you even though in America that doesn’t get you on the subway without two bucks. It still has something to do with the family history. I didn’t know my family was noble until I was knighted and they looked back into the family history. There is apparently a good chance that family were Templars because on our coat of arms there are lions. You can’t have a lion with the coat of arms unless you are close to the king which presupposes a hefty title. I was asking a genealogist about where the title was and he said that’s easy a lot of people had to run for their lives and the likelihood is that when the Templars were pretty much wiped out in the 12 and 13th century the surviving ones ran for their lives. Giving up their tittles and took to the hills. So that’s the likelihood. But I was knighted again so it’s nice, it’s very nice. I get to go to official functions as I am ‘Sir Paul’ its very fun.
I was really intrigued by the fact that you were a sculptor and an artist. I was wondering what kind of mediums you work with?
I work in clay I use Italian clay called coterie it’s the clay potters use. Then I take it and have it bronzed. I will send you pictures of a couple that I have recently finished and one or two that I am just finishing. And maybe one or two that are bronzes. I have done over 20-25 bronzes in the last 13 years since I turned professional.
Places I have sculptures are: in the Courthouse Square in Scranton, PA, there is a sculpture of my dear, dear departed friend Jason Miller. At the Boca Raton Community Hospital’s Pediatric Heart Unit, there is a statue of a little girl holding her hand out called ‘She is Peace’. Above the door of the Versace House, which is the second most photographed house in the country next to the White House, there are two lions on the flag pole, which I designed and sculpted.
I will send a picture of a sculpture of my brother, a gift to my dear brother and another of a commission from a beautiful young lady.
I have been so active in acting, ‘How Sweet It Is’ is the second movie I have done in the last few months. I am involved in another called ‘Careful What You Wish For’ with Nick Jonas. You know the famous singing Jonas Brothers? It is also with Dermot Mulroney and Isabelle Lucas. Then I go to Chicago to do a picture called ‘Precious Metal’ where I play a captain of detectives. Right now I am playing a southern sheriff. Who is a benevolent, good guy, not a mean southern sheriff, but a really good guy with a big (assuming a southern drawl) “you know where he plays the guitar and sings in the local band. He keeps the peace and he keeps everybody safe and happy his name is Big Jack. It’s been interestin’ there’s an insurance agent and all kinds of complications it’s a lot fun. It goes on and on” (back to natural voice). That’s what I’m doing now. The last movie I made I played Marley Matlin’s father. You know the great deaf actress? She’s such a marvelous person, a marvelous actress, so that was great.
When you get a script in front of you for the first time, how do you go about approaching a character?
I’m a writer as well as an actor. Many years ago I was a rather prominent ad writer in the ad business. I was a creative director and eventually vice president of an agency. I was very successful at that and so I am a trained writer. And as I said, I wrote a best selling book. I’ve been writing all my life. I’ve redone scripts. I’ve written scripts. So when I see script I look at it three ways, writer, actor and director. I am also a director. I’ve directed three films and lots of stage. I have my own theatre. I don’t look at a script just as an actor I look at it as a writer and a director. Simultaneously, I am watching three elements of the script and I am used to it. I can feel very quickly if something is right for me and I know what to do with it, pretty much when I first read it. Very few things have ever been a problem for me to understand how to go about it. And how I go about it is. I decide if there is an external necessary and by that I mean let’s say for instance when I played Henry Kissinger in the movie Nixon. I could imitate Kissinger right away but when Kissinger becomes emotional he doesn’t leave and that takes a lot of practice on the externals. That’s something the English actors are very good at I just saw ‘The Fighter’ with Christian Bale and he’s they are very good at doing that. The great actresses Maggie Smith and Judy Dench when they have a character they don’t waste time, they go and they get it. Completely, they really nail it. My idols were Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers these are the masterful and great actors, of course Marlon Brando as well.
I have always been the kind of fellow who believes that work is more important than talent. I believe in labor, so when I do a role it’s very often month or two in preparation. In practicing the externals, the speech, the walk, whatever things that you could see, but of course then there is the internal part. That’s the development behavior that is native to this character the kind of emotions he is going to have. So you get all that lined up that’s how you go about it. Mostly it is a matter of practice. Practicing until that character becomes so solid with you that it doesn’t shake if you weep or you laugh it will stay with you that’s when you know you’re ready. But I don’t start with the words, see that’s the difference between the English actors and me, they start with the words, I finish with the words. I’m of the opinion, being somewhat of a phrase maker since I was an ad man. I feel that “Words are passengers on the vehicle of the behavior that the actor must create”. You don’t just give life to the words. You have behavior and emotion and then put the words on top of them. That’s the way they come out sounding like they have never been spoken before. And they are filled up rather than pushed out. The words do not propel themselves, behavior and emotion propel words. Or else you are just saying words and slapping on emotion. That’s the backwards way to do it. The real way to do it is to be ready even if there were no words. To have the behavior and task that you must accomplish as Stanislavski would say or as Sanford Meisner says “acting is doing”. Or as Paul Sorvino says “acting is verbs”, its things you do and once you are doing something truthfully, then you put the words on top of that and they sound like they have never been spoken before. And you look like it is all fresh and happening on the moment. There is a lot of art in it, there is a lot of craft in it and I have spent a lifetime working at that to try to perfect it. To honor the great ones who come before me and try to be part of that club if I can, each time out.
I am an actress. I have done some training in England and I am very drawn to that form of acting. One of the things I have loved about it you just put a hole in, in the starting off with the words. Because I feel like it has been a kind of doorway into then weaving pulling me down into the character. So, you don’t even use the words like for example the color black and what that would envoke in you to then kind of just go in from there?
No. No, no, not at all, I don’t do that. Because, that leads to this kind of acting: “well, I was very happy yesterday” (his voice rising in excitement) “But I’m awfully sad today” (his voice dropping). I mean that’s making the words make some kind of sense and pushing the meanings of the individual words. That’s not going to give you the character. You should be able to do the character without a word. You have to divine what the character is. I never learn the lines before I go to a movie. Because that will just get you speaking them in a kind of routine way. In a word patterned way. That’s not what you want. That’s why most good actors American actors anyway do a lot of improvisation. They paraphrase because no one can make something they learned last night sound like it is the first time they are saying it. That takes time you can do that in a play because you have weeks and weeks of preparation. But if you throw in a paraphrase of the line or add to it in your own way that will add to the reality of it. Because it is you speaking those lines. Even through the filter of the character. Is this getting to complicated, I don’t know?
Well I’m fascinated by it. I hope my readers are. I am totally enthralled here.
Let me say this there is more than one way to skin a cat though I have never skinned one nor would I ever want too. There are great English actors like Michael Gamblin, Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, and Tony Hopkins so many wonderful British actors but they started with the words. Now we all have to come from a synthesis to form a content. However they got to it, it’s Ok with me. Alec Guinness certainly had it and in comedy Peter Sellers had it. I am not saying the only way to go about this is the way I go about it. But a lot of these people I am mentioning are near or actual geniuses. So no matter what technique they use, they are going to find the truth because there is truth in art. I do 5 or 6 different arts and so I feel I am sort of qualified to say what it is in art you see there are universal truths and they all involve form and content.
If you look at a painting by Van Gogh there is a huge amount of content but there is also a form, he created his own form. If you look at Rembrandt you will see a great amount of form, absolute reality. But the content, the emotion that’s what differentiates him from a lot of other artists who may paint as well.
Most of the Dutch masters painted equally well but none of them had what Rembrandt had. Not one of them had the human quality. Or you look at a Howells, fantastic Howells, the ones who really come out; El Greco, Raphael, Tishen, Rodane, Michael Angelo the greatest sculptor of all time. These people all have something just like great actors or great artists of every kind. Great musicians; Horowitz played the piano, he could play faster than anybody else but it touched you. There’s a lot of people who can play the piano quickly you know they can play anything. But it doesn’t touch your heart. Artists who do that maybe highly accomplished but as far as I am concerned they are technically brilliant but they don’t have the technique of making you feel something. If you don’t feel something when you look at a work of art, I don’t care how technically good it is. It may as well be a Durer etching. The reason that Vermeer is not the painter that Rembrandt is, is not because he doesn’t paint as well. Because he certainly does, he doesn’t have as much heart. That’s the thing which differentiates great artists from good artists.
It goes in acting, it goes in singing, it goes in playing, it goes in painting, sculpting, everywhere if you don’t have both form and content. In acting form is the way it sounds and the way it looks and content is the emotion. And it’s that way in all arts as far as I can see. This is my belief anyway. It’s my story and I am sticking to it.
Eventually if you are really good you are going to put it all together. There’s a great farceur that we all know, who is the most underrated actor in all America, his name is Eddie Murphy. Nobody is as good as he is. He’s just fantastic; the way he does the characters is such reality. Now that’s form and content they are real and they are full and they sound great, they look great, his characters are brilliant he is a great artist and a very underrated artist as far as I am concerned. He is like the new Peter Sellers. Peter Sellers could do any dialect you know. I’d like to think I can too. I don’t put myself in that league of the Alec Guiness or Peter Sellers but I try to do the best I can. I have a good ear and what’s more; I have a good work ethic. And that’s what I would advise for anybody that wants to do it. You have to be willing to do the labor.
Part of the joy is in the doing that.
Recently I mastered Chopin’s ‘Military Polonaise in A Major”.
Acting is nothing but another art that calls for form and content and dedication and respect for yourself in it. A lot of people love themselves in the art as Stanislavsky said you have to love the art in yourself”
Tell me about the charity event you mentioned coming this July.
The Sorvino Asthma Foundation is having an event at the Winterhawk Winery in Nappa Valley this July 14th. They are being really great and donating their whole facility to us. We will have a celebrity auction, where we will be auctioning something off from Nick Jonas and other celebrities. There will be a really good band, people will drink wonderful wine and have a great day.