In a movie about sex, there has to be an obstacle, and there’s no bigger obstacle than religion,” John Turturro said from Dallas, where he was promoting his new comic film, “Fading Gigolo.”
The actor-writer-director plays the eponymous hooker — to Woody Allen’s pimp — who becomes smitten with a Chasidic widow (Vanessa Paradis).
The shenanigans start when Murray Schwartz (Allen), who’s being forced to close his New York book store, has a proposition for his underemployed Italian-American friend Fioravante (Turturro): Murray’s dermatologist (Sharon Stone) has revealed that she wants to have a ménage a trois with her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara), so why not get her to pay for Fioravante’s services? Fioravante’s initial response: “You’re on drugs,” to which Murray replies, “Aside from Zoloft, no.”
Before long, however, Fioravante finds himself immersed in the sex business, as the bumbling Murray successfully rustles up clients of a certain age. Among them is Avigal, the grieving, turban-clad widow of a Satmar rabbi, who innocently signs on for Fioravante’s services when Murray deliberately misleads her into assuming that the gigolo is actually a healer and a Sephardic Jew to boot.
A chaste romance ensues, even as Dovi (Liev Schreiber), a member of the Williamsburg, N.Y., “Shomrim” patrol who is in love with Avigal, follows Fioravante’s every move and eventually drags Murray in front of a beit din (rabbinical court). “You’ve got the wrong guy,” Murray protests. “I’ve already been circumcised.”
Along the way, the comedy becomes a sweet meditation on loneliness and the need for human companionship.
Turturro, 57, who grew up Italian-Catholic in Queens, N.Y., has directed four previous films, including 2010’s “Passione,” but he is perhaps best known as a recurring actor in Spike Lee and Coen brothers films. Over the years, he also has played his share of Jewish characters, notably a gay hustler in the Coens’ “Miller’s Crossing” (1990), the game-show contestant Herbert Stempel in 1994’s “Quiz Show,” and the Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi in 1997’s “The Truce.” Turturro’s wife, Katherine Borowitz, is Jewish, and the couple named their older son, Amedeo, after the famed early-20th-century Italian-Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani. Their younger son, Diego, 13 — decked out in side curls and tzitzit — plays one of Avigal’s six children in “Fading Gigolo.”
Did Turturro worry that his unorthodox romance might draw ire in segments of the Jewish community? “I wanted to be very respectful,” he said. “I had research coming out of my ears — I spoke to all kinds of people in Chasidic communities, including rabbis — and I saw that there were people who were very contented there. But it was a very hard movie to get right because I was trying to navigate this tightrope in a way. So I erred on the side of being subtler and more balanced in my approach.”
Turturro added that he has always been fascinated by women, sex and religion — “from the sheitel [wig] to the habit to the burqa — so I wasn’t afraid to make the [faith] specific in the film.” Of course, some potential financiers “worried that there was too much of this Chasidic element in the movie, but I told them that we’re all human beings, we all have different cultures, and when you touch on the specific, you can also touch on the universal,” he said.
“Fading Gigolo” began, Turturro said, as he was thinking about his favorite “sex” films, notably “Shampoo,” in which the libidinous hairstylist played by Warren Beatty becomes “essentially a servant to his clients.” He also thought about his eccentric Jewish friend Herb, whose New York bookstore had failed financially, and wondered, what if he then decided to go into the sex industry?
Turturro started envisioning himself as a gigolo, albeit not a traditionally handsome one, with Allen as his pimp. “I thought we’d have a great chemistry,” he said of the “Midnight in Paris” director.
And because the two men happened to share a barber, Turturro mentioned his proposed film to their hairstylist, who, unbeknownst to Turturro, passed the idea on to Allen. “I was shocked when Woody called me a week later,” the younger writer-director recalled.
Turned out Allen, 78 — who hadn’t acted in another director’s film in more than a dozen years — was intrigued by Turturro’s concept, though he gave Turturro “merciless feedback” when shown early drafts of the script. “The original screenplay was much bawdier, but Woody helped me to take a more nuanced approach,” Turturro recalled.
It was Allen who encouraged Turturro to expand upon the initially minor character of Avigal, and who suggested that Turturro read short stories by the esteemed Yiddish-language author Isaac Bashevis Singer to help flavor the Chasidic scenes.
Turturro also spoke at length with sex workers as part of his research for the film. “I wasn’t so much interested in the sordid side of the business, but in meeting [prostitutes] who actually felt they had helped clients deal with grief or loneliness,” he said.
Casting Allen as a pimp who also takes care of his girlfriend’s four children could be seen as controversial, given the recent re-emergence of sexual abuse allegations by Allen’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, which Allen has staunchly denied. Turturro, for his part, noted that the charges came long after he shot “Fading Gigolo”: “I guess people who have made up their minds about [Allen] won’t see the film, but I don’t really know anything about the [controversy], and I’m not comfortable talking about it,” he said. “Woody is my friend. He’s responded to the allegations, he was a prince to work with, and he is somebody I’d work with again.”
This fall, Turturro will portray the pharaoh Seti opposite Christian Bale as Moses in Ridley Scott’s film “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a proposition that had both Turturro and Allen in stitches.
“I was serious about my approach to the role,” Turturro said. “But part of me was rolling in the aisles, because when I was a kid, I used to re-enact ‘The Ten Commandments’ with my friend on his tomato farm, and the tomato patch was the Red Sea. And when I told Woody that I actually had to intone the word ‘Moses’ in the film, he was, like, on the floor, dying of laughter.”
“Fading Gigolo” is now in theaters.