Barely two years out of Yale, John Turturro had already made a name for himself in New York. He won an Obie Award in 1985 for his howling performance in John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. William Friedkin gave him a plum role in To Live and Die in L.A., which brilliantly exploited the edgy, streetwise, nearly psychotic veneer of the Queens-born actor. Lest he be typed as a permanent bad guy, he took small parts as a librarian in Michael Dinner's Off Beat and as a television scriptwriter in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters. When we met, twenty-nine-year-old Turturro was about to leave for Chicago to do The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese.

I haven't been doing leading roles in films. My first role was in Desperately Seeking Susan. Then I did To Live and Die in L.A., and I got single billing on that. And I just finished Ron Howard's new film, Gung Ho. The Color of Money was a smaller role, even though it's the third male lead. My agent didn't want me to do it, and the studio wouldn't give me what I would be worth for that amount of time. Eventually I decided to take the role.

Did that cause trouble with your agent?
He considers it a step down. He wants me to make money, but he lets me do what I want to do. He has taste, and he knows I've always wanted to work with Scorsese. When I was in undergraduate school, I did The Tooth of Crime, the Sam Shepard play, and De Niro came to see it with Cis Corman, who was casting Raging Bull at the time, and my friend and I were called in to meet Scorsese and De Niro. I was twenty-one, and I had never gone on an audition before, professionally. So we prepared a scene from Jake La Motta's book -- we rehearsed it like mad. It was only a three-page scene, but wherever we were we would rehearse the scene. We rehearsed it rowing in Central Park, running, playing basketball, boxing, just to see what would come out. When it came time to do the scene for them, I remember Scorsese didn't want us to do it: "What scene? We don't even have a script." But they liked it and called us back. I auditioned for months. Finally they said we were too young, but we each got one line.

When did you get interested in acting?
When I was real young, eight or nine, I used to make scrapbooks of movie stars. I liked Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. I would tell my mom I was sick and stay home from school so I could watch White Heat, because I'd see it was on at one o'clock in the afternoon on Channel 5. I did impressions for a while with my cousin in high school. I worked at the Improv, and I would perform at banquets and weddings, doing Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy -- serious stuff. I played basketball, and I boxed for a while. Then I broke my hand, and I started realizing I was always doing these impressions or entertaining my friends, and that's probably what I wanted to do.

I didn't read plays in school, except for Shakespeare, so when I auditioned for colleges, I did this monologue from On the Waterfront: "I coulda been a contender." I didn't do it like Marlon Brando did, I did it my way. That was at New Paltz State College. At NYU, I did a scene from Midnight Cowboy. When I think about it, how did I get this material? I never taped it, I didn't have a VCR. I guess I knew the movie so well I would write down the dialogue. On the Waterfront I've seen almost thirty times. I've been watching The Fugitive Kind a lot -- I do have that on tape -- I've really discovered Anna Magnani, who is a genius. The scenes between her and Marlon Brando as a couple are incredible.

Did you think you would do movies as well as theater?
I wanted to do movies. Everybody wants to, 'til you do one and find out how boring it is. Unless you're working with exciting people and you have a large role -- then it's stimulating on a whole other level.

Did you find it different acting on film than onstage?
Somewhat. The size of it -- I'm just learning to say to myself, "I can do less." You don't realize it at first, so you want to make sure they see everything. But Robby Müller, the cinematographer on To Live and Die in L.A. -- he's done all those Wim Wenders films -- helped me. He's a very sensitive cameraman. He adjusts the camera to what you're doing. Sometimes I'd mark the scene in rehearsal, then when I'd perform I'd give a little bit more. He told me, "What you're doing in rehearsal, that's enough."

What's your favorite thing about being an actor?
I can sleep late. [He laughs.] Discovering something. Performance can be great sometimes, but rehearsal is really exciting. When we were doing Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, I couldn't get the character. It sounded like me too much. Then one day my whole body started changing. I had the thought of being in a shell, and everything started coming in, my shoulders, my forehead, my back -- almost like an ape. People who are afraid turn in on themselves, like a turtle or a crab.

What's the hardest thing you've ever been asked to do?
Sometimes you have to meet the greatness of the play -- if you're doing Hamlet -- and some plays you have to make way better than they are. Doing that long run of Danny was exhausting. I felt like the play didn't work on the level I wanted it to work unless I destroyed myself -- vocally, physically, emotionally mostly. When we didn't do that, people said, "Oh, nice little play." When we did do that, it covered the play, and people gave it a standing ovation.

from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (a collaboration with photographer Susan Shacter, published in 1986 by NAL Books)