Joe Pantoliano Exclusive Interview on Mental Health, Iconic Acting & the Downfall of American TelevisionAugust 3, 2012 1 Comment
By Allison Kugel
This is my second time speaking with Emmy winning actor, Joe Pantoliano. We first sat down for a face- to-face interview in December of 2010 when Panoliano was on a publicity tour to promote the documentary film, No Kidding, Me Too!, about people living with brain disease. During our 2010 chat, the wildly expressive character actor regaled me with vivid stories from his childhood and adolescence, as well as his recent diagnosis of clinical depression. At the time Pantoliano seemed self-aware but still raw from some of his previous troubles with his depression and the effects it caused within his family. At the time I wondered what the next couple of years would bring for Joe Pantoliano.
Fast forward to June 2012 when I received an email from Joe out of the blue telling me he happened to read our original interview and he wanted to chat about his recently released follow- up memoir, Asylum (Pantoliano’s first memoir, Who’s Sorry Now? was released in 2002). I read his new book, Asylum, and we scheduled some time to chat about the book and what Pantoliano has been up to.
Our second conversation was more laid back and familiar, and the Hoboken-bred character they call Joey Pants seemed more at ease in his own skin, his sense of humor now fully intact. This time I opted for off the cuff conversation in lieu of structured questions. I wanted to see what flowed…
Allison Kugel: It was comforting to read your new memoir, Asylum. You discuss how your success as an actor paralleled your brain dis-ease, and your ultimate diagnosis and treatment. I can honestly say “No Kidding, Me Too!” (nkm2.org, Panoliano’s org to erase the stigma of brain dis-ease), because I suffer with Anxiety and Panic Disorder. I’m in the same boat as you, and millions of others.
Joe Pantoliano (Joey Pants): How long have you had it, your whole life?
Allison Kugel: I have memories of being eight or nine and feeling anxious, or being eleven and feeling like I had to touch a door knob a certain number of times or lock a door three of four times. Since the mission of your organization, No Kidding, Me Too!, is to de-stigmatize emotional issues and brain dis-ease I would be remiss if I were not to disclose my own.
Joe Pantoliano: There’s a dynamite documentary I just saw called The Company. It’s about corporate America programming and manipulating the viewing public into buying their products. When I was diagnosed with clinical depression I couldn’t understand why I was depressed when everything was going good at face value. I had the success I wanted, I was making the kind of money I wanted, I was sleeping with the kind of women I wanted. All the things I thought were going to define me, and so that I would never have to feel bad again. In that film they talk about filling up the hole inside of you with people, places and things. At the time I didn’t consider the fact that I was addicted to Vicodin and actually recovering from Alcoholism. Those things played into the propensity for being a little more sensitive to my environment. It’s what makes us artists. The anxiety you feel or the depression I feel is actually reality telling you you’re going to the right place, that you are getting closer to your discomfort or away from your discomfort. They say that brain dis-ease comes in three parts; it’s genetic, environmental and socio-economic.
Allison Kugel: That’s what contributes to the symptoms developing.
Joe Pantoliano: Now my dis-ease is my friend, it’s my warning apparatus, so to speak.
Allison Kugel: In your book, Asylum you explain how your emotional issues, your “brain dis-ease” as you call it helped you to create magnificent three dimensional characters. As a result you won a lot of accolades. Was there a part of you that was afraid to get help or to get better for fear of being a less effective actor?
Joe Pantoliano: I never thought about that and at that point I didn’t care. Something had to change, and if I had to change my career then so be it. I didn’t want to live anymore. As it turned out, it was anything but that. It brought me closer to my feelings.
Allison Kugel: We share the same birthday, September 12th, and the last time we spoke we talked about how you had trouble celebrating your birthday after 9/11. Can you celebrate your birthday now?
Joe Pantoliano: No, I still have a hard time with it. Because I’m also [observing] the death of three people that I really cared about. Also, I think I’ve gotten to the point where I’m less narcissistic. It’s one thing to celebrate the birth of a ten year old or a twenty-one year old, but when you celebrate turning fifty or sixty, you’re just that much closer to your demise (laughs).
Allison Kugel: In the past, since launching No Kidding, Me Too!, you’ve been to Washington to speak before Congress. What did you accomplish there?
Joe Pantoliano: It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been in Washington for that, specifically. We wanted equal rights for the all-American brain. Insurance companies do not treat emotional dis-ease with the same [consideration] that they would with gall stones, or a gall bladder operation, or putting a stent in your blood vessel because you have heart disease. There was a young boy in my film named Jordan who was diagnosed with depression in the third grade. He was only allowed one cognitive talk therapy session with a psychiatrist per month. By his senior year [in high school] he was so despondent that he had turned to alcohol. It was the only thing that helped him to feel better. He got caught and he felt so badly about letting his parents down again that he decided to throw himself out of his ninth floor bedroom window. He didn’t die. The minute he hit the ground the clock started ticking and that same insurance provider paid for the emergency medical helicopter, the fourteen operations that followed and the physical therapy.
Allison Kugel: All of that could have been avoided had the insurance company paid for talk therapy.
Joe Pantoliano: Yeah, so to get [congress] to understand about preventative medicine. Just like we’re starting to learn that preventative medicine is also what we eat, how we eat. Kids are getting Type 2 Diabetes because 60% of our nation’s adolescents are morbidly obese. The health community is looking at it as a Diabetes issue. They’re not looking at it as a symptom of a mental dis-ease. The way we are eating is symptomatic of the dis-ease we feel inside.
Allison Kugel: Aside from food, you also talk about a shopping addiction or unconscious shopping, as you put it. What is the most outrageous unconscious purchase you made?
Joe Pantoliano: Just recently I bought a pair of these Lululemon workout pants. You could wear them out to dinner or to a movie. They look like dress pants and they were fairly expensive, and I didn’t remember buying them. And I just bought a pair of Jimmy Choo motorcycle boots in black suede that were on sale. My addiction is funny. I never pay full price. I stalk sales. I have to have it, but I get to know the people in the store and I’ll ask them to hold it for me until it takes a [price] hit. This stuff is instilled in us. My parents were products of the Depression. There was always a fear about money and it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I no longer have the option to steal so I have to look for the best bargain.
Allison Kugel: So, when you were able to steal you stole?
Joe Pantoliano: Yeah, because where I grew up that was a virtue, to be a good thief and then to re-sell. I had a scam in high school where I went down to Orchard Street to do my shopping. I used to go down there, this was like 1969, and I would buy these T-shirts and I paid legit, retail, I paid two bucks each. Then I’d stick them in the trunk of my father’s car and after school I sold them for five dollars and told the kids they were stolen. The kids wanted to buy stolen goods. The action of buying swag made them feel good, and made the clothes on their back feel more important. And the motion picture industry is a great thing because it’s the only product in America where you can sell something and still own it.
Allison Kugel: It’s been said that your cousin and step father, Florio, was a made man in organized crime. Fact or fiction?
Joe Pantoliano: One would think so. He always denied the fact that he was made, or that he ever made his bones is what they called it. He was involved and everybody knew him. He was in the penitentiary at the same time that Vito Genovese was. Genovese was a family friend and he took care of Vito. He made sure that he got his laundry done, protected him and got him midnight sandwiches. I think that he would have been well taken care of had Vito not died in prison… unless he was [made] and he didn’t want us to know that.
Allison Kugel: Was there ever a time when you considered organized crime or working with your cousin Florio to be a viable option as an alternative to acting?
Joe Pantoliano: No, never. That was made really clear by Florio. He saw how he had squandered his life away and realized how hard he worked. I think the guilt and the way he lived showed, because he always lost what he made. When he had it he threw it around like there was no tomorrow and he would lose whatever he had from his ill-gotten gains at the track. He told me that every move he ever made was the wrong move and that if I wanted [acting] I could do it, of course I could do it. He said, “You think Sinatra and those guys, they don’t wipe their ass every time they take a shit? There’s no difference between you and them. They wanted it, they wanted it bad and they were lucky enough to get it. And you just have to put in the work and be lucky enough to get it.” And then he said, “Stay away from these [neighborhood] guys, don’t ever ask them for a favor because you’ll owe them for life.” And I listened.
Allison Kugel: Some of your most iconic projects happened to be while you were struggling the most, emotionally. On some of these sets, did any of your fellow actors whether you confided in them or they picked up on your Vicodin use or mood swings, did anyone ever say, “Something doesn’t seem right with you.”?
Joe Pantoliano: The only time to my recollection was when I was doing a TV show called Easy Street on CBS, and Ken Olin thinking that I should look into mind medication and emotional [help]. I remember thinking, “You’re funny. You think I’m crazy, that’s funny!” But it was insightful on his part. My first remembrance was feeling odd and losing the desire to go out, or going out and doing things that were normally entertaining to do, and I was losing the fun. I felt sad all the time and didn’t know why. Friends like Chazz Palminteri would say, “What are you nuts?! You’re crazy. You’re sitting on top of the world. You’re making more money than you could throw a stick at.” [But] I remember Chazz Palminteri, he kidded me and he said, “Joey, you’re never gonna be the guy with the name above the title. You got a twenty minute face.” I was laughing, but it stung inside. And then I put my mind to getting my name above the title. I got Bound and then I started doing these character leads in movies.
Allison Kugel: What are your thoughts on young Hollywood versus seasoned actors when it comes to landing the best roles?
Joe Pantoliano: My agent said it best, that the young audience doesn’t understand a good actor from a reality star. Celebrity is celebrity whether you’re on Jersey Shore or you’ve starred in five or ten iconic movies. It doesn’t matter. They just don’t get it and they don’t care.
Allison Kugel: What’s your opinion of shows like Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives?
Joe Pantoliano: I don’t watch it. I think it’s really damaging. I think it’s another nail in the coffin of this societal decline. Television caters to the lowest denomination. If it’s being viewed, it doesn’t have anything to do with content. It’s like, it’s being viewed, so let’s make more of that. It promotes the kind of insidious, self-centered, narcissistic horseshit like The Real Housewives… I was at a celebrity fundraising event and there was a woman there that was one of these Housewives. Her husband committed suicide…
Allison Kugel: Taylor Armstrong…
Joe Pantoliano: There she was, having breakfast across the way from me. You could see she had all of this work done, and she was complaining how Amy Winehouse knocked her off the cover of People Magazine because she up and died, and that she would have gotten the cover because her husband committed suicide.
Allison Kugel: Are you kidding me?
Joe Pantoliano: Not kidding you. That she was comparing herself to an artist. We artists, we become artists because of our insecurity, that we want to say something, we want to make a difference. I found actors that I wanted to emulate and I wanted to be like them. I went to acting schools with teachers that I knew they had studied with. I wanted to learn and be as good as they were. I went and put it on the line and hoped to God I had the talent and good fortune to be able to get what I wanted. Now what do these kids think? These kids are thinking, “Oh, I’ll be a reality star. Or do a sex tape and leak it out and become a star.” You got to be careful showing these kids that stuff. I have a real pet peeve about that. I just recently got rid of our cable box. If my kids want to watch any kind of content they can do it on their lap top. I don’t know if I’m an isolationist.
Allison Kugel: Being that you’re a Sopranos alumni, what other HBO show would you be a part of regardless of the size of the part or the money offered?
Joe Pantoliano: Now I’ve got this thing for Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom. I would work craft services on that. I just love how his mind works, and how prolific he is as a writer.
Allison Kugel: You’d take any role on The Newsroom, regardless of the size or content of the role, or what kind of money they were offering you?
Joe Pantoliano: Yup. I would do it in a heartbeat!