Sunday, August 9, 2009

Joe Mantegna, March 1989

In March 1989, word came that an independent film would be filming at various Ogden locations over a few weeks. I’m not sure how it works now, but two decades ago, a guy like me – film critic for a small daily newspaper – would have to work the phones in an attempt to convince a publicist somewhere that they should let me on the set to interview one or more people associated with the production.
I was especially keen to get an interview for this film, “Wait Until Spring, Bandini” – based on the John Fante novel – since its male lead was Joe Mantegna, one of my favorite actors. I got the interview – actually, a two-parter – and the first time I sat down with him was near midnight in his trailer next to a little-used train trestle in West Ogden. He was gracious and funny and we spent a couple of hours talking and hanging around the set to watch that evening’s scene be filmed.
A couple of weeks later, I spent the morning on Ogden’s Historic 25th Street watching another scene, this one with Mantegna and Burt Young (“Rocky”). Mantegna had me sitting in the director’s chair next to his while the crew attempted to make a 70-degree day look like a mid-winter scene, including shoveling snow all over the street and sidewalks. It was a fun day, with lots of conversation about his long collaboration with playwright/filmmaker David Mamet, among other things.

During the next week, after I’d already written my profile and it was waiting to be published, I went to Salt Lake City for the advance screening of the restored “Lawrence of Arabia” with cartoonist Cal Grondahl. At intermission, Cal wanted to move down front – “Lawrence” is his favorite movie – so we found a spot on the third row, center. A few moments after sitting down, I heard someone saying “Don. Don!” behind us. I turned around and it was Joe Mantegna. He was there with a few friends from the film crew; I introduced him to Cal, and we chatted about Peter O’Toole and “The Ruling Class.” It was a fun evening.

Here’s the piece I wrote for the Standard:

Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN – Joe Mantegna seems to be a nice guy. You can tell because a nice guy doesn't behave as if he minds you barging into his trailer – unannounced – at 10:15 p.m. on a cold winter night to interview him.

Joe Mantegna is also a fine actor who, at 41, is finally coming into his own in terms of a national reputation. The past two years, he's starred in the critically acclaimed “House of Games” and “Things Change.” Both films were written and directed by his pal David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” for which Mantegna also won a Tony in 1984 as Best Supporting Actor.
Mantegna is in this trailer, in Ogden, as filming progresses on “Wait Until Spring, Bandini.” He’s sitting on a narrow couch, in costume – a well-worn and wrinkled brown suit – waiting for his call to appear before the cameras. The film is a period piece, set in the late 1920s, about an immigrant Italian family trying to survive a harsh winter in a Colorado mining town. Mantegna plays the father, who becomes involved with a wealthy widow played by Faye Dunaway.

“Bandini” is the first job the actor has taken since his starring stint in another Mamet play on Broadway, “Speed the Plow,” ended in the fall of 1988. Before reporting to work on the movie, he took time off to stay home with wife Arlene and daughter Mia Marie for awhile, since work can tend to crowd out personal time.

Mantegna (pronounced man-TAYNE-ya) has appeared in numerous films since winning the Tony award, including “Compromising Positions,” “The Money Pit,” “Critical Condition,” “Suspect,” “Off Beat” and “Weeds.” But his best roles were in the Mamet films, neither of which have played in Ogden theaters. The erratic releases of both films have probably kept Mantegna from becoming as popular, or recognizable, as, say, a John Malkovich.

“Mamet’s films don’t get much of a release for some reason,” the actor says, resting his forehead in the palm of his right hand. “I think that (studios) don’t know how to categorize his films.” If a movie doesn’t plug into action/adventure, sex comedy or some other readily identifiable formula, they don't seem to know what audience to target, and movies don’t get big releases.
“But they got out there,” he says. “Thank God for video. I have people stopping me all the time to tell me they liked ‘House of Games,’ and I know 90 or 98 percent of these people didn’t see it in a theater – really obscure types: baggage handlers and people like that. They (studios) don’t figure people in Ogden would like this stuff. I don’t think they give an audience much credit. People here know as much about what’s goin’ on as people in supposedly more cosmopolitan areas.”
And that’s another thing that makes you like Mantegna: He’s not a snob. He comes from working-class roots in Chicago; his dad sold insurance and his mom worked at Sears. Mantegna was raised in Cicero, a suburb west of Chicago. He became involved in musical theater at Morton East High School, and was cast in a local production of “Hair” after graduation.
Then, in 1973, Mantegna met Mamet. The two Chicagoans, who were born just 16 days apart, became fast friends. Soon Mantegna was cast in the Mamet plays “A Life in the Theater” and “The Disappearance of the Jews.” Then came “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the Pulitzer and the Tony. Mantegna was on his way. Some have gone so far as to say Mamet writes with Mantegna in mind.

Mantegna says he doesn’t know: “I never ask him. He has implied that. ... But I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Unlike many actors, Mantegna doesn’t get all wrapped up in discussing technique or motivation or method. This is a guy who doesn’t go into a closet to summon the Muse; he just acts, he says, based on what he’s learned in the past 41 years of life.

“I don’t have to fly to Italy to learn to become an Italian immigrant. I just put on the hat and the coat,” he says, gesturing to the rest of his wardrobe on a table across the room,” and stick the cigar in my mouth and I’m pretty much there. Most of what you need comes from the script. I learned about brick-laying, so I’d be comfortable with what my character does for a living, but that’s about it.”

He’s not criticizing people who do it that way; it’s just that he doesn’t feel the need. At this point, he says, his confidence level is high enough to carry him through. He believes in himself, and his experience in the theater has been good training.

“I started in theater, so it makes (success in film) easier to happen,” he explains, scratching the two-day beard stubble on his chin. “But I know some wonderful actors who’ve never done any theater in their lives.” Which is not to say he discusses acting at length with other actors, either – especially theater actors. His reasoning: “Sometimes actors in the theater get too ‘actory.’ ”

This is yet another charming quality of Mantegna’s – he likes to make up words. If he searches his brain for the right word and can’t find it, he simply creates one.

When the topic of discussion runs to his price for performing in movies – of both the high- and low-budget variety – the actor explains his feelings with a dash of improvisational English: “Price is not everything. I try not to do things for free – I mean, the first 15 years I was in the business, I didn’t do so well. So the last 15 years as a success will" compensate for the first half of the career.

“I’m at the point in my career where there might be three or four things happening at once. I have options,” he says, adjusting the vest of his suit. “So I wonder, should I clone myself so I can do more than one at a time? Let’s say I chose something for money and let something else go that I really cared about. And then you see up on the screen: ‘Joe Mantegna as the Talking Tomato.’ And the other thing that you turned down is good and maybe wins an Oscar. You get tempted a lot. ... All I'm saying is you have to say where are you and where do you want to be? I’d like to have people look back at me (in later years) like they do Bogart or Cary Grant. Like, Stallone did a porno movie. ... He probably had to, or maybe he thought that was the only thing he could at the time. I don’t look down on him for that. It’s when you regress. Sometimes I cock an eye when someone wins an Oscar one year and sells you Ritz crackers the next.”
Jump ahead two weeks. Mantegna is doing a scene with co-star Burt Young on west 25th Street. It’s 70 degrees, but the scene requires that the actors wear coats and scarves to give the appearance of a cold mountain town. After several takes, Mantegna walks out of the frame and complains, “Oh, the cold!”

When director Dominique Deruddere finally gets the take he wants, Mantegna takes a seat in a chair with his name stenciled on the back. “They clone guys like me; I don’t sweat.”

After nearly two months in Utah, Mantegna has finally begun journeying out of his Salt Lake City hotel room to soak up some local color.
“I went out yesterday and did some ‘Mormonizing,’ ” he says, smiling and obviously happy about creating yet another new word. “I went to that Temple Square and looked around. They gave me a Book of Mormon. I figure, when in Rome ..., ya know?”

With the end in sight for “Bandini” filming – the crew will shoot two more weeks in Orem before wrapping – Mantegna is lining up future projects. First he’ll be directing a play, “Bleacher Bums,” which he helped write in the 1970s, in Chicago. Then he’ll do a film in New York with Ray Liotta and John Malkovich; no director has been named he says, but Taylor Hackford will be executive producing. And, finally, he'll return to Chicago to do another movie for Mamet.

Maybe one of those films will score big with audiences. It’s impossible to forecast. One thing’s certain, though, Mantegna will stay pretty much the same guy he’s always been, regardless of the bank account. His key to survival in such an uncertain business, he says, is “never take it too seriously.”

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