AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Stroll the cross streets along Broadway in New York, and you'll notice the names of movie stars jostling for marquee space with theatre heavyweights - Hugh Jackman, Angela Bassett, Brooke Shields - are the latest round of screen stars drawing crowds. But come to a stop at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on 47th Street, and the movie star winning the attention is actually playing the role of director: John Turturro. He's best known for roles in movies by Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers and others. But this month, Turturro is making his debut as a Broadway director. So far, he's doing a pretty good job, at least according to Judy Mencher, a theatergoer from East Hampton, New York.
JUDY MENCHER: And I thought he was a great director. He really had the most out of each of his performers and made everyone seem very real. You could almost relate to them.
CORNISH: That's no easy task. Turturro is actually directing three one-act plays by three big name writers: Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen. The show involves several sets, 15 actors, from Steve Guttenberg to Marlo Thomas. If it sounds hectic, that's because it is.
JOHN TURTURRO: OK? All right. Can I get a glass of water from you? Thank you. Oh, God. Oh, my God. OK. Shoot.
CORNISH: We caught up with Turturro in the front of the theatre between a midweek matinee and evening show. Each of the plays in "Relatively Speaking" is a comedy dealing with tangled family relationships. The first, by filmmaker Ethan Coen starts out with just two characters.
TURTURRO: A shrink and a patient, a mental patient.
CORNISH: A very smart, witty and literate patient.
TURTURRO: Patient, who's very smart. And then the second part of the play after these series of encounters is the patient's parents, which you discover, which is like a flashback.
CORNISH: The second play, called "George is Dead," is by playwright Elaine May.
TURTURRO: And that's about a woman who loses her husband - a very rich woman - and looks up her nanny's daughter. That's the only person she can find to comfort her, and to help her.
CORNISH: And this woman is played by Marlo Thomas, who the audience just really lit up when she came through the door.
TURTURRO: Well, she's - it's tricky because there's a lot of comedy but you have to have a, you know, you have to have a humanity underneath it too.
CORNISH: The finale belongs to Woody Allen. "Honeymoon Hotel" is an old-school farce that opens with what appears to be a bride and groom settling into what they hope will be a magical night.
TURTURRO: And then you find who they are.
TURTURRO: I don't want to give away the plot but you find out it's a whole comedy of desire and what happens when a person of a certain age has a mid-life crisis.
CORNISH: And one of the running gags is that more and more people burst in the door from the wedding...
TURTURRO: They just keep coming in. It's sort of like a night at (unintelligible)...
CORNISH: The rabbi, the, like, in-laws...
TURTURRO: The pizza man. It just keeps going. You have lot of people. There's 10 people in that play, and it's with a very talented cast. So, they're really nice people to work with, and...
CORNISH: Every time someone opens their mouth, you're like that's the funniest person on stage.
TURTURRO: Well, you know, that's how it is. It has to pop back and forth. It's one of those plays. It's been really challenging doing three plays, I have to say. Two one acts is one thing but to do three, sometimes I feel like my head is going to pop off.
CORNISH: Is this feeling like the most challenging thing you've done?
TURTURRO: I can't say it's the most challenge, there's the most personalities. There's the most people, you know, there's a lot of powerful people involved. So, I would say overall I'm enjoying it. I just think sometimes switching from play to play is a little schizophrenic.
CORNISH: And this is coming from a man who's appeared in a film earlier this year with talking robots, "Transformers." But taking on challenges is nothing new for the actor. Turturro has starred in more than 60 films. He's known for creating quirky characters, like troubled game show contestant Herb Stempel in the 1994 film "Quiz Show," directed by Robert Redford.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "QUIZ SHOW")
TURTURRO: (as Herb Stempel) Go ahead, give me a number, give me a number. Excuse me, sir, give me a number. A random number.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I don't know. 23?
TURTURRO: Beethoven was 23 when he composed his first piano sonata. In 1923, Jack Bentley set the record for average by a pitcher, batting .427. There are 23 chromosomes in the human egg, also the human sperm.
CORNISH: Then there were a string of roles in films by Joel and Ethan Coen: "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "The Big Lebowski" and "Barton Fink." Turturro won a Best Actor nod at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991 for his turn in that film as a New York playwright trying to make his way in Hollywood.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BARTON FINK")
TURTURRO: (as Barton Fink) There's a few people in New York - hopefully our numbers are growing - who feel we have an opportunity now to forge something real out of everyday experience, create a theater for the masses based on a few simple truths, not on some shopworn abstractions about drama that don't hold true today, if they ever did.
CORNISH: John Turturro excels at humanizing unconventional characters in slightly off-kilter films. But he says the reason he's enjoyed such a diversity of roles is because of his experience working on stage. That's where movie director Spike Lee first saw him before casting Turturro in the 1989 film "Do the Right Thing."
TURTURRO: You know, I haven't had the burden of being, you know, being, like, a one, you know, sometimes people are, you know, huge stars, like a really big star. I think can be a big advantage and it can also be a burden. So, you may not be as free to do certain things. That's why people wind up directing. But...
CORNISH: How did casting directors see you?
TURTURRO: They saw me as a dark person who could play dark roles. And I did "Five Corners," like, volcanic characters. There was that humor but they were dangerous. And so I could have wound up just doing that. But because people saw me do different things in the theatre then other people gave me opportunities to do that, whether it was Spike Lee or the Coen Brothers or Robert Redford or Francesco Rosie or...
CORNISH: You've worked over the years with so many directors. I mean, I was...
TURTURRO: Yes, I have.
CORNISH: ...nice to see that even your first small part was in "Raging Bull." What does that do for you now that you're doing more directing?
TURTURRO: Well, in these plays I really am working with three writers who are directors. So, if I need a, you know, a problem or whatever, like, you know, Woody can see if he likes the staging, he was like, wow, I like most of what you're doing and he had a couple suggestions. But, you know.
CORNISH: That would seem like a lot of pressure.
TURTURRO: Well, with him, because I've worked on something else with him before, we get along quite well. But there's a way of doing it, you know, and I think the cast is more nervous maybe when he's there than when I am just there alone, you know. So, you figure out your job.
CORNISH: What perspective do you bring as an actor though now that you're on the other side?
TURTURRO: I mean, you still got to tell the story but you want to make everybody be relaxed. And, you know, the best case situation is when we're all on the same page and we know it's not working to try something else; you know, to be able to tell the story but be alive in the moment.
CORNISH: And no matter the names on marquee, this moment belongs to Turturro.
TURTURRO: And doing something like this, I'm learning a lot. I'm learning to survive amongst all these different people, 'cause I really have to be like a ping-pong ball right now. And I'm a bit tired but, you know, it's different to be tired and challenged, and be tired and bored. And that I don't like to be.
CORNISH: John Turturro, actor and director of "Relatively Speaking." Thank you so much for talking with us.
TURTURRO: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
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