Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Joe Pantoliano

I Remember Joe Pantoliano...

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

The first thing one learns about Joe Pantoliano is that most people simply give up and call him "Joe Pants." "Maybe I perpetuated it," Pantoliano says. "For example, I call your assistant and I say 'it's Joe Pantoliano,' and she says 'wait a secondŠ how do you spell that?' So I just say 'tell him Joe Pants.' It makes it easier. And 'Pantaloni' means 'pants.' My grandparents came here as 'Pantalone.' They went to Ellis Island, and the Irish cop there misspelled the name. And being good citizens they were afraid they'd get in trouble if they corrected it."

Pantoliano has taken time out from his busy schedule as one of America's top character actors to speak to me about his new film Memento, which, in my eyes, is a new American classic. Most folks may recognize Pantoliano as Guido the Killer Pimp from Risky Business (1983), or from his current role as Ralph Cifaretto on "The Sopranos." He's also appeared in The Goonies (1985), La Bamba (1987), Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987), The Fugitive (1993), and the Wachowski Brothers' Bound (1996) and The Matrix (1999).

Memento tells the story of a man with no short-term memory who is on the trail of his wife's killer. In order to function, he must take Polaroids of everyone he meets and tattoo vital information on his body. On top of this, Director Christopher Nolan tells the story backwards, beginning with the movie's final shot, and going forward to the beginning. When each scene begins, we don't know how we got there, just as our main character doesn't know. Shelby also talks tirelessly about another man with the same condition, Sammy Jankis, and tries to learn from his mistakes. Pantoliano elaborates, "what I love about Chris' movie is that he uses black and white for Leonard's memory when he's talking about Sammy Jankis. Black and white is really gray. And the story is gray and his memory is gray."

Memento has even more odd angles to it than appear on screen, Pantoliano says. "I discovered this metaphor today. The cool thing is that [Matrix co-star] Carrie-Anne Moss told Chris that I should meet him. So I met Chris in King's Road Coffee shop in L.A. But Chris says he's not going to go with me because of the types of roles I played in the past. My agent tells him that's exactly why he has to hire me."

"SoŠ. when people get out of this movie, where are they gonna go? They're going to go to a coffee shop and talk about the movie. Anyway, by the time we get around to making the movie, the agent quits the business and is now in the coffee business. It kind of hit me with all these Starbucks and Peet's coffees around. It's a place where people go to think about stuff."

Pantoliano prides himself on working with quite a few first-timers, including Larry and Andy Wachowski. Memento is the second film by Nolan, an English-born citizen with half-American blood. Pantoliano was unable to see Nolan's first film, Following, due to a lousy videotape. But even so, Pantoliano had a feeling.

"I just felt like this guy was special, like I felt when I worked with the Wachowski brothers. I knew it was a great script. When I read Bound, I knew it was a great script. Those guys were untried. I've worked with a lot of those guys. You have to take a leap of faith to see if these guys have what it takes to be a hyphen, a writer-director. [Chris] liked me enough to hire me. Immediately I knew that this guy's got the goods."

Pantoliano's hunch was right. He says working with Nolan was a pleasure. "He allowed us to help him. There are a lot of directors who don't let you help them. Chris is American/British. As it was written, the way [my character] Teddy spoke was kinda standard American. It was good [proper] English. Cops don't talk like that." Pantoliano used his own speech rhythms to enhance the character, including some improvisation. When the memory-challenged lead character, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) takes a Polaroid of Teddy, Teddy quips "nice shot, Leibovitz."

"Apparently Chris says I said that line in another movie," Pantoliano laughs. "I don't remember."

March 27, 2001

Movies Unlimtied