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Tough Talk from the Heart: A Conversation with Joe Mantegna

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By Matthew Sorrento.

Veteran actor Joe Mantegna has all the wisdom that a life before the camera could provide. And yet he possesses an innocence long lost by most in his cadre. Looking back on a varied acting career – “I’ve done it all” from him sounds completely factual and devoid of bragging – he discusses the craft of film acting and filmmaking as a practice that’s still fresh and surprising to him, in spite of his matter-of-fact manner. As the star of the long-running US series Criminal Minds (CBS, 2005- ), he could begin to relax and look towards a comfortable retirement. And yet he speaks about his involvement starring in Michael C. Martin’s (screenwriter of Antoine Fuqua’s Brooklyn’s Finest¸ 2009) directorial debut, 10 Cent Pistol, as an engaging new adventure. Working for a new director doesn’t daunt Mantegna: he’s directed episodes of Criminal Minds after directing Lakeboat (2000) from a script by David Mamet, for whom Mantegna is a veteran performer. In a recent phone interview transcribed below, Mantegna discusses his work in front of and behind the camera.

It must be wonderful seeing David Mamet’s House of Games (1987), and especially your amazing role, prove its value over the years. It’s such an intricate, interesting movie. 

Ten Cent 04Yes, it seems like it held up very well because so many have that reaction to it. And so many people into it are really into it. Siskel and Ebert, I remember back then, named it one of the ten best films of the year. And a number of people have told me that they’ve had classes on it. It’s very big in Europe, especially in France. It’s like a cult film over there.

Have you seen the DVD version by the Criterion Collection?

I don’t think I ever did see it. I’ve always been meaning to, especially since I’ve got a pretty nice screening facility and I should check it out. I know there are some great interviews and supplements.

There’s now a growing interest in the con film as a crime film genre (with an interesting book devoted to it by Amy Sargeant, Stings, Grifts, Hustles and the Long Con, forthcoming from Palgrave Pivot), thanks to your film.

Well, I think that [House of Games] was certainly one of the definitive ones. I always thought that the one that came after it, with Angelica Huston and John Cusack, called The Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990) was really inspired by House of Games.

Nowadays, when you get a script for a crime feature, what are you looking for in it? Anything in particular?

You know, I don’t look for anything different than I do with other types of roles. In other words, is it an interesting story? Do I like the characters? It’s like picking up a book – it doesn’t matter what the genre is: you read it, and if it engages you and you say to yourself, well, I kind of like this. I see myself in this. That’s really all it is; it doesn’t matter if it’s drama, or comedy, or a crime tale, or a period piece or whatever. The criteria is basically the same.

Did you enjoy working with a first time director, Michael C. Martin, on 10 Cent Pistol?

Ten Cent 02Well, I gathered that he had experience, good writing experience on Brooklyn’s Finest. He clearly knew what he was doing, and what I liked about him was that he’s a very thoughtful guy. You get all types when it comes to directors. The job is like being the general of an army; the army takes on the personality of the general, in a way. And this guy was thoughtful, soft spoken and intelligent. What I really liked about him was that he wasn’t bombastic. At times, when people don’t have a lot of experience, they try to make up for it by being nuts.

And you’ve done the job, on Lakeboat (2000, based on David Mamet’s first play) and TV episodes.

Yes, I did direct Lakeboat and I’ve been directing recently. I’ve done a couple of episodes of Criminal Minds and I’ll be doing a couple more this season. I enjoy directing very much. I waited to direct [Criminal Minds] because I wanted to be so familiar with the show and the people that it would be as easy as possible for me. And it’s turned out that way. I feel very good about the people that I’m surrounded by and I trust everybody and they trust me. It’s daunting and demanding; the buck stops with you when you’re the director, so you can’t take it lightly, which I don’t. That’s why I only agreed to do two this season, one very early one and one later on, because it takes a lot out of you. But, I enjoy it, because if you have that desire to have that kind of power, it lies in directing. Especially in film and television. On stage it’s a different thing; actors have a lot more control. But on film and TV, a director has so much, and when you have a role [in the editing], you basically control what you shot, so it’s a big responsibility.

Do you feel restricted to align to how the show has been directed already?

Ten Cent 06I don’t feel restricted, though there’s so much within the flow of the show and what’s been successful. There’s no reason to deviate from that too much, so you want to stay somewhat within the framework of what works. But beyond that, you have the freedom to be imaginative and do the things you want to do. We have had a tremendous cinematographer on the show, Greg St. Johns, and that’s why I think our show looks better than most series television. Our show looks very cinematic, because it’s shot that way. Having a great cinematographer helps because you don’t have to worry about the visuals being flat or being really basic. [St. Johns is] talented enough that if you want to try something a little different or something with a little style to it, he’s right there with you. Once you start directing, you know how important the cinematographer is.

David Mamet has said that he doesn’t worry about style when directing, that he gets the best cinematographer and just shoots it.

Well, that’s basically it. You get the best cast you can, get a great cinematographer, get a great first assistant director, and just stay out of their way. [Being a director] is almost like being a traffic cop; it’s an important job, since you have to keep everything going and direct the traffic so everybody knows what they’re doing.

Do you think nowadays, with so much crime themed television, that crime movies have to change? That they have to adapt in some way because we’re getting a lot of interesting crime stories on television?

On cable they can go really extreme, like on True Detective, and that’s obviously stuff we could never do. In a way, I don’t mind the restriction we have on network television because it forces you to be able to tell a way better story. You can’t just fall back on, well, let’s just blow this guy up here, and no restrictions on language. But there’s something to be said for having to work within some constraints, as well, and still be able to tell a powerful story, so I don’t mind that. I’ve done it all – I’ve worked with Mamet, so I know what it’s like to work where you have no constraints, and I know what it’s like to be somewhat constrained, and it’s ok, I like being able to do both.

Ten Cent 05Over the years, there’s been so many great productions of Mamet’s stage work, Glengarry Glenn Ross. The role from the play you originated in the US, Ricky Roma, has had many different lives in the hands of great actors like Liev Schreiber (in the 2005 Broadway revival) and Ruben Santiago Hudson (in a fascinating take at Princeton’s McCarter Theater). Have you seen any productions recently?

You know, I don’t make a point to see productions of Glengarry Glen Ross because I want to just live with what I did. I did that show for a year on Broadway, toured for six months and I have such fond memories of it. It really changed my whole career and it was such a wonderful time that my feeling is I would just as soon live with those memories. I don’t need to go see other productions of it because well, it’s not fair, in a way. I’ll always be comparing it in my head, and it’s better to be enjoyed by the people who are seeing for the first time. I’m sure there’s been tremendous productions of it, and I wish them all well and hope they all enjoyed doing it as much as I did. I want to remember the version that I did and the role I created.

Ten Cent Pistol is in theaters and available on Demand on July 24th from eOne Entertainment. 

Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International. He teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012). He directs the Reel East Film Festival.

2 Comments for “Tough Talk from the Heart: A Conversation with Joe Mantegna”

  1. Great interview. Ive sem Mr Montanga in sooo man things I adore him as a person and actor and humanitarian…. I grateful every Wed I can turn CBS on and see him, he fabulous…..Thank you sir, for all you give of yourself.

  2. Matthew Sorrento

    Thank you, Lynda — I agree that he is 100% true in every performance and always delivers the goods.

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