Operating both on screen and off, Oscar nominee Chazz Palminteri has carved out a career playing both to and against his perceived tough guy strengths. In his new film, writer-director Debbie Goodstein’s 1970s-set “Mighty Fine,” the 60-year-old actor plays charismatic, high-spirited family man Joe Fine, who relocates his wife Stella (Andie MacDowell) and two daughters (Jodelle Ferland and Rainey Qualley) from Brooklyn to New Orleans, in search of a better life. With his apparel business experiencing hard times, however, Joe’s depression and anger starts to manifest itself more and more in emotionally abusive outbursts. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Palminteri recently, about the movie, his beloved New York Knicks and big screen adaptation plans for his next Broadway stageplay, “Human.” The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: I know “Mighty Fine” is somewhat autobiographical, so how much did Debbie talk about her own father? And when working with not just a writer-director but one who has such a personal connection to the material, is a discussion about those autobiographical elements important, or is mostly just, “Hey, it’s all in the script”?
Chazz Palminteri: It’s both. Obviously it’s in the script, but I spoke to Debbie at length about how [her father] would react to this and how he would react to that. Joe is based in part on him, so she and I talked a good deal about her Dad, and she was very helpful in that regard.
ShockYa: You did a good job capturing the fear and other elements that [inform Joe’s] abusive behavior. Was that difficult to tap into?
CP: It’s not difficult to play. Even though I grew up with a wonderful father who was not like that at all, I could understand it. I spoke to a lot of people who were on medication, and are manic-depressives. I spoke to a psychiatrist, and talked to him about people who were like that. And then it was it just emotions that, as an actor, you call on. You [have] to go from zero to 60 sometimes, and you have to make it believable.
ShockYa: Was the script ever more explicit about Joe’s problems? People I spoke to had different opinions on his illness, and whether it was depression, bi-polar disorder, or just the after-effects of a traumatic childhood. Obviously Debbie intended for there to be some element of ambiguity, but did you have any opinion on the percentile or component breakdown of Joe’s malady?
CP: Well, I think if you have a father who beats or hits you like [Joe did], obviously you become the same thing as your father. It’s a proven thing that people who get kicked or punched as kids do it to their children, and/or have anger issues. Even though Joe Fine wasn’t really violent, he was certainly abusive emotionally and verbally to [his family].
ShockYa: Andie MacDowell takes is a co-producer on “Mighty Fine,” and you take an executive producer credit on the movie. What sort of characteristics factor into you wanting to get involved on that level, above and beyond just being an actor on a project?
CP: I liked the script a lot, but I wasn’t sure how many days we were going to shoot. I wanted to be involved, I wanted to work on the script and talk about it more, and I wanted to be involved in the casting. So I become an executive producer. And I think we ended up shooting for 18 days, it was very fast.
ShockYa: Did you have or even need any time for rehearsal?
CP: No, no time at all. But there’s a beauty to that. Sometimes when you do it like that, it just happens and comes out naturally in the performances, and works.
ShockYa: And you shot entirely on location, is that right?
CP: We did, we shot in New Orleans. [The script] was set in Brooklyn, but because of the money situation we shot there, and Debbie thought [New Orleans] would actually enhance the fish-out-of-water elements, of a Jewish man going down to the South in the 1970s. So that actually worked out OK, and to our benefit.
ShockYa: Debbie has had a varied career, as a writer and director on stage and of documentaries, but this was her first narrative feature film. What were your impressions of her?
CP: Well, she was very, very collaborative, which is great and something you look for in a director. She really trusted the actors and when she wasn’t sure about something she wasn’t afraid to ask, and then when she was sure and really believed in something she would fight for it. And that’s what you want in a director — someone who has a vision for the film.
ShockYa: What kind of stuff are you up to now, off-screen?
CP: I live in New York and enjoy spending time with my wife and children very much. I like to go shooting. I enjoy gun-range shooting, and do that as a hobby.
ShockYa: You’re also a big sports fan, including of the New York Knicks, who just got swept — what a season of ups and downs for them, right?
CP: I’m an avid sports fan. I go to Yankees games, Knicks games, Rangers games. The Knicks just didn’t t have the firepower to beat Miami, it’s just that simple. You become the eight seed and you have to go and play the number one seed, it’s just the way it is. We were not going to beat them in a four-game series — or a seven-game series, I mean.
ShockYa: So do you think Carmelo Anthony and A’mare Stoudemire can coexist, moving forward?
CP: Well, they’re both power forwards, that’s the problem. Can they co-exist? Yes. But I think we’re going to need a point guard. We still don’t have that point guard, someone like [Rajon] Rondo, someone who can dish the ball out. We don’t seem to have that.
ShockYa: “A Bronx Tale” was so well received and acclaimed. Do you have any other projects on stage or behind the camera in the works?
CP: I wrote another play for Broadway that just got optioned called “Human,” that will be coming to Broadway in probably about a year. I’m very excited about that. I play five characters. I wrote it for myself as a play, because I wanted to do Broadway again. And so then I wrote the script for the film version, and we’ll be working on that too.
ShockYa: When you settle down to write, do you have a parcel of time you carve out, or just fit stuff in as you can?
CP: If I have an idea, I like to do some research on it, and get the story in my head. And then, as long as I know how it starts and how it ends, then I start right away. That’s the way I work. I think to myself, “Now I just have to fill in the middle.” It seems to work for me.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.