It has been quite a while now since Joe Pesci officially retired from acting and yet we can see him on the big screen these days. But is it really him? Not quite. The much younger version of the legendary Italian-American actor appearing in Clint Eastwood’s take on the successful broadway play „Jersey Boys“ is portrayed by newcomer Joseph Russo. We talked to the charming actor only hours before the Los Angeles premiere where he was expecting to meet – you guessed it – Joe Pesci.
screen/read: The premiere of your movie is only hours away from now. I guess you are pretty excited.
Joseph Russo: Oh yeah, I am. I got to go to the New York premiere about two weeks ago and that was already really exciting.
screen/read: It must be an actor’s dream to work with a legend like Clint Eastwood.
Joseph Russo: Oh yes. It had its moments of being completely surreal and wild. Clint was so passionate about the movie. He paid so much attention on detail. It really is phenomenal to watch him work. I didn’t spend one minute in my trailer. I wanted to spend every day out on set watching, just watching. Even when I had to shoot in a couple of hours I went to set early. It was really quite amazing. I formed a relationship with the other cast members and we rehearsed a lot before we started working. There was so much passion from everybody. We became family and friends and kept in touch afterwards.
screen/read: The lead actors are also the same guys who acted in the Broadway version.
Joseph Russo: Yeah, except for Vincent Piazza.
screen/read: I imagine it must have been an unusual experience for you to work with people who are used to the stage and have been playing these characters for a long time.
Joseph Russo: It’s a really tough animal. Stage and film are two completely different things, two different pieces of acting. And what I saw them do was phenomenal. I saw them play these characters fully developed because they had been doing them for so long. They had over thousands of performances. These characters live with them.
screen/read: I can imagine. Did you see the play before?
Joseph Russo: No, I didn’t. I actually think that benefited me. That way I wasn’t trying to recreate something that someone already did. It was like my blank canvas, my thing to paint on. It was my take on how I wanted it to be.
screen/read: The special thing is you are not only playing a real-life character, you also play a famous actor, Joe Pesci. How did you approach the role?
Joseph Russo: There were a couple of things I needed to get in order. First thing I did was just watch all the Joe Pesci movies. After that I started to research. I wanted to get his timeline. What made it even more interesting is the fact that he was born 1943 and the first time the world really got to see him was in „Raging Bull“ and that was 1980. That means he was almost 40 years old back then while I play him from the age of 16 to 26. So I needed to find a way to capture anything that he might have been at that age. And I wanted to pay him homage because he is a big hero of mine in terms of arts. So in each scene I played a different Joe Pesci from a different movie. You may see Leo Getz from „Leathal Weapon“, Nicky Santoro from „Casino“, Tommy DeVito from „Goodfellas“ and of course Joey from „Raging Bull“.
screen/read: You said you play him from the age of 16 to 26, may I ask how old you are yourself?
Joseph Russo: I’m 29. So I really needed to find the balance in between. But Clint gives you the opportunity to find things on the go while you’re shooting, which is great and helped a lot.
screen/read: Did you get any reaction from the real Joe Pesci so far?
Joseph Russo: Not yet, but I hope to see him tonight at the premiere.
screen/read: Generally speaking, how would you describe the difference between creating a character from scratch and approaching one that exists in real life or has been portrayed by other actors before?
Joseph Russo: That’s a good question. I feel like when you create a character from scratch you need to keep him within the confinements of the material. Then you kind of create this person, like, what they would do and how they would be, using the natural instincts of you as an actor. Creating a character based on a real person instead gave me parameters to work within. I could grab information on Joe Pesci, I could do research and at the same time form my own individual creation or idea of how I believe he would have been through those ages. Sometimes it got a little overwhelming but it was also a real gift.
screen/read: If you had the chance to play the lead in a whole biopic, is there a specific person you would like to portray?
Joseph Russo: Oh yeah. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sammy „The Bull“ Gravano. He was a number one mobster, connected to John Gotti and a member of the Gambino crime family. A pretty huge deal. But also Arturo Gatti. He is one of my favorite boxers and his story is really unique, also the circumstances of his death. So those would be my dream jobs. Thinking of the Arturo Gatti story though I’ve got to stay in shape [laughs].
screen/read: Sounds like a good motivation. But back to „Jersey Boys“. How did you get involved in the first placer?
Joseph Russo: My representation informed me that I had an audition for this role. At that point I didn’t know how important Joe Pesci had been for „The Four Seasons“ but I decided I wanted to pay homage to him. I spent quite some time picking the right outfit and then went to the audition and a while later heard that I was on Clint Eastwood’s shortlist that was maybe down to four or five guys from all the tapes he saw. A couple of days later I heard that I was on top of the shortlist and a week later that I was his number one choice, but still no official word. That was when I started to do the real research because if they said I was hired and shooting started tomorrow I wouldn’t want to be unprepared. A week later I finally received the confirmation from my manager that I got the job.
screen/read: That’s a dream come true.
Joseph Russo: It really is for so many reasons. You’ve got a job, one that you love, it being Joe Pesci, it being „Jersey Boys“ and Clint Eastwood. What else could you ask for?
screen/read: How would you describe the movie from your point of view. Is it a musical?
Joseph Russo: It’s a feel-good movie. There is a dark undertone to it, there’s the involvement with the mafia, but still you will leave the theatre in a good mood, probably singing one of the songs. I don’t really think it is a musical though. I’d rather say it’s a movie with music in it. The characters only sing when they’re supposed to sing, be it on the „Ed Sullivan Show“, be it in the studio recording. They don’t just burst out into singing. And then there is not a moment in this movie that is thrown away.
screen/read: So what’s happening with you in the future, what are your next projects?
Joseph Russo: I have a movie coming out that is called „Lucky Number“, a funny, funny film. I enjoy doing comedy, I’m very much into that. Of course I also do drama, but comedy is my favorite I’d say. And then there are some other things in the work that I can’t actually talk about at the moment. Also I’m looking at scripts, deciding what the next movie might be.
[Lou Lombardi, Joseph Russo, Jeremy Turbo on the set of JERSEY BOYS]