A critically-lauded and much beloved veteran of stage and screen, the devilishly dapper Joe Mantegna has worked with such luminaries as David Mamet, Woody Alley and Francis Ford Coppola. His film Elvis and Anadelle plays the 11th Annual Sonoma Valley Film Festival this April.
DH: Last issue, I interviewed Olivia Newton-John and while I was doing my research I learned that you were in – then out – of “Xanadu.”
JM: That was my very first job in Hollywood.
DH: That’s crazy, man.
JM: Yeah, I was like “Guy Number Five.” I had three lines, but like you say, I got cut out of the movie.
DH: In the end, I think the karmic balance has worked in your favor because now, it seems, you’re in everything.
JM: Things work out how they work out.
DH: If someone were to get a tattoo of your Internet Movie Database listing on their body they would run out of skin.
JM: Well, I’m not the youngest guy in the neighborhood either. I’ve been at it a while.
DH: I suspected and then finally confirmed that you’re the voice of Fat Tony in “The Simpsons.”
JM: That’s my longest running role. I’ve been doing that for 17 years now.
DH: Speaking of voice work, you’ve also done books-on-tape as well.
JM: I’ve done a few of those.
DH: Sounds like the diagnoses of a workaholic.
JM: I’ve always thought of acting as a blue-collar job. My father worked 50 weeks out of the year, why shouldn’t an actor? If you’re given the opportunity and as long as there’s things you like to do. There are always periods of inactivity. It makes up for the times when you’re an actor struggling and you wish you had a job.
DH: This is the time to come to wine country – perfect timing too, you’re film Elvis and Annadelle is playing the Sonoma Valley Film Festival.
JM: I’m hoping to make it up there.
DH: Now, you’ve got about half a dozen films in the can or currently in production at present, which is a staggering amount of work. You’ve played all kinds of roles, but there are certain types that seem to gravitate toward you – tough guys, various shades of Mafioso, then on the other side of spectrum you’ve done a lot of romantic leads where everyone in the world falls in love with you.
JM: I’ve always thought of myself as a character actor. I’ve come from the theater and that’s kind of what I always did. I’ve done a variety of different things, even musical comedy at the beginning of my career. There was never any intent on my part to steer things one way or the other. I’ve always believed you play the cards you’re dealt. My career has taken directions and turns based on different things. David Mamet took me in one direction and Woody Allen kind of took me in another direction. It’s hard to say, but I can tell you there wasn’t a lot of forethought or intention involved…I’ve been lucky that way. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things and I enjoy doing them.
DH: But if you weren’t acting what would you be doing?
JM: My other job, before things started to go well for me, was as a photographer. I did headshots. A good friend of mine was a very successful photographer so he taught me all the basics so I could take a pretty good head shot. I knew I would make a really bad waiter, so photography was it. I did pretty well.
DH: And 15 years later you’re in The Godfather III. That was fast.
JM: Well, it was like a 15-year overnight success, though. I had kind of been banging around. What did it for me was performing in Glengary Glen Ross on Broadway. That was the catalyst. I was basically a nobody, but the show won a Pulitzer Prize, I won a Tony Award and it became one of those monumental career things that sends you into the stratosphere. Not only did the show do as well as it did, I was also able to do the show on Broadway for a year – so everybody in the business saw it, which really helped.
DH: Sort of like auditioning in abstentia.
JM: I couldn’t have written a better scenario for myself. When I finished with the play there was a lot of opportunity out there. What happened is that I ended up working with Woody Allen once, then I worked with Woody Allen twice. I worked with Barry Levinson once, then I’d end up working with him again.
DH: What about Coppola, you think that will happen again?
JM: Well, I hope, but he’s getting into his own kind of things, which is great. Even if Coppola were bad, he’s still better than most guys. I think he’s just great. I love him to death. Besides the Godfather III, I did a thing he produced called Wait Until Spring, Bandini, which is a John Fante book they made into a movie. Francis is always going to go his own way. I attended a retrospective of the Godfather movies last year and I saw him then. I’m just so fortunate to have worked with him.
DH: Any role you haven’t played that you want to?
JM: To tell you the truth, I’m not one of those actors that has a wish list. Part of the excitement of being in this business is not knowing when I may get that phone call that sends me on a whole new adventure. I didn’t know I was going to play Dean Martin, but I did and I loved it. Same thing with everything I’ve done. I know some guys will work at developing stuff for themselves or aspire to play some great Shakespearean role, but I’ve been very lucky to get things that have interested me and worked out well.
DH: And you haven’t calcified into a single persona. Yet, you have stature and are certainly a movie star with a capital “M,” but you’re not a caricature of a role you once played.
JM: I try not to. I’ll mix it up and I don’t care what venue it is or what level it is. I’ve been number one on the call sheet, number 10 on the call sheet and number 100 on the call sheet. It just depends on if there’s a project that I’m interested in and I’m free. Part of it is that I’ve never had a publicist – not that I don’t believe in publicity – it’s just that I’m not a big fan of having somebody out there trying to guide or conduct my life or career. My feeling is that things are going to occur as they’re supposed to. When I’m doing a project it creates its own kind of thing anyway. Every studio or network has its own publicity department – they generate enough that I don’t have to go looking for it. I think it helps you fly under the radar a little bit – people leave you alone at least in terms of the press.
DH: Funny about that… [laughs]