Joe Mantegna - An Exclusive Interview with the Entertainment Legend
By Bruce Edwin
Joe Mantegna is one of the most widely respected actors in the world. A master and legend of stage, film, and television, the Golden Globe nominated, Emmy Award and Tony Award winner with a Star on the Walk of Fame, Joe Mantegna personifies—like the city of Chicago he hails from—toughness, hard work, no nonsense, and getting the job done. With film credits to his name including the classic thriller 'House of Games,' 'Godfather Part III' with Al Pacino, 'Suspect,' with Cher, 'Bugsy' with Warren Beatty, 'Forget Paris,' with Billy Crystal, 'Up Close and Personal' with Robert Redford, 'Celebrity' with Woody Alan, 'Body of Evidence' with Madonna, and much more, Joe Mantegna has worked opposite the greatest screen actors in the world, and is their equal. In television, he has starred in 'Joan of Arcadia,' 'The Starter Wife' which he also produced, 'The Simpsons' as the voice of the legendary 'Fat Tony,' and of course, 'Criminal Minds,' among many more—which, like 'The Simpson's,' is one of the most successful shows on television. On stage, Joe Mantegna has conquered Broadway, starring in 'Speed the Plow,' 'Glengarry Glen Ross' by his legendary play write friend David Mamet, and 'Hair' which launched his career, among many more.
In the field of music, Joe Mantegna has rocked with the best in the band called 'The Apocryphals' where he and the band once opened for Neil Diamond. With over 200 credits to his name, one can get lost in Joe Mantegna's work. With fans around the world, the many who know and love his artistry have come to know and expect a certain quality, skill, and aesthetic with which he lends to a creation. One can safely look at a show and say, 'Well, it's got Joe Mantegna in it. It's got to be pretty good and worth seeing.' And so it is.
It was my great pleasure to conduct an exclusive interview with the legend himself—Joe Mantegna, here below.
Joe Mantegna—Tribute to Science Fiction Legend Ray Bradbury
Joe Mantegna and Michael O'Kelly joined forces to honor Ray Bradbury with a ninety minute groundbreaking documentary, 'Live Forever, The Ray Bradbury Odyssey.' The films was authorized and planned by Ray Bradbury himself. Joe Mantegna's company Acquaviva Productions signed on as co-producer, writer, and director with Michael O'Kelly's, 'Live Forever,' the documentary tribute to an American icon and one of the most beloved authors of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Joe Mantegna's friendship with Ray Bradbury began with the play that would eventually become the 1998 film 'The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.' Serving with his producing partner Danny Ramm as co-producer, Joe Mantegna will also narrate the film documentary.
Over the course of 2011, Ray Bradbury became ill and was occasionally bedridden. Yet despite his fragile condition, Ray wanted to continue and push on with the making of the film, right up to his passing—which he did. The results of that work are this film, which is humorous, moving and inspirational. The story, which begins in 1920, is embellished with original animation and special effects.
Utilizing interviews, intimate conversations, rare footage, and special animation, 'Live Forever, The Ray Bradbury Odyssey' takes fans on a journey from Ray Bradbury's birth, through the great depression, into the late 1930's and 1940's—the golden age of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The fascinating film for all generations also explores Ray Bradbury through the McCarthy trials, following Ray Bradbury's and Hugh Hefner's fight against censorship, Ray's involvement with both Walt Disney and Roy Disney, and even concerning the writer's views concerning space, the future of mankind and death itself.
'Live Forever, The Ray Bradbury Odyssey' has its greatness even further enhanced by the participation of the late Roy Disney, Edward James Olmos, Malcolm McDowell, Hugh Hefner, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Dennis Franz, Clifton Collins, thirteen year old actor Zachary Meade, and many others who loved Ray and wanted to pay tribute to this literary legend.
Ray was passionate about the project and provided intimate access for over three years. The ninety minute theatrical release is set for a Christmas 2012 release. Eventually 'Live Forever' will be produced in a four hour-long, expanded series for television.
"This film will be the Fireworks at the end of my life." - Ray Bradbury
How did you get started working with Ray Bradbury?
An Exclusive Interview with Joe Mantegna
Joe Mantegna: (...) The thing is with Ray, back in 1972, I got involved in a theater company out of Chicago—the Organic Theatre, and I just loved doing the play 'Godspell,' and I tried out for a play called 'The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,' it got cast (..) Ray came to that, he saw it and loved it (...) This is when I established a friendship with Ray (...)
Bruce Edwin: What was it like growing up in Chicago and the theatre scene and The Goodman and all that?
Joe Mantegna: It was really a great time to be there, because it was really like the formative years, it was kind of like New York was in the 40's and 50's, the underground kind of theatre, the off Broadway kind of theatre, where a lot of the new writers and new directors came out of (...) (in) Chicago at that time in the late 60's and early 70's, you had all these (places), you had The Organic theatre, there was a new group of young people called Steppenwolf, you had (...) Remains Theatre Company which had William Peterson and Gary Cole, and D.W. Moffett, and of course you had Second City that was already well established, so there was a lot of energy, and the play 'Grease' came out of Chicago, (by) Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey—two writers in Chicago (who) created the play 'Grease.' Initially it was a midnight show, you know at this little theatre on Lincoln Avenue. At one time it was the longest running Broadway play in history.
Bruce Edwin: Is that the theatre where the gangster John Dillinger was reportedly shot?
Joe Mantegna: Well, that's The Biograph Theatre, but this was a place called The Kingston Mines, which is right across the street from it...
Bruce Edwin: Oh yeah, I've been there, the old bowling alley...
Joe Mantegna: (...) Yeah, but The Biograph is where Dillinger was shot on that same street on Lincoln Avenue. So, it was a great time to be involved in the theater scene in Chicago, which ultimately became a breeding ground for a lot of people who went on to do a lot of great things.
Bruce Edwin: That's great. Chicago is known as kind of a hotbed for revolutionary activism—like right now I am thinking about the late 60's in Grant Park. Did you see much of that or were you involved in much of that at the time?
Joe Mantegna: You talkin' about the political kind of stuff?
Bruce Edwin: Yeah, like the Democratic National Convention (massive riots and protests happened at this time in 1968 in Chicago and numerous innocent bystanders reportedly got beaten and tear gassed as the City of Chicago tried to squash it. Renown reporters Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather got roughed up by security guards, and Dan Rather got punched in the stomach. Walter Cronkite reportedly stated, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.")
Joe Mantegna: The Convention and all...yeah, I mean I was around for that, I was actually in a band in the late sixties, so like I remember I had an apartment right across the street from Grant Park and Lincoln Park...
Bruce Edwin: Wow...
Joe Mantegna: (...) and I remember we'd come home from these gigs late at night, and there'd be tear gas smoke in the air, and things like that, and I'd get occasionally stopped by the police during that week because I had very long hair, like a lot of bands guys did, and they would pull over anybody that even looked like they might belong to the counterculture—that kind of person—they wanted to make sure there weren't 'outside entities' coming in (...) it was kind of an intense time but I wound up doing the play 'Hair' in 1969, later, as an actor—that was my first professional job, I mean I was more of a performer and an actor. But on the political side, to this day I'm an independent.
Bruce Edwin: Are you?!
Joe Mantegna: I don't trust everybody, so I go my own way.
Bruce Edwin: That's cool, that's interesting. Regarding the acting beginning, at the Goodman School you went to out of DePaul...
Joe Mantegna: When I was there, they hadn't become a part of DePaul yet. That was a few years later. I was at the Goodman—let's see, in 1967 through 69, when I did the play 'Hair,' it became a part of DePaul a few years later.
Bruce Edwin: I see, and were they teaching what would be considered to be the Stanislavski system or method acting or what?
Joe Mantegna: Yeah, it wasn't so much strictly one thing, it wasn't like it was method per so, or talking about Stanislavski, but they would do more specific kinds of things like; there was vocal training (...) they embraced some kind of specific studies, but for the most part it was just a general kind of scene studies and movement, and dance, and history, all different aspects of the theatre. It was pretty much a classically oriented kind of school (...) then what you learned from there, you'd apply to other areas depending on where your career took you.
Bruce Edwin: Good. Do you think you could have gotten where you did without your training?
Joe Mantegna: I don't know, but I don't look back on it as having wasted time. There are different schools of opinion about that, but if nothing else, it gave me a venue to do these things, you know, to take years out there and apply myself, and to have the opportunity to do plays and work with other actors, and create friendships that I have to this day, so I think that some of the things I learned actually did help me be successful.
Bruce Edwin: Excellent.
Joe Mantegna: Part of it is like I said, the first thing I did right out of school, I would actually have done in my third year, and it was a three year program. The only reason I didn't (do the third year) is that I was cast in the play 'Hair' in 1969, so I was in a Broadway musical doing eight performances a week, and the way it worked out, I ended up doing that play for over a year and a half. I think that without the training I did have, I may not have become as disciplined and prepared to know what it takes to sustain (what I did), so I think that was kind of worthwhile.
Bruce Edwin: Good. That was the same with my college experience, it was worth it to me. Now, a lot of people going in to the creative industry are like, you know, it's a nice hobby, but you need to get a real job! Did you deal with that opposition at all?
Joe Mantegna: Not too much, only because with my background as a solo kind of artist in the world, it was like—I remember when my parents didn't really understand it so much, I mean, me being an actor was sort of like me being a Martian...
Bruce Edwin: (laughs)
Joe Mantegna: ...There was nothing to gauge it against, it was not part of the world I grew up in, so I guess the feeling was you know, 'well, as long as he doesn't hurt himself, this doesn't seem like a really dangerous kind of pursuit.' You know, they didn't really comment about it. I had no plan B, so I just kind of basically pursued it you know? So it just kind of worked it self out in a way.
Bruce Edwin: (To say the least!) That's awesome. 'Hair' was obviously a huge success for you at the time and still is to this day, but was that the time, or when was actually the moment when you were like, 'OK, I've succeeded. I am actually going to do well at this?'
Joe Mantegna: Well you know, I think I got a big boost with my work in the theatre, in around 1969, and again with the play Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway in 1984 where I won The Tony Award, and the play won the Pulitzer Prize. That changed my career considerably. It propelled me in to another strata. And I think that it was at that moment-— you know, winning prizes does not mean a whole lot—but in this case what it did do was give me that kind of confidence and that kind of audience approval that you know, 'you are an actor, you are an actor of a certain caliber and obviously capable of winning a Tony Award, so somebody thinks you're doing something right.' (...) But I think it was Tom Hanks who said, "You know, once the job's over, I get that actor's paranoia of, 'am I ever gonna work again'?" So, it's kind of an inbred thing, you know? Because it's all lucid, you just 'don't' know. 'Have I still go it?' 'Do they still want to see me in a movie?'
Bruce Edwin: I guess there can be a fine line of that being healthy, because it can create a sense of humility and being humble, but obviously you want to have some security. For readers that don't go to the stage of theatre—and I suggest you do—the Tony Award is kind of comparable to the Oscar for stage. Joe won that for Glengarry Glen Ross. I remember when that came out, it got huge press and recognition deservedly so. You have done a lot of work not only in stage and film, but also in television. Is there one medium that you prefer working in more than the other?
Joe Mantegna: Not really, I mean working on T.V. is pretty much the same thing (as working in film). It's not a different process. One winds up on one screen, and one winds up on another. And virtually it all winds up on the same screen. The acting technique or that requirement is exactly the same. Theater is a whole other ballgame, and the closest kind of comparison you could make to that would be someone like Frank Sinatra, you know, if you've ever seen a concert in front of a live audience, and with a recording studio, you're doing the same thing, you're singing in both instances, but it's a totally different experience. One is very solitary, the other one is very communal, you know (...)
Bruce Edwin: Sure. Do you ever get so called stage fright?
Joe Mantegna: Yeah, I think everybody does, I almost think you have to, it's almost like a biological thing, it puts you on edge a little bit, it gets your adrenaline going, it gets you ready! But there is a difference between 'fright' and 'anticipation.' You don't want it to cross over in to a fear that paralyzes you, as opposed to something that just keeps you high tuned, at the top of your game, so that's part of it (...)
Bruce Edwin: That makes sense. In the entertainment industry, some people are very outspoken about their political or religious views, I read that you were raised Catholic, is that something that you still adhere to?
Joe Mantegna: I like to think of myself as being spiritual, without necessarily being religious. I don't think I'm a Catholic in the classic sense of the word. It is the one religion that I gravitate in that direction because it's the (...) one I'm (most) familiar with, but I guess where I'm coming from is that there are numerous paths to enlightenment. There is a myriad of different religious beliefs and each one likes to think that they have the answer or the only path to wherever they think they are trying to get to (...) my feeling is if there is this destination, all of these roads basically lead to the same place. It's a matter of which road do you want to take? So I believe spiritually that there 'is' something to all of this. I don't believe any one group has exclusive rights to it. So my feeling is, 'believe what you want to believe, and do it in the way you want to do it, just don't negate any body else.'
It sets me off a little if someone tells me, 'well, you're way is wrong and my way is right,' or 'their way is wrong and our way is right.' Either they're all wrong, or—like six had it, and the other fifteen didn't, no, that's not gonna be the way it works—I don't think. So that would be, if you had to label that, I don't know.
Bruce Edwin: That's cool, I didn't know that about you, but I respect that, that makes a lot of sense. You mentioned that you are independent in terms of political affiliation. Can you explain that a little bit please?
To be continued in the next issue of The Hollywood Sentinel.
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