Tough-Guy Actor Takes on Reality Itself
by Michelle Erica Green
From the moment Joe Pantoliano introduces himself as "Joey" and starts talking about thugs he's played, it's easy to see why he's been cast as so many Italian cops and mobsters: the New Jersey-born actor's a natural with the accent and the idioms.
Yet in his latest film, The Matrix, Pantoliano plays a character named Cypher who's more akin to Camelot's Mordred than The Fugitive's Cosmo Renfro. "I'm really excited about being a part of this movie," the actor said last week after having seen a screening of the mysterious film. "If I've done my job well, I hope that the audience at least empathizes with the struggle that my character has."
The Matrix has the most secretly guarded plot this side of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but it involves virtual reality-controlled humans and a band of renegades who struggle for freedom. Neo (Keanu Reeves) begins to unravel the secrets of the sinister Matrix with the help of a legendary recluse named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and a beautiful stranger, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). But Cypher has doubts all along about Neo's role and the threat he poses to the Matrix...so, as Pantoliano explained, "he decides to make a deal that he thinks is going to bode him well."
Cypher joined the rebels with good motives. "He's a freedom fighter along with the rest of them," the actor said. "But then he gets tired of the war. He thinks he's fighting a losing battle. He's sick of the cold and he's sick of being on a ship, and from where he's sitting, the Matrix looks awfully good." Pantoliano likens the ensuing struggle between good and evil to "The Last Temptation of Christ meets Blade Runner. I think it's going to be smashing."
While it's also likely to be controversial, the actor believes the film will have wide appeal. The Matrix reportedly has a great deal of action and required the actors to practice Kung Fu for several hours every day, while the special effects - some created with a photographic technique developed specifically for this picture - are being hyped as "a real-life depiction of anime," utilizing a 12,000-frame-per-second process so that the filmmakers could control the speed and movement onscreen. "I would imagine you'll get the science fiction buffs and the kids that like Kung Fu, it's got a lot of action, but the Wachowskis don't take what they're saying lightly - there are spiritual messages, too," added Pantolino.
So what, exactly, is the Matrix? "I can't tell you that," teased the actor, adding seriously that "unfortunately you have to experience the Matrix to really know what it is in the film; you have to see The Matrix to really know what it's about. People ask me to explain this movie, and it's impossible."
"I can tell you this: Neo is a computer hacker who is approached by these other hackers. We all have code names. Morpheus is the leader of the pack; he's John the Baptist. He's saying, Neo is The One, the chosen one, the guy who's going to save the world. In the meantime, we've got Trinity, who's like Mary Magdalene, and we're like the disciples of this guy - we're there to protect him at all costs. But we've gone through four or five of these guys who didn't turn out to be The One. So from my point of view, he's just another guy who's going to wind up getting himself killed."
If Neo is a Christ figure, does that make Cypher Judas? "That's right!" agreed the actor. "He's thinking, this guy's going to destroy him, this guy's going to take him down with him. Morpheus is crazy - how many times can he be wrong? I'm sick of the war. So I look for a way to make a deal."
Playing a bad guy is nothing new to Pantoliano, though he hesitates to categorize Cypher easily as such: "These guys are just terrific filmmakers, and the film really has a couple of layers of complexity." The Matrix is the Wachowski brothers' second film, and the actor's second film working with them. He revealed, "They wrote this role for me." Larry and Andy Wachowski pitched the part to Pantoliano when they hired him for their first film, Bound, then tailored it to him. "They like having me around - I'm their mascot," he joked.
Pantoliano is in the enviable position of having some of the most respected filmmakers in the business hire him somewhat regularly. "I've been really fortunate working with really good filmmakers," he admitted. "If you look at my resume, you'll see that these directors keep coming back to hire me. I worked with Spielberg more than once, I worked with Donner several times, Taylor Hackford several times, I've got a great relationship with the Wachowskis, Andy Davis I've worked for like five times."
"I always say that as long as I've got seven or eight directors and I keep kissing their ass, I'll work!" the actor added, laughing, "I've got good taste in directors. Because I've played a couple of bad guys, I get offered a lot of those." Pantoliano started his career career "playing the best friend to the movie star," the moved into a series of character parts, "underwritten roles that we just sculpted out - in The Fugitive, my character didn't even have a first name when I got the script. I chose the first name of Cosmo because my grandfather's first name was Cosmo."
Now, after a triumphant theater career and a variety of memorable cameos, Pantolaino does two types of performing: "I do independent movies for no money where I play interesting roles, and I do studio movies where I play the third guy through the door for big money. The ability to do a studio movie that makes money gives me the ability to get better roles in independent films. Sometimes they just think I'm going to help them in the foreign market - the more popular you become, the stuff that you get offered sometimes is silly. I pride myself on moving around."
Though he declines to name a favorite role because "for me the best part of making a movie is the experience of the movie itself," he did have several jobs which he enjoyed greatly apart from any question of the success of the film or the role. "Making Steal Big, Steal Little was a lot of fun for me. Making The Fugitive was fun for me. Midnight Run was fun. La Bamba was a great, great, great gig - I've got long-lasting relationships with the people out of that. El Diablo, that's one of the better films, I enjoyed working on that - that was a good character. I can count on my hands the bad experiences - I hated making Eddie and the Cruisers - I didn't like the director, I thought he was an idiot, but I was on the verge of a divorce on that movie and my mother had just died, so maybe that didn't help."
The Matrix was "somewhat fun" for Pantoliano, "but we were in Australia for six months. My wife was pregnant at the time, my kids were all at school so they couldn't visit and it was hard for me to come home to visit, so I had fun but I would have been happier if my family were near me." His only other area of frustration was with the prosthetics: "We have a plug in the backs of our heads so that we can download into the Matrix. To tell you the truth, it was a pain in the ass because every day it took an hour just for that little frigging piece. One day we had to do reshoots because it didn't look right. Finally I said, just glue the friggin' thing on!"
Still, he enjoyed remaking himself into Cypher, although it required months of grueling workouts and even surgery. "I was in the best shape of my life!" he exclaimed. "I was training two hours a day doing weights and cardio, and the actors who had Kung Fu were working four to five hours a day learning the routines and the wires." Pantoliano worked out hard for Bound, shedding 25 pounds for the role, "but I actually had liposuction for The Matrix because they really wanted me in good shape. I sent the bill to Warner Bros and they wouldn't pay - they would only pay if I had the fat put back in after the movie was over!" The physical transformation "helps you because it creates behavior, so you just stop pushing a lot of buttons and stuff. You look like you know what you're doing."
Pantoliano completed several movies during an unusually fruitful year last year, most of which will be coming out in upcoming months. This spring's romantic drama The Life Before This stars Catherine O'Hara, Stephen Rea, and La Femme Nikita's Alberta Watson; the suspenseful Tax Man, which is scheduled for release in June, features Michael Chiklis and Elizabeth Berkley; fall release New Blood stars John Hurt and his Matrix co-star Carrie-Anne Moss.
Next month Pantoliano will begin shooting Sugar Hill, the pilot for a sitcom in a New York police precinct co-starring Charlie Sheen. After more than 70 films and several awards, the actor would like the CBS series to run for awhile so that he can work near his family. After many long separations from his four children - seven months, seven years, 13 years, and 18 year old - he said, "It's been tough, you know, that's why I took this TV pilot, hoping that it's successful and I can stay here and work here. And I wouldn't mind doing a long stretch on TV because then I wouldn't have to work anymore!"
The actor has also co-written a film with a friend named Travis Malloy called Just Like Mona, based on Pantoliano's own life with his mother in the 1960s. "We're going to start shooting that hopefully shortly after the [Sugar Hill] pilot," he revealed. "I would produce and direct, not star, but act in a part in it." So whether The Matrix takes over the minds of all who see it or ends up as just another film on Pantoliano's vast resume, his own future seems guaranteed to hold new vistas.