Joe Pantoliano says most people know him from one of three things: The Sopranos, Memento or The Matrix.
Maybe Risky Business.
“I spent a long time becoming a character actor,” says Joey “Pants,” as he is known. “The best compliment I ever get is, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t even know it’s you.’ “
Now maybe people will get to know him as the author ofAsylum, his book (out May 1 from Weinstein Books, 256 pp, $24.95) with a long subtitle: Hollywood Tales From My Great Depression: Mental Dis-Ease, Recovery and Being My Mother’s Son.
“I became an alcoholic, an addict, a compulsive shopper, a kleptomaniac. And a maniac!” writes Pantoliano, 60.
He chronicles his journey as a kid in Hoboken, N.J., coping with a tough, crazy family ruled by a mother who was willful and self-centered (and, he says now, was probably bipolar) to adulthood in Hollywood, where he battled addictions to alcohol, food, sex, Vicodin and Percocet. He eventually was diagnosed with clinical depression. He calls his “self-medication” behaviors his “Seven Deadly Symptoms.”
1. Food (overeating or starving)
3. Shopping and shoplifting
7. Prescription drugs
“The whole point of this is to use myself as an example in giving other people permission to be open and honest about their past,” he says in a phone chat. He says he prefers the term “mental dis-ease” to “mental illness.”
“What we have to understand is Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse did not die from drug addiction. Drug addiction didn’t kill either of them. Their mental ‘dis-easiness’ was constant, it was in their soul. They made the same mistakes I made. … It was the drugs trying to ease the pain.”
His pain started early, growing up in a house that had “obesity, alcoholism, gambling addictions and behavioral risk choices like organized crime,” he writes. TV and movies were his escape.
Acting was his ticket out of Hoboken. “I starting acting because I didn’t want to be poor. I came to understand the power of television, how television molded my future, in seeing Italian-Americans on TV — that was my asylum.”
The road was rocky. He went to New York “with nothing but my New Jersey accent.” Auditions, roles, women and agents led him to Los Angeles. After success in the miniseries From Here to Eternity in 1979, he was offered a $350,000 payday to star in a series version of it. He turned it down because he wanted to be in movies. Instead, he waited tables and lived on tips.
“I worked very hard on getting what I wanted,” the usually wisecracking actor says seriously. “Then when I got what I wanted, I got more and more depressed.”
Help from friends
He began to land more roles, writing in Asylum of help and friendship he got from stars including Eli Wallach, Tommy Lee Jones and Natalie Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner. And, of course, he went on to take many TV roles, including his season and a half on The Sopranos.
Though The Sopranos provided him with “an extraordinary character,” he says, “80% of the people who loved The Sopranos— all they see is this guy who got his head shoved in a bowling bag,” which is how his character left the show. “Everybody thinks I’m still that guy. It’s a bad thing.” He adds: “Everybody thinks I’m rich from Sopranos. I get a $14 check every few months.” He adds that it also totally spoiled him: “It was the best artistic endeavor that I was graced to be a part of.”
He vows that he won’t do regular network television because it’s too “restraining.” And he really can’t stand reality television.
“Today, kids want to become reality stars. They see these scumbags on television being scumbags, and David Letterman wants them to come out and talk about it.”
Kim Kardashian? The Jersey Shore crew? “They have celebrity,” he says. “Celebrity is more impressive than craft.”
As for his career? “I’d like it to be better. The only way I can do that is being in better movies.”
Scripts have been “pretty (lousy) for the last year,” he says, but he’s excited by a New York play he’s starring in with Mario Cantone, Moolah, about two con men who fall out of favor with the Mob.
In the meantime, as he looks back, he says he wishes he had made some different choices. “I wish I would have thought about directing sooner rather than later. … I wish I had gone to college for some business courses. I wish that there was better medication when my mother was struggling with these diseases.”
And now, Pantoliano, who has three children with his third wife, Nancy (whom he married in 1994), says he has one goal: “Trying to enjoy the day. That’s what I work on — today.”
As for drugs? “I take 10 milligrams of an antidepressant, along with 10 milligrams of a statin for cholesterol.” And that’s it, he says.
He has learned that yoga is better than any prescription drug, and “Advil is way better for my back pain and hip than those Vicodins every day.”