In keeping with his top notch talents, Joe Pantoliano made sure he wasn't going to play the bark, or rather, voice of just any old mutt in Cats And Dogs (2001).
Though his rendition of the Chinese hairless pedigree Peek in this pet project is more than a bit out of the ordinary. Mister Wise Guy himself from The Sopranos tipped us off about his talent for hits of a different kind as an actor, in classy movies like Matrix, the (1999). And though Pantoliano has no trouble attracting fans, especially as the thuggishly appealing Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos, he did admit that his own kids are his toughest audience.
What kind of dog research do you dabble in for a canine role like yours in Cats And Dogs (2001)?
My wife would tell you that I've been a dog all my life. So that was easy!
What charmed you into pursuing a dog's life in Cats And Dogs (2001)?
Well, the producer Andrew Lazar is an old friend of mine. I worked with him in Bound. And I've had great fortune working for Warner Bros. , in movies like Risky Business (1983), Goonies, the (1985) and Matrix, the (1999). So when they call and ask me to do something over there, I just go. And I said sure when I got the call. And I was really happy to see how good Cats And Dogs (2001) was.
Also for me, it's an opportunity to be in a movie that most of my kids can come and see. You know, my kids can't see movies that I'm in. I remember on the last day of The Sopranos this last season, my wife and kids came over. And I couldn't get my nine year old Danielle to come on the set. She told me no daddy, it's rated R! So she wouldn't even go on the set.
How did your older kids react?
Well, my twenty year old said that Michael Clarke Duncan was funnier than I was. So that was his favorite thing about Cats And Dogs. And my sixteen year old likes the Lovitz cat better. But none of them liked me!
Demanding audience you've got at home there. Now what about that Chinese hairless dog Peek that you play?
You know, that always happens to me. I thought they were making like a private joke on me. I just found out that these dogs really exist. I thought they shaved that dog. You know, because I'm clean shaven. So it's like a reverse Joey! I actually dug him, I thought he was really cute. I'd like to meet him.
What was so cool about him?
Well, he had a lot of heart for a little guy. Like those Chihuahuas, they come barking at you. And they always seem to be looking for a fight. You know, they're so small that they gotta let you know, hey you better not come close to me. And Peek seemed so open.
So are you a dog person, or a cat person?
We have three cats and a dog. But me, I'm a dog person. Although I have one cat that I really like.
Do your cats and dogs get along, or is your home more like the movie?
They get along.
Do you think the cat people will be mad because the cats are such villains?
Oh yeah. They're gonna band together with the Soprano anti-defamation people, I'm sure they'll be there with the signs.
How did they coordinate the whole man and dog thing in Cats And Dogs (2001)?
When I got there, they showed me the dog. They already had pictures of the dog, and they were already in physical production on it. And the director was really cool. But the cool thing about doing this stuff, is you come back. You know, you come back over a series of days, over six or seven months. And as you come back and you see it coming together, you get inspired by that. And it's fun. It's like being a kid again. Like the pretend that you do when you're seven or eight years old.
Did you always work alone, or did you do any of the voicing with the other actors?
On this one, I was alone. When I did Olive, The Other Reindeer a couple of years ago with Drew Barrymore, she and I would work together, and then they would bring other people in. I've done voices on shows, and it was a usually group. But on this one, because everybody is working and it was hard to get all these high profile people in the same room, they did it one on one.
You seem to have a knack for picking projects for yourself that turn out to be special. Is that just dumb luck or what?
I think it's dumb luck. I think I've been really lucky. Who would've thought that Memento (2000) was going to be the success that it is?
And that's challenging. All I can say is, like when I was doing Fugitive, the (1993) I asked Harrison Ford something like that. I said Harrison, you've been so incredibly fortunate in your career. How did you pick your movies?
And he says to me that he always surrounded himself with people who were smarter than him. And so based on that information, I always thought, well it's not about the part.
At the beginning of my career I would say, hey this is a great part. The movie's not that good, but it's a great part. Then I started realizing that I was really good in really bad movies, and that didn't help. So I started thinking, well maybe it's better to have a small part in a hit, than a big part in a bomb. So I started doing these little boutique roles, and I started to shine. And as I shined, I was able to grow and get better parts and bigger parts. And then do these boutique type movies like Bound (1996), and like Memento (2000). But I've been fortunate to have these geniuses hire me over and over again.
Steven Spielberg hired me two or three times, so I got to work for him. I mean, you look at my resume and I've been real lucky that these guys think enough to bring me back. So that's what I'm probably most proud about, is that the same filmmakers continue to hire me to be in their movies.
How do you feel about not getting to show up again in the next Matrix?
Yeah, they killed me in the first one. But it's science fiction, there was no need to do that to me! All those other guys are making mucho bucks, you know. They blew Hugo Weaving up to smithereens, and he's back. I took a bullet, and I don't get to come back.
But I was thrilled for the success of that film. I knew when I read it, I knew that it was going to be special. But I think everybody was very nervous. A lot of people put their neck on the line with that one. So I was thrilled that people loved it. What troubles me now is all the copycat Matrix movies that you see, they just beat you up with all that stuff. And they never do it as well as they did it on The Matrix.
Are you jealous that you're left out of the sequel?
I'm not jealous, I'm angry.
Would you want to go on record minus any sour grapes, and say thank you for making the movie without me?
Nah, frig 'em!
I hear you. How do you deal with that negative fallout from the Sopranos?
I don't deal with it. You know, the checks are clearing and I'm happy about it. In fact, I appreciate anybody's opinion of a show like The Sopranos, as long as they see it. But there are so many people who have never seen that show, who knock it. Like I think the show portrays Italian Americans as overeaters. I got a problem with that. But I don't think the writer David Chase is responsible for selling a lifestyle. I think if anything, if you've watched the show, he's writing a show about fictional characters who are on their way out. It's like the demise of a family unit. So I think that Chase uses the dysfunctionality of the American family unit, and correlates it with the dysfunctionality of the Italian American gangster criminal element. And I think with the introduction now of the Russian organized crime unit in The Sopranos, maybe there will be a lot of Russian Americans that are gonna say they portray Russians as bad guys and criminals. But I mean, any culture has its bad guys. And I think that The Sopranos is hugely entertaining. And it troubles me that people walk away with from the show, turning these bad people into heroes. You know, I think the Lorraine Bracco character is the quintessential Italian American core person. I mean, ninety-nine percent of all Italian Americans are good, hard working people.
What do you feel is the huge attraction of The Sopranos?
It's the western. It's the outlaw. We all celebrate the outlaw. Like Martin Scorsese has said, when the western started to fade out, they took all of those scripts like High Noon, and they made all those stories into organized gangland type movies. It's a genre that people love. Like Star Trek. You know, Star Trek has the good guy and they have bad guy. And take our hero in The Sopranos. He's an overweight, big clunky guy that has become an American hero. Because we identify with that, it's that William Bendix type of personality that we all identify with. You know, you need a bad guy. And Tony Soprano is a bad guy. But in order to have dramatic content, you need somebody even worse than that, to make him look good. But I don't think that Chase is trying to glorify these guys. He tells it like these guys are. These are characters that are above the law. And maybe we're all waiting for them to get their comeuppance.
Do you consider your Soprano character your most gratifying role?
It's one of 'em. I was also very proud of my work in Memento this year. But I'm happy to be working on The Sopranos, I'm just challenged by the material. I did have my own personal creative doubts, not about the material but about going back into episodic television. Because my career is in film. And I'm glad I chose to do that. It's a good schedule, you only work five months a year, and you're able to do a couple of movies. And I'd rather do one good movie and The Sopranos, than three bad movies a year and one good movie, to pay the rent.
Your character in The Sopranos is really nasty. Is there anything you won't do?
Sure. Look, I love the Ralph character. Just like I loved playing Iago in Othello. I think the villains are the most interesting characters for an actor to play. And I've got interesting baggage, I can pull it off. There are very few actors out there that can take a character like Ralph Cifaretto, and make him charming. And I get a kick out of doing that. And I think part of it is that I show my joy of playing somebody like Ralph. I can't hide it, I can't deny the way that I relish playing these really evil guys.
Does it scare you at all that you can make Ralph charming?
No, I'm grateful. I think that if I wasn't able to. .. he would probably die this season!