The Irishman Week: When Empire Interviewed Joe Pesci

The Irishman Week: When Empire Interviewed Joe Pesci

By Nick De Semlyen Posted 9 days ago

In the run-up to The Irishman arriving in UK cinemas, Empire Online presents The Irishman Week – a series of features to get you ready for Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster epic. Here, we present Empire’s major 2012 interview with the one and only Joe Pesci.

Joe Pesci doesn’t do interviews. Other than a short exchange with Empire for The Irishman, and a three-minute on-camera chat with ‘Big’ Joe Henry, shot on a golf course, in which he asked Henry not to talk about the film, he’s kept entirely schtum in 2019, even shutting down the sole question to him at the New York Film Festival with the word, “No.” However, back in 2012, he agreed to speak to Empire as part of a celebration of the Lethal Weapon series (we also reunited Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and Richard Donner). Read the full, ball-busting interview below.

The following originally ran in issue 275 of the magazine.

Okay, okay, okay! A catch-up with Lethal Weapon’s hero cops is all well and good, but someone major is missing from this reunion. by which, of course, we mean sidekick Leo Getz — the pint-sized, turbo-tongued, perma-ranting Curly to Riggs and Murtaugh’s Larry and Moe — as played by Joe Pesci. Joining the gang in part two, Pesci became increasingly central and responsible for many of the series’ funniest moments, whether sharing the heartbreaking tale of his childhood pet, Froggy, or (more typically) venting spleen in the direction of the nearest establishment: “They FUCK you at the hospital. First they drug you, then they FUCK you!” There’s only one problem. While he rarely stops yakking on screen, off it Pesci has been silent since 1998. That year saw the release of Lethal Weapon 4; since then, the star has appeared in just two films, Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (in which he played a Mafia boss for a single scene) and Taylor Hackford’s Love Ranch (in which he played the owner of a Texan bordello). He declined to do interviews for either. So what are the odds he’ll come out of hiding now?

As it happens, better than fair. A message wings its way to Empire from New Jersey, where Pesci resides, stating that he has decided to give his first proper interview in over a decade. And sure enough, a few days later, the man himself is on the phone.

“I tell everyone no,” he explains, “and with this one I had to think about it for a while. I finally decided I should do it, because I owe a lot to Mel and Danny and Joel Silver and Dick Donner. Besides, making the Lethal Weapons was the most fun I’ve ever had. We just played around, you know?”

Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 2

Interviewing Joe Pesci is an intimidating prospect. There’s his reputation for being taciturn— this is, after all, the man who gave one of the shortest Oscar acceptance speeches of all time (“It’s my privilege. Thank you”) when he won for GoodFellas in 1990. Then there’s his less-than-cuddly screen persona. Leo aside, he usually plays the kind of guy who will happily put your head in a vice (Casino), keep you in the boot of his car while he enjoys a plate of pasta (GoodFellas), or threaten to bite off the fingers of an eight-year-old (Home Alone). So it doesn’t seem to auger well when we open our conversation with the reclusive legend by telling him we’re thrilled to have him on the line, and he responds, “You are. I’m not.” Fortunately, this exchange is followed by a reassuring (if still mildly terrifying) cackle. Pesci is breaking our balls. In fact, he proves warm, chatty and hilarious — though Empire refrains from telling him he’s a “funny guy”. He fondly recalls coming up with his take on Leo, in an unlikely place. “Mickey Rourke and I had gone to Disneyland. Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons were singing at Frontierland, so we stopped to ask for directions from these blond-headed, blue-eyed kids. I think they were Mormons probably. And the first word out of this kid’s mouth was, ‘Okay!’ Then he hit me with about 12 more: ‘No, no! Okay, okay, okay!’ We thought it was really funny.”

“I wound up in New York running a restaurant, because I had nothing else to do. I got tired of auditioning in California, of bumping into walls and saying, ‘Excuse me!’”

On set, Donner gave him the freedom to improvise many of Leo’s wildest screes, such as the legendary, “They FUCK you at the drive-thru!” monologue. “If there’s something I can grab onto and beat the shit out of, I’ll do it,” laughs Pesci. “I remember being pissed about drive-thrus, because they do actually fuck you. You go home and there’s no fuckin’ ketchup in the bag. And you can’t go back, because there’s always a long line. So you’re fucked!”

He still gets Leo’s lines quoted back to him. “But I also get ‘yoots’ all the time, because of My Cousin Vinny. And Raging Bull fans come up to me and ask if I fucked their wife. I say, ‘Certainly. Doesn’t everyone?’”

Joe Pesci in Raging Bull

If Pesci has slowed down recently, it might be because he started young. His father enrolled him in a Newark establishment, Marie Mosier’s School of Acting, Song And Dance, when he was only four. “I was a stage brat,” he says. “I had to dance in front of mirrors. I did TV shows. I played little crippled kids in plays, making smart-alec remarks. If you learn how to do comedy at a young age, it creeps into everything you do. You find out you don’t have to lean on a line to make it funny.”

His flair for humour tinged with menace was perfected during his twenties, when he teamed up with Frank Vincent (whom he’d later stab to death in GoodFellas) for a nightclub double-act. “He’d play the drums and do stand-up; I’d fuck up his act.” But the few acting jobs he managed to get were small and uncredited, and finally he gave up on his dream. “I wound up in New York running a restaurant, because I had nothing else to do. I got tired of auditioning in California, of bumping into walls and saying, ‘Excuse me!’ I was terrified of offending anybody, and I got so timid and backward.”

In 1979, he was 36 and floundering. Then two men tracked him down at his restaurant— not to sample Pesci’s cooking, which he describes as “homey-tasting” — but to offer him a job. Their names: Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. “They’d seen something I’d done and thought I’d be right to play Bob’s brother in Raging Bull,” he says. “I had nothing to do with it. And that’s the way I’ve always done it since. I’ve never looked for attention. The only time I ever had a publicist after that was to keep me out of magazines — forgive me — because I think things should just happen.”

Pesci has had many triumphs in his career, from his killer cameo in JFK to his rare lead turn in The Public Eye. But it’s his full-blooded collaborations with Scorsese and De Niro that have cement-booted his reputation. Intensely dedicated to his craft, he brought real-life experience to his roles as psychotic gangsters in GoodFellas and Casino.

“I’ve been in tough places,” he says. “Nothing I can talk about, but I’ve seen terrible, terrible fights. So I knew the sense of fear. At first, the GoodFellas producers said I was too old to play Tommy DeVito, but I knew this guy who was Tommy — he’d even done the whole, ‘Funny how?’ thing to me. So I pulled back the skin on my face, wore a wig and had a friend follow me around with a camera while I behaved like. I showed it to Marty and that was it.”

Joe Pesci in Casino

These days, Pesci doesn’t watch many movies, though he has seen “most” of Hugo (“Marty’s still got that amazing attention to detail”). He talks regularly to De Niro and has promised him he’ll play Russell Bufalino in The Irishman — Scorsese’s mooted gangster epic, set to co-star De Niro and Pacino — if it happens. Besides a possible jazz-record collaboration with Quincy Jones, he’s toying with a few film ideas of his own, though he won’t share them: “I better not. Talking about something you want to do is like stepping on your dick.”

He claims he’s happy to strum his guitar, play golf and pass his days at his private stable. “I breed racehorses,” he says. “I started with just my mare, Pesci, who was terrific until her last race. She came in second and we found out she had three fractures in her leg. So I turned her into a brood mare. I’m just dabbling in it, you know, because I love the business and I love horses. Always did.”

Despite that, he turned down a juicy villain role in Michael Mann and David Milch’s new HBO drama Luck, which couldn’t be any horsier. “They had good ideas, but I’m not looking for a job,” he shrugs. Perhaps Pesci was burned by his comeback in Love Ranch, a film he now regrets doing: “I was very unhappy with the editing and what they did with my character.”

Empire checks our watch. We’ve been talking for nearly an hour and it’s time to let Pesci attend to Pesci. We thank him for the privilege.

“I think you have enough to write a fuckin’ book,” he fires back, giving our balls one final tweak. “That’s why I don’t like to do interviews — because I’m so good at ’em!”

READ MORE: The Irishman Week: Robert De Niro Q&A

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