John Turturro driven to do well in The Night Of for late friend James Gandolfini

John Turturro plays a world- weary lawyer defending a man who is accused of murder in The Night Of.
John Turturro plays a world- weary lawyer defending a man who is accused of murder in The Night Of.PHOTO: HBO

When he was offered a leading role in The Night Of, which had gone to the late James Gandolfini, John Turturro was hesitant until he spoke to his close friend's wife

When John Turturro was offered one of the leading roles in the new HBO series The Night Of, he was hesitant.

The role had originally gone to the late James Gandolfini, who shot the pilot episode before his untimely death in 2013, and he and Gandolfini were close friends.

"When I was first approached about the role, I was like, 'Hmmm'. I didn't even want to watch the pilot episode. My initial feeling was very strange," says Turturro, who directed The Sopranos star in the 2005 movie Romance And Cigarettes. Gandolfini had died of a heart attack.

Then he spoke to Gandolfini's wife. "She encouraged me, and when I did watch the pilot, I saw that he wasn't in that first episode very much. He had not done much with the character at that stage, so that made it easier to think about.

"After speaking to his wife, there was a little extra incentive to do a good job. I kept him in my pocket, as it were. It was a personal thing. I really loved the guy."

James was a crazy guy. He was a complicated guy. I don't think he'd have liked all that make-up on his feet. He doesn't like a lot of make-up.

JOHN TURTURRO, on how the late James Gandolfini might have felt

The role is John Stone, a beleaguered and world-weary lawyer defending the central character Naz (played by Riz Ahmed), who is accused of murder and sent to the notorious Riker's Island jail in New York while awaiting trial.

Stone appears at the end of the first episode and becomes embroiled in a case that is, perhaps, a little bit beyond him, "because he's one of those people who doesn't like to go to trial", Turturro says.

"He can't really compartmentalise his feelings. He has all the capability of being a good lawyer, but it's not within his nature. It doesn't agree with him. That's why he has all these other ailments, such as his skin problems.

"I thought it was an interesting, beautifully written piece. It reminded me of reading a Russian novel, a Dostoyevsky book about the criminal justice system."

The Night Of premiered on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) in Singapore on Monday this week, same time as in the United States. It airs on Mondays at 9am and 9pm.

The producer of the show, Jane Tranter, describes Turturro's portrayal of John Stone as "one of television's most bravura performances".

Many consider him one of America's finest character actors of his generation, for his wonderful work with the Coen brothers (Miller's Crossing, 1990; Barton Fink, 1991; The Big Lebowski, 1998; O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000), among others. He has also appeared in films by a string of illustrious film-makers, including Michael Cimino, William Friedkin, Garry Marshall, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Ron Howard, Peter Weir and Robert De Niro.

"Time and again," says Hollywood biographer David Thomson, "he makes interesting choices."

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957, Turturro remains an arche- typal East Coast actor, one reason he was drawn to The Night Of.

"The creators capture the diversity in New York, especially in Queens, where there's more ethnic diversity than anywhere else in the US," he says. "It's a different place from the West Coast. There is an interesting dichotomy there. I find people to be much more passive-aggressive on the West Coast. Way more. They have a different approach.

"New York is more mid-Atlantic. It's a bit more European. People walk everywhere and we have to interact; we ride the subway together. I never think of everyone as foreign in New York. There are tourists, but they could be from Montana."

The Night Of represents one of his rare forays into television and he says that he had no qualms about it, even though filming was spread across an eight-month schedule and demanded many hours in the make-up chair having fake eczema spread all over his feet.

"There is some terrific stuff being done on television at the moment," he says. "And the writing on this show is on another level. Richard Price and Steve Zaillian have done a terrific job. In our country, those are two of the best guys."

Above all, he hopes his work on the show would make Gandolfini happy.

"James was a crazy guy. He was a complicated guy," Turturro says. "I don't think he'd have liked all that make-up on his feet. He doesn't like a lot of make-up. The make-up artist had worked with James and she was like, 'James would never have put up with this.'"

•The Night Of airs in Singapore on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Mondays at 9am (same time as the US) and 9pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'Keeping Gandolfini in his pocket'. Print Edition | Subscribe