Joe Pantoliano is lying across his bed at home in Connecticut with a little black shih apso puppy named Scout happily nuzzling at his chest. He’s spent the last two decades living in the countryside 45 miles north of the George Washington bridge, but in his mind he’s back in the hardscrabble New Jersey of his youth. “Growing up, I was always led to feel shame about being the son of an immigrant, like I wasn’t really American,” remembers the 69-year-old.
“The kind of Americans I knew from television were John Wayne, Robert Redford, Paul Newman and James Dean.” Dreaming of seeing his own face on screen one day, the young Pantoliano took comfort from the fact that at least the close-knit Italian-American community of Hoboken had already produced one famous son. “Frank Sinatra comes from the same town I was from,” he says. “So I thought, well, if he could get out, maybe I could too, through this avenue of entertainment.”
That road turned out pretty well for the actor affectionately known to fans as “Joey Pants”. It first took him to Hollywood in 1976, where he made his name playing ruthless toughs with a comic edge. There was Guido, the pimp who delights in torturing a baby-faced Tom Cruise through 1983’s Risky Business, and then Francis of bungling crime family the Fratellis in 1985’s The Goonies. His talent resisted typecasting, and he stole scenes as a scummy bail bondsman (1988’s Midnight Run), a US marshal (1993’s The Fugitive), a furious police chief (1995’s Bad Boys) and a duplicitous freedom-fighter (1999’s The Matrix). In 2003 he picked up an Emmy for his role as mobster Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos.
His latest film is something of a change of pace after all the aforementioned police and thieves. From the Vine, from director Sean Cisterna, is a lovely, gently magical-realist movie about Marco, a man driven to a breakdown by his job at a Canadian car company, who immediately moves to his ancestral home in rural Italy, where he sets about rejuvenating his grandfather’s dilapidated vineyard. Memories mingle with reality, the vines begin to whisper to him, and romances are enthusiastically rekindled in the grape vats. Pantoliano is frank about what first attracted him to the project. “I wanted to go to Italy!” he hoots. “I would have gone to Italy to open up an envelope.”