TORONTO - In "Fading Gigolo," Woody Allen plays an unlikely pimp to John Turturro's rather unlikely sex worker.
The story behind the film coming together is perhaps equally unlikely.
"The guy who cuts my hair was always telling me that Woody liked me," relayed a chatty Turturro in a recent interview. "One day I just thought: 'Wow, that would be an interesting coupling, us together.' And it would especially be interesting if it we were an unlikely duo in the world of streetwalkers since there's been so many films about it.
"I was sketching some ideas out and then I blabbed it to the guy who cuts our hair, and he actually shared it with Woody ... and Woody loved it."
From there, Turturro began working on the script that would become "Fading Gigolo," which the Golden Globe-nominated star of "The Big Lebowski," the "Transformers" franchise and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" also directed.
He also portrays Fioravante, a reserved florist who dips his toes into the world of sex work to generate money for his friend Murray (Allen), a bookstore owner mired in financial strife.
Among his conquests? A sexually frustrated dermatologist played by Sharon Stone who wants to include a friend (played by Sofia Vergara) in her dalliance with Fioravante. Another potential love interest is Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the widow of a Hasidic Rabbi, though their relationship is more complex.
Turturro researched the script diligently, ultimately coming away determined to depict the grey areas of an industry typically treated in morally absolute terms. The long gestation period also gave him the chance to grow closer to Allen, who offered up feedback throughout the process.
Principally, Turturro said the four-time Oscar winner steered him toward a "more believable ... more nuanced direction."
"He certainly added some funny lines, sprinkled here and there," offered Turturro, 57. "When he gave me feedback, he gave it much more in a structural way.
"Sometimes," he added, "a person can say one thing and that's a lot."
Allen's character came easily to Turturro, but he spent more time fleshing out his own.
Ultimately, he says, Fioravante is "confident but not cocky," someone who doesn't necessarily trust the longevity of romance but has a gentle charm all the same.
"He likes women — lots of men, I think, don't like women," Turturro said. "In a lot of Latin cultures, they have that line: 'I want a man, but not too pretty.'
"And I like that. 'Not too pretty,' that could have been the title."
Here, Turturro smoothly segues into a discussion of beauty, and how it's represented onscreen.
"I've worked with a lot of beautiful people, and they're not that sexy," he said. "The reason they're not sexy is that a lot of times they're so used to getting the attention ... and not in giving it or holding it.
"There are actresses over the years I always thought, wow, they're incredibly sexy: Jeanne Moreau; Dianne Wiest in certain things. And you go, wow, I just want to grab that woman. I want to get to know them. Who are they? Sometimes it's a combination of woundedness and vulnerability.
"Those things interest me, and even the reverse interests me. Someone like Sharon Stone, who could have everything but could be really insecure. And I've met some people who are really, really beautiful and really famous too who are unbelievably insecure."
Not that "Fading Gigolo," which opens Friday in select markets, is sexually explicit. It's a subtle film, and one that lopes along at a laid-back gait.
It's part of what Turturro suspects might have attracted such marquee actresses to the film.
"I think they were all interested that, wow, there's all these women in the movie and the film has a gentleness to it and it's a little sophisticated and it's about getting to the sex, or the aftermath of it, or the obstacle of it," he said.
Turturro made his directorial debut way back in 1992, with "Mac." He made "Illuminata" in 1998 but suffered through a frustrating ordeal with his next picture, 2005's "Romance & Cigarettes." The film, which ultimately starred James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet, was left in limbo when United Artists was bought by a corporate partnership in 2005.
He lost his distributor, a "major disappointment," and says he had to fight to get his movie back. That process left him "gunshy" about directing, though helming the 2010 music documentary "Passione" restored a measure of confidence.
He would need it on "Fading Gigolo." In interviews, Stone has giggled over the sight of Turturro directing a crucial sex scene while wearing nothing but skimpy briefs.
"That was funny for her; that was not so funny for me," he said. "I wish we had a little bit more time to do that, but initially I didn't like the way I had storyboarded it and the composition I just thought was a little too vulgar.
"That was not one of the easier scenes to do, actually."
Well, Stone's amusement shows he succeeded in at least one way.
Having now participated in sex scenes from both sides of the lens, Turturro says making a cast comfortable and relaxed is a crucial part of a director's job.
"(You need) to create an environment that people aren't afraid and they also know there's a leader and you're going after something," he said. "(So) there's someone in control but there's still an openness there and there's room for other people too.
"That's lost very easily and fractured very easily and I've seen it happen a lot of times. So I'm aware of that and I know what I like."
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