John Turturro Mines the Human Dilemma in ‘The Night Of’

The actor who plays John Stone, the disheveled half of Naz’s legal representation, goes deep into the story of The Night Of. Discussing the larger themes and resonance of the series, Turturro also has a word or two to say about the significance of Stone’s feet.

HBO: What appealed to you about The Night Of as a story and a project?

JOHN TURTURRO: I felt that the story was just reeking of the human dilemma. Any time you have a prison film or anything about a crime, it’s kind of a microcosm of society. It reminded me of a Russian crime novel. I really loved that you see these characters, all of them, as people.

HBO: Do you view The Night Of as a commentary on the contemporary criminal justice system?

JOHN TURTURRO: I think The Night Of has a lot to say about the system and about people trying to do the best they can. It’s not an indictment of it, but it shows you how difficult it is for the people who are in the system: the person who’s accused, their family, the lawyer, the prosecutor, the detective. None of this is easy. And people do get hardened and cynical. At the same time, some of them are able to maintain the pursuit of moral justice.

I know both Richard [Price] and Steve [Zaillian] were inspired by the documentary The Staircase, which is about a trial. Obviously, there are good prisons, but when you look at Rikers for example, there are a lot of deficiencies. It’s not functioning on a high level. A great example of that was The New Yorker profile of Kalief Browder, the boy who wound up taking his life [after spending three years on Rikers waiting for a trial]. It was amazing what he went through because he couldn’t make bail for stealing a backpack. I was very taken with that, and so was Riz [Ahmed]. The Night Of is not that, but it does have relevance to it.

HBO: Did you research or take inspiration from specific sources to inhabit the role of John Stone?

JOHN TURTURRO: I got a lot of it from the writing. I was introduced to a very competent and well-regarded defense lawyer, Terry Montgomery. This guy, who looks like Idris Elba, he’s a star. I met with him a bunch of times, and he was able to take me through everything that he goes through. I went to court and I watched different guys, but with Terry I thought, that’s the kind of guy that Stone would have been if he had the stomach for it. I looked at a lot of old Sidney Lumet films, and I worked on a big vocal warm-up. I’m from New York, but I thought the accent was more from the ’70s. Like in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, when they say “first,” they say “ferst.” That’s an older New York sound.

HBO: Did the initial casting of James Gandolfini as John Stone have any influence on your decision to take the role?

JOHN TURTURRO: I was very good friends with James. And when they first mentioned it, I was like, this is maybe too difficult for me. But when I saw the pilot, James was barely in there. He still was interesting, of course — you see him with this big beard and everything — but he didn’t really talk very much, certainly not to Riz. I don’t think he knew yet what he was going to do, because he hadn’t done that much yet in the series. So for me, I didn’t have to erase that.

HBO: Was Stone’s sense of comic relief something you got from the scripts?

JOHN TURTURRO: The potential for it was in the script. I’ve spent a lot of time with homicide cops. When they’re dealing with murder, they have to have a sense of humor. Those guys are like black comics. That’s part of the repartee when you’re dealing with crime. I thought humor was part of John’s armor. Everyone treats him like he’s a trawler, and he’s like, “Well so what? Big deal.” It’s a way of deflecting it. I think the humor is essential. He’s a guy who leads with that.

HBO: What first appealed to John about Naz’s case? Does his investment in Naz and his trial evolve over time?

JOHN TURTURRO: It was just the right moment, right time. John doesn’t really know, but something hits him about Naz. There’s some kind of more instinctual, animalistic, or primitive connection. Like, what is this kid doing here? And then John gets to know Naz. He gets to see who he is, how young he is, how trustworthy he is. And John knows the system. He knows in order to survive, you’re going to have to do certain things. You have to learn to put on a mask in prison. It’s a whole culture. Inmates have to protect themselves. When I played it, I didn’t want to think about it too much. Sometimes when I’ve overthought things in life, I’ve gotten into big trouble.

HBO: What is the distinction in The Night Of between the evidence and the “truth”?

JOHN TURTURRO: You see it in real trials. Everything is relative. John says, “I don’t want to be stuck with the truth.” Really, the world is more in the gray zone than in the black and white zone. All of us have our versions of the truth and all of us have our reasons. And that’s kind of a horrible thing sometimes in life. Those are things Steve and Richard mined, and it’s my job to bring life to it.

HBO: What did you make of the character’s eczema condition?

JOHN TURTURRO: It’s an obstacle, and maybe it has something to do with John not being able to deal with everything because eczema does come out of stress. And then, it’s how it makes him feel and how it looks. When I had it on my face and walked around, some people looked away, some people were matter of fact. It’s another interesting element, and it also physicalizes. It physicalizes the world.

HBO: Did you make any predictions while reading the scripts?

JOHN TURTURRO: Predictions? No. Even when I knew where it was going, you just have to pursue it. But I was very interested.

I think it’s so much more than “Who did it?” The question helps keep the audience’s interest, it helps keep the tension, but it’s only one part of what makes the story. Because if the characters aren’t compelling, then the story’s not. What happened? And what happens to all of the characters? Everybody is not the same afterwards. It’s about the cost of that.

From creators Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, ‘The Night Of’ is an eight-part limited series that delves into the intricate story of a fictitious murder case in New York City.

New episodes of The Night Of air Sundays at 9 PM on HBO and are available on HBO GO and HBO NOW.