Something in me doubts that if, say, Tom Cruise or George Clooney were to sit down for a Q&A about their craft, they wouldn’t end up referencing Rainer Maria Rilke and Vittorio De Sica in the first 10 minutes. Endowed with a copious wealth of intellect, wit and insight, Stanley Tucci did just that in his enlightening talk yesterday afternoon to a packed auditorium at the Society of the Four Arts.
Rather than stepping up to a podium and giving a prepared speech, the great character actor suggested a more informal, conversational approach moderated by Ervin Duggan, president and CEO of the Society of the Four Arts. Both sat in chairs for the entirety of the talk. After summarizing Tucci’s impressive resume as a film, television and stage actor and restaurateur, Duggan asked a number of thoughtful questions on his beginnings as an actor, his thoughts on Italian-American stereotypes, his development of “Big Night” as writer, director and star, his relationship with Meryl Streep and the variations in acting for different media. Tucci was genial and humble, regularly undercutting his own accomplishments with self-deprecating asides – “only eight people saw ‘Big Night,’” for instance – and Duggan regularly corrected him for being too modest.
In the discussion of “Big Night,” Tucci mentioned that his inspiration for the film was to explore the relationship between art and commerce, and that the restaurant setting was a metaphor for the theater, with its separation of the dining room and the kitchen representing the front and back of the stage, and the fact that each night is both the same and different. The chef became a natural stand-in for the artist. This pretty much blew my mind, and it makes me want to revisit this wonderful little film.
Complaining about stereotypes, he said that at the beginning of his career, he had to turn down a bunch of clichéd mafioso roles, but that “when you lose your hair, you lose your ethnicity a little bit.” In discussing Streep, his costar in “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Julie & Julia,” he said that “I find it very hard to work with her, because I just want to watch her.”
The subject then turned to “The Tucci Cookbook,” which he released last year in hardcover. I was surprised to learn that it was basically a reissue of an out-of-print recipe book originally released to promote “Big Night” – and that the originals were fetching up to $3,000 online. “We retitled it to shamelessly capitalize on my fame,” he joked.
The time flew by leading up to the question-and-answer portion, which included some pointed and appropriate questions – and others far out of left field – from Four Arts members and guests. One woman expressed her appreciation for Tucci’s unsung gem “Undercover Blues,” in which Tucci says he played “the Sisyphus of petty crime.” Another patron asked him what he would cook a group of unexpected guests at his home, which prompted a humorous exchange. Others asked him about his thoughts on the gun control issue (a liberal Democrat, he seemed to support the president’s initiatives) and his ability to memorize large swaths of difficult medical jargon on shows like “E.R.” (“I’d write the script on patients’ bedsheets”).
A younger audience member asked both the weirdest and most unforgettable question of the afternoon: “If I gave you a pet elephant, where would you hide it?” This was, of course, met by quizzical stares; I assume she was taking someone up on a bet to ask such an inane question. Tucci managed a funny retort even when discussing the proverbial elephant in the room, remaining gracious all the way through.