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An Actor's Mind

Joe Mantegna is at the top of his game and aims to keep playing Hollywood's Major Leagues
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Joe Mantegna, July/August 2011

(continued from page 1)

Ed Bernaro, executive producer of “Criminal Minds,” says, “Gideon was a damaged sort of character. So the team around him functioned to support him. But David Rossi—Joe’s character—is very self-assured. He’s able to let the rest of the team step forward and shine. And that’s solidified what the show is.”

That also means the show is more about the team than the man who leads it, which is how he likes it, Mantegna says: “When I was first looking at it, I thought, ‘This is a strong ensemble.’ It was the kind of situation I was hoping for: They didn’t want a show that was a one-man band, like ‘Magnum, P.I.’

“I come from a background of ensemble theater. And all of the great TV shows have had great ensembles. ‘The Honeymooners.’ ‘M*A*S*H.’ ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ They’ve got great ensembles that an audience embraces.”
Mantegna and Bernaro hit it off immediately, a pair of Chicago expatriates who speak the same language: “He makes me sound like I’m from London,” Mantegna jokes about Bernaro’s accent. “Oh yeah, and on the day I met him, he was wearing a White Sox shirt and I’m a Cubs fan. That’s the only blemish on our relationship. But we talked and he had that Chicago thing.”

“Chicago’s a big city but our families are from the same area on the west side,” Bernaro says. “It’s a very Italian neighborhood. So Joe is like someone I grew up with. People from Chicago are very laid-back and easy-going, and Joe fits the mold.”

Reared on Chicago’s west side, Mantegna knew that being an actor was not a career path anyone followed in his neighborhood. But he blossomed in Chicago at a moment when a new theater scene was growing up around him.

“Nothing pointed me toward it,” Mantegna says. “If I’d told my family I wanted to be an actor, it would have been like telling them that I was going to become a Martian. Like, why would you pick that? After I won the Tony Award, I called my mother and offered to fly her to New York to see the show. And she said, ‘Won’t you be doing it in Chicago?’ ‘Well, yeah, but—’ ‘I’ll come see it then.’ ”

Mantegna’s portal to the world of acting? The 1961 film of the Broadway musical hit, “West Side Story.”

“I saw 'West Side Story' when I was 15 or 16 and it had this incredible impact on me,” Mantegna recalls. “I felt like I was living that lifestyle of the characters. I lived in an apartment; I mean, we weren’t a poor, starving family, but we always had to live within our means. My father was chronically ill and my mother had to work.

“Anyway, here was 'West Side Story' and it was this fantastic musical-comedy—and yet it was serious. The streets of Chicago and the streets of New York were not much different. I ended up seeing that movie, like, 11 times, because this was back in the days when you could buy a ticket and sit there and watch it over and over.”

Shortly afterward, at the high school he attended in Cicero, Illinois, he saw an announcement for auditions for a school production of “West Side Story”: “I didn’t even know it was a play,” Mantegna recalls. “I knew nothing about theater. On a dare, me and this other guy went in to the auditions.

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