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An Appetite for Life

Stanley Tucci’s film career is busier than ever, but he finds time to enjoy living well.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Stanley Tucci, September/October 2013

Stanley Tucci takes a bite of the first offering in what will be an entire lunch consisting of appetizers at ABC Kitchen near Manhattan’s Union Square—and his eyes widen. Described on the menu as “crab toast with lemon aioli,” it provides the crunch of a nicely toasted piece of pumpernickel, topped with shredded crab that has the momentary zing of the lemon followed by a pleasantly forceful kick of garlic.

“It’s so simple,” he says, eyes rolling back in a moment of feigned swoon. “It’s got all those flavors—but without the weight of a crab cake.”

He looks at the other appetizers arraying the table—almost too many for the surface, given the water and wine glasses. It is a feast of small plates at one of the crown jewels in chef and restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s worldwide string of restaurants. Before the appetizers, Tucci has ordered wine: “Something nice and minerally,” he says to the server, then chuckles at himself. He hosted 12 episodes of a PBS-syndicated series, “Vine Talk,” in 2011–12, but says, “I did that TV show but I still know nothing.” He nods approvingly when he samples the 2011 Drouhin-Vaudon chablis the server brings and then says, “This is one of Jean-Georges’ places, isn’t it?” He looks around and shakes his head.

“I just had lunch with Jean-Georges, and he mentioned that he’s opening a restaurant about 10 miles from my house in Westchester,” Tucci says, as he tastes a sweet pea soup with mint (“What is that taste?” he wonders aloud; an inquiry produces the answer: sweet Thai chili). “I’m so sad I’m moving. I was involved in a restaurant (Finch Tavern in Croton Falls, New York); I helped put it together. Everyone thought it was mine but it wasn’t. And I wasn’t as involved as I liked. I still want to do that, to open a little restaurant of my own.”

During this lunch hour, there are a wealth of choices, a welcome situation for an inveterate gastronome like Tucci. “I can’t stop thinking about food—it’s all I want to do,” says the actor and filmmaker. “I’m obsessed. It’s all I can think about.”

Well, not all. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Tucci has a full plate at the moment, career-wise. As he enjoys lunch on this June afternoon, he’s just days away from another extended round of work that will take him to locations in Detroit, Chicago and China for, among other things, his role in the next Transformers movie.

He’s back from London briefly, having worked nonstop on several projects almost since his August wedding there last year,
including a film for actor-director Alan Rickman. He’s in another one that’s making the rounds of film festivals for playwright-filmmaker Neil LaBute. Already this year, Tucci has been seen in new films by Robert Redford (The Company You Keep) and Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer). Before the year is over, he’ll show up in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as well as The Fifth Estate, a drama about Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange, and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (playing the Greek god Dionysus).

Which would be plenty for most people. But, in the past 12 months, Tucci has also published The Tucci Cookbook (with recipes from his parents and grandparents, as well as chef-pal Gianni Scappin). It’s an omnibus of mostly Italian cooking that arrived bedecked with endorsements from such culinary luminaries as Lidia Bastianich, Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Waxman. He’s also been the host for PBS’s “Independent Lens” documentary series.

“He’s a man women love—but men love him, too,” says Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, with whom Tucci has become friends after starring together in two films (The Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia). “He’s this fully rounded guy, which is part of why he’s a good director. And he’s extremely funny. He’s the whole package: a good dresser, a good dancer, a good cook. He’s one of the last great, urbane heterosexual men.”

Along with fine food, Tucci has an appreciation for fine tobacco, though he hasn’t indulged in a cigar lately. “I haven’t smoked one in a while,” Tucci admits, noting that his new wife, literary agent Felicity Blunt, doesn’t care for the smell. Still, just the subject seems to inspire him to recall the last time he did indulge.

“It was one that someone gave me and it was delicious,” Tucci says. “I went through a phase where I smoked a lot of them and then I stopped. I love it—and I miss it.”

Tucci remembers his grandfather smoking cigars, though the pater-familias was less particular than his grandson would be.
“He used to smoke these cigars, De Nobilis,” Tucci recalls. “All of the Italian immigrants smoked them. They came four or five to a pack and who knows what they were made of. They were like compacted manure; I tried them a couple of times and I don’t know how he smoked them.”

Tucci developed his own taste for fine tobacco through friends, fellow actors Aidan Quinn and Oliver Platt: “Aidan is a big cigar smoker and Oliver and I smoked cigars together, too,” Tucci says. “Aidan taught me a bit about it.”

But Tucci has to ponder for a moment when asked about his favorite cigars. “It depends on what time of day it is, what you’ve eaten, what the temperature is, what you’re having as an after-dinner drink,” he says. “I don’t mind a strong cigar. It’s like Scotch: You don’t want it to be too peaty. You want a hint of peat, but not the whole bog. I do tend to like those nice medium-sized Montecristos. And some of the Cohibas are delicious. Ashtons have a nice, sort of soft flavor that’s not intrusive. But it depends on your environment and all the elements around you.

“I used to smoke after dinner. And I liked to smoke when I was writing. I’d also have a cigar when I was fishing in the reservoirs near my house. I never caught anything but I had a nice time.

“For me, cigars represent a real working-class person, because of my grandfather, but also someone of affluence. I’m not sure if there’s any in-between there. I suppose you’d call it a cigarette.”

In the midst of an already busy career, Tucci found time to remarry just over a year ago, three years after the death of his first wife Kate, from cancer. By Thanksgiving (probably by the time Catching Fire reaches theaters), Tucci will have relocated his family to London, moving his three children (13-year-old twins Nicolo and Isabel and 11-year-old Camille) to the city his wife calls home.

Remarriage? Tucci thought it might be in the cards, but he’s still surprised at the turn of events.

“Did I think I’d get married again? Yes—but I didn’t imagine it would happen so soon,” the 52-year-old actor says. “Or that I’d marry someone 20 years younger than me. But I met somebody who was attractive, who I knew was kind and much smarter than me—someone who would take care of me and the kids if, God forbid, anything happened to me.”

The pairing was an obvious match, says actor Oliver Platt, a long-time friend of Tucci: “She’s an extraordinary cook, too,” Platt observes. “It’s no accident they found each other.” Food, Platt adds, is always a joyful event with Tucci. An invitation to dine at his home in South Salem, New York, invariably involves setting aside the better part of a day.

“It starts with the invitation, which involves what’s to be cooked and served,” says Platt, who befriended Tucci (“He was my first real actor friend”) when they were cast in a 1989 production of John Guare’s Moon Over Miami at the Yale Repertory Theater.

“It’s always, ‘We’re making X and you’ve got to come over’: ‘We’re trying out the new pizza oven’ or ‘We’re cooking a whole pig and you’ve got to come.’ That’s always the lead item. And, at the very least, it’s a half a day.

“You drive up his driveway and then you’re in Europe. There’s a distinctly European sensibility in terms of the pace and tempo. And there’s always more food. Always. You’re stuffed—after what turns out to be the appetizers. It’s like when he made Big Night: It’s an excuse to hang out and get together. And Stanley is a real cook. It’s because of his love of the process.”

Relaxed in an open-collared white shirt and black suit, Tucci is a long way from the buttoned-down U.S. State Department official he plays in the upcoming The Fifth Estate (about Julian Assange and Wikileaks) and farther still from the blue-wigged TV star he played in 2012’s The Hunger Games, based on the best-selling novels by Suzanne Collins. His role in The Fifth Estate is “a small one,” Tucci says, but the subject is important: “There’s no question people like Assange are necessary. I don’t think you can say Julian Assange is a criminal, but I guess the jury’s still out. It’s about information and information is important. It’s really a matter of why you’re doing what you’re doing: Is it because of your beliefs—or does it become self-aggrandizement?”

Tucci will suit up in the extravagant hairstyles and flashy threads as Caesar Flickerman, the hypernaturally upbeat TV host of the futuristic gladiator competition in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in November, then again in the two-part Mockingjay, which goes into production late this year. Tucci enjoys the Fellini-esque quality that director Gary Ross brought to the novel’s vision of a dystopic future in the first film, which director Francis Lawrence uses in the second film as well.

“I really like that—it’s extreme, almost surreal,” he says, digging into a salad of shredded kale with lemon, Serrano peppers and mint. He pauses, having bitten into one of the small but potent rings of pepper: “Hmm, I don’t think it needs those,” he says. “Although a single chili flake might be nice.”

When he sees himself in his Hunger Games costume—the blue pompadour, the colorful costumes, the lavish eye makeup and big fake teeth—he is torn. “I’m of two minds,” he says. “I look at it and go, ‘That’s right. This makes perfect sense. Let’s shoot it.’ But then I’ll look at it— and the character is so creepy that I go, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ But I’m an actor—this is just what I do.”

The Hunger Games books, a phenomenon almost of a Harry Potter magnitude, are best-selling young-adult novels that crossed over to the mainstream, building a huge following. Those readers were primed for the first Hunger Games movie, which grossed more than $150 million in its first weekend in U.S. theaters and went on to gross close to a half-billion dollars in the U.S. alone. When he was offered his role in the series, however, Tucci was barely aware of the franchise.

“I didn’t know of the books, when I got sent the script,” he recalls. “I showed it to my fiancée and said, ‘It’s something called The Hunger Games’ and, without even looking at it, she said, ‘Do it. Those books are great.’ So we did the deal—and then I read the books. And they are great—very compelling. I love the story and the political overtones. I think it’s really important for people to read, because they’re about our worst nightmare: the culling of children. Some see it as people being afraid of revolution—and others see it as fear of big government. It’s so brilliant.”

Being in the film gave him an opportunity to work with Jennifer Lawrence, when she was still a rising young actress and not the Oscar-winning movie star she so quickly became. But she didn’t change between the first and second films, despite the tsunami of publicity and attention she received, Tucci observes.

“She’s a great actress and a great person—and I’m not just saying that,” Tucci says, spearing a thin-sliced raw scallop from one of the plates. “We should all wish to be as mature and talented as she is, when we were 20. She’s lovely, smart, kind, gentle—just a professional person. People like her and Saoirse [Ronan, with whom he appeared in his Oscar-nominated role in 2009’s The Lovely Bones]: They’re so professional; they’re very serious about the work but they don’t take themselves too seriously. I can’t imagine getting the kind of attention Jennifer is receiving—particularly at that age.”

When he was a young actor, studying at what was then known as the State University of New York at Purchase, “I took myself too seriously. It didn’t do me any favors,” Tucci says. Born in Peekskill, New York, and reared in Katonah in Westchester County north of Manhattan, Tucci discovered acting in high school. He earned his Actors Equity card shortly after graduating from college when actress Colleen Dewhurst, mother of Tucci’s pal Campbell Scott, cast the pair of friends in small roles for her 1982 Broadway production of The Queen and the Rebels. But it took several years of small parts in films and theater for Tucci to break out.

During that time, he pursued other interests, even as he was auditioning for roles: “It allowed me to immerse myself in the art world, to read about art and take art lessons,” says Tucci, whose father was a high-school art teacher. “I was so frequently unemployed that I had a lot of time to go to museums and galleries and read about artists. I thought about stopping acting and studying art. It seemed I could be more self-reliant—equally broke, but at least I would have some modicum of control about my artistic expression. You don’t need an audience to be an artist.

“That’s the thing: If a painter sets up an easel on a street, people will stop and look and be interested. The same thing if a musician plays a violin in the street. But if you stand on the street and start doing a monologue, most people will say, ‘That’s a crazy person.’ Most people can’t paint or play an instrument—and when those artists work in public, people don’t deem them insane. But everybody can talk, so if they see someone spouting Shakespeare, they think he’s crazy.”

Tucci persevered, building a career by landing a series of jobs in films such as The Pelican Brief (1993) and TV shows such as “Wiseguy” (1988) that showcased both his ease and intensity onscreen. Still, he was dissatisfied with some of the roles, which cast him as one variety or another of Italian-American gangster (including playing Lucky Luciano in Billy Bathgate [1991] and Frank Nitti in 2002’s Road to Perdition).


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