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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.
| By Marshall Fine | From Stanley Tucci, September/October 2013
An Appetite for Life
Photo/Jim Wright

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).

Even as he was earning his first Emmy nomination as a mysterious hedonist in Steven Bochco’s “Murder One” (1996), he and Scott were collaborating on a film of their own: Big Night, which celebrated Italian culture in the United States by focusing on a pair of brothers whose pursuit of culinary artistry had left their restaurant on the verge of bankruptcy.

The film—which Tucci and Scott codirected from a script Tucci cowrote with his cousin, Joseph Tropiano—won a slew of awards, including the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to be honored as best first film from the New York Film Critics Circle and best first screenplay from the Independent Spirit Awards. “Big Night is absolutely a direct response to the stereotypical way Italian-Americans were being portrayed in the media and popular culture,” says Platt, who was an associate producer on the film. “Stanley was saying, ‘Guess what? We’re not just gangsters.’ Stanley wanted to write a story about real people and their experiences in America. And he succeeded wildly.”

Says Tucci, “I think Big Night opened people’s minds. I suppose they saw me in a different way after that. But it was up to me to do what they wanted. The nice thing is that I don’t think people know how to categorize me—and that’s maybe OK. My job is to be what I’m supposed to be at any given time, if I can be that person truthfully. If I can’t do that, I won’t do it.” Big Night forever associated Tucci with fine-dining and kitchen artistry (the film is on several top-10 lists of films about food). It led to three more films Tucci would write and direct (The Impostors, 1998; Joe Gould’s Secret, 2000; and Blind Date, 2007).

It also raised the temperature on his acting career. He won two Golden Globe Awards, playing Walter Winchell in “Winchell” in 1998 and Adolf Eichmann in “Conspiracy” in 2001, both for HBO. He was nominated for an Emmy for a comic turn on pal Tony Shalhoub’s series “Monk” in 2006 and headlined his own short-lived network series as a brain surgeon in “3 Lbs,” before playing a recurring character on “ER.”

He played Puck in a 1999 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, worked for Steven Spielberg in The Terminal (2004), was nominated for a Tony for Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune in 2002 and earned an Oscar nomination in 2009 working for Peter Jackson in The Lovely Bones. And he nearly stole two films from Meryl Streep, playing a witty art director in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Paul Child, husband to Streep’s award-winning Julia Child, in Julie & Julia (2009).

Streep observes, “When I’m in a scene with him, I don’t think, ‘I’m acting with my friend’—though sometimes, it’s difficult to divorce who you are and who you are purporting to be. But Stanley’s imagination is so dedicated; in the Julia Child picture, he was Paul. And I think he’d say that he thought of me as Julia. I’ve always admired him as an actor, his willingness to jump in. One of the things I loved most was his Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was so confident with the language and just very imaginative.”

As they approached Julie & Julia, in fact, Tucci insisted that, if the two of them were to portray the Childs’ home life on-screen, they would have to get into a kitchen and cook together first in real life. “He’s really bossy in the kitchen,” Streep says with a laugh, “in the way he tells you how to do things. He says, ‘I wouldn’t do it that way.’ He’s much more intuitive than I am. He has great confidence; he’s a natural chef. He can cook for 40 people as confidently as he does a dinner for a few people.

“But he’s very generous when you work with him in a scene. He’s got that highly attuned sensitivity of taste in food that he brings to his work. He’s very alive to all possibilities. He doesn’t come in with preconceived notions of what to do; in that sense, he’s a real player.”

Oscar-nominated actress Patricia Clark concurs. She knew Tucci slightly when he cast her in his film, Joe Gould’s Secret, and has since become fast friends (“He’s like a brother”). She acted opposite him in Tucci’s darkly European marital drama Blind Date; they were reunited when they were cast as Emma Stone’s wisecracking parents in the teen comedy, Easy A.

“He has the greatest aesthetic,” Clarkson says, “this incredible understanding of beauty, dark, light, shadow. He really understands art and it informs everything he does.”

As a director, Clarkson adds, “He’s a kindred spirit with Woody Allen. He lets you breathe and live in the space of the character and will only step in to correct you occasionally. Blind Date was very intense but also a glorious experience. It made me a better actor.” Yet, Clarkson notes, “He’s always the loosest man on the set. Stanley is incredibly witty. A lot of actors think they are but really aren’t. But Stanley is someone you do want improvising.

“I don’t know how Stanley does it, but he does it all. He works out all the time and has the physique of a 30-year-old. He writes, he paints, he cooks—I think that comes from his parents, who taught him to be everything he could. He could just be a great actor but I don’t think he wanted to be limited. He has many talents, many gifts.”

At lunch, the chef sends out something special: a sugar snap-pea salad with parmesan dressing and herbs. The peas practically radiate sweetness and there’s an astonishing delicacy to the preparation, the pods bisected to reveal tiny pea halves nestled inside. “I remember when I was a kid, my mother’s parents had a garden and we used to take peas off the vine and pop them in our mouths,” Tucci says with obvious fondness. “We’d take carrots out of the ground, wash them and eat them. It’s hard to find carrots that taste like that nowadays.”

Tucci met Blunt when he acted opposite her younger sister Emily Blunt, in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada. They were introduced at the film’s premiere, then didn’t see each other again until running into each other at Emily’s wedding to actor John Krasinski of “The Office” in 2010. (Which means that Tucci is Krasinski’s brother-in-law: “He’s very tall,” Tucci cracks.)
Tucci recognizes that the transition involved with moving from New York to London will be a drastic one.

“I’ve made it clear to my parents that they can come anytime and stay as long as they want,” Tucci says. “I miss seeing my parents even while I’m living here. We’re very close and I love them very much. They come over for dinner and we all cook together. And they’re incredible grandparents. So we’re going to make sure that no one is feeling any loss.” As for himself, Tucci can just as easily jet off to a film location from London as from New York. He’s in demand and his schedule is tight for the next couple of years, with roles he’s agreed to play and movies he’s written that he hopes to direct himself. He’s
always happy when a director looks at him and sees a character Tucci himself didn’t imagine, such as his role in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.

“That movie was a really wonderful experience,” Tucci says, sampling a dessert plate that combines strawberries, lemon sorbet, meringue and whipped cream. “Just the fact that [director Joe Johnston] asked me to play an elderly German scientist is amazing. Then Bryan Singer cast me as a kind of contemporary Sheriff of Nottingham (in Jack the
Giant Slayer
). I love that. I don’t want to go through life as myself. It’s much less stressful to be other people.”

He still has films he wants to direct, though the independent film scene—particularly funding and releasing films—has changed drastically since he made Big Night almost two decades ago. But even bigger movies with bigger stars can be iffy.
“I was supposed to direct a movie a couple of years ago with Meryl and Tina Fey as mother and daughter, but they couldn’t get the script right so it didn’t happen,” Tucci says. “I was sorry that fell apart. Sandra Bullock and I are talking about trying to do something.

“I have a movie about [sculptor Alberto] Giacometti I hope to make next summer. There’s a French producer who’s interested and I’m excited about that. And I’m adapting a book called City of Women, which is set in Berlin during World War II, when all the men were away at war. It’s a great story; I’m really interested in great roles for women.”

There’s always another project, another idea, another passion for him to pursue, Tucci admits, as he finishes up and heads out into the Manhattan afternoon.

“It’s never done,” he says. “I’m always hoping for something else, something more. I want to keep growing and challenging myself more. As you get older, your aesthetic changes and you change as a person. I know I can do this; it’s just a matter of finding someone in the industry who will allow you to realize your vision as a writer, director and actor.” v

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.

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