Joe Mantegna says he isn’t one for big plans. There are too many vagaries in the acting profession to strategize too far ahead, he insists, and — like it or not — as much as an artist may follow the thesis behind Stanislavski’s classic text, “An Actor Prepares,” luck plays a big role.
But one plan he did set into place was ensuring when his Hollywood Star of Fame is unveiled today, that it be situated next to Errol Flynn’s. “For me, he was the epitome of a movie star,” Mantegna says, “and a guy who could do a range of roles and work with great directors,” such as Raoul Walsh.
Mantegna, though, is something different from a star, and frankly cites friend and longtime playwright collaborator David Mamet when specifying his work ethic as an actor: “Dave used to think of himself as a mule. The job was to carry the load. You simply and seriously do the work.”
He frames this attitude as part of his blue-collar upbringing in a working-class section of Chicago, “a world in which the life of show business was like being on Mars. It was a very inner-city environment, and I never lived in a real house growing up. People worked, and you had to be tough. Guys did their 50 weeks a year, two weeks vacation, and that’s what you aspired to. As an actor, I never thought of myself as being too far from that.”
As a result, when Mantegna completed training at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, “some of us knew that we had to make our own fun. Painters have their canvases, musicians have their instruments, writers have their paper; they can more or less do it by themselves.”
“To do your own fun, you have to get an audience and perform in front of it.”
Thus, when Mantegna joined the Organic Theater Company (where he developed the long-running Chicago and Los Angeles stage hit, “Bleacher Bums”), he and fellow members like Dennis Franz and director Stuart Gordon made a lot of their own material, and fashioned a unique repertory profile. “Dennis worked as a guard, and I sold shoes,” he says. “You did what you had to do to support yourself so you could do this work, and I learned what I always remind younger actors: You’re going to make mistakes, so make them early on, keeping in mind that it’s always better to be doing something rather than nothing.”
He has maintained a remarkably steady and consistent stream of film, stage and TV work ever since, all the while showing a total lack of concern for typecasting — a reality for all actors and especially those like Mantegna with a specific ethnic quality. “I’ve never worried about that, since I’m truly not a planner and long ago adopted this attitude that the chips will fall where they may. I found out that if you keep working, you’ll get a range of roles that will be compelling.”
At the same time, Mantegna understands the necessity of typecasting, re-framing it from a negative to a positive. “Having directed (he helmed the film version of Mamet’s ‘Lifeboat’), I understand the situation from a casting position. You want to put talented actors in a place where they can shine. I discussed this with Don Ameche when he was filming ‘Things Change.’ When he was a star under the old studio system, he thought that he had known better than the studios about what roles were best for him. But he finally realized that he was wrong, and that they appreciated the talents he had and would steer him toward the work at which he would excel.”
Approaching type or not, Mantegna eschews a laundry list of must-haves when selecting roles, “though I’d say that something in the role has to be interesting. It may be the entirety of the role, like playing Dean Martin (in the 1998 TV movie) ‘The Rat Pack,’ Joey Zasa in ‘Godfather III’ or Mike in ‘House of Games’ — just to mention a few — or some aspects.”
“Other than that, the actor isn’t in control, so I’ve tended to let the roles find me rather than me hunting them down. I’ve never had a manager, hardly ever a publicist and just one agent. That’s it. Keep it as simple as possible, and that extends to never overplaying to the camera. The quietest guy in the room, don’t forget, is always the scariest.”
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