Actor Joe Pantoliano fights to destigmatize mental illness

Joe Pantoliano is no stranger to playing violent characters. His personal life, however, reflects a far more thoughtful persona. After struggling for years with clinical depression, Pantoliano has become a crusader to help others overcome the disease. He started nkm2.org to fight against the stigma of mental illness. He spoke to Variety’s Peter Caranicas about his activism.

What’s your take on mass shootings in America?
When something like Newtown happens, there’s outrage, but this kid Adam Lanza is a victim. The boy who goes into a classroom and indiscriminately kills, or the boy who goes to the George Washington Bridge and jumps off because he’s been emotionally bullied — we have to have the same empathy for both of those kids.

Could Lanza’s action have been prevented?
When I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I found out three things: it wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t alone and it could be fixed. This kid wasn’t getting the care. He didn’t know he wasn’t alone.

What do you think causes this kind of violence?
I think violence is a result of our culture. It’s the culture of lobbyists saying that we should be able to have guns. I think the writers of the Second Amendment really didn’t consider that our country would go so crazy.

Is better mental health care and diagnosis the best solution for this problem?
It’s the beginning of a solution. It’s going to take 40 years to change our thinking. We should start in kindergarten. We teach kids physical hygiene, how to brush their teeth and check for hair lice — there’s no shame about that. We should also have emotional hygiene. We should teach kids that it’s OK to feel differently, OK to feel funny in the pit of your stomach, and if you feel that way you should ask for help, tell your teacher, tell your mom. There are high cure rates for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but we as a culture have to surrender to the idea that we can have an emotional disease.

Are people inspired by media violence to commit violence?
Psychiatrists have said that mental disease is a combination of three elements: environment, genetic, socio-economic. It’s also spiritual. When you take away hope from kids, or adults, they’ve got no reason to live. They’ve got anger. If we’re glorifying violence in America, we’re going to see more kids, especially when they’re mentally deficient, wanting to lash out and become suicide killers.

You’ve often played violent people on the screen. Given your personal beliefs, how do you get into that?
Because I think they’re all nice guys. Take Ralph Cifaretto, who I played on “The Sopranos.” He grew up in a neighborhood where it was cool to be a gangster. I also grew up in a neighborhood where it was cool to be a gangster, cool to be a thief, a good thief. (In his backstory, Ralph as a kid) had a disgusting mother, was raped by alcoholic boyfriends, and because of the damage that was done to him, he became the adult that we grew to love to hate. Throughout history, our biggest monsters really thought they were doing the right thing. My job as an actor is to investigate humanity and then to bring it to a stage or to a screen. It’s up to the viewer to judge that character. I’m not allowed to.

How do you deal with media violence in your personal life?
My children no longer watch television. We cancelled our cable a year ago. The only thing we watch is Netflix. We don’t watch news. When I was diagnosed with clinical depression, my doctor said he wanted me to stop watching the news. News agitates you too much.