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Joe Pantoliano: Mental Illness Hits Home

The award-winning actor talks to WebMD about his personal brushes with mental illness and why he's working to raise awareness.
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By Rob Baedeker
WebMD Magazine - Feature

You're starring in a new movie, Canvas, in which you play a husband who must cope with his wife's schizophrenia and keep the family together. What did you learn about schizophrenia while preparing for or playing the role??

When Joe [Greco, the director] brought the script to me I had just come off winning the Emmy award for The Sopranos. I was specifically looking for a part that would be a 360 from the character I played in The Sopranos. I chose to play this part for selfish reasons: to be a loving, caring husband who's victimized by this illness.

Marcia Gay [Harden] is an old friend, and Joe wanted Marcia to play Mary, so once I convinced Marcia to do it, in preparation we went to a place called Fountain House, which is a clubhouse for people who are dealing with their everyday lives with all forms of mental illness. While I was there I kiddingly said to the people who were showing us around, "When do I get to meet the crazy people?" and they said, "We are the crazy people."

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So in the course of working with them and working on the picture and watching Marcia evolve as this character I started having dreams about my own mom (my memoir Who's Sorry Now, which came out three or four years ago, is about my family and my dysfunctional, humorous, crazy mom.)

And three days before we started shooting, one of our closest friends, who actually had married my wife Nancy and I, had committed suicide. I had talked to them four days prior to that about Thanksgiving dinner and making plans.

What happened to me -- it was a revelation. For whatever reason, I thought mental illness was a minority illness and it didn't affect a lot of people. When we were making the movie, about four weeks into shooting, I said to our crew of about 75 to 80 people, "If you have mental illness in your life, or you know somebody with mental illness, raise your hand." And about 75% of the people in the room raised their hands. So it just started to dawn on me that it was prevalent.

Eventually I started to look into my own past, and I realized that my mom had issues that I always thought were issues of choice, when she behaved that way or that she would freak out. In my book (Who's Sorry Now) I absolutely describe somebody who suffers from bipolar disorder, but I didn't know what bipolar disorder was. They had my mother on tranquilizers, but her behavior was explained to me, by my aunts and uncles and father, that she was going through a change of life or she was moody.

We screened the movie at Penn State recently, and I hadn't seen it in a while. And watching it I realized I'm playing my father, Monk, in the movie. My father would always surrender to my mother's whim. He would always give up, and he would give up at our expense. He would do anything to make sure she wouldn't go off. I see that I do that with Chris (played by Devon Gearhart), especially in that scene when he wants to go to his friend's house. It's Friday night, and [Mary] is starting to go off, and I tell him maybe it's not a good idea. That just broke my heart. It just hit me like a ton of bricks.

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