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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.

You mentioned (in a Boston Globe article) that being involved in the film forced you to look at some of your own problems, including depression. What kind of insights did you gain??

Just being an actor is kind of a bipolar existence. You pretend to be somebody else. You're in this imaginary situation, being an imaginary character, in the hopes that you get the part. You have the highs and the lows of it all. Doing a play and going in front of an audience. A lot of people say, "How do you do that? How do you deal with all this rejection?" ... I look at it as like an occupational hazard.

Dr. Richard Lerner, a professor at Tufts University, was one of the first people who saw the healing elements of this movie. He thinks that the family dynamic in this movie is the closest thing to a case study he's ever seen. Most movies on mental illness either demonize or glorify or romanticize the illness. ... In reality, mental illness affects the entire family. It stigmatizes and isolates the family. If I'm schizophrenic and I'm acting out, my brother doesn't want to bring me to their house to the family gathering for Christmas, and that means that my children and wife are excluded. It's an isolation that [director] Joe Greco really depicts well in the movie.

This has become an advocacy for me now. It's really important to educate as I've been educated to destigmatize and de-isolate this illness. I've started a group called No kidding? Me Too. It's a foundation to raise awareness and I think mental illness does not have the luxury of being anonymous like alcoholism. One has to be really brave these days and come out of the closet and say, "I am, or my sister is or my brother is [mentally ill]." It's not the minority illness that you think it is. When I talk about the movie, or when people talk to me about my book, it's uncanny, but people say, "Wow, no kidding, me too." That's how I came up with the name of the 501 [nonprofit].

It brings people out of the woodwork?

Yeah. Fans will ask me what I'm up to, and I describe the movie and they'll say, "I'm in treatment right now." Depression is a big thing. I see that a lot.

For first-year college students, when most of these illnesses start to rear their ugly head, parents think that it's just a stage sometimes, like puberty. It goes by, and it becomes misdiagnosed.

As a child you suffered from dyslexia. How did you cope with that, and how did it affect your career?

When I was a kid, there wasn't a name for it. It wasn't an illness. My teachers ... they just basically said, "there's nothing wrong with him. He's just lazy and doesn't want to do the work."

I remember in the fourth grade my teacher taking my reading book away. She said if you are not going to have the decency to try to do the work, then you don't deserve to read. I just kind of slid through every year. I evolved and I created a tough-guy character. I did the senior class play, and I had to get my 12-year-old sister to help me to memorize the monologue that I needed to read, and then I pretended that I was reading it. I got the part, and my teachers then said, "you need to learn how to read." When I was 19, I went to a professional that evaluated me with a third-grade reading level. I had a lot to overcome. And it's a miracle that I did. In today's world I don't think I could have done it.

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