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.

From the WebMD Archives

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."

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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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].

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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.

Why?

The competition [to be in show business] is so much greater now.

You're now an author and you collect rare and first-edition books. You've come a long way.

It's the gift of reading. I'm big into Harry Potter. I love that book. If only there had been something like that for me [as a kid] ... The first book I ever read was given to me by my history teacher after he saw me in the play. It was Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice because he knew I would relate to it. There was that, and The Valachi Papers and The Godfather, and then I got into Salinger. The books that I collect are the books that changed my life.

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What's the one thing concerning your health that you wish you'd done as a child?

Not eat salami and mozzarella.

You still eat it?

No. I eat Lipitor [a cholesterol-lowering drug].

You've appeared in more than 100 films. With such a busy schedule, how do you look after your health?

I exercise. I love cardiovascular. I came to enjoy bicycle riding with my daughter. I love to walk. I'm in pretty decent health. I just had my colonoscopy last week and ... I love those. The stuff they make you drink is horrible, but the drugs they give you are great. But then you forgot you took 'em!

Is acting important for your health? How?

Acting is something that I just love to do. My whole life has been a series of me telling white lies and bright blue lies to get by. I was acting when I didn't even know I was acting.

What is the best health advice anyone has ever given you?

Run, and if you can't run, walk.

What is your best health habit?

Taking my little aspirin every morning.

Your worst?

Cheese. I love cheese. I just love it.

What person influenced you the most when it comes to your health?

My mother, because she was so unhealthy. She smoked four packs of cigarettes a day and ate as much salami and provolone as I did. That was the other thing with mental illness: Nicotine plays a big role. ... She died from stroke and heart disease from the cigarettes. My entire family died from cigarettes. My father from lung cancer, my stepfather from emphysema.

Did you ever smoke?

When I was a kid, I did a play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and I played Billy Bibbitt. I went to Creedmoor Mental Institution and met some guys who were Billy types. One guy had a tendency of smoking and burning himself with the cigarettes and burning holes in his clothing. I took that behavior and I put it in the show, and by the time the run was over I was smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.

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Did you quit?

I quit in 1990.

How do you feel about aging?

I think it sucks. I'm in limbo. I want to be 65 so I can get my pension. I'll be 56 next month. My doctor once told me, the longer you stay healthy, the better chance you have for a good senior living experience. My uncle Pete lived to be 90; he never smoked. My cousin Billy is 103.

Is the best part of your life in front of you or behind you?

I think it's in front of me; it's behind me. I like reflecting these days -- walking down memory lane.

Your character (Ralph Cifaretto) in The Sopranos famously had his head chopped off by Tony. Does it ever affect your sense of mortality or health to see yourself "die" on screen??

Yeah. I think it's why I chose to be an actor. One of the things I remember as a kid is watching the Million Dollar Movie, in black and white, and realizing that a lot of those people were dead, but they still existed on the screen. As a child I wondered, "How was anybody going to know I was here?" Part of the reason I chose to be an actor is so that there would be some evidence that I existed 100 years from now.

As far as mortality, my parents live on in my heart. Three of my four kids never met my parents, but they know them from the stories I tell them. That eternal life comes from stories.

Originally published in the November/December 2007 issue of WebMD the Magazine.

WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on October 02, 2007
© 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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