We spoke to Russo about the role, and how he went about remaining faithful to Pesci’s sensibilities, without feeling like a caricature. He also tells us what it was like to work under Eastwood, how his own journey – from New Jersey to Hollywood – matches that of our protagonists, and the joys in honing his craft in a variety of different mediums.
First and foremost, have you ever met Joe Pesci?
No not yet! I am really hoping I get to meet him at the premiere though.
Joe Pesci has such a distinctive character, was it difficult to play him and be faithful to his sensibilities, and yet ensure it doesn’t just feel like a caricature?
Great question. My number one goal throughout the film was I wanted to pay Joe Pesci homage. He is a hero of mine in the acting world and a true artist. What we see on film isn’t the real him, so with that being said, I figured those characters or different choices that he makes while acting must have come from somewhere inside him. Maybe people he knew, things he observed, certain stories he must have heard older guys say in the neighborhood. Since Joe was born in 1943 and the first time the world got introduced to him on a grand scale was Raging Bull, he was almost 40, but in the film I play him from the ages of 16 to about 26. I took this challenge as an opportunity to sprinkle little “pesci-isms” in each scene I was in. I just wanted to pay him the respect that he merits in his life as an actor.
It must have been quite surreal for you to land this role, because Joe Pesci is somebody that is referenced a fair amount in Turbo and Joey…
Haha yeah well, you know the saying art imitates life, and it is very true. Sometimes when one throws ideas into the universe those ideas become reality!
How about working with Clint Eastwood? That must be a dream come true for any actor.
It was an incredible experience that can never be taken away, I am truly grateful. From the moment you walk onto set, even-though he is your boss, he speaks to you like a friend. The work then becomes a wonderful collaboration. Since he is an actor as well, he allows you to explore and find things on the run. Quite special.
Is it fascinating to be in a period drama of this ilk? Does it give you more of an insight into how the US was 60 years ago? And it must be fun too, playing on the age old notion of make believe.
Yeah, I mean so much credit also goes out to the Art Department on the film, every piece of paper, lighter, cigarette, everything was period, so you as an actor kind of transform into this time. I mean who doesn’t enjoy playing a version of make believe, if you wanna call it that. You have the opportunity to create a guy and have him exist in a world of the 1960’s.
Are you a big fan of Frankie Valli’s music?
How can you no be? The songs are so catchy and have so much heart it is hard not to be a fan.
Though your paths are entirely different, can you relate to the character as a New Jersey boy yourself – in attempting to discover stardom against all the odds?
Yes, and I think that’s what makes this movie so special. One doesn’t need to be a struggling musician to relate to this film. It’s about life, and never giving up, loyalty, persistence. There are so many wonderful lessons one could gain from their story, its import it gets told.
If you could play anybody else on screen – who would you love to embody?
The boxer Arturo Gatti or Sammy the Bull (mob informant)
Your career has been mixed between TV, film and even video games – but is cinema the path you always dreamt of exploring? Is this where you see your future?
To me a perfect world would be to have a career in film and then I can just grow old and do theatre. That to me is happiness. So this is a nice start,
So finally, what is next up for you? Anything in the pipeline?
I have some things brewing, things I cannot really talk about yet, however I’m just looking for the next role that will be as fulfilling as working with Clint!
Jersey Boys is out in cinemas now. Image Source: Ricky Dorn.