October 9, 2008

Actor Spreads Word on Mental Illness ; Joe Pantoliano Brings Film, Frank Approach


Joe Pantoliano - that's Joey Pants to his friends and everyone who could be a friend, and that includes you - ended up in pieces, quite literally, in one of his most famous roles, the gleeful psychopath Ralphie Cifaretto on The Sopranos.

With his intense yet approachable acting style, Pantoliano has made a strong career for himself in the often fickle world of Hollywood, imbibing his characters - from an early role as the evil pimp Guido in Risky Business to the traitorous Cypher in The Matrix - with a unique flavor that has made him an instantly familiar face to almost any movie or television fan.

Pantoliano also struggles with a mental illness.

But while many actors are fearful of stigma and ignorance, Pantoliano has chosen not to keep himself or his illness in the shadows. Indeed he has most publicly embraced his struggles with chronic major depression, using a once uncomfortably uncontrolled rage and channeling it into a deep, committed advocacy: empathy for those who struggle with brain disease, and education for those who view any sort of mental struggle through a prism of stereotypical, pulp movie stigma.

This evening, Pantoliano brings his fight to Concord, as he hosts a reception at The Centennial Inn prior to a showing of his film Canvas at the Red River Theater. Pantoliano's visit and the film are sponsored by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill - New Hampshire (NAMI-NH). For the last several years, Pantoliano has used his "No Kidding? Me Too!" organization to talk - with his

intensity, humor, and candid conversational approach - about mental illness.

Pantoliano's first great insights into illness - not his own but his mother's - came about as he portrayed (and won an Emmy as) Ralphie, the Mob guy who was so scary even the other wise guys didn't dare to cross him, on The Sopranos. During that time Pantoliano wrote Who's Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy, his intensely personal and forthright story of his hardscrabble childhood in Hoboken, N.J., the only son of a hearse driver father and a mother who worked as a bookie and had what Pantoliano believes was an undiagnosed bipolar illness.

While he was making Canvas, - the story of a father and son who struggle to make sense of their world when wife and mother Marcia Gay Harden is diagnosed with schizophrenia - Pantoliano began to come to terms with his own struggles, and was eventually diagnosed with clinical depression, an ailment he believes he's had since childhood.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the actor - who had made a career out of playing indelicate tough guys - has garnered high praise for his believable and perceptive portrayal of the father in Canvas, who means well but doesn't always do just the right thing. Critic Roger Ebert wrote, "The more movies I see, the more I wonder at what actors can do. Consider Joe Pantoliano . . . he has a role here that most people would never think of him for, and he brings it a tenderness and depth."

After all these years, mental illness still maintains this stigma, this separateness from other illness.

There's progress, there's progress. They passed a parity bill - it's a part of this economic bailout bill and I don't think many people even know it's in there yet. Finally - parity, meaning that mental illness can't be taken out, given less coverage than other illness. They were working on the amendments, working out the details all this time and all of a sudden it's in there. Finally.

Stigma must be especially difficult in the acting word, where there is so little security and you can never know what whispered word, what leaked story will take away your career. What made this so important an issue for you?

Discrimination in the workplace. After I made Canvas I got a movie and went for the standard physical you go through - you have a physical so they can get insurance on you in case something happens to you during the time of filming. Now my family - long history of heart disease, and I was always up front about that - heart disease in family, I take Lipitor - and it was never a problem. But this time I also said I was taking an anti-depressant. Well. In order to insure the job, I had to sign a waiver indemnifying the company in case I had a nervous breakdown during filming! All those years no question or worry about covering my heart - but they weren't going to cover my brain.

That was the turning point for you?

Yes. I decided right then, really, I, at least, was coming out of the shadows, for everybody to examine. I wasn't going to hide. What I know now? My weakness is also my strength.

You're known for these edgy, enraged, sometimes over-the-top characters you have played so well - Ralphie on The Sopranos, and the conniving friend in Memento. Did you worry, as you came to terms with your long-term depression, that treating it would actually harm your acting, your ability to inhabit those characters who are your specialty?

Honestly, I worried about that. I wondered if by getting treatment - and my treatment is both talk therapy and medication - whether I would no longer be emotionally available to myself to play those guys. I said, you know, this is my bread and butter - if I can't do this so well anymore, I'm in trouble. But I worked closely with my doctor, went slowly, and just told myself I would stop it if it making me not able to do the work.

And was that an issue?

It wasn't at all. What I found out - amazing, right! - was that by taking better care, by talking, by walking, by taking my pharmaceutical, I am able to better regulate myself, my behavior, and the way I make choices in my life. I found out what improves my life: not drinking alcohol, having a spiritual life. I realized that the way things were, my sanity, literally, had become unmanageable. This was like hitting the lottery. And ultimately, it's made me better.

And how has it been to be so in the open about your own experiences? To take on those misconceptions? Stigma?

My reason? I see an injustice. And you can use celebrity, my celebrity, to shine a bright light. To bring this out of the shadows. Mental illness is the only illness where you get yelled at, get shamed, for having it. Shining a light is a way of obliterating that shame. And if I can be that light? Yeah.

Originally published by VICTORIA SHOULDIS
For the Monitor.

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