Joey Pants Goes Off
The esteemed character actor and Sopranos star Joey Pantoliano (aka Joey Pants) talks alcoholism, depression and his darkest secrets (hello, shoplifting) in this exclusive interview.
Joey Pantoliano has a few problems but a lack of words isn’t one. The prolific character actor—better known as Joey Pants and best known for his Emmy-winning turn on The Sopranos and hit pics like The Matrix, Memento, Risky Business and Goonies—fills 245 lively pages in a new memoir, Asylum: Hollywood Tales From My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery and Being My Mother’s Son. The revealing tome could’ve been much longer too; he admits to having unloaded a total of 120,000 words on paper in a first draft, and that’s no surprise considering the kind of ground Pants covers in his follow-up to the New York Times bestseller Who’s Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-up Guy. Asylum commits careful attention to his journey of making sense of his clinical depression, coming to terms with a troubled childhood in Hoboken, New Jersey and giving into his addictions (food, sex, vanity, alcohol, prescription drugs, shopping and fame), all against the backdrop of a successful Hollywood career. It’s definitely dizzying, but Pantoliano, 60, is anything but in our interview where he talks about his checkered past, his stable recovery and his biggest role yet as an advocate to erase the stigma of mental illness.
Congratulations on a compelling and well-written book. How has your family reacted to it?
I haven’t heard much from my family. I don’t know. I called my sister to wish her a happy birthday and she hasn’t called me back yet so I’m wondering if she’s pissed off at me. My sister, Mary Ann, is not upset about the degree of madness that was in our house because we were all dealing with it, but I think she was most concerned about the fact that I would expose that my mother was physically abused by her dad, like all of the women in his life were—because he was insane. I didn’t want to put it in there but then I realized how a big part of my “dis-ease”—my uneasiness—stemmed from all of the secrets that I stored inside my soul and how they were starting to eat away at me. I couldn’t deny them. And I had to break the chain by letting my daughters know that my mother had a lot of trauma that was never dealt with. She gifted me her traumatic past and I didn’t want to gift my traumatic past onto my kids.
A main theme of the book is being your mother’s son, making sense of the foundation she laid for you with her madness. If she had been diagnosed, what do you think her life would be like today?
I think that she would’ve been able to be less tormented. She could’ve learned to forgive her father, because he was sick, and she could’ve learned that things don’t happen to us, they happen for us. Everything that happened is happening because it was meant to. Life is a series of experiences. Culturally, we are so trained to always feel good. Pain and sadness do not get the applause that they should and that they deserve.
You use a clever technique throughout the book by writing some sections like a screenplay; in one of those, your wife explains your purpose in writing this book by saying that you want to make sense of what’s going on in your head. How hard was that to do?
That’s such a great question. What happened was, with the first book that I did in 2002, I hired David Evanier and we wrote the book together by doing a series of interviews and I made that book in the same way that I would produce a movie. With this book, I didn’t have the ability to hire David. When I tried to find someone that could work with me and get my voice, I had a hard time, and I couldn’t understand why it was so easy the first time around and so difficult the second. So I thought, “Well, I think God wants me to do this on my own.” Technology has caught up to my dyslexia. I know how to spell now and I know how to type. Because of Steve Jobs, I can talk into my iMac and words pop up and I’m becoming really obnoxious. (Laughs). Also, I’m very involved in 12-step programs, and a lot of the book is fashioned after what I learned in a 12-step program because when I first started going there and listening to people’s stories, I saw so much of me in their stories. And somehow I had this spiritual awakening as a result of going into these rooms after a doctor told me that I had a disease that had a name and it wasn’t my fault. That’s when things changed for me. I used to wake up in the morning after taking 15 to 20 Vicodin pills during the day that didn’t work. Nothing worked anymore. My first waking thought was, “Fuck, I’m still here.” I wanted to make sense of that and share that in the hope that I could help somebody else.
You write about those moments of wanting to die. Do you think it was the depression talking or the drugs or a combination of both?
I think it was a combination. Because the drugs stopped working and all I was really doing was taking them so I wouldn’t get sick. I was so ignorant that I didn’t even know I was addicted to those pills but then I would get the flu again; I’m all achy and thinking, “Shit, I’ve had the flu three times this year.” I was doing everything that Heath Ledger was doing. I was taking sleeping pills to go to bed at night. And you know unconsciously I was praying for death or cancer or something. I’d be up in an airplane and we’d hit a bump and I would hope for a crash.
Let’s talk about your childhood. You write about that foot-stomping moment when you said, “I’m not a piece of shit” and then declare that you are going to make something of yourself. But you came from a place where dreaming wasn’t encouraged and fantasy wasn’t embraced. Where do you think your ambition came from?
From the movies and from television. The only ambition that lived in my house was “Let me hit that fucking number” or, “Let me make this score and not get caught.”
Early in the book, you define the word “asylum” by pointing to the images it evokes of people being restrained and later, as being a place of sanctuary and relief. Television was your asylum as a child because it allowed you to escape, and then as an adult, it became the craft of acting and finding a safe place on set or on stage. What is your asylum today?
I just try to find peace of mind in everything that I do. I try to be a good guy and do the next right thing. And I try to be more like my dog (Bogie), or be the guy my dog thinks I am. (Laughs). I’m also drawn to service and that’s what acting is. But now when people come up to me and thank me for this work, it’s so much more fulfilling.
Your childhood was so complex and you sum it up with a line like, “The glass was worse than half empty, it’s like somebody took a piss in it.” It’s a great line but also very sad. When you hear that line again, what’s the first memory that comes to your mind about your childhood?
Abandon all hope for a better past. I thought that by going to New York and becoming a great actor that I could start over. I wanted to invent a whole new me. It was only recently that I discovered that I never really liked who I was. That’s what I loved about acting and why I became addicted to that feeling of what happens in between the time when the curtain went up and when the curtain went down.