Actor Joseph Russo has had a number of roles over the past few years in episodes of popular television series (Bones, How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, iCarly) and starred in the parody movie Jersey Shore Shark Attack. But it’s more than fair to say that the biggest role of this young New Jersey native’s acting career is in Clint Eastwood‘s film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical Jersey Boys, which is based on the real-life story of the 1960s pop group Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. However, in the film Russo doesn’t play one of the band members, he plays Joe Pesci. Yes, that Joe Pesci who later went on to fame acting in films like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Home Alone.
What’s Pesci doing in a movie about a singing group from Jersey? As it turns out, Pesci was instrumental in the forming of the group by introducing future Four Seasons bandmates Tommy DeVito (whose name was later used for Pesci’s character in Goodfellas) and Frankie Valli to songwriter Bob Gaudio.
In my conversation with Russo, we spoke about how he approached playing the award-winning actor in his younger years, the almost-prescient connection he already had with Pesci, working with cast members like Vincent Piazza and Christopher Walken, and what he learned about acting from the legendary Clint Eastwood.
First of all, I was reading up on you and before any of this Jersey Boys role happened you had a sort of connection with Joe Pesci earlier in your career with the web series Turbo and Joey. Can you talk about that?
One of my dear friends, Jeremy Luke, who also happens to be in Jersey Boys, and I started this webseries about two guys from Staten Island trying to make it in Hollywood called Turbo and Joey. A writer and filmmaker, Justin Shaack, and another writer, Alev Aydin, all came on board. They wrote this script with the through line being that we’re trying to get an audition for a Joe Pesci movie, and in order to get an audition we need to make a video. The video we end up making is the complete replica of the scene in Casino where Joe Pesci meets Robert De Niro in the desert. It was shot for shot, including the helicopter shot. I had to play Joe Pesci, so when I got the call for the audition for this it was just so funny how art imitates life and it was pretty neat.
Check out the episode of Turbo and Joey with the Casino tribute below:
Is Casino your favorite Joe Pesci movie?
For me it’s Raging Bull. I was able to draw so much for this movie from Raging Bull. I think there were so many things that he did in it, and it being only his second film, it was astounding to me knowing what really was behind him stepping into this position and how great he was in that film. It was so subtle and was so great that I really, truly loved him in it. In Raging Bull he was the younger brother that wasn’t taken so seriously, and in Jersey Boys I kind of felt that was similar to what Joe Pesci was in the band. He was the youngest of them and he was just trying to help them out being their loose manager, and Tommy DeVito always kind of had him on his team but always kind of put him down, too. I felt like there was a lot more to draw from in there then from him being Nicky in Casino.
Had you ever seen the musical Jersey Boys before auditioning, or were you familiar at all with the music of the Four Seasons?
Honestly, the only connection I had was just that I too am a Jersey boy [laughs]. But really, I knew their music, but only in a limited aspect. I found out so much while doing research and while being on set of the songs that Bob Gaudio wrote and that they performed. I never knew they sang “Oh What a Night” or “My Eyes Adored You,” but I heard of them and was very familiar with them from my parents. That was kind of the music I was raised on being from New Jersey, and coming from an Italian family that was a lot of the music that you would hear at family parties. So I was very familiar with them but I was never really familiar with how massive they actually were – at one point being bigger than The Beatles. As far as seeing the musical, unfortunately I never had the opportunity to go see it, but I think it was a gift for me. It’s going to be playing here in Los Angeles soon so I’ll definitely be going to that show. But before shooting this I never actually saw the show and I think that worked to my advantage because I wasn’t trying to recreate something that I had already seen. It was my own painting, my blank canvas of how I wanted to portray this character.
You mentioned that your family members are fans of the Four Seasons. Obviously they are probably always happy when you land a role, but I’m guessing they were ecstatic when you got cast in Jersey Boys?
Absolutely, 100%. You know, getting word that this film would be coming out — actually, I would hear years ago when Jersey Boys the musical first came out that, “You got to get in that!” I have family members that know that I sing — well, I can sing, but not delightfully [laughs] — so I knew that it was never for me. But the fact that it actually was Jersey Boys and how big of a movie it is there’s nothing more perfect, especially with Clint Eastwood as the director. It really was a present. It really was wonderful, and I really wanted to work hard at doing my job.
Talking about that singing aspect, several members of the cast are veterans of Jersey Boys stage productions. Did you feel intimidated at all because of their experience with the material?
Right when I got hired I called up Vincent Piazza [who plays Four Season Tommy DeVito]. He and I were the only two who were not cast out of Broadway, so we sat down and rehearsed a lot together. Then once the other guys came to Los Angeles we wound up having a table read with everybody. From the moment that we all met we kind of were all in this thing together. You know, working with Clint there is no ego. What I found with this team was that it was great that I was able to draw from them in terms of finding out, getting inside things. I would ask them a lot of questions about this character. Really, I’ve never been around a more positive-working group of people that was all in the same exact boat of what we were all going through.
Since you’ve mentioned him already, one thing you’ll be able to say for the rest of your life is that you worked with Clint Eastwood. What did you learn about acting from working with him?
Trust the material and trust yourself would probably be the best thing. He being an actor as well when you get to set it’s never a hierarchy. Obviously he’s your boss, and I don’t think anybody would ever attempt to cross that line, but it’s really a collaborative effort. He expects you, being a professional, to come to set with something in your own mind of this character and when you get there he’s open to anything for discussion. So I would say that the one thing I learned, especially for acting purposes, is to trust your instincts. As long as you’ve done the work, which I felt I had, and earned the right to the material, which I felt I had, that it will work. I spent a lot of time working with my acting coach/mentor Jocelyn Jones, and it really was me just earning my right to the part and not just going there and winging it. But I would never do that anyway, nor would I think anyone should. I think this is such a big, iconic character that you have to earn your right.
Everyone who has ever worked with Christopher Walken seems to have an entertaining story about him. What about you?
Coincidentally, the first day I got to meet him he was working with Jeremy Luke and they were filming a scene together where he was pretty much yelling at him. Being as nostalgic as it is to be working with one of my best friends, I worked earlier that day so I stayed on set. I wound up talking with him. What’s so great is that he is just a great guy. We talked about boxing, and it was never anything like “Wow, you’re Christopher Walken.” It was great. Right when I met him I said, “How are you, Mr. Walken?” and he said, “No, it’s Chris.” So I would say that working with someone like that and even having the opportunity to converse with him in between his takes you get to see that he has such a handle on the material and that he is so, so experienced that he knows exactly what works and what doesn’t work.
I would say the funny story was watching him dance in the closing scene. It was great. It was just great seeing him dance because he loves dancing, so it was really nice.
I know you’ve done dozens of interviews to promote Jersey Boys so far, but what is one question that you feel you haven’t been asked enough about the film?
It would probably be along the lines of, “What did you want to bring to this character to make it your own?” For me that was because I’m playing Joe Pesci from the ages of 16 to about 26 years old, and Raging Bull was done in 1980 and he was born in 1943, so he was almost forty years old when we were first really introduced to him. In order to play him in those younger ages I felt that because of the choices that he has made as an actor through his roles in Raging Bull, and even Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon, and My Cousin Vinny, I wanted to take the opportunity to sprinkle “Pesci-isms,” if I can say that, in each one of the scenes I was in so that it looked as though if it those were things that he was drawing from when he was doing films in his later age. So in each scene that I’m in extremely subtlety I tried to throw in a Leo Getz “Okay, okay, okay” or tried to throw in the Goodfellas danger of being around a guy like that. So I just wanted to throw in different aspects of Joe Pesci in each one of the scenes. It’s starting to read through from what I’m hearing from the people who have seen the movie so far at screenings and the premiere in New York.
Jersey Boys is obviously the biggest film you’ve been in so far. What will you take with you from your experience working on this film to your future projects?
Never be complacent. Nothing has changed in my own work ethic. I’m studying actually more aggressively than ever. I was always pretty aggressive. My coach, Jocelyn Jones, is absolutely phenomenal. I really wanted to take from doing this film is that at any moment to remember that this is still just another job and this is part of the ladder you climb to have a career as an actor. So never be complacent because there’s always room to grow and to become better. There’s always room to do something more interesting and work with actors like Vincent Piazza, who is phenomenal in the film, and Erich Bergen, John Lloyd Young, Mike Lomenda, Renée Marino, Kathrine Narducci, are phenomenal. Kathrine is a hero of mine because I’m a huge fan of her from watching A Bronx Tale and The Sopranos. You always can draw from them. So I remember I would spend my days on set not in my trailer ever — ever, ever! — I was never in my trailer, I was always on set. I wanted to watch, observe, and take in every moment and always try to grow even from the time when I was working.
Photo Credit: Ricky Dorn