In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
With more than 200 film and TV credits to his name, chances are good that everyone in America, at least, has seen something that Joe Mantegna’s appeared in, be that The Simpsons, The Godfather: Part III, or Criminal Minds. The Chicago-born actor’s latest project is 10 Cent Pistol, a crime thriller co-starring Jena Malone and Thomas Ian Nicholas and available now on VOD.
Joe Mantegna: When I was a teenager, I used to work on the Chicago Sun-Times truck and it’s not a glamorous job. Basically, the truck makes stops at all these different newsstands, and you have to jump off, drop off the papers, and jump back in the truck. And that’s what you do hour after hour. When you’re 15, it’s not such a hardship. But if I had to pick the job that I didn’t want to turn into a career, I would think that that was the one.
JM: I had a small degree of feeling success when I tried out for a play when I was 16 years old. I had a smattering of applause after I did my audition, and that’s the thing that got me started on being an actor. Nobody had ever applauded anything I’d ever done in my life at that point. And it was like a bullet went through me; it was like, “Oh, man. I want that sensation again.”
It wasn’t a huge successful moment, but it was enough to set me on the path to pursue what I ultimately did. I can remember the specific moment very clearly, thinking, “Oh, I want to do this now. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” And I did.
The A.V. Club: Did you get the part?
JM: No. I didn’t get the part. But that’s what I mean—it still was a very powerful moment. I felt successful in that moment. And it translated into my career, really.
JM: Is this is a worldwide thing, or—?
AVC: It can be whatever you want it to be.
JM: My master plan would be to make sure that everyone on the planet Earth got the ability to speak one common language. Not that they all get rid of their own languages, but, in addition to the other languages that they speak, every single human being on the planet had one other language that they can all speak. I think that would solve a lot of problems.
AVC: Is it an entirely new language, or are you going to pick one?
JM: It would be an entirely new one.
You know, they tried it in the ’20s—I think it was called Esperanto. It was this idea of, like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if everybody got together and decided to take all the children, starting at 5 years old, and, along with their own language, teach them to speak one common language?” If you think about it, that means anywhere you go on the planet—you could be in the middle of nowhere—you could walk up to a person and say, “Hey, how you doing?” And if you think about it, this is 90 percent of the reason we have wars, and distrust. It would eliminate that unfamiliarity we have with each other. So I think that would be kind of a cool thing. Not that difficult to do, really. You just bring everybody on board.
JM: A smaller version of what I’m like as an adult.
AVC: No different?
JM: No, I don’t think so.
AVC: Were you playing sports? You were in Chicago, right?
JM: Yeah, I grew up in Chicago. I mean, I had a pretty normal childhood. There’s no real extremes outside of how everybody’s got a story. I could say, “Oh, this happened, and that happened, it was this and that.” But no, you know, I don’t think anything so traumatic that it negatively affected me. My childhood was pretty good, I think.
AVC: What made you want to act? What made you tryout for that first play?
JM: I really don’t know. When I tried out for that play it was really almost kind of on a dare. I had seen the movie West Side Story, and I loved the movie so much that, when they had the tryouts for the play at the school—I didn’t even know there was a play, I had no idea—but then I saw signs up at the school saying “Tryouts for West Side Story.” I go, “West Side Story? What the hell? It’s a movie.” They said, “No, no, no. It’s a play. It started as a play.” They wanted everybody in the school to tryout because they needed so many boys and girls to be in it.
So I did it on a dare. It just seemed exciting to me because the movie so enraptured me. And, like I said, it was that tryout that sealed the deal. Prior to that, I wasn’t in the drama department. I hadn’t seen many plays; I think I had seen one play in my life at that point. So it was that singular moment of trying out for a play that got me wound up. I did other things; I played sports and stuff like that. But I wasn’t good at anything exceptional, you know what I mean? But something told me this might be something I could do.
JM: Errol Flynn. And that’s why my star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame is next to his. I requested that.
AVC: He was your actor crush?
JM: Yeah, as an actor. I didn’t know him.
AVC: But you wanted to be him?
JM: Well, he was my idea of a movie star. The movie Robin Hood was—still is—my favorite movie in the world. The original Robin Hood. Well, not the original—there was one before that. But it was made in 1938, it was Technicolor, it was fantastic. Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone and Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn.
I loved him—I read his biography many times. I bought an original copy of it. Something about him—I just thought that he was the epitome of a movie star.
When I got into being an actor, he was like my guy, you know? Errol Flynn. I don’t know how old you are, but you probably don’t even know who he is.
AVC: Oh, I know who he is. He’s a legend.
JM: Well, I’m just saying, a certain age group—I can understand why they wouldn’t know. But for me, he was something.
I was really thrilled to have my star next to his.
JM: Either something by Chicago or Tony Bennett, because I’m very close to both of them. And I love both of their music. It would maybe be a combination.
AVC: A medley?
JM: A medley of Chicago and Tony Bennett. Yeah. With a sprinkle of Frank Sinatra thrown in.
AVC: Any songs come to mind?
JM: I never really thought about what song would make me come into the ring.
AVC: It’s okay if you can’t come up with a specific one.
JM: Let me come back to it.
JM: Paid a lot of bills today so far. I was on a two-week vacation and I’m on catch-up now.
AVC: Where did you go?
JM: We rented a house out in Malibu. We were there for a couple weeks. It was nice. We try to go yearly, my wife and I. My kids are all adults now, but we try to find two weeks that we can just drop in, because we get really busy otherwise. And everybody goes their own way. My one daughter, she’s in North Carolina right now doing a TV series. So it’s a time for trying to circle the wagons.
JM: You know what I get a lot? And he gets it, too? Chazz Palminteri.
I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me and say, “Oh, man, I really liked you in A Bronx Tale.” And then he says they come up to him and say things they liked. But if you stood us next to each other, I think they’d say, “Oh, no, you guys don’t really look alike.”
I also get Ray Romano every once in a while.
AVC: What do you say when people say they liked you in A Bronx Tale?
JM: I say, “Hey, you know what? You got the wrong guy. I’m the other guy.”
But it’s okay. It used to be that they thought I was the football player Joe Montana. There would be a little confusion just on the name. Like, “Joe Mantegna’s going to be at the thing.” And they’ll show up holding a football. That kind of thing. That’s happened.
JM: Realistic or fantasy?
AVC: Realistic. If Hollywood falls into the ocean today, what would you do?
JM: Wow, that’s a good question. I don’t even know what else I could do. I’d be a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none kind of thing.
I can cook a little bit because we own a restaurant. I kind of understand that. I used to sell shoes. I used to be a photographer. That’s what I did to support myself before the acting thing really paid off. So I know how to take a really good head shot.
I probably would revert back to photography because I like doing it. I was always, “Well, if the acting thing doesn’t work out, I think I can do this.”
JM: No, I’m not really a collector. I have hobbies and stuff: I play golf, I do some shooting sports. I do skeet and clay stuff. But I don’t collect anything. I’m not like a coin collector.
JM: Probably Italian beef from Taste Chicago, our restaurant.
AVC: How do you order it?
JM: Wet with sweet peppers and giardiniera on the side.
Bonus 12th question from Victor Garber, who just repeated the question he got from Godfrey: Do you think that racism will ever go away?
JM: If people listen to my first answer, where we all speak the same language, that would help.
AVC: That’s true.
JM: I think yes. First of all, if you look at the big picture, like the big, big picture, meaning, like, eons from now, it will go away because we will all be one color. That’s really what we’re moving toward, if you think about it. The only reason we’re different colors is because, for thousands and thousands of years, people interbred within their race. We certainly have gotten away from that more and more.
Of course, it’s happening in small increments, so it will take a while for China to flip. We’re talking a billion people.
But, if we’re really looking at the big picture, yeah. If humanity can exist for another million years, everybody’s going to be a light shade of yellow-brown-red-tan. So that’ll do it.
AVC: And what do you want to ask the next person?
JM: If you knew tomorrow was your last day on Earth, what would you want to do today?
AVC: What would you want to do?
JM: Just hang out with my wife and kids. Sit in a circle and let them represent everybody else I love in my life, and that’s that.
AVC: That sounds like the perfect way to go, if worse comes to worst.
Thanks for talking to me.
JM: You’re welcome. I’m trying to think of what the song was. Oh! The song is called “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe.” How perfect would that be, right? But it’s by the person who sang with Louis Prima. Keely Smith! Her version of “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe.” That would be it. With a medley of Chicago and Tony Bennett.