Given the number of unhinged characters he’s played on screen, the news that Joe Pantoliano has founded a charity devoted to “removing the stigma associated with mental illness” might provoke a knowing chuckle. But notwithstanding the organization’s name, the founder of No Kidding, Me Too! is not joking around. A venerable character actor with memorable parts in The Matrix, Midnight Run, The Goonies, and Risky Business, plus an Emmy-winning turn on The Sopranos to his credit, Pantoliano was diagnosed with clinical depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) several years ago, and has since devoted himself to making the forthright discussion of what he calls “mental dis-ease” cool. In his documentary, No Kidding! Me 2!!, he details his own story as well as those of others living with mental illness, and he’s tapped such celebrity pals as Harrison Ford and Anthony Edwards to help spread the word that talking about the subject can be “sexy.” His latest venture, a partnership with fellow son of Hoboken Rich Pèpe is Pèpe & Pants pasta sauce (slogan: “It’s Crazy Good”), whose proceeds go toward Pantoliano’s charity. A few hours before being given the key to his hometown, Pantoliano met with The A.V. Club at his publicists’ offices in midtown Manhattan to discuss his diagnosis, the breakdown he had when he was 21, and why he can’t eat carbs.
The A.V. Club: Was it around the time of making Canvas that you were diagnosed with clinical depression?
Joe Pantoliano: No, I got diagnosed because of Canvas.
AVC: Were you researching the subject matter for the movie and thought, “That sounds familiar?”
JP: Exactly. The Canvas story is, I just finished The Sopranos, I was working on a series with Rob Lowe that never went anywhere, and I had written a book in 2003 called Who’s Sorry Now?, and that became a New York Times bestseller. It was the first 14 years of my life. I met this first-time director, Joe Greco, who wanted me to star in a movie about an Italian-American family told through the eyes of a 10-year old boy, about his mother’s onset diagnosis of schizophrenia, and I was looking for a job that would clearly redefine me as an actor—someone who was a victim of a disease that affected my family and as a caregiver for the family that was trying to hold the family together. I just thought it was a great career opportunity. So we started working on it, and because they were first-time filmmakers, I said that I wanted to produce, because I wanted to regulate, make sure that these first-timers didn’t fuck it up, because that happens a lot. When you’re a producer you have a say; if you’re an actor, you’re just an actor with a fucking attitude. So we got the financing, needed someone to play the mother. Joe wanted Marcia Gay Harden. I got Marcia Gay Harden.
AVC: Whom you’ve known for a long time.
JP: Right. She said, “Look if you can do this, I’ve got this little window, so if you can, sure I’ll do it.” So we went to work. Joe would fly out to New York and see Marcia and she was giving him notes and they were rewriting the script, and Joe and I had already done that. So he called and said, “Listen, there’s this place called Fountain House. It’s on the West Side, and it’s a clubhouse for the mentally challenged.” It’s for people who have accepted their uneasiness. In the ’40s there was no place to go, and when the nuthouses closed in the ’70s, these things popped up all over the place. “They’re gonna give you a tour and they’re really interested in the project.” I met the psychiatrist there and a lot of the patients who hung out there. They can hang out; it’s like a clubhouse, like the YMCA. You come, you go, if you don’t show up—you know, you’re a functionally engaged adult. They had horticulture. They had a film department. I was like, “This is great!” We were asking a lot of questions. I said, “Can we meet some of the crazy people?” And they said, “We are the crazy people.” I said, “You seem a lot more together than me for Chrissakes!” Long story short, that was the first bit of evidence.
I remember going to an art gallery and there was this old woman smoking, and they said, “This is Joey Pants.” And she said, “Hello.” I found out a year later, when I left she had said, “He’s one of us.” She had passed away, but she spotted me. So when we started making the movie, my friend Charlie Rocket, who married me and Nancy, a very well-known actor, he had called me up out of the blue, a funny conversation, making plans for Thanksgiving. I’m in Florida…. [Commotion around the office causes him to lose his train of thought.]
See, I have a hard time. I’ve been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, so all this stuff affects me, but when I didn’t know I had this, I would be frustrated with myself, because why can’t I concentrate? Once I was told that this was part of the symptoms of my disease, all of a sudden it’s normal. My daughter has it—two of my daughters, we all have it.
AVC: You were talking about Charles Rocket.
JP: So Charlie sounded great, but business was slow, he moved back to Connecticut—so we made plans. Two days later, first day of shooting, Nancy calls me up and she’s completely distraught. She says, “Charlie’s dead.” I say, “What happened?” “He killed himself.” I went into a tailspin. I also had a dear friend of mine, because of the way I was behaving, acting out—I was seriously addicted to painkillers. They stopped working, but they actually helped me a great deal to get through the day. So my friend said, “Your behavior is unacceptable. It’s caustic. It’s hurting you. I can’t be your friend anymore.” So I lost two of my best friends.
So Marcia Gay Harden comes in and she’s put together this character and it’s like, “What the fuck? I know this person.” Now in the book, Who’s Sorry Now?, I had come to a conclusion, I had shut the chapter on that. I had made peace with my mother and I understood that, culturally, she chose misery. I found out that if she just tried to change her behavior, if she had put it to work, if she’d have seen a psychiatrist—my mother’s drug of choice was four packs of cigarettes and coffee. When I was researching the book, I found out that her alcoholic, rageaholic father had incested her and her aunt, his sister. She was born in 1915, and so this guy was a fucking douche, he’s an animal. My mother was a victim of her past. She had her own post-traumatic trauma, along with the alcoholism, which he was medicating his mental disease with. My sister was very concerned about the family history and not putting it out there, so I chose to leave that out of the book. But it still lived in Mary Ann, it still lived in me, it lived in every family member in our family. These were the secrets that nobody talked about it.
I got more and more sick while I was making this movie. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I probably lost 30 pounds while we were filming. I was a fucking mess by the time we got home. And I was thinking like I always think, “Jesus, this is great! Use it. Sublimation. It’s perfect.” There was no acting required in this movie, because I was just living my pain. The loss of my [character’s] wife, Mary, and when I was going to get her back, versus the loss of my friend Charlie and these friends. There’s a wonderful scene that Joe and I actually wrote. It was a scene where the kid goes, “Mommy’s never going to get better.” And I said, “Joe, it’s an opportunity for our audience to see how [my character] John feels.” So John’s like, “What do you want from me? You want your Mommy back? What about me? I want my wife back. I want her love. I want it to be the same. What do you want from me?” It’s like coming to the end of the rope.
I remember clearly my mother getting to that moment where she would punch herself and scratch her face and she would look out in this distance that didn’t exist. It was like she was gone, and I would think, “Fucking stop it, you fucking phony bastard. She’s acting, this is bullshit.” And then I’m bouncing around. I remember I go into therapy and the doctor tells me it’s not my fault. He says, “We’re good. Don’t worry about it.” Because I’m saying, “I’m producing a movie, I’m starring in it. I just won an Emmy award. I’m making tons of money. These are all the things I thought were going to fill my life up, were going fill this hole up. And I feel like I’m fucking walking through quicksand. It hurts to brush my own teeth. I’m tired but I can’t sleep. I feel like I’ve lost my smile. I don’t want to be around people. What the fuck is wrong with me?” And that’s the conversation I would have, “What’s wrong with you! Shame on you, Joey! You selfish son of a bitch!”
When I had my first breakdown—through therapy, I remembered—21 years old, I’m working theater in Vermont, I’m doing a play. I’m actually writing a new book now. I sold it to Weinstein. It’s called Asylum: Tales From The Great Depression. I’ve been interviewing people in my life on these breakdowns, on these moments in my life. I was doing a play in Vermont, Israel Horovitz’s Rats. I’m in the scene and I’m on the floor with the other rat, and it’s this moment where I’m frustrated and I’m begging for him not to kill me or something, but I was sublimating and I was trying to get the feeling and I was a brand-new actor, so I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And this thought in my mind came into my head and it’s like, “You will never be able to get out of this. You will never be able to get the success you want because you can’t do this. You’re not good enough.” And the next thing I remember is having these people tear me off of myself. I was banging my head on the stage floor, I was punching myself, I was scratching my face.
When I interviewed the director recently, about five, six months ago, she thought that I was upset with her. Isn’t in interesting? We always think it was our fault. She thought it was her fault. I had panicked because I was going to be stuck with this life. I was gonna be stuck in this hole. I was gonna be different. And I had already made the decision that Hollywood, that stardom was the answer to the problem. It was around that time that I wound up going into therapy. My sister, who was 16 at the time, when I called her to tell her I was coming out with my mental dis-ease—I don’t even think she knew, we never talked about what I had. She told me, “I’ve been on Prozac for five years, I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety. We all got it.” And at that point I went like, “Wait a minute! I fucked up. I wrote this book about my mother, and all of this humor that I surrounded myself with wasn’t so funny.” I just remembered it as funny so I could continue through life.
I started working with my psychiatrist. Things got better. I was unable to work for a while after Canvas. I was developing a TV series with Jack Orman based on an idea about an ethically challenged mayor who did what he had to do to make his city run [Dr. Vegas]. Jack liked the duality of my [character’s] personal life, with my family, surrounded by women, demanding this and that, nobody listened to me. But when he was the mayor, everybody listened to him. He was the duke in that domain, but at home he was just wallpaper. When the pilot got picked up I had to go get my [completion bond] physical, and these physicals are very common. You do a movie, the insurance says that you’re healthy, and there doesn’t seem to be any extenuating circumstances, and so we’re betting that this guy is gonna be all right, and if something happens and he’s not so all right, we’re going to pay for it. We’re going to hedge. Everything was the same, vitals were the same, questions were the same. Medicines that I was taking were no longer the same. They said, “Are you on any medication now?” I said, “I’m taking 10 milligrams of a statin for my cholesterol, and the Bayer aspirin.” “So that’s it? You’re still on the same stuff.” “But I’m now taking 10 milligrams of an antidepressant.” Same milligrams for this part of the body [touches heart], different pill for this part of the body [touches head], and they come back and say we can’t insure Joey because he’s taking an antidepressant. We’re afraid that he’s an insurance risk, that he might have a mental breakdown while filming.
AVC: You can’t be the only actor on antidepressants.
JP: So he’s got to sign a waiver so if something does go wrong because of the brain, he’ll be financially responsible for the slowdown or stoppage. I said, “Well, wait a minute, what about my heart?” They said, “What?” I said, “I have a history of heart disease in my family as well as the mental disease, why are you insuring if I have a heart attack?” “Well if you have a heart attack, of course we’ll cover your heart.” I say, “You’re covering my heart but you’ll not covering my brain? Why is that? That doesn’t seem fair. I’m trying to keep my brain healthy like I’m trying to keep my heart healthy.” They didn’t have an answer.
So at that point I said to my lawyer, “That’s it, I’m done with this bullshit. I’m going out. I’m gonna go out and start an organization. Now I know what to do with my celebrity.” Prior to that, Tony Goldwyn and I were at the Creative Coalition, we were co-presidents. I said, “I got it now. This is my life’s work.” And I started calling people because I needed to validate this existence. I found that everyone wanted to help, because there’s not a person in this building who’s not affected by some kind of mental dis-ease. Their loved ones’ mental dis-ease, drug addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders, gambling disorders. All of these are behavioral elements of self-medication, because those people, like me, did not know they had a mental dis-ease, and if they did, they were ashamed to ask for help. They were ashamed to take the medicine for the brain, when they weren’t ashamed to take the medicine for the heart or the liver or the kidney or the gall bladder, which has become obsolete in our evolution.
AVC: The analogy I’ve heard is that it’s like wearing glasses. No one has a problem correcting their vision if it it’s blurry, but correcting your brain function is a much thornier issue.
JP: So why is there shame and stigma and prejudice and discrimination around this particular disease? That’s why I wanted to make this movie [No Kidding! Me 2!!]. I went out to find out. And I found people in the world. Because of the success of Canvas, we were going to these events: National Alliance Of Mental Illness, Mental Health America, NARSAD. All these groups are saying, “Holy smoke. This is the clearest, most accurate example of a case study of what happens when a mental disease is introduced into the family. This is what we’ve been looking for. God bless you guys! It’s not demonized, it’s not romanticized, like Hollywood does.” Cause mental illness to me was The Snake Pit, or A Perfect Mind, whatever—Ron Howard’s thing.
It wasn’t so natural. When you get a brain tumor, like when Senator Kennedy got a brain tumor, it was like, “Oh my God! What an honorable man…” But when his son was arrested for his bipolarity because he was acting out, it was like, “What an embarrassment. What a shame.” You’re not responsible for your actions when you are in a mental episode. You’re accountable for the behavior that you may cause, but cognitively speaking, you’re not responsible. There is over $800 billion of lost productivity in the workplace. There are CEOs—I just saw that movie, Inside Job. What did they talk about? Cocaine abuse, alcoholism, prostitution. These guys are all acting out. This is the medication they’re using so they can rob us blind because there’s no retribution. Or last night, the news comes out that obesity has gotten even worse now. Seven in 10 Americans are obese. So they’re saying it’s physical disease? They’re full of shit. It’s a fucking mental disease. Why are people getting fat? Are you fucking nuts? Because they’re unhappy, because they’ve got nothing to talk about, because they’re ashamed. Drugs, alcohol, sex, the Internet, masturbation.
In my documentary, Dr. Wendy Richardson—who I think was incredibly smart about this—she wrote a book called, When Too Much Isn’t Enough: Ending The Destructive Cycle of AD/HD And Addictive Behavior. She says these are the symptoms. Marijuana—bad. If you smoke marijuana before your brain is completely formed, you have a better than 600 percent chance of being depressed later in life. I didn’t know this. If you have a traumatic experience before your brain is an adult brain, it’s going to harm you 100 times worse than if it happened when you are an adult, in your mid-20s. So who goes to Iraq and Afghanistan?
When I took this movie to Iraq and Afghanistan, I was on five bases, I showed it twice a day. We had the run of the place. It was like we were putting on a show, it was a playbill that said, “Stopping The Stigma.” I didn’t want to call it “Anti-Suicide Prevention Week.” I told them, “You have to make it entertainment, and you have to order everybody to come. You have to make it a command on your base so that they can complain about having to go, because who wants to go see a movie on depression on their free will?” “Let’s go watch a movie about depression.” Nobody wants to go! “I got enough to be depressed about.” But my documentary, we purposely tried to make it funny, gave it energy. Amy Winehouse gave us her song, “Rehab.” Every ounce of content that I put in there from the movie business, the actors, all that stuff is donated. They didn’t charge us. Warner Bros., Fox. They didn’t charge us. Because of the power of the message. Because every American in the world is touched by this.
AVC: One of the reasons people hesitate to take antidepressants, or start and then stop, is they worry it will flatten out their emotions. You lose the highs and lows.
JP: That’s more with bipolarity.
AVC: Right. But as an actor, you need your emotions to be available. Is that a concern? John Waters tells a story about going to a therapist and being told that he could go into therapy, but it would permanently alter the content of his art. He never went back.
JP: It’s a life choice. Art before happiness I guess. My doctor told me this was workable. He gave me a choice. He said, “Look, we’re going to do this by cognitive therapy and going back to see where the trauma came from, and seeing what’s genetic and what isn’t. What’s the source? Or we can really speed it up by putting you on some of these antidepressants that will kick in four or five weeks, and we can see if it works.” I said, “But I need my emotions for my work.” And he said, “This medication is very subtle, we’re only putting you on 10 milligrams. If you’re angry, you’re going to feel it. If you’re sad, you’re going to feel it. You’re going to have the proper emotions. And if you feel weird, we’ll take you off of it.” So I gave it a try. Believe it or not, a lot of actors call me up with this very question.
Quality of life is very important, but the mistake that most people are making is that it’s not just medication. It’s everything. It’s exercise every day. Diet. Things you need to stay away from. I can’t eat sugar, period. Carbohydrates, period. I can’t drink anymore, because it alters the biochemistry in my brain. Some days I slip. We are not perfect. This is not perfection. I’ve got cognitive behaviors. Yoga. I’m doing yoga now to help rest my mind. Breathing is not a life choice. Breathing happens. Your heart beating, happens. And the thoughts that bounce around in your brain, happen. It’s not in your control. These are some of the things I do to regulate my sanity, my balance, every day. One of the most important is my spiritual connection with a power that’s greater than me. A lot of people call it God.
AVC: You’re talking about the “higher power” aspect of recovery?
JP: Yeah. When I found this program where I could go into a building anywhere in the world and talk to strangers, because someone said anonymity is the most important factor, so what you say here, what you hear here, let it stay here, in the confines of your mind. So I start my day, every day, with the 12-step program, which doesn’t cost anything. The first step: I am powerless. I have become powerless over my thoughts. My life has become unmanageable as a result of what’s been going on in my head. Second step is letting go, surrender to the idea that you can’t fix this alone. That the power of the universe—my power’s the sun. I believe that the sun is the power that feeds me. I cannot live without the energy of the sun, so that energy is God. So I ask the energy to please help. I can’t do this, I defer to you, help me get through the day. Let your will, not my will, be done. I’ve been walking around trying to fucking make it, fix everything. My will. Because I’ve got to control something.
So it’s doing all these things, practicing all these things and having faith that I can do the right thing. One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that I have to love everybody. I’ve got to forgive everybody, and I’ve got to try to find the people that I’ve hurt and ask them to forgive me. When I let that out of the bag, I was no longer afraid of dying and no longer afraid of losing my children. Because none of us are going to survive this. It’s an unstable world. It’s an unstable life. God’s will be done. Dear God, please let me be a successful actor. The first seven years, it was hard getting a job. I don’t know why, but it was. When I started getting jobs, I wasn’t doing anything different. I got opportunities that some people would die for, and people got opportunities that I would die for. So I kept thinking I need more opportunities, I need to be a big star, I gotta, gotta, gotta. I just got to be available to maybe get lucky.
AVC: There’s an aspect of self-medication to being an actor, or a writer for that matter. You do in front of an audience what most people do in private so that you can have your behavior or your opinion validated.
JP: And we would love it if everybody agrees with it. That’s another reason why I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be an actor because if I was famous, if I was in the movies, there would be a history that I existed. I was thinking, “Oh my God, I’m going get through this life and I’m gonna die and nobody would know I was here.” [Laughs.] As a writer, you become… I don’t know who your favorite guy is, but if you’re Buckley or Ken Kesey, godammit, man, you’re going to be there for life.
AVC: People are going to be watching The Matrix when your grandchildren are dead.
JP: How do you like that? And so I got it. I did it. [Tears up.] I don’t know how but I did it and still, nothing. Still no. There was no relief. Why can’t I feel the love of my wife? Why can’t I feel my kids’ love? What’s wrong with me? It wasn’t me. That’s the thing, you’re not alone. This is a universal feeling. So why are we trying to help these few crazy people, when we’re all the crazy people?
AVC: It’s like that Pogo line, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
JP: There’s a thing that I read that I really, really loved. It’s Larry Davidson, he’s a doctor at Yale. [Reads from his website.] “In the medical model, you take a person with a mental illness, you provide treatment in the hopes of reducing symptoms, and then they’re supposed to approximate some notion of normality. Our research shows the opposite. You take a person with a mental illness, you then reduce the discrimination and stigma against them, increase their social roles and participation, which provides them a reason to get better in the first place, and then you provide treatment and support. The issue is not so much making them normal but helping them get their lives back.” And then this is another one: “Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we received the greatest blessing…. The men of old who gave things their name saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would have connected with it the name of the noblest of all arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art…. So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense…. Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.”
AVC: That’s nice. Who said that?
JP: Socrates. [Laughs.]
AVC: He knew a few things.
JP: So all these normal people are saying, “We got nothing to do except be normal. We’ve got to discriminate against the geniuses.”