He’s Cypher from The Matrix, Ralphie from The Sopranos, and for children of the 80s, he’s Francis from The Goonies. But when you hang out with Joe Pantoliano for the afternoon, especially in his hometown of Hoboken, thereâ€™s just one name that sticks. With a new book called Asylum: Lives, Loves and My Hollywood Stories coming out in March and a new play Felony Friday (felonyfridaytheplay.com) on the horizon, the one and only Joey Pants is still entertaining us.
In the last few years, however, the actor has had other things on his mind. As the president and founder of the non-profit organization No Kidding, Me Too!, Joey is focused on taking the stigma out of mental illness by educating the public. This includes a documentary (No Kidding, Me 2!) that tells the stories of several people â€” including himself â€” who have struggled with various kinds of brain disease. Joey talked with Jersey City Digest about his own battle with depression, his ongoing recovery, his career and, of course, his city.
You’re known for your work in film, but you’ve devoted a lot of time recently to your non-profit organization, No Kidding, Me Too! Can you tell us a bit about the organization and your motivation behind it?
JP:Â I lost three friends on 9/11. That event struck a chord in me that opened up a lot of deep-rooted trauma that I had buried as a child. I lost my lust for life. Then, I had done Sopranos and my work was rewarded and I was developing my own TV series. I realized that my ambition was led out of getting out the traumatic memories of Hoboken. You know, growing up and moving so much, winding up in the projects and being on welfare. Being a product of a school system that was unaware of the kind of learning disabilities that have come to the forefront in the last twenty yearsâ€”dyslexia, attention deficit disorderâ€”all these things my children have been diagnosed with was a great recovery and discovery for me. Oh, I’m not stupid, lazy or crazy.
I was producing a movie called Canvas. I was able to get my friend Marcia Gay Harden to star opposite me, and it was the story of family that is stricken by mental disease, and how it affects everyone. And while we were making that film a dear friend of mine who I had spoken to several days before wound up slitting his throat two days later. I had gone through a traumatic event with a friendship. And so I was filled with rage and righteous indignation, and then the loss of this friend, and then Marcia Gay’s performance was reminding me of my mother who had died at 66 years old. I didn’t know my mother was mentally diseased. I just thought she was Italian-American. I thought we were normal. I thought all mothers were like that.
So, I go and ask for help. It turns out I have very common and very treatable clinical depression. It was genetic. That’s what my mother had. When I was finally diagnosed with clinical depression, and it wasn’t my fault, that was a big deal, because I thought it was a character defect. I thought I was born with something evil inside of me. We all have some form of mental dis-ease. We all have something going on. We want to escape from whatever’s troubling us.
I went back to work. When you make a movie or anything where you are responsible for the financial closure of a project, you get a physical. They want to make sure you are physically fit and able to complete the project. The doctor asked a series of questions. â€œIn terms of medication, what are you taking?â€ I said, “I’m taking Lipitor, ten milligrams, and I’m taking ten milligrams of an anti-depressant.” Three days later, a lawyer calls and says, bad news, they’re not going to insure you. They find you to be a risk because you’re taking anti-depressants. So, I said, wait a minute, they’re insuring my heart? They’re saying it/s okay for my heart to be medicated, but not my brain? They went, yeah, wow, that’s a good question, but yeah, we will. If he has a heart attack, we’ll cover him. But if he has a relapse and he causes a slow-down or a stoppage to this production, then he will be financially responsible. So, if I missed a dayâ€™s work because I had a nervous breakdown that would be $400,000 or $500,000 a day. But I had to sign it.
And then I became very public about it. I found that a lot of people have some kind of mental uneasiness that occurs. There’s not permanence. So, I got a lot of my friends together and I formed [No Kidding, Me Too!]. I made a documentary. We make PSAs, educational awareness using what we do as celebrities, actors, creative minds to get the word out. Not only to try to end the shame and bigotry that surrounds brain disease, but also to lobby for equal rights. That our brains would get the same equal rights as our gall bladders, or our livers.
What’s striking when you watch the documentary and hear about the charity is that the greatest contribution of all to the people in need of it is just the knowledge that they’re not alone. Has the feedback been very fulfilling for you?
JP:Â Last night, I was on Facebook, and there was a young man in a chat who wrote, â€œJoe, my name is blah blah blah, and youâ€™ve met me, I’ve seen you at blah blah blah 12-step meeting. My mom, who has been sober for 15 years and a member of the program, I found out that sheâ€™s been going out and drinking a bottle of gin a day. I’m up in college where they donâ€™t have a lot of recovery and I don’t know what to do. I need help.â€ I started having a conversation with this young guy and we spoke for an hour. I gave him some phone numbers. He said, â€œI really feel better just talking to you, just having this conversation.â€ Knowing that youâ€™re not alone, thatâ€™s all it takes.
You’ve spoken about becoming an actor partly to fill a void in your life. Were there any roles that you found helpful or cathartic in any way? Was it always a means of escape?
JP:Â I found a lot of unfinished emotional business that lived inside of me. I actually talked about this in my new book. There I was watching television in my motherâ€™s bedroom, and I would think to myself, if I could get inside that TV set, if I could be an entertainer, that this feeling would go away. Iâ€™ve always felt like a chocolate Easter bunny. Itâ€™s on a little stand here, and it looks solid and rich and chocolate-y and delicious, and heavy. And then you pick it up and itâ€™s hollow. Thereâ€™s nothing on the inside. Itâ€™s a shell, quarter of an inch thick. But if I could be inside that TV, I would be whole. And challenging that idea was that I was able to use my unfinished emotional life and create a character in order toÂ fulfill the logical continuous behavior of the character according to the given circumstances of the writer. So, the writer is working out all of his unfinished emotional business, and then Iâ€™m a conduit. Iâ€™m fulfilling my emotional business, as well as the music supervisor, as well as the director, as well as the scenic artists. Weâ€™re all about our past. Weâ€™re trying to adjust our past, make it better. What weâ€™re looking for is peace of mind.
Are you able to enjoy the success that you’ve had more now? You’ve mentioned being in over 80 films. Are there any achievements you’re particularly proud of that you might have missed in the moment?
JP:Â I never felt that I had the luxury to stop and smell the roses. That in doing so, somebody else could get to the front of the line. I always was thankful. I would always pinch myself and think, Iâ€™m making a movie in China with Steven Spielberg. How lucky is that? But itâ€™s like the old joke â€” you would never want to be part of a club that would have you as a member. I think thatâ€™s very human. Thereâ€™s this self-loathing that Iâ€™m always cognitive of. Iâ€™m always saying, be nice to yourself, stupid. There was never anyone out there that I would allow to treat me as badly as I treated myself.
And [No Kidding, Me 2!], itâ€™s an important film. Iâ€™m very proud of it. I never understood the power of service. As an actor, Iâ€™ve performed and Iâ€™ve been paid for my service. I never acted for anybody, I acted for myself. It felt good, it was freeing. I never had any idea who I was. I was always very comfortable being a character.
Do you think of yourself as an advocate for people suffering from mental illness?Â
JP:Â No. I remember hearing a lady say something on Facebook. She said she longed for the day when talking about her mental uneasiness was less thought of as an example of bravery, but rather as a matter of fact. Like Iâ€™m Italian-American. Iâ€™m Jewish. Iâ€™m bi-polar. Everybodyâ€™s got something. Everybodyâ€™s sick. And the reason why weâ€™re sick is because weâ€™re keeping it in. For me the big light bulb moment was when I let all my secrets out. Life is really hard. Period. And the fact that I know that now makes it so much easier to experience. This too shall pass. And so what Iâ€™m trying to do is find the zest for living, find that wonderful freedom of just being. Just being in the moment.
I wanted to talk with you a little bit about Hoboken. You’ve said you’ve done some work with charities in the area.Â
JP:Â I gave the homeless shelter the documentary, and know a lot of the guys there because I participate in a lot of the 12-step programs that go on there. I see them there. The 12-step program which was started by a couple of alcoholics in 1933, I think. Dr. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. The idea of talking to another person about your uneasiness and taking it one day at a time. Living in the moment. My depression is always about the past. My anxiety is always about tomorrow. So, if I’ve got one foot in tomorrow and one foot in yesterday, I’m pissing all over today.
You’ve been in Hoboken for quite awhile. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed from when you were growing up and right now?Â
JP:Â It’s not scary. I’m not afraid. I joined the Facebook page Old Hoboken. There’s like 2,500 of us. People come back and they say, â€œOh it’s not the same.â€ It’s like, thank God it’s not the same. (Laughs) My cousin Kevin, he lives upstairs. Weâ€™ve been in this building since 1987. And so I’ve been able to see the gentrification. Hoboken is a community that has really come a long way. There was so much hatred. What I learned best when we moved to the projects was that the diversity, the cultural diversity, was paramount on survival. You had to get along with everybody or you would perish. And then you find out everybody else is just like you.