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You don't normally see character actors like Dennis Farina get the chance to lead a film, but that's what makes 'The Last Rites of Joe May' so special. The gritty indie (out now in New York as well as on demand) debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in the spring, and features famed 'that guy!' Farina ('Midnight Run,' 'Get Shorty') as the titular Joe, a small-time hood who has aged out of being a small-time hood. Following a lengthy hospital stay, Joe is released back onto the streets of Chicago without two nickels to rub together. Not that finances stop him from trying to affect his old life -- embodied by a brown leather jacket that he won't sell under any circumstances. He winds up boarding with a single mother (Jamie Anne Allman) and her daughter (Meredith Droeger), and, in them, finds the seeds for his final chance at redemption.

As Joe, Farina delivers a layered performance that combines gallows humor and tough-guy gravitas with deep-seated pain and regret. Like its lead character, 'The Last Rites of Joe May' is a throwback character piece that would have been perfectly at home in the mid-70s.

Moviefone caught up with Farina recently in New York to discuss the film, its tricky balancing act, and his career of portraying tough guys.

Before we get into this, I have to know: do you still have Joe's brown leather jacket.
Yes, I do. I think the jacket was another character. As was the weather. We always thought the weather should be another character in the movie. Because it's a different movie if you shoot it in June in Florida or something like that. The jacket was his identity.

Chicago itself feels like another character, too.
Well, originally it was set in Brooklyn. When I read it, I asked Joe Maggio, the writer and director, if he would consider Chicago. Because I'm a Chicagoan; I live there. The tax incentive in Illinois is a little better than it is in New York State. He came to visit. We took him around. Showed him different neighborhoods. Fed him a lot of Italian food. And he agreed that he thought it might work in Chicago, too. Our big concern was whether or not there were pigeons, but there are. [Laughs] So that was good to know.

You've worked with a lot of great directors, from Michael Mann to Steven Spielberg, what did you think of Joe?
I was confident in his confidence in this script. He had lived with it for about three or four years. It was based a little bit on his grandfather. There wasn't a question that you could ask him that he didn't know the answer to. We agreed a majority times on what the character would or would not do. The only differences we had arose because we changed it so much from New York to Chicago. What they would say in Chicago as opposed to New York. But, as a whole -- as a through-line through the movie, as a theme through the movie -- what the character would be and should be, we agreed pretty much.

When you were growing up in Chicago, did you encounter many guys like Joe May?
Oh, yeah! Yeah! There are Joe May's all around and there were a few of them in our neighborhood. There are still a few around. They are likable rogues whose time has come and gone. But they don't realize it. Neither does Joe. In the movie, he just won't accept the fact. His friend goes to live in a retirement home and he thinks it's the worst thing in the world. He can't believe he's just in there playing gin. There's got to be something else going on besides that. Eventually, he has to come to terms with reality.

One of the things that I enjoyed about the film was how it never pandered or got schmaltzy, even as Joe interacts with the little girl. How difficult was it to get those scenes right?
Working with Meredith Droeger was great. She was just a lovable, talented girl. Joe kept telling me, "Don't fall in love." The tendency is that you want to grab this little girl and hug her. Then it becomes a different movie. That's not the movie we were making. That's what Joe kept saying to me. He said, "When you talk to her, I want you to talk to her like she's one of your peers. Like there's no age difference. She's just another 70-year-old guy. You don't know how to talk to her in any other way." That was hard for me to do. She's such a cute girl, but he held me back. There's a scene where Jamie Anne Allman's character said, "Would you give me a hug?" And Joe May says, "No." So, I asked Joe Maggio about that, and said, "Joe, what about this?" He said, "Don't. You can't do it. It becomes a different movie. Joe May at this time in his life can't take on this other stuff. He's in the fight of his life for his life, and he's got nothing. He can't even sell meat; how is he going to take care of this girl."

[Watch a scene with Farina and Droeger by clicking here]

You mention that scene with the meat. Did you actually have to lug that piece of lamb around the streets of Chicago?
Yes, we did. Yes, we did. It was 50 pounds of lamb and it was cold and it was bleeding through. It was everything that Joe Maggio wanted. Being uncomfortable with it. It's cruel. When Lenny sends him out to do that -- that's one of the first things I said to Joe. "This is really cruel." He's not trying to help him out. And Lenny comes out on top. If he sells the meat, he gets his end, and Joe's still humiliated. He's telling him to go to Florida. But I think it was really cruel.

This part almost feels tailor-made to your strengths as an actor. Was the script adjusted once you signed on or was it like that on the page?
It was pretty much there on the page. When I read it, I sorta felt the same way. But I didn't know Joe Maggio from a bale of hay, but I knew I liked the character and the situation he was in. I liked his sense of humor. I liked Joe's way of approaching it.

There's a swan-song quality to the role -- kinda like Clint Eastwood in 'Gran Torino' -- yet you're still very much a working actor. Were you worried at all that people might think of this as a victory lap on your career?
Oh, no. Oh, no. I never had that. I just thought it was a very good script and I hoped -- as we all do -- that it would turn out to be a good movie.

You've played this type of role before; do you ever feel limited by how Hollywood views you? Frustrated by typecasting?
I realize that no one is going to come to me and ask me to be Julius Caesar or a romantic lead, but I think I'm a certain type of guy who looks a certain way and that's just the reality of things. That doesn't mean those characters can't be pretty individual. I don't know that I actually have been [typecast]. You know, in addition to playing the characters like Joe May -- or, if Joe May were more successful -- somebody who may have been in 'Midnight Run' or 'Get Shorty.' In between, though, I was in 'Saving Private Ryan.' 'That Old Feeling.' More than a couple of movies that have nothing to do with those types of characters. I did a movie here years ago with Ed Burns -- who I just like an awful lot -- called 'The Sidewalks of New York.' I just liked that movie so much.

Me too. Obviously it came out in a bad time, right after 9/11.
As a matter of fact, I was here. We were going to do the publicity for 'Sidewalks.' And I had another movie called 'Big Trouble.' And that's the day -- I was here that day. Of course, that changed everything.

[Photo: Getty]



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