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Yonkers Joe: Chazz Palminteri Rolls the Dice

As Yonkers Joe (TFF '08), Chazz Palminteri hits the jackpot in a film with "a heart, a caper, and a father and son story."
Yonkers Joe: opens January 9In Yonkers Joe, which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, Chazz Palminteri (the eponymous Yonkers Joe) is a gambler with a lot on his plate, mostly in the form of a son with special needs (Tom Guiry) who is about to turn 21 and therefore age out of his group home. Both men are named Joe, and it turns out they have a lot to teach each other about what it means to be a man.


Christine Lahti co-stars as Joe's girlfriend and sometimes-partner-in-crime, Janice. Though rough around the edges, Janice has a lot of love to give, and you can just tell she aches to be the anchor in this reluctant family.


Because he needs a wad of money to get his son into a new program, Joe (Sr.) needs that one big score he's always dreamed of. Up to now, Joe has used tricks and sleight of hand to cheat smalltime cardplayers and dice-rollers out of their cold, hard cash. But now he is ready to take a big risk, and that means Vegas, baby.


On the eve of Yonkers Joe's debut in theaters, Tribeca sat down with Palminteri to talk about the film, his dexterity (or lack thereof) at magic, and his experience at the Tribeca Film Festival.


Tribeca: How did you get involved with the project?
Chazz Palminteri: My agent called me with the script, and said they made me an offer. As I read it, I thought, “This is different.” It was a good script—it had a heart, a caper, a father and son story. I really liked it a lot. I met with Bob Celestino [the writer/director], and I liked him right away. He knew the area [Yonkers, the Bronx] well—he knew all the answers to the questions I asked him!


Tribeca: You grew up in the Bronx. Does that mean you knew Yonkers too?
CP: Yeah, I even lived in Yonkers. But that wasn’t important.


Tribeca: Bob Celestino has said that he has always been interested in magic tricks. Did you have the same interest?
CP: No, I loved gambling, cards, and dice, but I was never into magic.


Tribeca: Did it take a long time to learn the tricks with the dice?
CP: Oh, it was very hard to learn. The real Yonkers Joe was Celestino’s father, so he was great at all those tricks, and he taught them all to Bob when he was very young. So he in turn was teaching me. But you should know: I could do those tricks one out of ten times, and that’s the one they filmed. To be able to really use them, you have to do it like sneezing. It would have taken years to learn to do it as well as he could. I practiced for hours and weeks, but I am nowhere near as good as he is at all. He could do it without thinking.


Tribeca: So you’re not ready to scam Vegas?
CP: Oh, no.


Tribeca: The film has a great cast: Michael Lerner, Linus Roache, Christine Lahti. You’ve worked with her before, right?
CP: I directed her in a thing called Women vs. Men. We have a great relationship. When we were looking for someone to play my girlfriend, we found out she was available, and I told Bob, “She would be a dream.” The thing about Christine is that some actors can go from A to B or A to C, but she can go from A to Z. She can do literally anything. And we had a great connection.


Tribeca: How emotional were the scenes with Tim Guiry [the actor who plays Yonkers Joe’s son, a character with Down's Syndrome]?
CP: It was very emotional because sometimes I say things to him that are not nice. But I think it’s most important to be real and honest. You don’t want to play characters who—look, people don’t have to like me, they just have to understand me. It has to be real, and you can’t sugarcoat these things.


Tribeca: Did you draw on anything from your own life?
CP: I have a son, so I know what that feels like. I thought about what it would be like [if circumstances had been like they were in the film]—the love I have for my son, how I would feel. There were some moments where I had to go to dark places, but that’s what you have to do as an actor.


Tribeca: Celestino had a cousin who…
CP: Yes, his first cousin had Down Syndrome, so he had that to draw from when writing the script.


Yonkers Joe: opens January 9Tribeca: How cooperative were the casinos?
CP: Oh, they were very cooperative. The producers live in Vegas, so they had connections. We got favors that not many people could get. But we had to recreate the “eye in the sky” rooms. [Laughs.] They didn’t give us access to those.


Tribeca: Yonkers Joe premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. What was your experience like at the Festival?
CP: Oh, I had a great experience there. I was so excited when the movie got accepted. The Tribeca Film Festival is very important to me because, obviously, I am a New Yorker. And Bob [De Niro] is  a close friend. What he and Jane and Craig [Rosenthal and Hatkoff—the two other founders] did—when you think about it, it’s astounding! What is this—the 5th year? 6th year?


Tribeca: The 2009 Festival will be the 8th.
CP: I think the Tribeca Film Festival is just as important as Cannes and Sundance. Don’t get me wrong, what Robert Redford has done with Sundance is amazing—it’s an incredible opportunity for young filmmakers. But there was nothing like it on the East Coast. In the short span of seven years, Bob has done it. Think about that! Incredible.


Listen, in 1988, Bob showed me the building he bought down there [the Tribeca Film Center]. He said, “This is where my new office is going to be,” and everyone said he was crazy. That no one would go down there! But Bob De Niro singlehandedly changed the landscape of Manhattan. Literally. He was the first to buy a building down there, the first to put a restaurant down there. He saved Tribeca then, and then he saved it again after 9/11. He did an incredible job. So anything I can do to help the festival, I am more than happy to do.


Yonkers Joe opens in New York at the Quad Cinema this Friday, January 9.
It also opens in LA at Laemmle Theatres.
For more release dates, visit the official site.


Learn more about the film.
Watch the trailer.


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