A HOLLYWOOD MAN FOR ALL SEASONS FROM THE OLD HARBOR PROJECTS TO HOLLYWOOD
Jay Giannone embodies the axiom that perseverance pays off. Often described as the inspiration for the character Turtle on the smash HBO series “Entourage” (below, he sets the record straight on that), Giannone traveled a path that stretches from the Old Harbor Projects of South Boston to the proverbial bright lights of Hollywood—with a wide array of stops along the way.
A close friend of Dorchester-born and raised Mark Wahlberg since they were 15 years old, Giannone was an accomplished break dancer who went on tour with Wahlberg in the U.S., Europe and other spots across the globe. The Boston pair remains close friends and Giannone has been blazing his own course – a burgeoning one – in film. If you’ve seen “The Departed” and “Black Mass,” along with many other films, you’ll recognize Jay Giannone instantly for the street-smart guys he’s portrayed on both sides of the celluloid law. Despite that “look,” anyone who typecasts him in just that role is sorely mistaken. Actor, dancer, performer, writer, composer, director and producer—Giannone is all of that and more.
For Giannone, the ability to play Hollywood tough guys is born of personal experience. He freely acknowledges that he grew up like that, and if not for several fortunate breaks, could well have gone gangster like some of the kids he grew up with, and ran with in Southie, after the murder of his father when Giannone was 10. Grappling at that point with a self-professed “identity crisis,” Giannone was headed for trouble on Boston’s meaner streets. Then, while skipping school one day, he sneaked into a Detroit Pistons practice before their game that night against the Celtics. One of the players, rebounding great John Salley, spotted the teenager and asked why he wasn’t in school.
To Giannone’s surprise, Salley started a conversation with him, gave him tickets to the game and urged him to stay in school. The NBA star promised Giannone that if he stuck with school, Salley would meet him and hand him tickets every time the Pistons came to Boston. A friendship evolved that continues today. In fact, some years later, Salley proved instrumental in persuading Giannone to try his luck in Hollywood. “He saw something in me,” Giannone says.
Eventually, Giannone became friends with other NBA players, thanks to Salley and TD Garden personnel, who let the teenager hang out during practices at the Garden. He ran errands for Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and others who also took a liking to him. For the kid whose life could still have taken a wrong turn, the players’ friendship and counsel made the difference. “Thing was,” Giannone relates, “those guys all steered me away from trouble and convinced me to always try and do the right thing.”
Giannone’s talent as a break dancer and street performer proved a springboard for him to put the counsel of Salley and the other players into practice. That talent was his ticket away from the streets. The 14-year-old kid from the projects was soon invited to dance with the Floor Lords, a New England break dance troupe on a particular with the best groups in New York and anywhere else across the U.S.
Giannone credits some of his affinity for performance to his bloodlines. His mother, Janet, is an actress and was the lead singer of a rock band. His grandmother was a composer, his great-grandmother a painter.
With the Floor Lords, and then as a key member of Wahlberg’s musical “crew,” Giannone also began opening eyes in the worlds of modeling, as well as print and television advertising. In a highly successful Converse national campaign, he played the role of the company’s signature “Chuck Taylor” character. He also appeared in the pages of a J. Crew catalog and a nationwide Gatorade campaign, with mentor Michael Jordan. Yet although Giannone was attracting plenty of attention, he kept working his proverbial tail off to get the next gig, the next ad.
In 1995, Giannone made his television debut in “Pacific Blue,” portraying a drug dealer on the Venice Beach boardwalk. He cut his feature-film teeth in 1996 when he aptly drew upon his life experiences to depict a character named Teddy Mac in “Southie.”
Other roles soon followed. With pal Mark Wahlberg, he was in “Three Kings,” along with George Clooney. In 2006, he not only landed the role of a Boston detective in Martin Scorsese’s Academy-Award-winning film “The Departed,” but also served as the consultant and technical advisor to Leonardo DiCaprio and Scorsese himself on and off the set. Giannone’s firsthand knowledge of Southie’s “Irish mob” – including personal familiarity with James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and Kevin Weeks, among others—proved invaluable to DiCaprio’s performance as an undercover State Police officer infiltrating the Southie underworld and to realistic touches for everything from other actors’ Boston accents to city scenes that had the correct look.
While getting work and attention as an actor, Giannone also concentrated on learning the ins and outs of writing, directing and producing from everyone with whom he worked in film, network television and cable. In 2009, he wrote, produced, directed and played the lead in a short film entitled “Diamond in the Rough,” which won the Boston Film Night Audience Award, and took on the same workload with his feature film “Scalpers.”
Giannone, honing all aspects of his craft every step of the way, has racked up credits in the aforementioned “Entourage” and “The Departed,” along with appearances in films such as “Gone Baby Gone,” “American Hustle” and “Black Mass,” in which the Whitey Bulger biopic, starring Johnny Depp as the Southie crime lord, allowed Giannone’s deep knowledge of the Boston turf to come to the fore of the cast and directing crew. Recently and fittingly, Giannone has been acting and advising in “Patriots Day,” in which Wahlberg stars and produces. The subject, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, is one that is visceral for Giannone and his long-time friend.
Giannone is currently earning plaudits for “It Snows All the Time,” a deeply moving film on Alzheimer’s Disease and its impact on family members of the diagnosed. The stellar cast features Lesley Ann Warren. Writer, producer, director, actor of the movie’s score—Giannone took on all of those roles from start to finish.
Finding a little time from his hectic schedule, Giannone talked with Scene about the new film and his path from public housing to Hollywood.
Scene: How did “It Snows All the Time” come to you? What shows through every frame, every word, every scene and every note, is that this was a genuine labor of love.
Giannone: I met a guy in church and as we got to talking, he began telling me about his Dad, who was suffering with Alzheimer’s. He really wanted to make a movie about it because at least five million Americans have it, and when you figure that the disease affects 8 to 12 family members of each victim, you realize that Alzheimer’s is playing a big part in the lives of 50 million or more people.
I consider myself so lucky in this industry and this movie really is a way to give back something positive. We said that if we make this, it’s not really for money. From the start, we have been committed to working with the Alzheimer’s Association and giving them a substantial share of any profits.
Will the shared profits go to an umbrella organization for Alzheimer’s research, or can it be spread in ways to help families struggling with its effects? Or perhaps both?
What we discovered is that there are many, many regional and local chapters of the association. For example, we’ve been working with chapters in Orange County, Omaha [Nebraska] and others. We’re committed to helping families, but research is so important. It’s key. There’s still so much that needs to be done just to find better drugs and treatments and hopefully a cure someday. With “It Snows All the Time,” we want to raise awareness of how devastating Alzheimer’s is and how much needs to be done—as well as make a great movie.
Once you decided to take on this difficult subject, you must have done a great deal of research before you could actually start your script.
I dove in deep. I learned that dementia is the main umbrella of the disease and that Alzheimer’s is one of its forms—it strikes the front lobe of the brain. In the movie, we deal with the onset of Alzheimer’s at an earlier age, in one’s 50s.
I sat with my friend’s family for more hours than I can count. Eric Watson and I wrote every word based on the family, and it was so sad and painful to watch and become a part of. One of the major things I learned is that with Alzheimer’s, you lose someone twice—as the persons slips deeper into the disease and, of course, when they pass away. Eric knows this personally because his grandfather had it.
Writing the script, these were all things we realized had to be in there for the audience.
When you had a working script, how did you go about the daunting process of getting a cast and actually getting it made?
This was where I was truly fortunate because of all the breaks in the film industry I’ve had and all the people and connections I’ve been able to make. Still, even with a few connections, it’s really tough to get a project on film. Sheila Jaffe [“Entourage”] was essential in helping us get a great cast. If you can approach people with a big-name actor or actress, or two, it makes a huge difference in getting people to invest. Sheila and her team set me up with actor and executive producer, Bret Cullen, whose mom has Alzheimer’s. They all helped me get the script into the hands of Lesley Ann Warren, who read it and loved it. When we asked if she’d consider playing the lead role, she said, “The script made me cry. I’ll do it.”
With Lesley—an Academy Award nominee—on board, we went to investors and were able to land funding.
As the project’s writer, director, producer, cast member and so on, the pressure must have mounted once filming got underway.
It sure did. Even with some funding, we were of course shooting in a shoestring budget. I was especially nervous as the director. I knew I had 60 or more people to direct—actors, camera crew, everyone. When we started, though, a lot of the nerves disappeared.
Every day at 6 a.m., I was on the set. Everyone was firing ideas at me left and right. At this point, I truly believed I was ready for this and that somehow I was meant to do this, to tell this important story. The short films I’d made prepared me for something this big. I felt confident, and most of all, I wanted this work to make
How long did it actually take you to write the initial script?
We wrote it in about 90 days. I did a two-week rewrite a year later, creating some new characters and making a few changes. At that point, I said to myself, “It’s there.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask what it’s been like to be part of several big movies filmed on your old Boston turf and about your friendship with Mark Wahlberg.
Coming home—Boston will always be home even though I’m based in California now—is always a great experience. I get to see and catch up with family and old friends.
Working with Mark is always the best. This is the fourth film I’ve been in with him and it’s 100 percent true that Mark is the ultimate good guy. We’ve both come a long way from some pretty tough stuff as kids, and in many ways we’ve traveled our road together. I’m truly blessed to work with him and even more blessed to be friends with him.
Mark opened a lot of doors for me. Those doors have allowed me to watch and work with Scorsese, DiCaprio, Keitel [Harvey], and so many giants of this industry.
What has it been like to work with Mark and the cast and crew of “Patriots Day?” For both of you, the subject of the Marathon bombings has to hit on a gut level.
It’s been emotional in so many ways. The one thing that I noticed from the first day on set was that in the eyes of Mark, Peter Berg [the director] and everyone involved with the project, everyone was determined to do this right. No cheap emotion, no contrived drama, no BS—simply to get it right for the victims, their families, and everyone around Boston. So many people here were and are personally affected by the tragedy.
“Patriots Day” is really a tribute to the entire city’s community. Mark and Peter have watched again and again the actual footage to ensure accuracy. They want this movie to matter.
That sounds exactly like what you’ve achieved with “It Snows All the Time.” If there’s one thing that you would like audiences to take with them after seeing the film, what would it be?
Enjoy the time you have with your loved ones—regardless of the situation. I’ve learned this from both the movie and from my own long, hard struggle. A lot of people experience worse struggles and no one can succeed without two things—perseverance and luck. I truly believe that if most people can catch a break and recognize when it comes, they can overcome a lot. For me, faith, family and passion for my work are what drive me. I’ve had a lot of help along the way and never stopped working. I’ve made choices—good and bad—and I’m so blessed to be where I am now, writing, acting, directing, composing and working on stories that matter.