Stanley Tucci loves life and food

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/stanley-tucci-is-savoring-it-all?

Stanley Tucci Is Savoring It All

By Helen RosnerOctober 31, 2021

The actor Stanley Tucci sits at a table.
Tucci’s realization that food, and not acting, is the central passion of his life came in 2017, after he was diagnosed with a form of oral cancer.Photograph by Mary McCartney / Trunk Archive

Stanley Tucci has been in front of the camera, in one form or another, for some four decades now. He’s always had that certain movie-star élan, always been a master of the charismatic smolder. But it was not until April of last year, at the age of fifty-nine, that he became a proper sex symbol of the digital age. It was a few weeks into the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and Tucci’s wife, the literary agent Felicity Blunt, filmed a short phone clip in their London home of her husband mixing her a Negroni, the classic Italian cocktail, as he narrated his process step by step. The video is three minutes and seventeen seconds of obscene domestic fantasy: a man stands at a built-in bar stocked with top-shelf liquor and elegant glassware; he banters flirtatiously with his wife; his hands move with the fluidity of a confidence man dealing an ace from the bottom of the deck. Tucci is trim, gently muscled, bespectacled, a little arch, a little icy. In the background, a tidy children’s playroom is just visible, evidence of life beyond the cocktail. The video, posted to Instagram, became a viral sensation.

As Tucci explains in his new memoir, “Taste: My Life Through Food,” his career has orbited the world of food and drink nearly from the start. The book is a decidedly un-Hollywood memoir that traces Tucci’s path from son (and grandson) of magnificently talented Italian American home cooks up through his most recent project, the CNN series “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” in which he takes on the role of culinary tour guide. He writes that the realization that food, and not acting, is the central passion of his life came in 2017, after he was diagnosed with a form of oral cancer, the treatment for which destroyed his taste buds and left him temporarily reliant on a feeding tube. “Food not only feeds me, it enriches me,” he writes. “All of me. Mind, body, and soul.” Tucci and I spoke recently via video chat, as part of The New Yorker Festival. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, touches on the process of writing a memoir, the importance of truth in art, and why terrible meals aren’t always bad.

You’ve written two cookbooks. Both, as many cookbooks do, include somewhat memoiristic aspects. But your new book is a true memoir. What was it like for you to take on a project like this?

I’ve made notes about food over the years, and I thought that maybe I would compile them into a book of observations and musings. It was suggested to me, by the publishers, that I write a memoir, and I thought, Well, is that right? Is that interesting? But they said to give it a try, so I did, and, as I started writing it, it started to make sense.

We’re always taking in information in different ways—visually, orally, kinesthetically, and so on—but I realized that so much of the way I took in everything I experienced was through my mouth. So it made sense that the memoir would take that shape. I think maybe people expected it to be more about movies, or more about celebrities or gossip, and I’m afraid I’m not really interested in that. What’s interesting to me is the relationship between what you do in your job and then what you do outside of your job, whether it’s taking care of your kids or cooking or playing sport or music. And then how do those two things, or however many things, go together? Those are all the things that make up you.

Did you know who that “you” would be—the person that all of these elements would make up—before you started working on the project, or did it come together as you were working on it?

The answer is both. I’ve known for many years that food was something that I was gravitating toward. Certainly, after we made “Big Night,” which was twenty-five years ago, and then, after I did “Julie & Julia,” I just became more and more interested in food. Whenever I went to restaurants, if it was a good restaurant, I would figure out a way to insinuate myself into the kitchen shamelessly, so that I could just sort of see the way they work, and what the setup was, and maybe ask how they made a certain dish. It was fascinating to me. It became all I could think about, even when I was acting. So I knew that that was who I was. But, as I started writing, I realized that it was even more of who I was, if that makes sense.

How did you go about composing these stories? Did you check in with other people to make sure their memories lined up with yours?

I wrote a lot about my parents in the book—my parents are my heroes—and I would check in with them and say, “Do you remember this story? Is that what happened?” Then they would say, “No, it was this year,” and so on and so forth. I’m sure I’ve gotten a number of things incorrect regardless. I talked to chef friends whom I’ve known over the years, to just really get it all as exact as possible. But then, of course, it’s always one’s experience of somebody’s cooking—it’s your impression of it, your feeling of it, your experience of it.

You write about these extraordinary memories of your mother’s cooking, and the food that came out of your grandparents’ kitchens. When did you begin to cook for yourself?

When I was married to Kate, my first wife, who passed away eleven years ago. She loved food. We loved to cook together, and she taught me things that I didn’t know, and I taught her things she didn’t know. As we travelled more and more, we became more interested in food and experimenting with recipes. Then, when I met Felicity, after Kate had passed away, she was the same: food was a huge part of her life. I was introduced to the way she cooked, to the things she cooked, to the restaurants in England. I live here in London now, and luckily it’s a food mecca. A lot of people don’t think that. If you say, “Oh, I live in London,” they go [making a skeptical face], “Oh, how’s the food?” Well, it’s actually great.

Saying that food is a sensory experience might be a little bit tautological, but it seems to me from this book, from your films, from your CNN show, that the sensuousness and physicality of food is very important to you.

When you really watch somebody eat—say, when you watch somebody eat an oyster—there’s something really satisfying about it. You watch somebody take a mussel and then eat the mussel, and then they use that mussel to scoop out the next mussel and then keep using that mussel to scoop out—there’s something really beautiful about that. It becomes like some sort of strange little dance. Just watching people in a kitchen move around is really quite beautiful. It’s balletic. I love that.

That makes me think of my favorite scene from “Big Night.” The timpano, I think, gets all the attention and all the glory. But, for me, it’s always been the final scene of the movie—that five-minute wordless, unbroken take of you making a frittata from start to finish. “Balletic,” I think, in fact, is a word that I’ve used in The New Yorker to describe that scene.

Really?

Unless my editor cut it, but the word definitely came to mind. There’s something very choreographed about the ritual of cooking.

I mean, that scene is obviously choreographed, because it’s blocked within that frame, which is the proscenium, really. What I’m looking at right now here [gestures at video-chat screen] is a rectangle, and that is your blocking within that. Any successful blocking is balletic, in a way.

I was surprised how many details from your memoir I recognized from “Big Night,” which is not an autobiographical film. Do you collect these moments as they come, or do they only coalesce when the story starts to come together?

I don’t think you can consciously say, “I’m going to remember this.” If you do, you’ll never remember. They sort of rise up as you’re writing something—suddenly, it just comes from some weird part of your brain, and you go, Oh, yes! Yes! That’s it! You’re making all these connections. There are—what’s the word I want?—anchors for things. It’s a word that my acting teacher used to use. It could be a smell, a touch, a sound, a taste. There are things, really little things, as we go through life, that we remember, and, suddenly, if we want to put pen to paper or we want to re-create something as an actor or as a painter, these images come to you. They’re embedded in your subconscious because they are significant. Why are they significant? That’s purely an individual thing. They’re not necessarily traumatic or dramatic. It could be something very simple, like a pencil that you held once, the color of the pencil, and where you were. You can then take that pencil and turn it into a whole play, or a painting, or a movie, or whatever the genesis is. I think that these little things have real significance. There are, of course, huge, traumatic experiences that have real repercussions for us. But it’s the little things, in a way, that individuate us as artists.

Early in my career, I was told that, if you’re writing about something big, the way to tell it is through the smallest window possible. You pick one moment, one face, one leaf floating in the breeze, and that’s the window into the big emotion.

It’s what makes great poetry, or a great short story. They say a short story is one of the hardest things ever to write, and it’s true. It can have a profound effect, thinking about the simplicity of something. I think about [the French composer] Erik Satie—the simplicity of that, the deceiving simplicity, is incredibly profound in his music. That’s what we hope to achieve as artists.

Do you achieve it differently through acting, writing, directing?

Every genre has a different aesthetic, a different set of rules, but in the end it’s always the same. You can do a farce, but if there isn’t truth in the behavior it wouldn’t be funny. You could exhibit that same behavior in a very subtle way, and maybe even say the same lines, and it can be incredibly dramatic. The only thing that matters in acting to me, or whatever, is: Is the truth there? If the truth is there, you can go to any end of the spectrum. But if the truth isn’t there, if you’re trying to be funny—it’s the old line, an actor says, “I’m not getting a laugh when I ask for the tea.” [The director] says, “That’s because you’re not asking for the tea, you’re asking for the laugh.” I think that’s the way you have to look at every single artistic endeavor. Don’t ask for the laugh; ask for the tea, and you get the laugh. Audiences are very aware of what’s truthful and what isn’t.

You mentioned that you now think of food even while you’re acting. Did that cause any sort of existential crisis—did you think to yourself, O.K., I would like to be known as Stanley Tucci, the food guy, not Stanley Tucci, the movie star?

I don’t want to be known as anyone, except as somebody who does whatever they do well. You know what I mean? But, because I’m so interested in food, people sort of were, like, Well, you’re a real food guy. And I was, like, Yes, well, I guess I am. I think, after forty years of acting, there’s no question that you get tired. You don’t get tired of acting; you’re tired of waiting. On movie sets, eighty per cent of your time is waiting. And that’s hard after a while, particularly if you want to be with your family, or cook, or write, or do whatever else. There was a famous actor, I don’t know who, and somebody knocked on his trailer and said, “O.K., we’re ready for you, and sorry to keep you waiting.” And he said, “I get paid to wait. It’s the acting I do for free.” There’s a real truth to that. I love acting. It’s simply the waiting around that makes it hard.

There’s an inactive aspect to acting and there’s a very active aspect to cooking and researching food. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the CNN series.

The series follows, in some ways, a very traditional food-travel-show format. Each episode has you in a different city or region, blending together the culinary and the cultural. How was it approaching the shoot as a host rather than an actor?

It was hard for me. I’m not used to being myself; I find it uncomfortable. I didn’t want the show to be presentational, or performative, if that’s even a word. I wanted it to be casual, in a way, but specific. I wanted it to be entertaining, but also I wanted to dig a little bit deeper than one might normally. And I didn’t want to always show the good side of Italy, a country I love, because no country is perfect. Italy isn’t always sunny, and the people aren’t always happy. There’s a lot of poverty, there’s a lot of strife, there’s a huge political rift between the right and the left, not unlike America. There are those who believe that the north should be separated from the south. That’s been going on for many, many years, ever since Italy was united, in 1861. We wanted to touch on all of that, but always through the prism of food.

Italy is a very small country, really, in comparison to so many, but it’s so diverse geographically. And the influences over centuries and millennia are staggering: from the Middle East and North Africa, from Spain, from Germany, from France, from Austria and Hungary, from Greece. It’s incredible. All of those cultures have influence—yes, on politics, and, yes, the genetic makeup of Italians, but on the food, too. So, the food in the Veneto, where we’re going next, is completely different than the food in Sicily, and that makes sense because of topography, but also because of who ended up there and who ended up there.

You filmed that first season while you were in recovery from oral cancer. Were you able to taste while you were shooting?

My taste was back, but I wasn’t really able to eat everything. I’m still not able to really eat everything, by which I mean swallow everything. The radiation has a profound effect on your salivary glands; basically, you don’t have enough saliva—and I still don’t have enough saliva to eat everything the way I’d like to. I was eating bistecca alla Fiorentina, which I could taste—it’s so incredibly delicious—but I couldn’t swallow it. I’d roll it around in my mouth for a very long period of time, and some of it I could swallow, but then I would have to eject it.

You wrote that, while you were on a feeding tube, one of the ways you passed the time was by watching cooking shows, which seems to me like an exquisite form of torture.

Yes, it’s crazy—just how masochistic can one person be? I would watch cooking shows because I didn’t have to smell the food. I couldn’t smell any food, because it was so disgusting to me; I couldn’t put anything in my mouth. It was disgusting for months. Your taste buds are completely destroyed. It’s not that you don’t taste—you do taste, but everything tastes like shit, and that goes on for months. But I could look at it. Looking at it was fun. And it sort of propelled me to get better.

I have believed for a very long time, and maybe this is overstating it a little bit, but the way the food tastes is often the least important thing about the meal. It’s the room, the mood, the time of day, who you’re with, the conversation matters so much more.

Sometimes. I can’t say “so much more.” But I know what you mean. It’s the experience. I mean, if the food is terrible, that’s sad, but at least you’re having a good time.

A terrible meal at least makes for a better story than a mediocre one. I’m thinking of the andouillette story—

Instantly. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Do you want to maybe give us a little outline of that?

When we were promoting “Julie & Julia,” we were at the Deauville American Film Festival, and we were driving up to Paris. We stopped to get some lunch. I’m with Meryl [Streep], and my publicist, and Meryl’s brother, and Chris Messina, who was also in the movie. We stopped in this little place and we ordered andouillette, which we thought—well, here we are, playing two of the greatest gourmands in history, and yet we have no idea what andouillette is. That tells you how good we really are as actors. So, we ordered it, thinking it’s sort of like andouille sausage, and andouillette is the opposite of andouille sausage. It’s horrifying. It’s entrails wrapped in entrails, and then some. I mean, even the colon is included in the andouillette. And it’s huge! I won’t say it on this call, but it looks like—like a . . . huge . . . thing. And it’s disgusting. Meryl and I, and her brother, we almost vomited.

The owner, who was really incredibly sweet and polite, came over and said, “How do you like your andouillette?” We said, “Oh, it’s, you know, it’s great. It’s different from the other andouillettes that we’ve had.” Just lying. He said, “Would you like something else?” We said, “Yes, we’d like an omelette, please. We’ll have four of them. That would be great.”

That’s the wonderful thing about terrible meals. I can, of course, remember wonderful meals, but my terrible meals I remember with such exquisite clarity. Maybe they were not hilarious in the moment, though often they were, but they definitely become hilarious in retrospect. Like eating a literal sausage made out of poo in France with Meryl Streep.

I mean, not poo.

Not actual poo, I’m sorry.

No, it’s just what the poop comes out of.

Let’s move on to something more delicious. If you could eat only one food or one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?

It would be, probably, pasta in some form. It would have to be.

I feel like you have to be more specific. Pasta is such a broad category. I don’t know if that’s an acceptable answer.

You mean a shape of pasta?

It’s sort of like answering, “Salad.” How do we define salad?

Well, I was trying to give myself a little leeway. I don’t know—pasta marinara. I could say Bolognese, but, I don’t know, meat every day, it’s too much.

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