Still, Tucci is hardly repeating himself. "The wonderful thing about playing both is that they're complete opposites," he says. "Joe Mitchell was courtly and gentlemanly. He took his time when he spoke and wrote. Winchell was the complete opposite. Mitchell was interested in plumbing the depths of everyday people. Winchell was concerned with those who were famous and mostly (he was) abusing them. I'd like people to remember who they are."
From listening to Tucci's voice over the phone, it's obvious that Mitchell and his work offer more than just a new role. He says, "If you listen to the way Joseph Mitchell talks over and over and over again like I did, and you read his writing over and over again, you can't help but soak in part of who he was. Who he was, was a great listener. It didn't much matter that he wasn't from New York (Mitchell was a native of North Carolina). I suppose it did because he was endlessly fascinated. He had none of the cynicism that maybe New Yorkers get, but he was a great listener, and that's the thing that made him such an interesting person and such a good writer."
Mitchell applied his talents to chronicling a wide variety of obscure but intriguing people. Up in the Old Hotel, an anthology of Mitchell's work, includes features of saloon patrons, a bearded lady, and a homeless Bohemian named Joe Gould (played in the film by Sir Ian Holm from The Sweet Hereafter). Mitchell developed a close kinship with Gould, in part because Gould claimed to be writing a massive document called An Oral History of Our Time.
Tucci explains, "It's like Joe Gould says, 'What we know of as history, what we think of as history, is only formal history and largely false. I'll put down the informal history or I'll perish in the attempt.' That's what Mitchell was doing and why (Mitchell and Gould) are such interesting characters. They were doing exactly the same thing. They were both writing the informal history, which is much more interesting in a way."
The actor obviously shares his protagonists' fascination with the past. All three of the movies Tucci directed himself -- Big Night (which he co-directed with actor Campbell Scott), The Impostors, and Joe Gould's Secret -- are period films. "I love period pieces. I love the '20s, '30s, and '40s. I love the styles, the architecture, the time before things were really mass produced, before television and the atomic bomb, when there were 22 newspapers in New York. It was hard (with Joe Gould's Secret). There are these pockets of old New York still that exist in the (Greenwich) Village and certainly in Harlem, where we shot some stuff that 'doubled' as the Village. It's not about adding things to make New York look old. It's really just about taking away stuff: a sign, a lighting fixture, or something. Or maybe it's painting one building. Suddenly, there's this street that existed 50 years ago.
"We had very little money, and you have to be very careful where you put your camera, and you have to choose your street very specifically. But if you are careful enough and if you have a great production designer like we did, Andy Jackness, you can wind up with a really beautiful film. People say, 'My God. I've never seen the period evoked so well. In fact, it's just about looking and looking and finding the right places and stripping away and shooting naturalistically, not with any nostalgic affectations," says Tucci.
Directing has allowed Tucci to explore his passion for the past, but it has also helped him land a more diverse set of roles. Before Big Night, Tucci found himself typecast. "People want to cast you as mobsters because you're Italian. It's unfortunate; time to put an end to that," he says.
However, Tucci hasn't used his new position to be a camera hog. His films tend to spread the spotlight across a large cast. For example, in both Big Night and Joe Gould's Secret, Ian Holm often dominates. "I love ensemble," Tucci gushes. "It's so interesting, so much fun, so playful, and I think it's really enjoyable for an audience too."
Tucci has found directing Holm especially rewarding. "He's tentative at first, but then he dives into it. You push him and you push him, and he'll just go wherever you need him to go," he says. When told how Holm has publicly stated his doubts about meeting the over-the-top demands of the role, Tucci replies with a laugh, "That's what he says, but I don't believe him."
It's somewhat hard to envision what link Tucci finds between quiet movies, such as Big Night and Joe Gould's Secret, and a boisterous farce, such as The Impostors. "They're all sort of connected because the theme that runs through them is how you create, why you create, and why you can't create sometimes," he explains. "Where does the artist fit into society? You're making it for people to see. Sometimes some people don't get it; sometimes critics don't get it, and that's all you can do. If everybody likes your movie, you've probably done something wrong."