Joe Pantoliano Interviewed on Mental Health
June 2010 marked the 25th anniversary of The Goonies, Richard Donner’s cult classic film. Over 2,500 Goonies fans of all ages descended on Astoria, Oregon June 4-7 to eat Baby Ruth cake, slurp “Chunk chowder,” and drink “truffle shuffle stout” in the tiny Northwestern town where The Goonies was filmed. Among the returning actors was Joe Pantoliano, who played the bumbling gangster Francis Fratelli. I met him at one of several autograph sessions planned for the weekend, and asked if he would do an interview at some point. “Of course,” he said. “Sit down. Let’s talk right now.”
Although he’s supposed to be autographing copies of his mental illness awareness documentary, No Kidding! Me 2!!, at this signing, “Joey Pants” happily signs the Goonies DVDs, VHS tapes, and posters that fans push across the table to him.
“Do you have bipolar disorder?” a teenage girl asks him as he signs her Goonies DVD case.
“I have depression, ADHD, and dyslexia,” the Emmy Award-winning actor says with a smile on his face.
If his admission sounds blunt, consider this: Pantoliano has built an entire charitable organization around the idea that mental illness is something that needs to be talked about. No Kidding, Me Too! (“NKM2”) is a non-profit organization comprised of entertainment industry members united in an effort to educate Americans about the epidemic of mental illness. NKM2’s advisory board includes Hollywood heavyweights such as James Cameron, Harrison Ford, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Downey, Jr., some of whom have recorded public service announcements for the organization.
“We use celebrities to shine their light on the issue,” Pantoliano says. He pulls an iPad out of his backpack and pulls up one of the videos on YouTube. “Watch this,” he says, handing it to me. I try to watch the video, but find it hard to concentrate when my only thought is, Cypher is letting me use his iPad!
“The brain is an organ – just like the heart, live and kidneys – and we need to encourage everyone to treat it as such from both a medical and social perspective,” Pantoliano wrote on the organization’s website, NKM2.org. “Why is it that asthma is socially acceptable, but mental disease isn’t? We don’t have to whisper about it anymore.”
He believes that his mother had long suffered from mental illness as well. He only realized she had been sick when he saw a reflection of her in Marcia Gay Harden’s performance as a mentally ill woman in Canvas, a 2005 film that he co-starred in.
The recognition of his mother’s illness gave him the impetus to finally seek help for his own problems. “I was on top of the world,” he says. “I couldn’t understand why I felt so terrible. I thought if I accumulated so much success, the feeling would go away.” Over the years, he says he had trouble controlling his anger; he contemplated suicide.
Pantoliano learned he had been suffering from clinical depression for the last decade, and his psychiatrist put him on an antidepressant cocktail of Lexapro and Wellbutrin. “I feel great now,” he says, adding that he also attends talk therapy sessions twice a month and works out regularly.
Pantoliano is on a mission to share what he’s learned with others. He “came out” on the National Alliance on Mental Illness blog in 2007. Since then, he’s been on a whirlwind tour filming and promoting his documentary, No Kidding! Me 2!!, doing fundraisers, screenings, and interviews to get the word out about NKM2. Along the way, he has somehow found the time to continue acting and finish a memoir about his mental illness (no publication date set).
Is an actor best known for playing criminals in such movies as The Sopranos and The Matrix the best person to advocate for changing the face of mental illness in the United States? After spending an hour with Pantoliano, I can say, “yes.” While he is a beloved actor with a career of hits under his belt, it’s his sincerity and enthusiasm that make him the perfect advocate for mental health issues.
“How are you doing? Are you taking your meds?” Pantoliano asks Ashley Gandolfi, 20, while autographing a DVD copy of No Kidding! Me 2!!
Gandolfi came to Astoria specifically to meet Pantoliano; it’s the first time she had been out of the house in five months, she tells me. “Hopefully just watching his DVD will help open up something. Mental illness runs in my family. Bipolar disorder, depression, dyslexia…basically I have everything,” she says. “It helps when someone in the public eye talks about it. It really helps.”
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