Everybody loves Stanley Tucci. Seriously, the mere mention of his name acts like some sort of miraculous elixir, making misanthropes grin, cynics swoon and grown men jabber with joy. As for the women…
Anyway, the sheer range of their adoration makes it all the more impressive. For some, it’s his bestselling autobiography, Taste, not just lyrical and lovely, but a passionate paean to the power of good food. For others, his long and lauded acting career. Oh, and as writer and co-director of Big Night, one of the greatest culinary films of all. Many mention his documentary series Searching for Italy, pure televisual comfort food, a sort of visual spaghetti carbonara, while still more revel in his cocktail-making skills, those Instagram videos becoming a massive lockdown hit.
In fact, it’s got to the stage where he’s become not just an honorary Brit (he’s married to literary agent Felicity Blunt and has lived here for over a decade) but a sort of National Living Treasure, his name uttered in the same breath as Dench, Fry and Attenborough. And now, as we sit in Riva, one of London’s most discreet Italian restaurants, I ask him how he jumped, in the space of a couple of years, from much respected actor and director, to, well, bona-fide Instagram sex bomb.
Food and family have been central to actor Stanley Tucci’s (pictured) life from the start. In 2017, Tucci was diagnosed with tongue cancer and nearly lost his taste
He roars with laughter. ‘It was that f***ing negroni. Really, that’s all it was. People always said I dressed well, and I was like, yeah, whatever, lots of people dress well.’ Today, he’s as immaculate as ever, in a green corduroy jacket, pristine white shirt, grey cashmere waistcoat, green woollen tie and jeans. Only Tucci could make smart-casual cool. ‘But then I made that cocktail, and during lockdown, people were desperate. And I had a captive audience. No one could go anywhere. They’re stuck in their houses and they’re online all the time. So this happens and then people start tweeting about it.’
It was after Chris Evans, his great friend and star of Captain America, said ‘a nice thing’ about it that the video ‘went crazy’. And after that, ‘suddenly you become some kind of tastemaker’. He shrugs and takes a sip of his beer. ‘I love to get to five o’clock. Have a cocktail. Make dinner for the kids [he has three from his late first wife, Kathryn, and two with Felicity]. And then we’ll make dinner afterwards, me and Fee. But I love that. It makes me so happy.’
Food and family have been central to his life, right from the start. Born in 1960 in Peekskill, upstate New York, to Joan, a secretary and writer, and Stanley, a highschool art teacher, he’s ‘Calabrian on both sides’. It seems to have been a happy childhood. ‘There’s always something, growing up,’ he says, as our stracchino arrives, all clean, lactic loveliness, the oozing cheese sitting atop a pile of sweetly marinated peppers. ‘But, yes. It was happy.’ And they ate very well indeed. ‘My mother never cooked a bad meal,’ he says, between bites. ‘Never. She wasn’t a good baker but that’s a different thing. Baking isn’t cooking. But it’s not just because she’s my mother and I love her. Her food is amazing.’
In 1982, after graduating from college, he moved to New York City. ‘I’d paint apartments to make money or work as a washer-up in restaurants. And go to Café Luxembourg on the Upper West Side to drink martinis and eat the hard-boiled eggs that were on the counter.’ After getting his Equity card, one of his first roles, in 1985, was in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, with Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner. ‘I was supposed to have one line,’ he says with a smile, ‘but it was given to a pal of Jack Nicholson’s. So I showed up, and just sat in the audience of this party scene. Never said a word.’
Dinner, for Tucci, is very important indeed. But first, a martini. When filming The Lovely Bones, he’d don a wig, fake teeth, tummy and contact lenses.
Tucci is one of those rare actors who disappears into every role he takes, moving seamlessly from fabulous, gay art director (Nigel Kipling in The Devil Wears Prada) to loving husband (Paul Child in Julie & Julia) to sinister and genuinely chilling as serial killer George Harvey in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. That shoot, he says, ‘was the longest ever. And playing that paedophile was awful, your worst nightmare, certainly as a parent. I really couldn’t wait for it to end.’
He has little time for method acting, though, or endlessly discussing the character’s motivation. ‘You have to be able to forget it all at the end of each day’s shoot. Otherwise it destroys your life, and it also becomes indulgent. Ultimately, it’s not about you. It’s about what story we are telling and how you fit into that story. That’s my job as an actor.’ He’s refreshingly unpretentious about his craft. ‘You’re not really a soldier,’ he says, ordering a bottle of white wine, something crisp and fresh. ‘You’re not really a murderer. You’re pretending. Do you wanna be a soldier? Go join the f***ing army.’ He rolls his eyes. But he is, as you might expect, a stickler for professional manners. ‘It’s unbearable when people turn up very late on set. Why don’t you want to get there on time, do your job and go and have f***ing dinner?’
If I can’t eat and drink with the people I love there’s no point in living
Ah, dinner. Dinner, for Tucci, is very important indeed. But first, a martini. When filming The Lovely Bones, he’d don a wig, fake teeth, tummy and contact lenses. After the last shot was in the can, though, ‘You take off all that stuff and that really helps. And then I’d have a martini in the make-up trailer.’
It was a ritual he shared with Chris Evans on Captain America and also his friend Colin Firth. They first worked together in 2001 on Conspiracy, when Tucci put a small bar in his dressing room at Shepperton Studios. ‘And Colin would come over and we’d have drinks together. And it was really nice, to have that little extra time as you’re getting your wig or make-up off. Then he and I would go and have dinner.’
Stanley enjoying Sardinian delights in Searching for Italy
He loves filming in England. ‘You can have proper days,’ he explains. ‘The British crews want to end at six o’clock. You start shooting at eight, you end at six. There’s not a lunch break. Whereas in America, you have this long lunch break and then they can also keep pushing, pushing, pushing. So you have 15-hour days. Which means no going out to dinner after.’
It also means room service back at the hotel, which he hates. ‘It makes me depressed. If I’m by myself, when I finish shooting, I always make sure I stay in a hotel that has a pretty good restaurant. Or has restaurants within walking distance. I come home, I clean up and put on a shirt and a jacket and I go upstairs or wherever the restaurant is and I have a proper meal. I have to do it.’
WHAT’S TOP OF TUCCI
Strictly or Seinfeld?
Sneakers or brogues?
Brogues, but I do love my Stan Smiths
Tea or coffee?
Elf or It’s a Wonderful Life?
It’s a Wonderful Life, as much as I love Will Ferrell
Pesto or bolognese?
Netflix or night out?
WhatsApp or phone call?
Oh, at this point probably WhatsApp. Just easier
Bach or Beatles?
Ikea or John Lewis?
Nigella or Julia Child?
I have to take Julia. No offence to Nigella
Martini or negroni?
Tube or taxi?
Taxi. But I love the tube. It’s incredible
On his last film with Firth, Supernova, in which both actors were at their understated best, they were staying in two holiday cabins, on location in the Lake District. ‘Colin doesn’t really cook. But he came over almost every night. At that time there were only certain things I could eat. So I basically had to cook for myself. Colin would bring the wine and then we’d just talk about the day. Luckily, the hours were reasonable and we got to spend time together.’
The reason there were only ‘certain things’ he could eat was because in 2017, Tucci was diagnosed with tongue cancer. ‘I’m very lucky because I’ve never really been properly sick in my whole life. I’ve never broken a bone. I’ve never been hospitalised for anything. Then this happens.’ He sips his wine. ‘Could I possibly have an ice cube?’ he asks our waitress. ‘If the wine’s too warm, or has too many tannins, it hurts too much. Because this is all …’ he points at his mouth ‘…brand new.’
The treatment was gruelling. Savage. And it seems the cruellest of ironies for an actor and food lover, to contract a cancer that ravages both voice and palate. He lost his appetite, and everything tasted like ‘wet old cardboard but slathered in someone’s excrement’. The smell of any kind of food was repellent. ‘I was a cranky patient,’ he admits. ‘Because I was miserable. I thought it was never going to go away. And I was like, how did this happen?’ He pauses, and takes a bite of his pappardelle. ‘I think particularly after my wife had died of cancer [in 2009]. I had close friends who died of cancer. People were always calling me about cancer. People I knew were always getting cancer. People say, “Oh, my friend has cancer. Can you talk to her about the treatment that you did with your wife?” So cancer became a really big part of my life. And then it hit me.’
Although he grew up a Catholic, he is not a religious man. ‘I don’t believe in an afterlife. However, I am bringing a change of underwear. As someone once said. But there were times when I thought I was never going to be able to eat with my family again. The things I love to do are eat and taste and drink. And I love to do them with the people I love. If I can’t do that, then I really don’t see the point of living.’ He pauses, savouring every bite. ‘I spent months and months up in my room, listening to everybody. Like a ghost in my own house. People coming and going. And I would go down and I would cook, but I couldn’t eat it – but I’d want to cook. Sometimes it almost made me ill to do it, but I wanted to do it. It was pretty f***ing awful.’
Thankfully, his cancer is in remission and he has had the all-clear. ‘Since I wrote Taste, the list of things I can eat has got longer. I think I’m probably at the point where I don’t know how much better it’s going to get. This is what the doctors have told me, but I’m at a very good place. Can I just tuck into a big piece of steak? No, I still can’t. And with a burger, there has to be a high-fat content, which is what I like anyway. So that’s fine. I don’t believe in lean burgers. What’s the point?’
Tucci with his wife Felicity Blunt. As ever, he and Felicity share the cooking at Christmas
But Tucci is not a man to linger on his suffering, however gruelling it may have been. We’re halfway though that bottle of wine, and all talk turns to Christmas. ‘I love it. And when you have young kids, it’s the best thing in the world. They still believe in Santa. At least, they pretend they do.’ The traditional Tucci Yuletide feast was epic in every way, centred around timpano, a baked drum of pastry-like dough filled with pasta, ragu, salami, various cheeses, hard-boiled eggs and meatballs. ‘It’s so delicious, so salty. Just gorgeous.’ Growing up, this was usually followed by a vast leg of lamb or whole ham. His English in-laws are not such big fans. ‘My father-in-law is a traditionalist. He loves food. Because we do turkey at Thanksgiving, we’ll have something else at Christmas. Like a turducken [a chicken stuffed into a duck, which is then stuffed into a turkey], which is the weirdest thing.’
He’s a fan of Christmas pudding, but bread sauce leaves him cold. ‘Disgusting! Is that what you eat in prison?’ And although Christmas Day starts in pyjamas, opening the stocking with his kids, ‘I ask people to dress up for Christmas lunch. I said to my daughter Isabel the other day – she’s 22 – I’m thinking about what I’m gonna wear on Christmas Day already. Which is ridiculous. But my family always dress beautifully.’
As ever, he and Felicity share the cooking. ‘We trust each other. Although she’s much better at exact timings than I am.’ In fact, she cooked for him, back when they first started dating in 2010. ‘I went to her apartment in Notting Hill, and Fee made marinated steak, and Emily [Blunt, her sister, who introduced them] made this lemon risotto. Absolutely delicious. One of the best meals I’ve ever had. They’re both incredibly good cooks.’
I was a cranky patient. i spent months in my room, listening to everybody, like a ghost in my own house
It’s nearly time to go, and our official hour-together slot has long passed. As you’d imagine, Tucci is the most civilised of lunch companions: warm, wise, funny, sweary and discreetly indiscreet. As espresso arrives and we finish the last of the wine, I ask about a line in his book where he talks of acting ‘beginning to wear a little thin as the years go by’. Is this the end, then? He smiles. ‘I’m half joking. I love acting, but there are so many other things that I really like to do, too. I like writing. I love cooking. Just being at home and cooking. Even if I just cook the same things over and over again. I want to be able to spend more time with my family.’
Acting and directing once defined him. But after his diagnosis, things have changed. ‘Eating, drinking, cooking, tasting and sharing now play these roles. Food not only feeds me, it enriches me. All of me. Mind, body and soul.’
We get up to leave, and he spots some old friends across the room. ‘Food really is my life, more and more so every year,’ he says, politely acknowledging the many furtive glances from excited fellow diners. ‘I just can’t stop thinking about it. Not just selfishly, but creatively, too. Good food just makes everything so much better.’
- Stanley’s Taste: My Life in Food is published by Penguin, £9.99*. I Wanna Dance With Somebody will be in cinemas on 26 December