Joe Pantoliano Fights His Demons On and Off the Screen

By Sally Deeringjoey-pants-no-kiddingJoey Pants’ award-winning documentary No Kidding, Me Too! sheds light on mental illnessWhen the cameras rolled, actor Joe Pantoliano dug deep into his dark side to portray characters whose personal demons drove them to commit violent, unthinkable acts. Pantoliano’s shocking performance as psychotic gangster Ralph Cifaretto on The Sopranos still resonates like a horrific dream, and his tour-de-force portrayal earned him a well-deserved Emmy Award.

On television and in films, Pantoliano never shied away from revealing his characters’ inner-demons, but when the cameras stopped rolling, the actor isolated himself, afraid that others might learn he was fighting a personal demon of his own – depression.

For years, Pantoliano, known to his friends and fans as “Joey Pants” suffered from a debilitating depression that affected him so badly, he would sometimes come home from a day’s filming and “roll up in a ball.” But when he started working on the movie, Canvas, which deals with mental illness, Pantoliano came out of hiding and sought professional help.

Pantoliano’s doctor diagnosed him with clinical depression and now, with medication and behavioral therapy, the actor’s life has changed both personally and professionally. And a happier and healthier Pantoliano is helping others.

No Kidding, Me Too! is a new documentary Pantoliano directed to broaden awareness and reduce the stigma of mental illness. Pantoliano is also founder and president of the No Kidding Me Too! foundation, which raises awareness and funding for those suffering from anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, depression, addiction and more.

Last week, No Kidding, Me Too! earned “Best Documentary” at the Hoboken Film Festival and on June 9th, it will be shown in Red Bank at the Two River Theater, sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County.

“The whole mission for the film and the foundation is to eradicate the stigma of depression,” Pantoliano says. “It’s just a disease like any other and for that matter, a highly treatable disease. You can get your life back.”

On tour promoting the film and his foundation, Pantoliano conducts Question and Answer sessions when he attends screenings. During these Q & A’s, people often reveal their own personal stories to him. Pantoliano says this is a big step for people with clinical depression because it takes them out of isolation, which is one of the symptoms.

“They share their experiences and their struggles and they do it in an open forum,” Pantoliano says. “That’s the whole point. Talking about it openly, relinquishes the shame that people feel with the disease. It’s the best therapy there is.”

The film is just part of Pantoliano’s mission to help others. As president of the No Kidding Me Too! foundation, he writes a personal blog on the website, www.nkm2.org, and he brings out the stars at fundraising events. The Foundation’s Advisory Board reads like a Hollywood’s Who’s Who and includes Robin Williams, Harrison Ford and Marcia Gay Harden, who starred with Pantoliano in the movie, Canvas.

It was during the filming of Canvas that Pantoliano became aware of the symptoms of depression portrayed in the film by Harden’s character. Off-screen, the actor confessed to Harden that his mother may have suffered from depression and that he too, might be affected.

Born in Hoboken in the early 1950s, Pantoliano grew up in a first-generation Italian-American family. His father Dominic “Monk” Pantoliano drove a hearse and worked as a factory foreman; his mother, Mary worked as a seamstress and a bookie. After a hard day, Mary would often try to feel better with a tranquilizer.

” Trankalizers’ is what she called them,” Pantoliano says.

Pantoliano believes his mother was self-medicating to help her deal with feelings of depression and he dedicates the documentary to her and his friend Charlie, a victim of depression who took his own life.

“One thing I’ve realized in my recovery is that I never had patience for people who were sick,” Pantoliano says. “I thought they were selfish, grandiose, or looking for sympathy, especially people who were alcoholics or drug addicts. Why don’t you just stop and cut it out, I would think. And I realize now that my mother couldn’t stop. She wasn’t choosing a negative (behavior.) It was the only path.”

Before he sought help, Pantoliano would self-medicate with alcohol; now he takes yoga.

“My doctor taught me positive behavioral coping skills to substitute the negative ones,” Pantoliano says. “In my depression, I would drink alcohol to try to feel better, but then I would get a terrible headache and hangover. Now, I get up early. I go to yoga class and a 12-step meeting. I don’t have the depression. Back then, I felt sad and confused. I would ask myself, why am I sad when I have nothing to be sad about. I’m healthier now.”

On his own path of recovery, Pantoliano learned several behavioral modification techniques that treat symptoms of depression. Exercise helps recovery, he says. Laughter does, too. Pantoliano’s doctor advised him to watch less news and more comedies because when a person laughs, their brain releases Dopamine, a chemical that brings on good feelings.

“Just by going ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, Dopamine is released and you feel better,” Pantoliano says. “That’s why the website is so important. Aside from medical information, there are feel-good stories and anecdotes. You can come to our website and we can help each other. So many people with this disease don’t have insurance and can’t see doctors on a regular basis. The website is a forum for people to share and communicate. We have to be able to talk to each other and help fix each other.

The No Kidding, Me Too! foundation’s mission is to continue building partnerships with members of the entertainment industry along with social services and government agencies to ensure a broad-base of support and input.

Pantoliano, meanwhile, has added mental health advocate to his lengthy resume and it’s a part that fits him well. But unlike the roles he plays on screen, this one’s for real.

“I just got back from two days in Philadelphia promoting the documentary,” Pantoliano says. “I took my daughter and we had so much fun. We took pictures and we laughed.”

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