Although best known for his scene-stealing roles in The Matrix, The Fugitive, and the popular HBO series The Sopranos, Joe Pantoliano isn’t just a celebrated character actor. His latest and perhaps most vital role is that of an activist. Called “Joey Pants” by fans and friends alike, Pantoliano strives to raise social awareness and understanding of mental health through the work of his non-profit, No Kidding, Me Too! (NKM2). His efforts have spun the non-profit into a documentary of the same name, which addresses the challenges of mental health at both a global and at a very personal level. Pantoliano recently took some time from touring with the film to chat with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper about what the film and mental illness mean in his own day-to-day life.
Chet Cooper: Congratulations on all of your success with the film and the non-profit. I have to ask, who came up with the name “No Kidding, Me Too”?
Joe Pantoliano: I had produced and starred in a movie called “Canvas”, about the effect on a family when someone is diagnosed with a mental disease. And when I would get on airplanes, my fans would always say, “Hey, Joey, how are you? What are you up to? What are you working on? What can I see you in?” So l’d tell them about this movie and what it was about, and invariably, people would say, “No kidding? Me too!” or “You know, my brother, my mother, no kidding, me, too. How could I get a copy of the movie?” I’ve come to understand that this mental disease that occasionally lives inside of me is, for many people, the rule, not the exception. When we made the movie, we learned that one in four Americans are affected by a mental uneasiness and four out of five within the family nucleus are affected by the family member’s uneasiness.
Cooper: Interesting. I haven’t heard it described that way: “uneasiness.”
Pantoliano: I came up with that, actually, because I don’t think I have an illness as much as I have a sort of dis-ease, or a lack of ease. I’ve always been looking for peace of mind, for some kind of serenity depicted in commercials I watch on television or stories that lead me to think I might find that someday. We use a quote in our film: “Abandon all hope for better pasts.” What I’m trying to do, I’m trying to regulate my own sanity on a daily basis by learning to live with unresolved feelings. My feelings aren’t always true. My feelings are not something that I should be invested in or believe all of the time. And this realization is as a result of years of cognitive therapy with my psychiatrist, of taking antidepressant medications that have changed and enhanced my way of life by producing the dopamine and serotonin and norepinephrine that my own physical chemistry doesn’t produce in my brain.
Cooper: Tell me what your plan is for this film.
Pantoliano: Well, it’s been bought by WNET, Channel 13, and will be aired hopefully nationwide at the end of April, or possibly at the beginning of May, since May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I also know that Amazon has a 90-day exclusive on it. The general idea is just to get people to watch this movie and see that they aren’t alone—that there are so many strengths in the very things we are culturally taught are weaknesses.
Cooper: I loved that the movie discussed that something as simple as changing your environment or using music or going outside for a walk can affect one’s mood more substantially than some medications.
Pantoliano: Yeah! I just watched this documentary on PBS a couple of weeks ago, called The Emotional Life. They’ve confirmed that even if you move a muscle, you change your thoughts.
One of the things our own film tries to look at, for example, is the reality that electroshock therapy is benign—it’s really not at all as dramatic as it’s made out to be in the movies. I used that sequence from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you know, when McMurphy gets jolted with the electricity. The point being that the movies—and I am from the movies and am influenced by the movies—send us the message that if it’s in a movie it must be true.
So in this sense, Hollywood has either glorified, glamorized, romanticized, or demonized mental illness. What we’re trying to do in this documentary is just show that there is life after being diagnosed. We’re a cause. We’re a movement. And we’re using what we know how to do.
What I know how to do is tell a story. Instead of writing a book, I can show you. I can show you these kids telling us what mental illness is really like, and I can show you that there is a solution. You can feel better. It’s as simple as taking a walk. It’s as simple as moving a muscle.
Cooper: What kind of a challenge does this project present to you, as a public figure with that mental “unease,” as you put it?
Pantoliano: My feeling is that our movement, this movement, needs people like us. We need people who have the courage to put their images on the line. We were invited by the US Army to show this documentary in Iraq, and when the GIs saw this, they identified with the people who were in the film. And with me. And some of them said, “You had the courage to talk about your own disease and that gives me the courage to be open and honest.” Because the theme really is that you are only as sick as your secret. And science now tells us that the longer we maintain depression inside of us, it becomes a part of our brain makeup, whatever you want to call that.
I’m dyslexic myself and I have attention deficit disorder. And I want to encourage people to know that it’s okay to have these uneasy feelings. We want kids who are six years old, seven years old, to know that if there’s something going on inside you that’s giving you stress, it’s cool to talk about it. Just as if you have a splinter in your thumb and you take it to your mom. Or if you’ve got a tick bite and you see a circle and you know it’s time to tell the nurse. We will be saving millions of kids the heartache that comes with this disease. I mean, look at me: I’m 55 years old, and it’s only been three to four years since I’ve been diagnosed, after having lived with this disease my entire life. My entire life!
Now, since I’ve been in therapy, I’m going back into my past, and I’m realizing, “Oh, yeah, that was a nervous breakdown when I was 21. Jesus, my mother was bipolar. I do the same thing!”
Cooper: No kidding, me too.
Pantoliano: (laughs) That’s right. No kidding, me too.
A great part of my own depression came from the anxiety and fear that I had as a kid who essentially couldn’t learn, who felt humiliation and got stomach cramps, who was rushed to the hospital and realized that if he got these cramps, he could avoid the expectation to do homework and avoid the humiliation of freaking out in front of a teacher. That was the beginning of my lying about stuff so I could avoid my own anxiety. It was a character trait, a coping mechanism.
I have this book called Daily Affirmations for Forgiveness and Moving On, by Dr. Tian Dayton. I read it every day, these little quotes that some days fit me better than others. My spirituality has a lot to do with the regulation of my sanity. Here’s the bit I just read yesterday: “I am meant to be happy. I have so much in my life to be grateful for. There is so much that is going on that is going well for me, so much that feels right and good. I have worked hard to know a feeling like this, and today I will let myself have it. It is time for me to accept being happy. I want to trust life as I did when I was young. I am here to be happy.”
Cooper: As I was watching your film, it struck me how strong your relationship must be with your wife and children, since you’ve just recently been going through your therapy with them standing beside you. It must be a challenge for them, too.
Pantoliano: Oh, I’m so lucky. I’m so grateful that I didn’t lose any of them. I was about to lose everything that was holy to me, and because I couldn’t feel anything, I didn’t even know how great the damages would be. The street is littered with the wreckage of my past and how, when I was sick, I wanted everybody to be as sick as I was. If I saw happiness, if I saw my wife smiling, I resented her. In some ways I despised her for loving me. I knew how despicable I was.
I remember telling someone that there is not a person on this planet or in the universe who I would allow to treat me as poorly as I treat myself. Is that part of mental illness? Maybe. My teachers had always said, “He’s not stupid, he’s just lazy.” What I used to think was the occupational hazard of being a creative person, this depression, is something I’m now tapping into to try to change the nation and the world into thinking that it’s cool to have a mental uneasiness. I want kids all across the country to go, “I want that, Mommy!”
Pantoliano: Well, you know what I mean. We want it to be as cool and trendy to talk about mental dis-ease as it would be to talk about erectile dysfunction.
Cooper: I still don’t know if erectile dysfunction is considered cool yet.
Pantoliano: (laughs) Well, politicians and race car drivers can talk about it and get paid ten million bucks, so I guess what I really mean is that it would be nice to have a really big star or big shot say, “Yeah, no kidding, me, too.”
I mean, there are a lot of big names in these twelvestep programs—Drugs Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, whatever—who would much rather be considered an alcoholic than somebody with bipolar disorder. You see these kids come out of rehab openly saying, “I was there for cocaine, for alcohol,” but they don’t say, “I was there because I was diagnosed with bipolarity or schizophrenia.”
Cooper: I have a pretty bad sweet tooth, myself.
Pantoliano: (laughs) Well, it’s mental uneasiness that creates the sweet tooth or creates the alcoholic or creates the drug addict, and as a result you need more and more of that one thing to get “the high.” You need more of the alcohol. It stops working. More of the drug. It stops working. More of the food. It stops working. Even the best books out there will tell you that these addictions are merely symptoms of the way that our brains work, symptoms of our thinking.
But the only healthy thing I ever did to combat my own depression was exercise. I’ve never needed more running. It always works. And if I walk a half an hour a day or do my yoga, if I’m moving, if I’m sweating every day, it does help me from getting that sadness in me. This stuff is hard work, and it’s not for the weak of heart. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to battling my mental illness and to working on my mental health regulation. I talk about this with anybody who will listen, and I go to twelve-step meetings and yoga and exercise and it all helps me to stay right-minded.
But in my opinion, I’m working against not so much a disease as a dis-ease. I’ve been trying to find happiness my entire life. When I was a little kid, there came a time when I just didn’t feel right. It was in the second grade when I started getting left back, and I was scared, and my mother and father were always broke and always fighting. So I felt odd. I felt like it was my fault. I wasn’t happy any more, and I ate a lot of food. And I found that eating made me happy. So then I became a fat kid. Then the kids made fun of me and I wanted to lose weight so I could avoid being made fun of, and I found starvation. And that caused a feeling that was even better than stuffing my face. Before you know it, I had developed an eating disorder.
Finally, I saw a new goal for myself. I figured, ‘if I’m a movie star, if I’m rich and famous and I can have any girl I want, that’s what’s going to make that hole inside of me go away.’ So for me, it all began with those early thoughts. And it wasn’t until my doctor had said that what I was feeling was not my fault, that it could be treated, that I began to feel like I could manage it. The science tells us that once people with a mental illness surrender to the idea that they have one, they can enjoy upwards of 80% recovery just by talking to their doctor and taking their pharmaceuticals if needed. I’d love to have those odds as a cancer patient.
Cooper: How do you draw that distinction between your concept of “dis-ease” and what is considered to be illness? Is dis-ease something of a shifting dynamic, as happiness might be?
Pantoliano: The way I try to think about dealing with it is similar to how I might deal with the flu. When my depression comes around, instead of trying to be happy, instead of trying to push it away or drink it away, I just allow myself wallow in it. I just feel it. It’s a feeling, and we as humans are designed to have those feelings. They can save our lives, in fact. When we were out in the wilderness, there was a constant choice between fight or flight. If we saw a tiger running at us, we’d say, “Oh, there’s a tiger. Better react.” If we were designed to be happy all of the time, we might just say, “Oh, look at that cute little kitty coming at me. Here, kitty!” I don’t know if you’ve ever read Eckhart Tolle?
Pantoliano: He’s brilliant. He’s been another great component of my recovery. Anyway, Tolle tells a story about two ducks in a pond. One duck comes flying in and accidentally lands on the water, hitting all of the other ducks. The ducks look at each other, snap at each other, flap their wings, and then they kind of float off. If those ducks were people, they would say, “Did you see that duck? He was within a couple of inches of smashing right into me! Who does he think he is? Does he think he owns this pond? I can’t believe he treated me like that!” So the ducks might fester that resentment. But instead they just go about the rest of their day.
Cooper: I think that’s where the term “duck” comes from.
Pantoliano: (laughs) I was at a mental health event once, and they referred to all of us as “consumers.” I really hate that, you know? I just want to be called Joey. I don’t want to be identified by my disease.
Cooper: It’s difficult. All of these different nonprofit groups face the challenge of asking the question, “What are we going to call the people with whom we’re working? We want to be different. We don’t want to call them ‘clients’ or ‘members’.”
Pantoliano: I think I’d rather be called “emo.”
Cooper: (laughs) There’s debate about language everywhere. Do you know about the movement called Mad Pride?
Pantoliano: Yeah. ABC did a story on them, and I was virtually manipulated into being part of this very scary story that depicted mental illness as something to be feared. The implication was that, if you have a mental illness and you don’t treat it, don’t take your medication or whatever, you could be as amazing as Van Gogh or Michelangelo or whomever, but you’d wind up stickin’ an axe in your mother’s head. On the other hand, if you treated that mental illness, then you would never be able to make the paintings that Michelangelo and Van Gogh made. I think that’s complete and utter bullshit, you know? Look at all the great writers who are in recovery. Does that process make them any less great at their art? No! So, scary stories like these are only going to push somebody who is on the cusp of dealing with their situation to think they’re powerless. It’s going to encourage them to keep themselves in the closet.
Listen, without my meds, I don’t think any of my work on myself would stick. I’d be in and out, in and out. Today is my anniversary, actually. Two years of continuous sobriety from drugs and alcohol.
Cooper: Congratulations. I didn’t get you anything—my bad.
Pantoliano: (laughs) That’s okay, you’ve got a whole month. Anyway, I guess part of my purpose with No Kidding, Me Too is to educate society that there is a stigma and shame that shrouds the all-American brain. If you’ve got a bad heart, they can take it out and throw it away. You get a new heart. But you can’t get a new brain. Much of our purpose is to remove the stigma associated with mental disease through the breaking down of societal barriers. We want to teach people that it’s okay to have a mental disease, and that if you feel like you do, you should acknowledge the disease if you have it, and get the treatment you’re entitled to, thereby becoming an even greater member of society.
Cooper: Does your organization have forums and blogs for people to use to connect to each other?
Pantoliano: Yes, and we provide the individuals anonymity, if they desire. But at its core, No Kidding, Me Too believes that mental illness does not have the luxury of anonymity. With post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, there are many ways to arrest the condition through pharmaceuticals, but the best way is by reliving the experience over and over again in a therapeutic community, by talking about it and sharing that experience with another human being. By doing that sort of thing, you can essentially invalidate the condition and turn it into a story.
The reason we went to Iraq with the documentary is because there is such a serious suicide rate in Iraq and Afghanistan—GIs killing themselves—especially among Anglo-American males between the ages of 19 and 22 within the first six months of deployment. These kids are being trained to go into battle, and then when they get there, they’re struggling with themselves.
But after six months of being in Iraq and Afghanistan, the chances of completion of a suicide will start to diminish. I believe—and this is just my own personal opinion—that the media is misleading us by not clearly articulating that. A lot of people don’t know that the GIs are killing themselves more often than they are being killed. It’s just not talked about. When reporters say, “It’s day so-and-so of the war and there have been so-and-so many deaths,” they don’t include the deaths by suicide. They don’t even include the men and women who have been wounded in the military. They’re not including the numbers that we have in our documentary which show that something like 18 American heroes come back from Iraq and Afghanistan and kill themselves in the US. Nobody mentions that. So I hope that, by using the bright light of celebrity, we’re able to shine into the corners of darkness and stigma and shame that shroud mental illness from the public.
If we spent less money and research finding out where depression comes from and more money on education, we’d learn that there really is no shame in mental illness. Once we recognize that, it won’t take people upwards of eight to 10 years of struggle before they’re even diagnosed, not to mention before they manage to confront all of the cultural bias that exists.
After Michael Jackson’s death, it came out that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia by the time he was 18 years old. But because of the shame and the stigma, nobody could know that this guy was hearing voices, and everybody around him had to hide it. If he had been encouraged to seek treatment and get help and be vocal about it, think of all of the millions of people that might have found some comfort. One percent of the planet’s population deals with schizophrenia every day.
That’s really the driving force behind what we’re doing with this nonprofit and this film. We want to promote what we believe in and we want to encourage people to get this movie and to see the miracle and bravery of these souls. These are hope’s miracles. They’re not anonymous anymore.