By Paul Freeman

Few actors have demonstrated as keen an ability to understand and shape unforgettable characters in stage, film and television work as Joe Pantoliano. He has etched memorable performances in such projects as “The Sopranos,” “Goonies,” “Bound,” “Risky Business,” Memento” and “The Fugitive.”

As adept as Pantoliano has proven himself at dissecting and comprehending characters, understanding himself has been a much greater challenge.

“Acting was a way for me to at least know who I was in between action and cut,” Pantoliano tells Pop Culture Classics. “I never knew who I was. But when I was doing a part, I knew. I knew what I wanted and how I was going to get it. And I had do-overs.

“It was very, very odd for me, when I discovered that nobody knows who they are. Not at 16 or 17... or sometimes 40.”

Though suffering from the condition throughout his life, Pantoliano, 62, only received diagnosis of clinical depression within the past decade. He founded the “No Kidding? Me, Too” nonprofit organization to battle the social stigma of mental illness. He also made a documentary with that same name. It's available on iTunes and Amazon.

We spoke with the Emmy-winning Pantoliano prior to his keynote speech at the 11th Annual Circle of Support Breakfast benefiting Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley. FCS Silicon Valley has provided mental health care for individuals and families since 1948. Experts in intensive mental health management and substance abuse recovery interventions, FCS Silicon Valley works with schools, empowers foster youth and offers specialized LGBTQ youth services. The organization strives to reach youth and young adults who are struggling, yet reluctant to seek help.

“Once you talk about how you feel, there’s empathy,” says Pantoliano, who had to grapple with dyslexia, as well as depression. “And through that empathy, there’s a release. If you teach a first-grader that, if they get an emotional boo-boo and talk about it, it helps you feel better. Right now, the way society is, you wait for the child to break, usually in the third or fourth grade, and then put them in special needs and, of course, the kid feels like there’s something wrong with him. So the way we teach our kids has to change.

“A lot’s happened since I came to understand how I had this genetic or spiritual propensity to unconditional sadness. I learned practices, behaviors, to sublimate change. We’re a culture that’s invested in exterior things. There’s an unwritten rule that creates this fallacy that, if you work hard and you go to school, you get a good education, a good job, you get married, you have children, you’re happy. Emotional distress is an inside job. And everybody has it.”

It wasn’t until after he was featured in “Canvas,” a 2006 film dealing with mental illness, that Pantoliano reexamined his own situation and found a doctor who could help him.

“Mind you, I’ve been in some form of therapy since I was in my early 20s. So none of this was new to me. But, when the doctor told me I had this thing called clinical depression, that it wasn’t my fault, that I wasn’t alone, and that it could be regulated and managed, I was thrilled. I felt like I had hit the number.”

Pantoliano began his foundation, wanting to help others. “I started my organization, because I was somewhat dumbfounded by the silence and self-proclaimed shame that went along with any kind of mental distress. For me, for the longest time, there was this shroud of sadness that laid within. It got heavier and heavier. It disabled me. And I kept thinking, ‘What is wrong with me?’ Because, all of the things I ever wanted in life, I had in abundance. I always felt selfish that I needed more stuff and then I’d be happy.

“If you look at our culture, we’ve got something like 63 percent of Americans are obese, 38 percent are morbidly obese. The rise of death by suicide and drug addiction is killing the youth of our nation. And we’re all kind of investing in outside resources to help us to feel better, whether it’s a box of Cheerios or running a multi-billion dollar hedge fund, whether it’s self-medication, whether it’s risk, gambling, lying, cheating, stealing. It’s a dis-easiness, a dis-ease. And think that dis-ease is natural. And therefore, I think every human being has to deal with some type of emotional, mental dis-ease that needs to be treated. If you avoid that treatment, you become dependent on other elements. And the thing with those elements is that they stop working.”

Pantoliano says that, as a society, we are taught that we’re supposed to be happy all the time. “We need to teach, at a very early age, teaching our children, that mood dis-ease is normal, like emotional hygiene. We teach our kids in preschool how to brush their teeth and comb their hair and check for lice. For some reason, brain disease is unacceptable. Society creates the stigma and the shame. Why is it okay to have brain cancer, but not to have an emotional, spiritual disease that, by talking about it, you get immediate relief?”

We, as a culture, need to change the way we think, according to Pantoliano. “We need to teach our kids how to regulate their happiness by doing behaviors. Science is only now catching up to the idea of these kind of therapeutic lifestyle changes - yoga, meditation. At a very early age, a lot of the emotional erosion has begun. It’s the onset of commercialized television, telling us what we should look like, what we should be. And the stuff that they give us is loaded with sugar, which is a drug. So we’re all drug addicts, in one way or another. Whether it’s nicotine, sugar, any kind of mood-altering, mind-altering medicine or drug, that is what we turn to. Suicide has become the drug of choice for so many kids.

“The work that I’ve done, studying and researching, with myself, I came to understand that, if you just laugh, it creates dopamine and seratonin. A quick walk around the block produces as much dopamine and seratonin as 20 milligrams of Prozac. Let the first-grader know that 80 percent of the kids in their class are going to deal with some kind of depression in the course of their lifetime. And just taking a walk or having a friend that you can confide your feelings to, can help.”

Coming to understand his condition has changed Pantoliano’s life. “Being diagnosed with a mental illness was the greatest gift I could ever have, because it put everything together. It made sense, finally. It was like a boulder had been lifted.”

For Pantoliano, whose candid and entertaining self-examinations can be read in his books “Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery, and Being My Mother's Son” and “Who's Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy,” going into acting made a lot of sense, as well.

“I had a goal in mind, that I needed to master this craft, because I believed that, in that success, that the way I felt would go away, that if I was a successful actor, that this feeling of being apart from, would go way, that the sadness that lived inside me was only a result of the fact that I wasn’t successful.”

But an acting career is inherently filled with insecurities. “The highs and lows of show business, the overwhelming opportunities, you go in and you audition and the feedback is positive and, if you get a job, it’s going to be life-changing, right? So when you have those highs, then the crashing lows seem even lower. The highs of hope and the lows of not getting the job you wanted, they provide extremes.

“Depression was one thing I knew what it felt like. I can’t tell you what happiness feels like. I was addicted to stress. I loved turmoil. And, so, if it wasn’t there, I created it.”

For decades, he has been masterfully creating characters. “There was a moment, I was doing the senior class play, and, in the second act, I had this speech and, while I was doing it, I could hear people in the audience, sobbing and sniffling. And that feeling was so overwhelming, that I’ve been chasing it my entire life.”

Of the creative process, Pantoliano says, “That does not come from me. It comes through me. When you think about it, the muse deserves the credit. When I think about it, the best moments I’ve had as an actor, I can’t even take credit for, because you don’t remember them. I’m sure it’s the same for a writer - you’re struggling, trying to put thoughts together and then something happens and these words start appearing on your screen. Something’s coming through you. Where did that come from? As an actor, the worst thing a director can say to me is, ‘That was great, do that again,’ because I don’t know how I did it!”

Pantoliano’s great performances can be seen in a remarkable number of cult favorites - “Goonies,” “Risky Business,” “Eddie and the Cruisers,” The Idolmaker,” Memento,” “Bound” and “La Bamba,” as well as such blockbusters as “The Fugitive” and “The Matrix.”

“It’s luck. It’s the muses. The gods. When we did ‘The Fugitive,’ personally, I thought I was in the worst bomb ever. And when it was cut together, it was like, ‘Holy mackerel! This movie is good!’ And to Arnold Koppelson [the producer], I said, ‘It’s a goddamned miracle.’ And he said, ‘Joey, any movie that comes together is a miracle.’”

Of the lasting appeal “Goonies” has had, Pantoliano says, ‘It’s the fantasy element of it, that you could strike it rich and change everything, overcoming adversity. Also, it’s magical in its nature. And working on it was magical. Everything was larger than life, the stage. It was a lot of fun.”

Pantoliano names his own favorites, among his film performances. “I would say that ‘Goonies’ is one of them. I would also say that ‘The Amateurs’ I did with Jeff Bridges and Ted Danson. ‘Bound,’ the movie I made with the Wachowskis is one of my favorites.”

The actor has been a favorite of directors who make envelope-pushing films like “Memento” and “Bound.”

“That was a very special time, when known actors wouldn’t do movies like that, because the directors want to try something different. And there was no money. And that happens with all departments, that guys would take less money, but everybody got to move up on the rung of a ladder. Maybe a guy who was just basically a camera operator was going to get a chance to be the d.p. And for me to go from a supporting actor to a lead and lucking out, working with these first-time directors, I mean, that was a miracle. When you think about it - Andy Davis, Taylor Hackford, Michael Bay, Andy and Lana Wichowski, Chris Nolan. They were all first-time directors.”

Pantoliano has made his mark in television, as well. He played Maggio in the 1979 mini-series “From Here To Eternity.”

“It was exciting to be challenged by the work that was ahead of me and the possibilities that existed there. I made some really great friends out of it. Natalie Wood was incredibly kind and she and R.J. befriended us, my wife, Morgan, and they were great mentors. They introduced us to Hollywood. I mean, I was 25 years old. Two years earlier, I was asking if they wanted anchovies on their pizza.

“And Buzz Kulick [the director] was a wonderful teacher. You know, that’s the real miracle of my life, that I had these angels, these kind of mentors, throughout my life, that came through a series of instances that were life-changing. And I really feel like I’m the luckiest son of a bitch ever, because I don’t know how the hell this shit happened to me.”

Another life-changing moment came when he was cast as Ralph Cifaretto on “The Sopranos.” He didn’t realize how big an impact that role would have.

“Again, ignorance is bliss. So I didn’t know. It’s interesting in that, I never really worked at becoming successful. I always worked at mastering the craft. If I had a job, I wanted to be the best I could be in the opportunity that was in front of me. So the success was a byproduct of the creative process.”

For his efforts in that series, Pantoliano won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.

“Robert Stack once said to me, because he won one of the first Emmys with ‘The Untouchables,’ he said, ‘Winning an Emmy as like being the world’s tallest midget - nobody gives a shit.’ That Emmy never did anything for me, never got me a job, never got me a better job. And David Chase [the show’s creator], there’s a wonderful arc in ‘The Sopranos’ with Tim Daly, where he’s an Emmy Award-winning writer, who’s an addict. And he falls, he’s back in his addiction and he’s penniless and he goes to a pawnshop to hock his Emmy. And the guy will only give him $30 for it. He goes, ‘But it’s an Emmy!’ And the guy goes, ‘Yeah, if it was an Academy Award, it would mean something.’”

Pantoliano knows that his story could have taken darker twists. “I understood how many angels were looking out for me, as a result of my upbringing. A lot of the emotional dis-ease is as a result of your environment. I came from an environment of risk. The first celebrity I ever saw was a wiseguy in my neighborhood.

“And that kind of followed me, the excitement of being able to get something over on someone. That was a great high. I talk about it in my book, as my seven deadly symptoms, because all of these behaviors were symptomatic of a disease that lived inside of me, from a very early age. And once I started getting better, I understood how important it was for me to stay clean from drugs and alcohol, because anytime I had a drink, it kind of opened up the ability for me to do whatever I wanted to do. And I also had the ability to blame it on the alcohol the next day.”

Pantoliano and his wife of 20 years, former model Nancy Sheppard, have two daughters, Daniella and Isabella, as well as his stepdaughter Melody, and a son, Marco, from his previous marriage.

“I almost lost my kids, from the downward spiral, from the depression,” he says. “I felt so horrible on the inside that, unconsciously, I wanted everyone in my path to feel as shitty as I felt. If my wife came home in a good mood, it was my responsibility to alter that mood into misery. If you look at the documentary, the kids talk about it in a humorous way, which is what I did with my own parents. My first book, I thought it was a comedy. And people were saying, ‘Oh, my God, what a life you had!’ I didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Pantoliano says he’s not as driven as he used to be, in terms of career. “I’m an actor. That’s what I do for a living. But - I think part of it is old age - I’m not as driven as I used to be. My success is no longer as important. And I was under the illusion that I was responsible, that if I didn’t take care of this, that it wouldn’t get done. And now I understand that it’s almost like a Buddhist mentality, that it’s already written. So all I can do is stay out of my way and wait for the muses to call.

“There’s a great book called ‘The War of Art.’ It was written by the guy that wrote ‘Legend of Bagger Vance’ [Steven Pressfield]. And it’s a great book. It talks about the creative process, how we are all creative by nature. And so, somehow, I found the answer. And if you look to Sir Ken Robinson, talking about creativity being as important as literature, and how public schools, how the educational system, tries to drive that out of you, drive individuality out of you, because they want us all to learn at the same pace. And understanding dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder, that I came to understand how I didn’t have a disability as much as I had a different learning style. Two of my four kids, learn the same way I learned. And, thank God, it was because of the educational system understanding by that point, that I realized, I have what they have.”

Pantoliano has a couple of promising projects ahead. A film called “The Identical” is due for for release later this year.

“That’s a musical. I saw it last week. It’s really terrific. It’s wonderful. It’s sentimental. It deals with God-fearing, fire-and-brimstone religion versus spirituality and a natural calling. Whatever your calling is, whether it’s the good book, the ministry, or being a rock ‘n’ roll singer, it’s finding your bliss. I play a mechanic who gives this guy a job and becomes kind of like a mentor and encourager.”

He also has a much buzzed-about CBS sitcom pilot, “More Time With Family,” which features Alyson Hannigan.

Pantoliano says, “I did a sitcom 25 years ago. And, ironically, Jimmy Burrows directed a lot of those. And he directed this pilot. He gave me my first job in sitcoms, before ‘Here To Eternity,’ with Rob Reiner, called ‘Free Country.’ I was like 24. And I’ll be 63 in September. Is it possible that’s 39 years ago? Holy Christ!

“This pilot for CBS, it was a four-camera. And they bring in a live audience. And during rehearsals, the crew, they can laugh. I’ve done 100 films and you’ve got to stifle your laughter. You don’t really get a sense of how people feel or think. In Billy Wilder’s conversations, he always said he liked making the comedies, because he could hear how the audience felt. It’s gratifying when you know somebody liked something you did, that they got it, that maybe it put a smile on their face.”

Pantoliano says he is settling into life these days. “When I was a young man, I was not comfortable in my own skin. I was not comfortable in my own house. I always felt the need to get out. I felt like I was going to miss something. And now it’s the opposite. I can be in my living room and not leave for weeks,” Pantoliano says, laughing. “I’m at peace with myself. And that’s what I was after my entire life - peace of mind.”