Stanley Tucci walks into the members’ section of the Olympic Cinema Club in Barnes, south London, chic, bespectacled and quietly, compactly sexy; 60 years old, with the bearing of a man classically trained in ballet (which he isn’t). The room perks up around him. He’s just that sort of a bloke, imbued with a low-key charisma, an easy, gentle charm. He dispenses goodwill and judicious compliments like cake.
“Where shall we go? Shall we go here?” he asks, wafting me toward the nicest armchairs ranged round the nicest table, bathed in a sunlight I could have sworn wasn’t there before he arrived. “I’m so excited to meet you,” he says. I actually believe him.
I unleash my Dictaphone.
“What do you want to know?” Tucci asks.
I want to know why you’re not fat, I say.
He laughs, uproariously.
Mine is not as outrageous a question as it might at first seem. Stanley Tucci – star of stage, screen and little screen, of blockbusters (The Devil Wears Prada, The Hunger Games, The Lovely Bones and Captain America), HBO spectaculars (Winchell, Fortitude) and his own cooking/travel show (Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy); Tucci the writer, screenwriter, Internet cocktail-making viral sensation, multiple Emmy winner, best friend of Colin Firth – has just written a book, a memoir, structured around a lifelong love affair with food. And dear God! This man can, and has, and continues to eat!
Tucci was born in 1960 in New York State, raised by Joan and Stanley Tucci Sr, first generation Italian immigrant parents – and his was a childhood of nothing if not food; incredible, plentiful, delicious food. Imaginative, creative meals, provided in spite of limited financial resources. Multiple courses and strictly observed culinary traditions, Christmases and Easters and birthdays and other, more obscure celebrations, the official justification for which was clearly just a cover for an opportunity to eat yet more – meals in, meals out, meals at grandparents’, a year’s sabbatical for Tucci’s art-teacher father, which took the whole family to Italy, where Tucci’s young taste buds were repeatedly blown…
“Food, its preparation, serving and ingesting, was the primary activity and main topic of conversation in my household, growing up,” Tucci writes in the opening chapter of his new book, Taste: My Life Through Food, adding that his mother’s greatest threat to him and his younger sisters, Christina and Gina, was, “Why don’t you go next door and see what the neighbors are having?”, a bleak prospect because the neighbors never ate as well as the Tuccis did. As far as young Stanley Tucci could see, no one did.
This love affair with food would only grow as Tucci did. As he learned to cook (“I’m an OK cook.” You’re better than that; I’ve read your book. Taste is punctuated with recipes and tips and the evidence of a true understanding of, an essential ease with, cooking. With whom are you comparing yourself when you say you’re merely OK? Your mother? “Always!”); as his acting career took him further afield (at a certain point, Tucci starts selecting jobs according to the culinary opportunities offered by filming locations); as lockdown closed in on him, his second wife, literary agent Felicity Blunt, and his five children (the eldest of whom is 21, the youngest 3), and he found himself low on acting work but sky-high on domestic duties…
So much food! There have been: suckling pigs; seafood extravaganzas; a traditional French sausage shared on location in northern France with Meryl Streep and which, they both concluded, looked, and indeed tasted, like “horse’s cock”; deep-fried pizza parcels; twice-baked bread; rabbit, which Tucci had to catch before eating; lamb chops; fish stew; the endless pursuit of the perfect ragù. And that, truly, is not the half of it. Not even the third. Stanley Tucci has cooked and eaten and eaten and cooked his way through life and death, jobs and continents, celebrations and pandemics.
Given which, “How are you not fat?” is – I think – a fair question.
“Seriously, I know, I should be. I’m blessed with a fast metabolism. I exercise, six or seven times a week. I’ve been doing it since I was 18. I never stop. I just came from our trainer, just now. So I was always thin, but after I went through cancer treatment, three years ago, I lost 30lb because I couldn’t eat.”
Tucci the writer, screenwriter, Internet cocktail-making viral sensation, multiple Emmy winner, best friend of Colin Firth – has just written a book.
In 2017, doctors discovered a huge tumorous cancer at the base of Tucci’s tongue, for which he was successfully treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Given your passion for food, I tell Tucci, I imagine not being able to eat through treatment for an awful disease – a version of which killed Tucci’s first wife, Kate, in 2009 – was the ultimate insult added to a very cruel injury.
“It was horrible. As I wrote the book, I realized food and everything that went with it, shopping for it, cooking it, eating it, sharing it, all those things, were such an enormous part of me. I mean, they are me, more than just about anything.”
This, I suppose, answers my second question: in using this structural device, in sprinkling the pages of his memoir with recipes and restaurant reviews, might Tucci perhaps be using food as a way to dodge true intimacy, a thing behind which he can hide?
“In fact,” Tucci says, “it’s the opposite.”
And anyway, if food is the excuse Tucci needed to write an autobiography, the prompt, a way for him to overcome his initial instinct of, “Who cares [about my life]? Really?”, then, fine. It’s rather lovely to get the backstory on this particular man, whose star has ascended, discreetly but definitely, over the past four decades; since he studied acting at the State University of New York in the late seventies, scored a modeling gig in an early eighties Levi’s ad (google it), then graduated to playing murderous rapists and long-suffering fashion directors, diabolical post-apocalyptic game show hosts and beleaguered restaurateurs, and really anyone, anything but “the sexy roles. I was always the guy who was evil or gay or funny or nice; the dad or the whatever. Never the leading man, never the sexy guy,” he says (not without regret).
If there’s something about Stanley Tucci that inspires instinctive warmth in us, fills us with the certainty that he’s one of Hollywood’s good eggs, a man of integrity and substance, a man pretty much beyond reproach, which is presumably why he never gets trolled on social media (Never? “No.” I get trolled all the time, I tell him. “You do? What do they say?” Mean things. “Really?” People never say mean things to you? “Not really, no”), Taste spells it out for us.
In 2017, doctors discovered a huge tumorous cancer at the base of Tucci’s tongue.
It’s a supremely gentle book, one that nevertheless embraces death, widowhood, his single parenthood to three young children grieving their mother, and that second great love, for Felicity Blunt – whom he met on the Amalfi coast at the wedding of her sister, his Devil Wears Prada co-star Emily Blunt, to the actor John Krasinski – to whom he was instantly attracted, because the first time he saw Felicity, she was eating enormous quantities of food. “It was astounding really. I thought she had some sort of disease,” he said in an earlier interview. Now he tells me, “She was so charming, funny, hungry.”
So that was that? Love at first… canapé? “Oh, I was reticent. I wasn’t sure I was ready to have a relationship.” Tucci met Blunt in 2010, a little over a year after Kate had died.
“She was also younger than me – still is; it’s amazing how it works. I keep hoping she’s going to catch up.” He’d never intended to be with a younger woman, he says, and has always been a bit uncomfortable about it. The day Tucci and I meet is, in fact, Blunt’s 40th birthday. “She goes, ‘You’re so happy I’m 40.’”
Directly after that wedding, work took Tucci – who still lived in New York at that point – to London, where he and Blunt quite naturally started “eating together”. On one early date, to the Michelin-starred Ledbury in west London, chef Brett Graham took Tucci and Blunt on a tour of his kitchen and presented them with two unplucked pheasants. The following morning, they’d plucked the birds together in front of Tucci’s “new favorite show, Saturday Kitchen”. Ever since, Tucci writes, he and Blunt have made a habit of ordering pheasant whenever they encounter it on a menu: “A lovely reminder of when we first plucked.”
And what did Emily Blunt make of all this? “Of course, it’s weird – we were really good friends, and all of a sudden I was dating her sister. She had an inkling it was happening.”
So you kept your relationship quiet at first? “Yeah. [But it came out when] I was doing Captain America [in London]. We all went out, with [Captain America co-stars] Hayley Atwell and Chris Evans, to Ronnie Scott’s, then we went on, I don’t know where, it was really fun. That night was so long! We ended up playing running charades in… Which hotel was I staying in? Charlotte Street?”
What’s running charades? “It was Chris Evans who loves to play it; he was organizing the whole thing. You have a group and you whisper to each other, you don’t write stuff down. No, no: here’s what it is… It’s one guy, who… ah… I’m trying to remember… I can’t remember. But that night, I told Emily. We’re at Ronnie Scott’s and I said to her, ‘Your sister and I have started seeing each other.’ Felicity turned around. ‘Did you just tell her?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ She goes, ‘Well, I was going to tell her! She’s my sister!’ ‘I know, but she was my friend first,’ I said.”
And so on. Taste reads like meeting Tucci in a members’ club in Barnes feels: evidence that people aren’t all awful, and life – even now, after everything – is still sweet.
“I was always the guy who was evil or gay or funny or nice.”
One of the most striking things about the book, certainly the rawest aspect of it, is how completely, and sort of concurrently, Kate, Tucci’s first wife, is interwoven into Tucci’s narrative. (The same is true for Searching for Italy, Tucci’s airy dream of a cooking and travel show on CNN, which just won an Emmy for best hosted nonfiction series or special, beating Oprah’s Harry and Meghan interview, and is now in production for a second series.)
Kate died in 2009, 14 years after she and Tucci had married, of a cancer doctors only identified when it reached stage four and had metastasized, leaving Kate with no chance of surviving. Tucci’s grief was only tempered by the knowledge that his and Kate’s three children – twins Isabel and Nicolo, and daughter Camilla – were suffering more than he; it’s a grief that inevitably endures for all of them. In January this year Tucci told a talk show, “It’s still hard. And it will always be hard. But you can’t let it… and she would never want any of us to ever wallow in that grief and let it take over our lives. She would never want that.”
Kate’s name is invoked over and over in Taste: she’s raised easily and lightly and without any of the sparse, ponderous reverence more usually reserved for loved people who’ve died, whose memories are only taken down from the shelf and dusted off on rare, special, faintly awkward occasions.
“I can’t deny it,” Tucci says, after hesitating for the briefest moment. “She’s just there all the time. It’s confusing, death, because there’s a part of your brain which still thinks that person is alive; it won’t let it go. So you have these thoughts that make literally no sense. Like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to tell Kate about the thing that Felicity showed me.’
“It doesn’t make any sense. But these [two women], people you love so much, you feel, they’re just supposed to know each other. Or it’s, ‘Oh, I’ll have to tell Kate about what Matteo [Tucci and Blunt’s six-year-old] did’. Or sometimes you think, ‘Well, Emilia [Tucci’s three-year-old with Blunt] looks just like Kate.’ Then you think, ‘How could she look like Kate?’ It could be me being completely insane, but I have heard that other people have experienced this too. I still have dreams about Kate, all the time. She’s never nice to me in the dream.”
No? “No. Terrible.”
Why would she be? “I have no idea. She’s just very dismissive of me, and I’m always so happy to see her.”
Tucci and Blunt live in Barnes with Isabel and Nicolo (21), Camilla (19), Matteo (6) and Emilia (3). That’s quite an age range you’ve got going on. Was that the intention?
“No. Well, I suppose it was. It wasn’t like I didn’t know what I was doing. But…” He pauses. “I never thought I was going to have kids again after Kate died, but then I met Felicity, and she really wanted to have kids. We got to a point where I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t really want to have kids; I think you need to be with somebody who wants to have kids.’”
You split up?
“For, like, a minute. Then I was like, ‘This is stupid. I couldn’t eat with anybody else.’ ”
Ultimately, he’s glad he did have more children. “Oh my God, they’re amazing. Now there are times on a Saturday morning or Sunday morning where I go, ‘How did that happen?’ I go, ‘Well, do you have to poop?’ And I’m just talking to Felicity! Ha! No. You’re like, I don’t want to ask the question, ‘Do you have to poop?’ ever again; I want to go sit down and read a book. But pretty soon they’ll be able to poop on their own, and that’ll be great.”
Has his approach to fatherhood changed? “I’m tired. I mean, I’m old. There are certain things, like when we go to a playground: ‘You be the monster, Dad,’ and you go, ‘My knees can’t be a monster.’ ”
Does aging bother him? “It’s not fun. I hate it. I’m very vain.”
Is he? “Yes.”
Well then: great news. I remind Tucci that, at some point during lockdown 1, he was reinvented as a viral Internet sensation, a sex icon for the Covid age. “Oh, that’s true,” he says. It happened by accident, as all the best viral Internet sensations do: Tucci, who’d just signed his book deal, was convinced by Blunt (“My book agent, so she gets the commission, ha,”) to film a cocktail instruction video for her colleagues at the Curtis Brown literary agency.
The video was so well received that Blunt suggested Tucci post the clip (in which Tucci, suave in a now widely fetishized tight black polo shirt, black jeans and dark-rimmed glasses, a look one might call “off-season Amalfi”, calmly guides viewers through the mixing of a negroni) on his personal Instagram feed, at which point the Internet clean lost its mind. “The negroni shall henceforth be known as the QuaranTucci,” pronounced one blog post, while everything and everyone else grew quite breathless with rabid lust.
“Why is Stanley Tucci making the negroni so hot?” asked a headline on another (rather staid) broadsheet newspaper. The straight male journalist who “decided to investigate” went on to declare himself “Tucci-sexual”; while “everybody – literally every single adult human in the world – would f*** Stanley Tucci and if they say otherwise they’re lying…” tweeted the author Jenna Guillaume. Saturday Night Live renamed Tucci “the Tooch”, and merchandise – including a T-shirt that reads: ‘I like my coffee like Stanley Tucci: HOT!’– proliferated.
So that’s nice, I say.
He glows. “If you were to read some of the comments…”
I have! “It’s staggering. I was crying, I was laughing so hard.”
Oh, come on, you must love it. “Are you kidding? I’m 60! I was really flattered. I was like, ‘Well, what took you so long?’”
After food, after family, the other defining passion of Stanley Tucci’s life appears to be the British actor Colin Firth, whom Tucci first met 20 years ago when the two filmed 2001’s Conspiracy together.
Was that love at first sight? “It was, in a way. He’s such a lovely man.” Firth lives near Tucci in south London, although lockdown came between them, and now that restrictions have lifted, “He’s gone.” Where? “America.” How selfish!
He was reinvented as a viral Internet sensation, a sex icon for the Covid age.
“Yes. He’s not back until Christmas. I really miss him. We have such a good time together. He’s a good friend. A really, really good friend. When I was sick, he was in New York and he came to visit me in the hospital. We happened to be on the same flight coming home, Livia [Firth’s extremely amicably divorced wife] and Colin, me, Fi and the kids; and Livia gave up her business-class seat for me because I couldn’t sit up straight, I had to lie down. And he would take me to the hospital for check-ups. I still had to get hydration, because I was so ill. He would come and visit me, talk to me.”
As far as I can see, the closest Tucci has ever come to any kind of pushback from the Internet, or the world at large, was earlier this year, when he and Firth starred together in writer-director Harry Macqueen’s (exquisite) Supernova, playing lovers on a last road trip following Tucci’s character’s dementia diagnosis. While the creative merit of the film, and Tucci and Firth’s performances, were lauded, questions were raised regarding the wisdom of casting straight actors in gay roles.
Both men had played gay characters in the past, and Tucci tells me, “We are both of the belief that as an actor, it’s your obligation to alter yourself – that’s your job. And we did it respectfully. You’re not sending anybody up; you’re not being mean or silly. Whether that can continue to happen, I don’t really know.”
You’d hesitate before accepting another gay part? “I might, yeah. But it depends. It’s funny, there was a producer, many years ago, and I said, ‘I don’t know if I want to play another gay character right now.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, come on. How many heterosexual characters do you play?’ And he was absolutely right.”
Our time is nearly up, so we return to the subject of food, because it’s appropriate and because, I suspect, with Stanley Tucci this is the natural way. He tells me his favorite cooking utensil is “tongs”, that he rarely sends food back, not even the horse cock of Meryl Streep fame. “We didn’t. Because the [waiter] came and he goes, ‘How’s the horse’s cock?’ And then we all go, ‘Oh, well, just different than we expected,’ because we were all so polite. And then he goes, ‘Would you like to…?’ ‘Yeah, we’ll have something else.’ He had to offer to take it back. We wouldn’t do it. We would have starved, just pushed it around the plate or thrown it under the thing, like children – very polite children.”
Tucci doesn’t think much of veganism.
“No. Oh, I’m not supposed to say that. But why am I not supposed to say that? I think, particularly after not being able to eat solid food for six months, and then struggling to introduce it back into my diet, taste it and swallow it, and all that stuff, I want to eat everything. I literally want to eat a cow while it’s alive.”
I’ve saved my toughest question for last.
For the rest of your life, Stanley Tucci, you must choose: food or sex?
Tucci stalls, his mouth works, yet no sound comes out.
Eventually, “That is cruel! That’s the cruelest question I’ve ever been asked!”
I shrug. That’s as might be, but it’s the question, and I’ve asked it.
He takes off his glasses and cleans them. He squints; he thinks. I can almost see his brain whirl between the options, internal bargaining in action. I wonder if I’ve fused him.
“But… If… I… But… What about… If…?”
One or the other. “Could I be… eating… while I’m having sex?”
No. “Then I literally cannot answer this question. I cannot. That means that I’m a very hungry, horny person.”
That will do, Stanley, I say. That will do.
Polly Vernon is an interviewer for The Times of London and the author of Hot Feminist