October 22, 2007 12:00 PM

He has played tough guys in The Sopranos and The Matrix, while offscreen his friends lovingly know him as “Joey the Clown” and “Joey Pants.” But for more than 12 years, Joe Pantoliano suffered from undiagnosed clinical depression. “Nothing gave me pleasure,” says the Emmy-winning actor, 56. “I had been feeling empty for a long time.” Finally, after shooting his new drama Canvas, playing a man grappling with his wife’s (Marcia Gay Harden) schizophrenia, Pantoliano decided to see a psychiatrist and learned the numbness and anger he felt was caused by clinical depression. For the first time, Pantoliano opens up about his mental illness with PEOPLE’s KC Baker and describes how, as the founder of the advocacy group No Kidding, Me Too!, he wants to get people the help they need. Now he can even laugh about it. Says Pantoliano: “I want to make crazy sexy.”

Before I did Canvas, I didn’t think depression was a big deal. In October 2006 my wife [Nancy, 47] calls to tell me that the dear friend who married us had slit his throat. Like me, he was the life of the party. I couldn’t believe it. Yet, I understood it. I had always felt empty. I had no lust for life, even though I had everything I ever wanted: a wife who loves me, great kids [Marco, 26, Melody, 22, Daniella, 15, and Isabella, 9], a beautiful house. I never wanted to do anything besides sleep. I told myself, “Snap out of it!” But I couldn’t.

My temper caused me a lot of trouble. When my daughter Melody was 13, we were going to go out for brunch and I said to her, “Let’s go!” She said, dismissively, “I’m on the phone.” I slammed the phone down and ripped it out of the wall. I was screaming, livid. Sheetrock was flying everywhere. But I didn’t think I did anything wrong.

The strange thing is that when I saw that I could get my kids upset, I knew they loved me. This is what my mother Mary [who died in 1982] would do. When I first brought a girlfriend home, my family got into a big fight at the table. My mother grabbed her [own] breasts and said, “I curse the milk that fed you! You should have died in my womb!” We left, and my mother leans out the door and says, “Joey, you want coffee?” I shrugged and said, “Okay.” So there we were, back at the table, as though nothing happened. That’s how she was all the time.

After I finished Canvas, I went to a psychiatrist who asked, “Have you ever thought of suicide?” I said, “Yeah.” I’d think of ending my existence and the peace that would come along with that. He said I was clinically depressed. My serotonin levels were too low. He said, “It’s not your fault.” He put me an antidepressant cocktail of Lexapro and Wellbutrin. I’m in talk therapy, and he’s got me on a cardiovascular program. I feel great.

I still have my ups and downs, but I’m more mellow. I’m appropriately sad or happy or exhilarated. It’s easier to deal with the feelings I have. I just can’t get over how much my quality of life has improved. I now realize that my mother was probably bipolar. She was doing the best she could.

I want to help people, so I’m coming out of the closet to say “I’m depressed and it’s okay.” I started an organization with The Creative Coalition called No Kidding, Me Too! to help educate people about mental illness and remove the isolation around it. It’s an epidemic we need to fight. I want people to know, “It’s not your fault.”

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