The Sopranos Tell All

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Encounters with the real-life men and Women who act in The Sopranos: Number One
"Fuck! Oh, My God! Oh, My God!" I am sitting with Drea de Matteo, who plays Christopher's wide-eyed girlfriend, Adriana, in The Sopranos, in the back room of Filth Mart, the vintage-clothing store she runs with her boyfriend in Manhattan – "We brought back the rock & roll T-shirt," she says, and points out that Jay-Z refers to their jeans in a recent song – and we are sitting next to a table of pop-culture detritus, including a Scooby Doo game, an Osmonds paperback and various old copies of Penthouse and Forum, and she is just explaining about how she keeps the testicles for merly belonging to the larger of her two Great Danes in a small jar filled with formaldehyde and blue dye on a shelf by her bed next to her vintage editions of Oscar Wilde, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, when she screams.

It is I who should be screaming. Her smaller Great Dane has been running around the room with another dog, and the other dog has just . . .

"He just shit on your fucking pants, man!" de Matteo observes, accurately. "I am so sorry. . . . " She leads me to the bathroom where she kindly crouches at my feet, mopping, saying over and over again, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry. . . . "

And then we carry on.

David Chase didn't originally plan for de Matteo to be a regular cast member; she appeared in the pilot as the hostess in Vesuvio restaurant, but the part evolved. De Matteo had a fairly wild upbringing in Queens. She tells me about going to film school when she was sixteen, but also about accidentally smoking angel dust when she was twelve and, at around the same age, being in a car some boys stole. It belonged to a local mafioso. They were chased and got away. When we talk about movies, she tells me, "I've seen The Exorcist more than eighty-five times. I used to pretend I was her when everybody would be asleep at night, walk around the apartment, piss on the floor. I'd put on whiteface, my hair all fucked up. I'd wait for my brother to come home, tripping on acid." She laughs. "That's why I'm in therapy."

She mentions that she was supposed to be at therapy right now. "I don't think it's a secret that everybody in this business has been in therapy their entire fucking lives," she says. She has regular therapy followed by group therapy, but today she got out early to see me. "Today was a boring day," she says. "Nothing deep."

I ask for an example of what they talked about, just making conversation.

She says she wasn't quite telling the truth about her therapy session. "My best friend just died," she says. Jamie lived with her, her boyfriend and the Nicaraguan housekeeper who was de Matteo's de facto mother figure growing up. He OD'd. She has since had the initials of his favorite Rolling Stones songs and a heart with an American flag on it tattooed on her ankle.

She screws up her face in pain. Her leg. "I have arthritis," she says. "My fucking leg's a mess." She says this: "I'm such a shy person, and people think I'm really snotty because I'm shy, but I'm not. I'm just shy. I never had any friends because I was so shy. And they just thought I was a cunt. And I'm not. I'm so nice. I'm just scared."

It was in the mid-Nineties, when his current agents suggested to Chase that he develop a TV show based on the mob, that he dug up his old idea and started working on a pilot. Fox would eventually pass on it, as would the other three major networks. Then HBO signed on. Around this time, Chase remembers referring to the show as "a real-life Simpsons." "I guess I was just thinking the attitude and the comedic dysfunction and the vulgarity of The Simpsons," he says. "I also started thinking about it as Twin Peaks in the Jersey meadowlands."

The first season's principal story arc – of the conflict between the depressed mobster and his mother – was the one Chase had mapped out years before, though when it came to it, he realized he didn't want to kill the mother. She was too good alive. (At the end of the movie, the mobster had gone to kill her, but found her dead of a stroke – her final triumph.) The one significant conflict with HBO was about the show's title: They thought that The Sopranos would confuse people, that people would expect it to be about opera singers. They insisted that the show be called Family Man.

"One of the few things they've ever said that horrified me," says Chase. "And the cast, they went ape shit." Long lists of compromise suggestions flew back and forth. Family Guy. Made in New Jersey. The Tony Files. Chase suggested Red Sauce. ("I was getting desperate," he says.) He likes to think that they would have won the argument on its merits, but their cause was helped when Fox announced that it would be premiering an animated series called Family Guy. HBO's chosen title was suddenly unusable.

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