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The Sopranos Tell All

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Encounters with the real-life men and women who act in The Sopranos: Number Two
One day, I have lunch with Steven Van Zandt, otherwise known as Little Steven, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. As ever, he wears one of the bandannas he has sported since his hair didn't grow back properly after a car accident more than twenty years ago. Today's is purple and complements his purple paisley shirt.

It was David Chase's wild hunch that Van Zandt could play a New Jersey mobster, a notion spurred by the memory of him on early Springsteen album covers. "In his pre-bandanna days," says Chase, "he used to wear a little porkpie hat, and he looked like a sharpie, an operator, a connected guy. And there was something about the E Street Band that looked like a crew." This, says Van Zandt, was not unintentional. "I looked at it at the time as we were sort of the Rat Pack of rock & roll," he says. "Me in the Dean Martin role. I was sort of the wild man of the group to Bruce's Frank."

When he met Chase, Van Zandt told him that he already had a character, Silvio Dante, he had invented years before for a movie treatment about a retired hitman. "It was a plot about the Russian mob moving in on New York mob territory," he recalls. Van Zandt decided that the key to his new career was to be as different as possible from his real self. He was already twenty pounds overweight, so he put on another thirty or forty pounds for the first season. "I didn't want to take any chances, man," he says.

He's fine company, expressing miserable sentiments with joy and laughter. We discuss the Sopranos sensibility. "You know, you are walking round the corner and waiting to get hit by that bus," he says. "You know it's coming sooner or later. I know that sounds pessimistic, but I think it's a realistic view of just how miserable this planet is. I mean, let's face it: Life sucks. If you don't see that, you're fucking blind. That's my view, and I think perhaps David shares that sentiment to some extent."

I leave him to meet Michael Imperioli. He's a surprisingly quiet man whose first big break came in another gangster landmark, GoodFellas, as Spider, the youngster who Joe Pesci makes dance, shoots in the foot and later kills. He thought he was made, but he spent a few more years after that doing more restaurant work than acting. In The Sopranos, he plays Christopher, an up-and-coming gangster who also writes movie scripts, something that Imperioli – who co-wrote the 1999 Spike Lee movie Summer of Sam and two Sopranos episodes – says was already in the pilot script before he got the part. Sitting here, Imperioli, whose character has been party to many of The Sopranos' most horrific scenes, lets slip one more thing. "I don't like violence that much," he says. "I don't mind playing it, but I don't like watching it. Like, A Clockwork Orange I saw once, I could never watch it again. I get incredibly squeamish, believe it or not. . . . "

The most disturbing moment in the first two seasons of The Sopranos is one of latent implied violence rather than of actual violence. It was a love scene between Janice Soprano and her boyfriend, Richie Aprile, played by David Proval. They are having sex on a sofa. Janice is on her knees, facing away from Richie, who is holding a gun to her head. "Oh, Richie baby, you're the best," she tells him. (The sex is not successfully consummated, because Janice starts saying, "Oh, you're the boss," which only reminds him that in the Soprano mob hierarchy, he is relatively impotent.)

When they have not simply resorted to their imaginations, Chase and the other Sopranos writers have picked up details of possible ways in which these people may live from a variety of sources. Chase had a contact in the Manhattan DA's office who had prosecuted mob guys. "What they value, what they don't value, the four reasons people flip, all kinds of interesting stuff," says Chase. One of the writers, Frankie Renzulli, who grew up in a Boston housing project, also brought in a lot of a specific knowledge. There are a few Mafia-related books on the bookshelf in David Chase's office, one of which is Mafia Women, by Clare Longrigg. In it, he found this passage: Christina Culicchia, girlfriend of Sicilian hitman Antonino Titone, describes how he used to come home drunk, rip his clothes off and grab her, holding his gun to her head. As he fucked her at gunpoint, he made her say, over and over again, "Ninu is the best, Ninu is the best, Ninu is the best. . . ."

Inspiration.

Aida Turturro was not keen: "I'd never had a sex scene before. I was scared shit." She was also concerned about whether it seemed demeaning to women, though her reaction was less extreme than David Proval's. "He was very, very upset," says Chase. "He said his wife had seen the script and thought it was just horrible, what it said about women, the way it was done. I said, 'You're not doing it – Richie Aprile's doing it.'" I also said, 'We have not done a politically correct show, and I'm not going to start now.'"

Chase says that HBO has imposed no limits on the show. But he sometimes wonders if they go too far – "Did he have to say 'fuck' three times in the last thirty seconds?" he will wonder – not because he's worried about offending people, more that they might lose the sense of freshness and truth. He tells me this: "That's the problem of television: the curse of the familiar. It's the repetition. And yet that's what people like. They want to see Kramer come in like this." He waves his arms, frantic and asymmetrical. "I don't. Two times, three times, fine . . . then I don't care anymore. It depresses me on some level that people crowd around to see the same thing every week."

Encounters with the real-life men and women who act in The Sopranos: Number Three
I am to meet Tony Sirico, who plays one of Tony Soprano's aides, Paulie Walnuts, at the Sopranos set. He wants to talk to me between scenes, so we step into the corridor. I ask him a few general introductory questions before he is called back inside. As he goes, he grins and says, in an entirely friendly way, "Give me some more interesting questions about me, you fuck."

Sirico is unusual among the Sopranos principals in the way he knows the world he is portraying. He has been acting for twenty-eight years, but before that he lived another life. He grew up in Brooklyn, "a rough-and-tumble kid." Ironically, considering the way his life turned out, he learned much of what he knew about the street from James Cagney movies – "He taught me how to walk and talk." (The way Paulie Walnuts holds up his hands in front of his stomach is a conscious echo of Cagney's body language.) But he also noticed the tough guys, the gangsters, in the neighborhood, and he liked what he saw. "They're all dressed, slicked back, they got cars, they got girls, very enticing," he says. "In my eyes back then, I only seen the pretty part of it. I didn't see that the guy was a dangerous killer or stuff like that." He says that he very nearly became a made Mafia man himself – "I got close to making a huge mistake.... I almost got too close to becoming one of those guys I portray." A friend wanted to sponsor him, and he refused only because he had always had a problem with authority: "The good thing I had going for me not being involved profoundly with wiseguys was that I don't like anybody telling me what to do. . . . "

He still got in plenty of trouble on his own. He has a bullet wound in his leg from when a guy caught Sirico kissing a girl who had spurned the shooter. ("At the time," says Sirico, "all I thought about was, 'Fucking ruined my white suit.'") He was arrested twenty-eight times, and sent to jail twice, for a total of seven years. He would stick up places, though perhaps understandably he is reluctant to discuss this.

"Let's just say I made a few withdrawals," he says.

In the last twenty-eight years he has been in approximately forty films and fifty TV shows, usually playing tough guys. He says he has been killed seventeen times in movies. "And do I mind being stereotyped?" he asks himself. "Absolutely not. I've paid my rent, I take care of me and Ma. "He's lived with his mother for the past fifteen years and refers to her as "my first love." The tough guys in Sirico's neighborhood are still friendly with him. Sometimes they critique him. "You were a little weak in that area," they might say. "They love me for being in this show," Sirico says. "I'm still part of their family in their hearts. They know I'm a stand-up kid, whether I'm a tough guy or not."

For the first two days I'm on the Sopranos set, James Gandolfini does not say hello to me, though one time he catches my eyes across a crowded soundstage and raises his eyes as if to say, "Yeah, I know you're there."

In time, he gets friendlier. One morning he walks in and stretches out his hand. "Hello, Satan," he says to me, in the sweetest of ways. Later that day he turns to Robin Green, who has written the episode they are filming, and confers about what the next scene means and how it should be played. "How about we do it," he suggests, "and if it really sucks, you let us know?"

In the scene, he is having trouble with one particular line: "And who cares about shit they don't have balls enough to say to your face?" It keeps coming out mangled. He asks to be read the exact wording. He nods. "It's shit, balls, face," he says. Between takes I can hear him repeat this mantra. "Shit, balls, face," he says. "Shit, balls, face."

One of the other actors in this scene is Joe Pantoliano, a new cast member this season. They have to embrace at one point. People who enjoy the Sopranos' mobsters constant on-screen quoting of lines from the Godfather films will be pleased to know that, during one rehearsal, as Gandolfini embraces Pantoliano, he says to him, "It was you, Fredo. You broke my heart." (I do a survey. The cast member who has watched the Godfather films the most is Tony Sirico: the first about a hundred times, the second maybe fifty. Steven Van Zandt has seen them maybe fifty times: "You try and spread it out so you at least forget a few things." Michael Imperioli has seen them at least twenty times – his family has a Christmas tradition where they watch the first three hours of the entire saga Christmas Eve, then watch the rest Christmas morning. Robert Iler is the only member of the cast I speak to who has seen the first Godfather film just once.)

Later, Gandolfini invites me into his mobile home, parked outside. There's an exercise bike and a photo of him with his young son on the counter. He pats his CD player. "That's my sanity," he says. He puts on some AC/DC. Sometimes he'll need Frank Sinatra, sometimes Lynyrd Skynyrd, but it's AC/DC that is the most useful. "Especially in the morning if I have to be pissed off, I'll put on a little AC/DC," he says. "Bang my head against things."

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