Encounters with the real-life men and women who act in The Sopranos: Number Four
Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who is nineteen and plays Tony Soprano's daughter, Meadow, meets me in an empty office at HBO. She tells me about Gandolfini, how he gets on the phone with her boyfriend, checks that he's treating her right. "He's actually just like a teddy bear. I think of him as my second father. You can sit down and have the nicest conversation with him, and then he'll get up and punch walls and beat someone up."
Sigler, who started dancing when she was two or three and then slipped into acting, is not Italian. She is American-Jewish-Greek-Cuban. "I guess when you put it all together, I look Italian," she says. Before she got The Sopranos, she was on the verge of giving up acting – she figured she wanted to be a normal kid and spend the summer at sleep-away camp. Instead, she filmed the pilot. There was nearly a year between the pilot and filming the rest of the first season, and that was not a good year for her. She became obsessed with what she ate and how much she exercised. "One thing started to lead to another because I was reading Shape and all those magazines – it was just a big snowball." She started going to bed at midnight after dance class and homework and then getting back up at four in the morning to exercise for three hours. Her weight plummeted.
When she returned to the set, she was called in by Chase and one of the other producers. They explained that they wanted a healthy, normal girl. When, after she got back to her normal weight for the second season, people began carping on the Internet at how chubby she'd become, she decided to go public with what she'd been through. She contacted the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association, talked on TV shows and wrote about her experience in Seventeen magazine, afterward answering every single letter. She thinks it's made her stronger. Now she's planning to become a pop star. Her first single is out soon. "It's young, it's fun, it's happy, it's dance music," is what she says.
Robert Iler and I talk in his manager's office after school. He's just been in physics class, but as he keeps missing classes to film The Sopranos and never quite catches up with his tutor, he is adrift. "I have no clue what was going on," he says. "If you miss one day in physics, that's it." Soon he's going to be home-schooled: "Everyone says you should have a normal life and go to school, but I don't think going to school is normal. It's insane – sitting in a chair for eight hours listening to people bable on. I can't take it."
Iler's crazy about Slipknot. Everyone's into them now, he complains, but he liked them fifteen months ago. Iler told David Chase all about Slipknot, and Chase thought it was funny; this season Anthony Jr. is into Slipknot, too. "Music is my life," says Iler. "I just listen to music on Napster. I have, like, 80,000 songs. Slipknot, Pantera, Metallica . . . " He also – fully embracing the incongruity that adulthood bashes out of us – utterly adores Jennifer Love Hewitt. He has more than 200 pictures of her on his bedroom wall. "I've never seen a woman half as beautiful as Jennifer Love Hewitt."
Edie Falco, who is half Italian and half Swedish and plays Tony Soprano's wife, Carmela, meets me for lunch. She grew up on Long Island and spent four years in acting school learning how to lose the kind of accent she uses in The Sopranos.
Right now, she is preparing for the Sopranos' trip to the Golden Globes. (They will win nothing.) She's not too keen about these ceremonies: "To win an award over the girl from Dark Angel is not where it's at for me." She was the first cast member to win a big award – for best lead actress in a dramatic series, at the 1999 Emmys – and even that wasn't too joyful. "One by one, we didn't win," she remembers, "and then I won. It was yucky." Though her family and her agents would be thrilled, it wasn't like that for her. All of the Sopranos people had come together on a bus, and everybody else had to wait on the bus for her to do all of her victory interviews, and then she had to climb aboard, carrying her award. "There was nothing fun about it," she says. "Everybody was angry that we had been treated so seemingly disrespectfully – it was as if we didn't exist out there – and here I was holding this Emmy. I immediately stuck it in my luggage."
James Gandolfini waits in the reception area used by patients of Dr. Melfi, Tony Soprano's psychiatrist. Lorraine Bracco, who plays Melfi, is already sitting in her circular office ("It's like a womb," she says), where they will be filming today. Gandolfini walks in and takes the chair across from her. He looks at Bracco and says, "No legs." This is a complaint. (Later, he will explain to me, "Oh, I love her legs. I love her legs, and I love her cleavage, and I miss them terrible when they're not there." When I further ask whether this is James Gandolfini or Tony Soprano talking, he says, "I think it's both," then thinks to add, "Tony, mostly.")
He and Bracco try their scene, in which Melfi is pressing Tony to make some key psychological connections, and then Gandolfini discusses with Steve Buscemi, this episode's director, what Tony should really be feeling. Gandolfini nods. "OK. Let's try another one."
Gandolfini tells me later that he likes these scenes for a number of reasons. Partly because of Bracco: "She's wonderful and she's funny and she's receptive to my weirdness and I'm receptive to her weirdness." Partly because he thinks they're good for the show. "I find them to be the Greek Chorus of the character," he argues. There's another reason. "Sometimes," he says, "they explain to me what's going on with the character." And some of that even leaks back into his own life. "I have learned a hell of a lot from this show," he says, "just from the sessions with Dr. Melfi alone, about human beings. David Chase has taught me a great deal about depression and about anger and about things that I never knew about. And you come home, and you think about them. . . . "
When Bracco's lines are being filmed and Gandolfini is off-camera, he has a repertoire of ways to distract her and enliven the day. Sometimes he'll do something he calls his hula dance. "It's like the Chippendales version of Tony Soprano," she says. "It's like a sex dance, you know. . . . There's thrusting, there's hip movement, there's tongue-wagging." He has also mooned her. "Nobody knows what I go through," she says.
In some respects, David Chase likes to compare The Sopranos to the Mir space station: It simply wasn't designed to keep working so long. "We had no idea this show would appeal to people," he says. Consequently, the start of the second season was difficult. "Because the show quite unexpectedly made such a splash that it screwed us all up," he says. And they had created some structural problems for themselves. How could Tony Soprano have anything to do with his mother – their shared scenes had been central to the first season – after she had tried to have him killed? How could he have scenes with Uncle Junior, who was now his enemy? How could he have scenes with his psychiatrist, whom he had alienated?
Chase has resolved that there will be only four seasons of The Sopranos. He knows that eventually even good shows become like the walking dead – "this numb parody of themselves," he says – and he wants to avoid that. And so before this, the third season, he went away to France, to try and plot out where the show would go. He came up with a blueprint for this season, leading into the fourth season, but found he was unwilling to think much further. "The paradigm of the traditional gangster film is the rise and fall," he says. "You have to ask yourself, 'Do I want to bother with that paradigm?' and 'What does that mean for Tony Soprano?' And I don't like thinking about it. I don't want to face: How are we going to end this?"
After he returned from France, the story lines had to be adjusted, to take into account the death of Nancy Marchand, who played Livia. Though they would never talk about it when making plans, everyone all knew that she was badly ill with cancer, and Chase had not invested too much in her story arc for the year. "We had too much story anyway," he says. Of the new season, he says that it focuses more on Tony and Carmela as parents: "Because the children are getting older – Meadow is going away to college, she's always been a smart kid, Anthony Jr., this obdurate sort of couch potato, is also getting older and is going to start asking questions – that would be inevitable – and I began to be really interested what really is the effect of growing up in that house, of having your father be the crime boss of New Jersey. What is the effect on the kids and how is that then going to boomerang back on the parents?"
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