Encounters with the real-life Men and Women who act in The Sopranos: Number Five
I meet James Gandolfini in a restaurant one afternoon, a meeting to which he is eventually, after various delays and apologies, nearly three hours late. Gandolfini grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in New Jersey. I ask him what he cared about when he was growing up, and he's immediately waving this, and all the kinds of questions that might follow it, away. "Nah," he says, "I don't want to talk about that stuff. I'm not that interesting – I'm a character in a show."
He bends a little. His family is Italian – his father and mother spoke Italian in the house, and his grandparents didn't speak English at all. "School was very different from my home," he says. "We only listened to Italian records up until I was probably sixteen. My father used to put on Italian singers, put the speakers out on the lawn and cut the grass. He was, you know, a real guinea."
Gandolfini went to college in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for what he swears was one simple reason: "Keep Mama happy." He did four years. "I had more fun than a human being should ever be allowed to have in college," he says. Then he came to New York. "I managed some nightclubs, which I had no idea what I was doing. . . . I was pretty miserable at it. But I was learning a lot and experiencing a lot." He did other jobs: landscaping, delivering. "All kinds of crap . . . just get enough money to go out and fart around."
By then, he'd thought a little about acting. "I looked at it and said, 'You know, this could work. This seems like a safe venue for all the stuff I'm feeling.' Around twenty-five, twenty-six, got into a good class and stuck it out."
We talk about Tony Soprano. "I think Marlon Brando said, 'The character that suffers is always the best character in the play,' " he says. "So people watch Tony, and they watch his mother giving him shit and his wife giving him shit. Even his girlfriend throws shit at him, you know. So here's this powerful figure getting abused all the time, and I think people get a good laugh out of that."
And I guess anguish is more fun to play than some chirpy. . . .
"I don't know if it's more fun to play, but it's certainly more fun to watch."
You think maybe it's not more fun to play?
"I think it's a hard character to play, especially over a period of time. Everyone's yelling at you all day long."
In real life, Gandolfini tried therapy a few times, at the instigation of a girlfriend, but it didn't stick. "Maybe I wasn't ready for it," he says.
You seem like you might be the kind of person whose instinct is for the unexamined life and getting on with things.
"Yes. I would do that. But only because I'm a neurotic mess. I'm really basically just like a 260-pound Woody Allen. . . . There are some days when you say, 'Oh, fuck it,' and some days when I think way too much. As does everybody. I'm no different than anybody else. But you know what? Unless you have some deep problem, I don't know. . . ." He stops himself. "You know what, I shouldn't be talking about therapy. I don't know a thing about it."
Gandolfini seems suspicious of the position that The Sopranos' success has put him in. The topic of his own celebrity is one that makes him nervous. He doesn't want to seem ungrateful. "I find fame ugly," he says. "My father always said a million times, 'We're peasants.' His concept of life was, 'No one's better than anybody else.' And, 'The rich are thieves,' pretty much. To find yourself being treated in a different bit of status, even in the small amount that I have compared to Brad Pitt or . . . it's just a little odd for me, to get that slightly different treatment sometimes. And I'm uncomfortable with it."
Does it feel like you've betrayed your natural team, the peasants?
"I want nothing to do with privilege. That's basically what it is. I don't like privilege. That's all I'm saying. Take that as you want."
At the end of the Second Season of The Sopranos, two major characters, Richie Aprile and Big Pussy, were whacked: Big Pussy killed by his colleagues on a boat after he betrayed them, Richie killed by his girlfriend, Janice, after he hit her. Other characters have died before. It is implausible to imagine that there won't be some more deaths on the way.
Of course, if you're an actor on The Sopranos, there is a human side to this. If they die, you lose your job. You no longer see your Sopranos friends every week. David Chase says that he usually calls the to-be-whacked just before the script is circulated. He made an exception with Vincent Pastore, who played Big Pussy, telling him at the start of the second season that he would have "a great season of many, many good scenes, but it's the end of your tenure here."
"We've started a tradition that when somebody gets whacked on the show, we take them out to dinner," says Joe Pantoliano. "It's like the reverse: When you kill somebody in real life you take them out to dinner first and then kill them. What we do on The Sopranos is, after we kill them we take them out to dinner."
Do you ever worry that your character will get whacked?
Tony Sirico: Every episode. I'm always asking David, "David, is this it?" He smiles, he just gives me the eye. You cannot read David. I've tried. In my heart I know I'm not dying – I think I'm too passionate a character to get rid of – but in reality I check every script that comes by me.
Michael Imperioli: I don't, you know. I think Christopher has nine lives. I think he'll be around a while.
Edie Falco: Sure. I don't think she will get whacked, but I think she might go in some other way. Die or something; leave him; or be killed by some jealous woman. I think it was made clear to all of us very, very early on that any of us, including Tony, could go.
Dominic Chianese: Yeah. I worry about it. David's such a sweetheart. One day he said to me, "Dominic – don't worry." Isn't that sweet?
Drea De Matteo: All the time. But the women rule on the show – they can't do anything to us. Lorraine's running Jim's whole Mafia career, Livia was running for Junior, I run it somewhat for Christopher, Meadow has Jim by the balls. . . . So all the women are superimportant to the story.
Robert Iler: No, just because, not only that I'm young, but if I went it would be such a big deal. That would change the entire show. Plus, I think that David loves me
Even James Gandolfini worries. It came to him in a wave of paranoia one night during the filming of this new season. He'd worked it out. He put it all together. He realized what was going on: David Chase was planning to have Tony Soprano whacked. "I had an unusually belligerent day," Gandolfini says, "and I went home and I was sitting there and I was struck with the realization. . . . I said, 'David's going to kill me.'"
The next morning, he called Chase at home. "He said that during the night he was not able to sleep," says Chase, "and he said to me, 'I realized: Oh, shit, I know what he's doing – he's going to kill me off.'" Listening to Gandolfini, Chase realized "something like how much I value this show, how great it's all been. And that it would be entirely possible to do that – would actually make for an interesting surprise. I just felt very warm toward him. And I thought to myself, 'Man, actors, we forget what it's like to be an actor.' How little they have to hang on to, in a way. What they do is so ephemeral. Here he is, a huge star, the most popular guy, and that he would think that. You know what else I thought? 'That guy's an artist.' Because even if it went through most TV stars' minds, they'd never make that call. Even if it flitted through their mind, they would say, 'Well, I'm indispensable, there's no show without me.' And that's why he's an artist. Theoretically I think we should believe that it could happen. I think if you start to think that Tony is not in jeopardy, that's not a good thing."
"I said," Gandolfini remembers, "'Have you had it with me now – are you fed up at this point? Are we done now? Are you just going to kill the guy and move on? Just let me know.' That's what I was basically saying to him." Gandolfini also concedes that when he had finished talking. Chase did give him an answer.
"He told me I was a fucking lunatic."
This story is from the March 29, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.
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