Two decades ago, a twentysomething Vera Farmiga auditioned for a role on The Sopranos. She didn’t watch the show at the time, because she couldn’t afford cable and also liked to spend her Sunday nights studying lines for Monday morning’s auditions. But she knew the series was a big deal, and she had a good relationship with its casting directors, Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe. They brought her in during the groundbreaking HBO Mob drama’s fourth season to read for the role of Valentina La Paz, the wiseguy Ralphie Cifaretto’s mistress, who would eventually be seduced away by Tony Soprano himself.
She did not get the part.
“I remember it being very quiet in the room,” says Farmiga, “and I remember [Sopranos creator] David Chase just staring at me. I didn’t know if I killed it or they were lukewarm. I couldn’t discern it. Obviously, I didn’t kill it. It just wasn’t my time. Or maybe I sucked, I don’t know! God, even then it was regarded as the best TV show. Getting the role, Jesus, that would have been something.”
Things would work out OK for Farmiga. At 48, she is well-established as one of the best and most versatile actors working today, from her Oscar-nominated breakout role in Up in the Air through her job as one of the stars of the Conjuring horror mega-franchise. And now, the Jersey native has finally gotten a chance to join the Sopranos family in a very different capacity: In the prequel film The Many Saints of Newark, she plays the middle-aged version of Tony’s controlling mother, Livia, who was famously brought to life in the series by Nancy Marchand.
“It’s particularly chuckle-worthy that eventually I got young Livia instead,” Farmiga observes. “His mom! Totally different kind of affair!”
Farmiga spoke with Rolling Stone from Toronto — where she’s filming the Apple TV+ miniseries Five Days at Memorial — about her Sopranos education, what her pandemic year was like, and her penchant for playing monstrous onscreen moms.
David Chase can be really inscrutable at times. Did working with him on Many Saints give you any more insight into how he may have been responding to you in that original audition?
He’s no longer inscrutable for me. He’s actually very candid and warm and trusting and honest and open. The role was offered to me pending a personal meeting with David and [director] Alan Taylor. Just knowing the legacy of that show, it already was sheer flattery for me that David entrusted me with the role and thought I could do it. We met at an Upper East Side restaurant and shared a fantastic bottle of white wine and loads of dessert, even though he had a dentist appointment afterwards.
And you hadn’t watched the show at that point?
I didn’t watch the entire series until after my meeting with David. I divulged that [to him]. What I did watch was a YouTube compilation of Nancy Marchand scenes. It’s epic! Nancy Marchand is epic! We talked about the excellence of Nancy Marchand, we talked about my family, about my Irvington, New Jersey, upbringing. We immediately connected. He is so lovable. Maybe it’s our personalities. Maybe it’s the fact that, subconsciously, I am playing his mother, so there’s an automatic trust there. I found him so adorable, and we just had this kinetic energy together.
Not everyone has that kind of bond with David. Whose idea was it for you to alter your appearance somewhat for the role?
I asked if I could tweak my face with minimal prosthetics to honor the incredible, beautiful, angular bone structure that supported Livia’s angular, aggressive, sharp traits. Livia is a character that has many, many sharp angles, and very few curves.
It’s not insignificant that he would ask you to play this character so closely based on his mother.
Yes, God. And how that echoes with Michael and James [Gandolfini]. … It’s just so profound on so many levels. He told me right then and there that Michael Gandolfini had signed on the dotted line to play Tony Soprano. And that absolutely assured me. I thought about what an incredible career opportunity this was for him, but knowing that this may be a part of his extended grieving process, my heart exploded. And I wanted to be there for him. It felt more like a calling.
What was your first meeting with Michael like?
The second I got home [from lunch with David], Michael emailed me. It was the most adorable thing: “Ms. Farmiga, I’m a big fan. I can’t wait to learn from you. I would love an opportunity to have some coffee so I would have a familiar face on set.” I just fell absolutely head-over-heels for him. And next thing you know, he knocked on the door of my Upper West Side apartment, and I go [in a perfect Nancy Marchand voice], “Who’s there?” Just like she does in her first scene on the show. He was the only one for the role. I don’t know how we could have done it without him.
How did you prepare for the role?
I went back to that YouTube supercut. I spent countless hours watching it, hundreds of times, and then I zipped through the series. At first, I just did the first three seasons, and I would go, “Shit! Shit!” There’s one part of me that is obviously feeling such respect for this role, and the fun [Nancy] was having, and the brilliance of the writing. That part of me was incredibly stoked and honored. And there was a part of me that had a little bit of buyer’s remorse: “What have you taken on?? Oh, my God! God, the balls!” You don’t want to tarnish the legend. It’s a massive pressure. But the bottom line is, look, we’re all here to have fun. We’re trying to do it justice.
What specific guidance did David give you?
The only requirement for David was to focus on turning back the Livia clock. Nancy’s Livia was tough. She was a bitter woman in her seventies. David really wanted me to rewind to her pre-menopausal and pre-dementia. He wanted me to infuse Livia with more youthfulness and energy, even though the narcissism is still intact. I think that’s when my subscription to Quora Digest started. I just started focusing on Q&A’s and other writing about borderline personality disorders, sociopathy, and narcissism.
What are some of aspects of Livia where you really got to explore and make the character your own?
Livia’s relationship with Johnny. She obviously loved her late husband enough to visit his grave in the show. Her infamous “Johnny was a real man, he was a saint!” — the contradiction of that [with] Tony saying she ground [Johnny] to a nub. She talks about her husband as if he was an angel, meanwhile, she was constantly criticizing him when he was alive. Jonny Bernthal and I really tried to figure out the common marital query: Who wears the pants in the family? What if they may have, at some point, been in love? Obviously, their marriage disintegrates over all these things. But Johnny and Livia are an unfinished symphony. I want more of Jonny Bernthal. He is like fresh-cut grass to me. A shot of chlorophyll. He and I need more to do next time around. I hope there’s a Many Saints of Newark 2. Honestly, it would be my heart’s delight if they would just do a prequel series. That would be my absolute dream. I’m not ready to let this character go, and with an actor like Jonny, who is such pure joy to be in a scene with, I feel it’s just the beginning.
It’s funny that you wound up doing this not long after the A&E series Bates Motel ended. What’s the challenge of playing an infamous screen mother when the audience already thinks they know her?
The challenge is finding out who they are. We meet Norma from Psycho and Livia from The Sopranos at the end of their lives. I think they were very different. I believe that Norma Bates had a lot of emotional injury in her life. With Livia, I really approach her as coping with narcissistic personality disorder. Regardless, it’s still the same challenge: How did Norma become the decrepit corpse in the rocking chair? What kind of hell did she go through? How did Livia get to be the way she was? How do we get the audience to enjoy and root for someone they automatically consider to be a villain? How do you make a manipulative, conniving, domineering, sometimes hysterical wife, woman, mother lovable? You’ve got to love her, and you’ve got to love playing her.
What did you love about Livia?
Livia wielded a super-manipulative pose over the men in her life. I find her self-pity to be hysterical. As I do with women who are like this, and I know a lot of them, the trick was to accept the contradictions. One of Livia’s famous sayings is, “Now I don’t like that kinda talk! It upsets me!” Yet she said whatever the fuck she wanted, right? She could shit on any parade. I find castrating females fascinating. I always have, because I know them. And it’s weird watching them! I know these women that constantly berate the men in their lives. They have absolutely no self-awareness, and they’re constantly doing PDB — Public Displays of Beratement. It’s a special kind of crazy, those mothers that are a real whip, who live to make others’ lives miserable — the ultimate ball-breakers. But on the flip side, you’ve got to find something to honor about the character. And what I always find lovable is Livia didn’t mince words. Between her brain and her mouth, there was absolutely no edit. And that’s fun.
What has the pandemic been like for you, particularly during the time when nobody was working?
I’m obviously one of privilege, and the first part of the pandemic I was able to hole up. My husband and my children are my best friends. It was a really special time for us. I don’t like to be idle, and I’m a control freak, so I wanted to get control of this. I became a farmer, to be honest with you. Whether it was feeding my friends and family and neighbors, I love taking care of people. I am a nurturer. I [also] become incredibly creative in these moments of not knowing. For the first time since my junior year of high school at Hunterdon Central, I picked up my paintbrushes, sat at the piano, became a better sewer, made tons of clothes for my children.
You got to put those nurturing instincts to work with Michael.
I think he’s the key for this. It’s just uncanny, what he does. Stepping into James’ shoes was incredibly brave, and raw, and touching to witness. And this kid was pure sunshine on set, through the dark reality that he was rebirthing his deceased father’s character. He was our connection to James, in a way, who I felt somehow probably orchestrated this from beyond. This added a whole other level of spirituality to it that was profound. He’s very sensitive and caring, such a special, special kid. He’s the only reason, probably, any of us had the balls to pull it off.
Alan Sepinwall is Rolling Stone‘s chief TV critic and co-author of The Sopranos Sessions.