Chatting with the two leads of THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK, the latest chapter of THE SOPRANOS, which hits Theaters and HBO Max today
Having watched The Sopranos when it originally aired, I can say it was a rare television phenomenon that I was completely wrapped up in at the time. The series ran six seasons from 1999 thru 2007, and I was hooked on the story of Tony Soprano, a mobster in New Jersey who starts seeing a therapist after experiencing panic attacks “on the job”. The series then used these therapy sessions to give an external voice to his very internal struggles, which gave a humane and sympathetic voice to its very unsympathetic protagonist (played immaculately by James Gandolfini). Of course over 86 episodes it was a tragedy we saw slowly unfurl as Tony ultimately became the architect of his own demise. After the show wrapped, there was an abundance of rumors, given its iconic nature, that it would eventually be resurrected in some way, shape, or form. That is, until the untimely death of Gandolfini in 2013.
When most recently I heard they were going with the prequel approach with James’ son Michael Gandolfini reprising his father’s role, that iteration had the most potential and was the most intriguing of the rumored takes. The film in question, The Many Saints of Newark, hits HBO Max and streaming today and is an origin of sorts for Tony Soprano. The first half of the film is very much the story of Tony’s mentor Christopher Moltisanti’s father Dickie, played by Alessandro Nivola, which lays the groundwork for Tony’s story in the second half of the film. This has Dickie dealing with the consequences of the first half as he struggles with his role as Tony’s father figure. It’s an interesting way to set the stage for the series and felt like it could be either a start to another film franchise, or possibly a backdoor pilot. A few weeks ago I got to speak with both Michael Gandolfini and Alessandro Nivola after watching the film and dig in a bit into not only how Michael came to reprise his father’s role, but how Alessandro approached coming into a character that hung over the original series so prominently since he was the one that Tony idolized growing up.
Dan T: We had a very trying year and a half, but I think The Sopranos in large respect helped to remove some of the stigma attached to mental health issues. I mean, if Tony soprano could go see a therapist, anybody could go see a therapist. So how are you guys? How is your mental health after the last year and a half?
Michael Gandolfini: I’m doing good.
It’s been one hell of a year for sure, pandemic and a lot of incredible movements happening. But I mean, right now, you know, it’s a really exciting time in my personal life. I’m really sort of anxiously excited for everyone to see this film and I’m incredibly proud of it. It was just one of the best experiences of my life getting close with Alessandro and everyone. So I feel excited and happy, at the present moment. A bit tired, but that’s the experience I’m having right now.
Alessandro Nivola: If anything has destroyed my health, it’s been the three years that it’s taken from getting cast in this role, to arriving in theaters. (Laughs) It’s been one of the most torturous, protracted processes, requiring the patience of Job. I mean, I was offered the role of a lifetime, a career defining part, and like one of those little rabbits in front of a greyhound, it was pulled away just as I was snapping my jaws around it. When it finally comes out, maybe I can rest.
Dan T: Michael, I read you had to audition. How did that work? Had you heard about the project and did they come to you first, or did you hear about the project and think, well, I might have a leg up on this, I should go out for this. How did that all happen?
Alessandro Nivola: Well you know, you looked the part.
Michael Gandolfini: That’s true. I thought at least I was a little skinnier, a little more hair. I had heard about it walking onto stage, actually. I was doing a play and as I was walking on stage and my mom sent me this thing.
Look, I grew up on the set, but I had never seen a scene. I had never seen an episode. I had never seen anything. I lived a very unusual life in some ways growing up on set, but also my parents really worked hard to give me kind of a very normal childhood. I grew up mowing lawns in New Jersey, going to the shore. So it was kind of like [when hearing a prequel was in development] “well good for them, I can’t wait to watch it”. And then someone’s like, “well, there’s a younger Tony”. And I was like, “great, of course”.
Then we had heard, there will be an older Tony, and would I like to audition? I said no, I don’t think — I don’t want to do it. Not only because of all the stigma with my dad, I wanted to be my own person. But also, I knew nothing about the character.
So I actually auditioned and watched the show for the first time. It was one of the best parts; getting to fall in love with this show. I think there was like three months there, I auditioned three times and then after that, I didn’t hear back for forever. Just waiting and waiting and going to college, sort of moving on, and then I got it. By the point of getting it, I had fallen in love with Tony and had real ideas about what to do with it.
Dan T: Michael you’re playing a younger version of Tony Soprano and Alessandro, you’re playing Christopher Moltisanti’s father Dickie. So Alessandro, you had a bit of a blank slate when it came to your character, whereas Michael, you had a little bit more weight and responsibility within a character that’s so well-known. So, how did you manage to bring your own voice to these roles?
Michael Gandolfini: Well, I think that comes down to David (Chase). I mean, David is such an incredible writer. It was on the page. So when I started reading the script, I started doing the audition and I started to really see, this is a completely different tone. This is a completely different version of him and it’s not what I expected. I think as an actor, when you read something that surprises you, you get really excited and I was surprised to see, and it really exhilarated me, that this wasn’t a gun wielding Tony.
In many ways, that sensitivity and curiosity, nerdiness, goofiness that is in the show with older Tony is brought up to the forefront. I think in some ways it makes Tony a bit more of a tragic figure, which I was really interested in and this is going to be a completely different Tony, yet it’s the right version, you know, of course, an 11 year old isn’t going to be shooting up poker games. So it makes sense, but it’s not what you might expect. You see this pain, resentment, and anger, float to the top and stay with him for the rest of his life.
Alessandro Nivola: Well, yeah, I mean, David said to me, when we started filming, “Don’t listen to anything anyone in the series says about your character, because they’re all liars”. (Laughs)
So I felt like that was really liberating, that I had total freedom to invent the character from my own imagination and from the research and the process of preparing to play the role over a six month period. I was cast way in advance of starting the film really for the first time in my life. I’m normally offered these jobs like a week before we start because somebody else has dropped out and I really just relished that time, which involved all kinds of different ways in.
I started really in Newark. I had a friend who was a priest who was a big Sopranos fan and had grown up — he was an Italian-American guy and he’d grown up in this neighborhood where the movie takes place. Not a lot of Italians still live there; they’ve all moved north into the suburbs. He took me around there and showed me this museum in the bottom of a church that was full of pictures of people living in that neighborhood from the twenties through the nineties. There were pictures of Joe Pesci and his doo-wop band, he was like 17 years old, and you know, I started getting kind of visual images of different types of people in the neighborhood. I had friends, who had friends, who were part of groups of guys who were in kind of small-time, organized crime. I hung out with them a little bit and listened to their impersonations of all the different judges that they’d been up in front of.
I also watched Raging Bull about 50 times and worked with a dialect coach three times a week for the months leading up to filming and really tried to develop a voice that was specific. I mean, I think in a lot of ways, that was the biggest challenge of everything because these Italian American mob characters are such a cliche and everybody has their imitation of a Goomba guy, you know? But trying to find a way of bringing the reality of that person in that time and place, but have it feel somehow different than all the mob characters that had come before, was probably my biggest hurdle.
A lot of that was in the voice.
Dan T: But I imagine a lot of freedom in that too.
Alessandro Nivola: Yeah. But endless freedom can present its own problems.
Dan T: So Tony idolizes Dickie and obviously, like you said, in the movie, he’s a lot different than he grows up to be. So what are some of the things that you both think that Dickie did and didn’t do that might’ve affected how Tony grew up?
Michael Gandolfini: One of the things we worked on was the physical presence in this household, which was very important. Familial touch. Like even the way someone puts his hand, you know, Tony puts his hand on the neck of someone, the kisses on the cheek. There’s that beautiful scene where Livia is in this guidance counselors office and tells a story about her just laying with Tony.
So, I think one of the most important things is that no one was there in his life with him, but Dickie would pick him up from football games and he could go to the bumper pool warehouse and just be with his uncle. It was someone who was going to actually be there and show up and I think a lot of people don’t have that and Tony definitely didn’t. So when Dickie leaves, Tony has no one. He’s gotta be the man, basically, in this household because Johnny is gone 24/7 and Livia is asking so much of him.
Dickie was also this man with a moral compass, who begins to lose it as the film goes on. It’s like a noir, and I think that Tony also sees that. I think Tony’s looking for a moral compass, but he’s looking to the wrong person and he learns how to use violence. I guess what I’m trying to say is Dickie begins blaming himself for all of these problems and I think Tony starts to do that to himself too. I think fundamentally Tony blames himself that Dickie is not around anymore, that Johnny is not around, and that Livia is the way it she is is going to plague him for the rest of his life.
Alessandro Nivola: Yeah, I guess I see the tragedy; it’s a tragedy of missed opportunities, a father’s missed opportunities. What’s heartbreaking to me about it is that Dickie wanted a son so badly. He didn’t have one until late in life, and he had this opportunity to have a surrogate son in Tony and he really wants to be his father, but he also doesn’t really want to bear the responsibilities of a parent and would rather be his best friend. I’ve learned as a parent myself, you can’t have it both ways. That scene early on when he comes into the younger Tony’s bedroom to try and tell him to stop gambling, which is a perfect example, where it’s also turned to comic value. He’s just been tasked with having to set this kid straight and put him on the right path and instead he just flails around hopelessly. He is incapable of just talking to him like a parent should, and instead is just grasping for some way of preserving his likability for Tony, rather than have to sacrifice that for the sake of actually disciplining him in some way, because nobody else is going to.
Also he just misses the opportunity to tell Tony what he really thinks about him, which he says to other people, like “this kid’s got what it takes”. He says these things to Livia and to Johnny, but never say it to Tony. I never say, “kid, follow your dream and don’t look at me”, you know what I mean? My life’s a mess and I don’t ever reveal to him or anyone else the total chaos that’s in my own heart. So in all those ways, it’s this missed opportunity to be the kind of figure in his life that I really want to be.
Dan T: So revisiting this iconic series long after it left television, what kind of pressure, if any, did you feel and how do you deal with that?
Michael Gandolfini: Yeah, I definitely feel the pressure. I mean, playing Tony Soprano is not a small feat. I wanted to make my dad proud. I wanted to make the fans proud. I wanted to make David proud. I wanted make Alessandro proud.
I’d say one of the best gifts was getting that six months of preparation to get it all out of your system. I had an emotional dump the first time I watched The Sopranos.
And then the second time I watched it, I just enjoyed it as a fan would. The first time I ever met Tony Soprano, I didn’t know Tony Soprano, so I enjoyed it.
I really only watched it fully through the series that first time.
From then I watched the first four seasons, because after four, it takes a much darker tone and my dad’s accent changed, because he forgot how to do it.(Laughs). So I only watched the first four seasons after that.
Tonally that was a helpful thing because that’s really where it blends this slapstick versus tragic story that David does so well in this genre bending. So I got desensitized to it after a bit. Then it was just like, I dunno, I’m playing, John F. Kennedy: I had 86 hours of actual therapy sessions inside the head of a character. So it became very logistical.
I had these little marks I had to hit. Get the accent. The accent is going to be really, really important. And that lisp, and the nasality, because that’s not a New Jersey accent. Whatever that thing is, it’s really fun to do, but I had to do it right. Then I had to get his body language right, because I knew that Tony expresses himself so physically. And then learning his triggers and things like that. Once I got to set, it was just: what can I do for Alessandro? What can I give him and what can I learn? David, is this what you want?
Dan T: So the film is very much this father/son story with Dickie and Tony, how did you build that rapport offscreen so it would be believable on screen?
Michael Gandolfini: You have 86 hours of a show to develop a rapport with people like that, and we had two hours on screen. So those six months of preparation were incredibly crucial. It started, though, with the heart, which is Alessandro. We spent a lot of time together going to this diner in Brooklyn. He gave me an incredible book to read about Roy DeMeo’s son and we both read that and talked about that and watched Dirty Harry together. We spent a lot of time [together]. So that familial feeling, because you don’t have therapy sessions to express it, and then someone like Tony can’t say, “this is how I feel about Dickie”. You just have to feel it watching it on screen.
I would do opposite activities, like I boxed with John, and sort of created this, this aggressive mano a mano intensity that that was really important and we hit it off as well. And then Vera and I also spent a lot of time talking about our families and emotional life, because I think that was very important. Because Tony gets his aggressiveness from Johnny. He gets his manipulation and business wit from Livia, and he gets his sincerity and love from Dickie who is the person that ropes it all together. So building that triangle was crucial.
Dan T: So you know the old adage, you never know a man until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. You spent six months with these characters, who are dark and some people would perceive as evil. What’s the insight that you’ve gotten into these characters from that time?
Alessandro Nivola: Well, I never approach any characters thinking that they’re evil. I don’t even really believe in good and evil. I just believe in psychology, certainly as an actor. But, I think what was most interesting to me about this character and the thing that I felt differentiated him from almost every other mob character that I’ve seen in movies was all of his crimes are crimes of passion. They all come from this eruption of emotion and like a flash of rage. It’s usually with somebody who he has a complex relationship with through many years of his life, whether it’s his dad or his lover. His proclivity to these outbursts of rage are an increasing source of confusion for him. He almost snaps back to reality, the second that these outbursts have passed, and is left with this horror and confusion, and is baffled by what’s just happened.
Then of course, there’s the wreckage of what he’s wrought to have to mop up after, and slowly, it just starts to drag him down until he’s the architect of his own destruction. So, those things are very human. I definitely identify with and understand the feeling of allowing my emotion or anger to have me do or say things that are irrevocable and that have changed relationships that I’ve been in, in ways that I couldn’t repair. And while I haven’t killed anyone yet, I understand that feeling. To me, this is a character who is struggling with his own psychology, and abuse from childhood, but is totally ill-equipped to understand it or to pick it apart and this is pre-shrink era. There’s something sad and tragic about his inability to understand that. I see Ray’s character in the prison, as either as a real person or as a figment of Dickie’s imagination. Or his conscience; he’s a proxy for Dr. Melfi. So, it’s an opportunity for David to show this character struggling to understand his own messes he’s made of his life. So that felt very human, even though, you know, he does these extremely violent and abusive acts.
Michael Gandolfini: My Tony, he’s not there yet. I think he understands he creates some sort of control. I think that’s what we see when he acts out. It’s just him searching for some sort of control and when he doesn’t want to cry, he gets angry. But I don’t think he’s there yet.