NEW YORK (AP) — In the five years since "The Sopranos" ended, James Gandolfini has eschewed the spotlight, instead disappearing into a heap of character actor performances that, while they may lack the heft of Tony Soprano, have only further proved the actor's wide-ranging talent.
This season offers a gluttony of Gandolfini, albeit in bite-sized parts. In Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden hunt docudrama "Zero Dark Thirty," he plays Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. In David Chase's '60s period drama "Not Fade Away," he plays the old-school father of a wannabe rocker. And in Andrew Dominick's crime flick "Killing Them Softly," he plays an aged, washed-up hit man.
None of the roles are showy lead men, and that's just fine with Gandolfini.
"I'm much more comfortable doing smaller things," Gandolfini said in a recent interview. "I like them. I like the way they're shot; they're shot quickly. It's all about the scripts — that's what it is — and I'm getting some interesting little scripts."
The 51-year-old actor takes scant pleasure in interviews and rarely does them. This is partly because Gandolfini — sitting attentively with his hands on his knees, his head back and his let's-hear-what-you-have-to-say eyes tilted downward — distrusts the ego-inflating effect of attention. Explaining his interest in a character, he breaks off: "I always wonder how interesting any of this is to people. It's just my own (stuff)."
Though Gandolfini's achievement playing Tony Soprano for eight years is unquestioned (he won three Emmy awards), the sensation of the show — and the long time spent playing a violent, sometimes loathsome gangster — grated on Gandolfini. He says that after "The Sopranos," he didn't quite regain himself as an actor until he starred in the Tony-winning play "God of Carnage" on Broadway in 2009. He played half of a Brooklyn couple trying to resolve a squabble with another couple over a fight between their children — a part also revealing of our underlying animalism.
"It really grounded me more as an actor again," says Gandolfini. "Then I could go off and try different things."
Gandolfini's recent work has vacillated from comedy, his genre of choice (as a Washington general in the political satire "In the Loop") to heartwarming drama (as a businessman moved to rehabilitate an abandoned teenage girl, Kristen Stewart, in "Welcome to the Rileys"). He voiced the Wild Thing Carol in "Where the Wild Things Are," a performance that, by stripping him of his sizable frame, highlighted his tenderness.
One of his favorite films, he says, was John Turturro's long-delayed "Romance & Cigarettes," a funny, anti-extravagant musical about a working class family. He's produced several HBO documentaries about veterans: "Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq" and "Wartorn: 1861-2010," which chronicled posttraumatic stress.
"He took up a lot of his time with 'God of Carnage,' and I was sort of missing him from the screen," says Chase, the "Sopranos" creator. "He's doing a lot of work now but I think he was taking a cooling off period."
For Gandolfini, reuniting with Chase on "Not Fade Away" was like "getting back to work" on a simple, small movie set after the "big huge thing" of the "The Sopranos." Chase calls the actor his "first responder" to his scripts.
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