I only had the opportunity to speak with James Gandolfini once, but it was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had covering film.
It was February 2001, and “The Sopranos” had reached a popularity level that resembled a kind of fanaticism among HBO subscribers, and it was particularly acute among reporters. The series was on the cusp of starting its third season with a two-hour premiere, and it’s a measure of Gandolfini’s popularity at the time that, at a press event for a fairly terrible action comedy called “The Mexican” (which had somehow managed to snag Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Gandolfini into its cast) that reporters seemed more interested in talking to Gandolfini than they were to speak with either of the top-billed stars.
Gandolfini, who died Wednesday of a heart attack at age 51, was truly great during the round-table discussion — really one of the most engaging interview subjects I’ve had — but there was something else that was different about the experience. For one, he completely broke protocol. Before we go into that, here’s the original story I wrote, which was published on March 2, 2001, just two days before the third-season premiere of “The Sopranos.”
LOS ANGELES – James Gandolfini is in a suite at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel to promote his role as the sensitive hit man Leroy in “The Mexican,” but the reporters keep asking him about the third season of HBO’s “The Sopranos.” It doesn’t bother Gandolfini a bit.
“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s probably because I don’t ever do this stuff, so this is the only time I can get asked about it.”
“The Sopranos,” which begins its third season at 8 p.m. Sunday with a two-hour premiere, is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest hour-long dramas in television history, a humanistic, intelligent, honest and darkly humorous depiction of a 21st century Mafia family.
Its viewership is the most rabid constituency for any program since “Seinfeld.” Even reporters, who normally don’t line up for autographs from stars, were breaking out publicity photos and posters for Gandolfini to sign. The 39-year-old actor, who plays Tony Soprano on the series, is honest when asked if he had any typecasting worries about playing a hit man during his break from portraying a mob boss.
“There were a lot for me,” Gandolfini said. “But, I didn’t have a lot of time, and I didn’t want to do anything where I had to do a complete shift, rhythm-wise, for me. I didn’t want to have to do two or three months of research or get out of that head and have to get back into that Tony Soprano head very quickly.
“So this seemed to fit all that. I also needed to get away from Tony Soprano a little bit, because I was living his life after awhile.”
This is not to say that Gandolfini risked having a hit taken out on him by his mother – he was just completely immersed in a Tony Soprano world. He said it is inescapable when starring in a television series.
“The hours and the memorization needed when I come home are such that I really can’t do anything else,” he said. “You’re working 12 or 14 hours, then you come home, you have another two hours of memorization and going over the next day’s scenes, so you don’t do anything else at the time.”
Gandolfini began his career as a stage actor, and after years of managing nightclubs in New York and working in off-Broadway productions, he made his Broadway debut in the 1992 revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. This led to roles in “True Romance,” “Get Shorty,” “A Civil Action” and “8mm” before landing the Tony Soprano role.
Having been raised by what he calls “very Italian” parents in New Jersey, not far from the boyhood home of series creator David Chase, Gandolfini said it wasn’t a huge stretch to get into the Tony Soprano character. One subject that causes him to bristle is the criticism that Italian American groups have leveled against the show, alleging that it propagates stereotypes and glamorizes La Cosa Nostra .
The criticism has become so heated, New Jersey’s Essex County informed HBO that the show could not shoot on county property. “Anyone who’s going to watch a TV show and think that that’s what an entire culture is like… I’m not even going to respond to that – it’s just crazy,” he said.
“This is about a guy who happens to be Italian and from New Jersey. It’s not every Italian in the world. The people who don’t like the show I think are a very small percentage. If we can’t poke fun at stuff, man…
“I know there’s violence there, but the character is miserable – it’s not like we’re making this guy’s life wonderful,” he said. “He and all the guys are pretty much miserable, if you really watch what they’re doing. Where’s the glamour they say we’re portraying?”
When asked about plot points, Gandolfini has been sworn to secrecy by Chase and HBO. (“There’s a lot of parenting this year. That’s what they told me I could say.”) However, the season premiere is actually two separate episodes: one told through the eyes of FBI agents conducting surveillance on the Soprano home, the other centered around the funeral of Livia Soprano, Tony’s sadistic, conniving mother.
Livia was played by Nancy Marchand, the veteran stage and screen actress who died in June 2000. Gandolfini said that while the show still maintains its high level of writing and acting quality, it has lost something important with Marchand’s death.
“She was wonderful – she was the catalyst for the entire first year,” he said. “But more than that, having Nancy lent the whole thing a class it didn’t have without her, and doesn’t have without her. Her presence on the set, everything about her – she’s old-style class and… the show’s not as good without her.
“Did I say that right? ‘The… show’s… not… as… good… without… her.’ Yes, I did. To me, it was a huge loss.”
To make up for the loss of Livia and the reptilian Richie Aprile (David Proval), Tony will face a new potential nemesis in Ralph Cifaretto, played by Joe Pantoliano, best known as Cypher from “The Matrix” and Guido the Killer Pimp in “Risky Business.” Gandolfini has already given Pantoliano his mob name.
“There’s a man named Joe Pantoliano who’s coming to visit – Joey Pants,” he said.
Gandolfini senses an inherent nobility in the Tony Soprano character, who lives in a world where killing for business is a way of life, but killing for pleasure is a problem. He is no saint, but Gandolfini said Tony is attempting to be the best person he can within the society he inhabits. “Tony has responsibilities. Tony’s trying to do the right thing. Those other guys have given up,” he said.
“Tony’s trying to do the right thing by his family, and by this one and by that one and he f—- everything up by trying to do the right thing, pretty much, like Jackie Gleason.”
Last month, Chase announced that he planned to shut down “The Sopranos” after the fourth season in 2002. While Gandolfini said that Chase has since backed off a bit from the statement, he said that the show’s creator has the right idea. “As long as the show’s got something to say, and it has some kind of point of view, I think it will be okay, but if David goes, I’ll go,” he said.
“If there was a fifth year and if the show seemed to have quality, and it seemed to have a good arc. I like everybody I work with. We have a lot of fun, and we care for each other. If it becomes about, ‘Tony’s couch is missing in this episode,’ well, who gives a s—, really.”
It went on for six seasons — some of the best seasons of drama in the history of television. Most of the shows we obsess over today, particularly “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” would either not exist or would have taken longer to emerge if it weren’t for the work of creator David Chase, Gandolfini and the rest of the show’s superb cast.
But back to the story about Gandolfini breaking protocol, a story I’ve told many times but never in print, but as we grieve the loss of this great actor, this was what came to mind.
Normally, people involved in a movie don’t ask the press what they thought of the finished product, but at this stage in the game, Gandolfini had not done many of these press events and he would not do many more — he rarely granted interviews for the rest of his life. So he surprised us when he stood up after the 20 minutes were up, started to walk out the door and then stopped and turned around.
“So,” he said. “What did you think?”
We sat in stunned silence. None of us were used to being asked that by a star, but it was compounded by the fact that the movie stank on ice.
Gandolfini had his answer.
“Yeah,” he said, giving us a crooked grin before he left the room. “I thought so.”
– George Lang