Alessandro Nivola and Michael Gandolfini – The Many Saints Come Marching In
Alessandro Nivola and Michael Gandolfini
The Many Saints Come Marching In
By Jay S. Jacobs
It’s been nearly 15 years since Tony Soprano’s story faded to black in a Jersey diner with “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey playing on the jukebox. The Sopranos fans didn’t stop believing that someday America’s favorite crime family would return, even though series creator David Chase long denied any interest in returning to that world, especially after star James Gandolfini died in 2013 of a sudden heart attack.
Finally, a few years ago Chase came up with an idea to return to the world that he so chillingly portrayed in six seasons of The Sopranos. He would look at the origin story – the genesis of Tony Soprano’s reign as a mob boss. He would take the story back to the late 60s and early 70s, a time when the world was rocked by crime, violence, race riots and social change. A time when many of the characters who became iconic – Livia Soprano, Uncle Junior, Silvio, Paulie Walnuts – were just finding their way in the mob life. A time when Tony Soprano was just a boy.
Smartly, in the casting of the new film, they tapped Gandolfini’s son Michael to play the young teen version of the role that made his father a huge star. Michael Gandolfini grew up on the sets of The Sopranos, but he was a baby and had little understanding of what was going on around him. He shows an interesting new side of the character; younger, more trusting, a little naïve, just a little goofy.
However, the main character in The Many Saints of Newark was one who never appeared in The Sopranos, although he was mentioned periodically. Dickie Moltisanti – played by Alessandro Nivola – was Tony’s uncle and mentor, and the father of Sopranos character Chris (Michael Imperioli), who appears in the film as a toddler. Dickie was smart, well-dressed, gentlemanly and had a short fuse. He was also hiding the fact that his life was spinning out of control.
A couple of weeks before the release of The Many Saints of Newark, we were one of a few media outlets who had the opportunity to speak with Nivola and Gandolfini at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia.
We had a very trying year and a half. I think The Sopranos in the large respect helped to remove some of the stigma attached to mental health. If Tony Soprano could go see a therapist… So, how are you guys? How is your mental health after the last year and a half?
Michael Gandolfini: Thanks, I'm doing good. It's been one hell of a year for sure – the pandemic and a lot of incredible movements happening – but right now, it's a really exciting time in my personal life. I'm really anxiously excited for everyone to see this film. I'm incredibly proud of it. I just look back at the experience. Whenever something like this comes out, I feel like you just reflect on the experience. It was just one of the best experiences of my life getting close to Sandro and everyone. I feel very excited and happy at the present moment. A bit tired but that that's the experience I'm having right now.
Alessandro Nivola: If anything destroyed my mental health, it's been the three years that it's taken from getting cast in this role to it arriving in theaters. It's been one of the most torturous protracted processes, requiring the patience of Job. I was offered the role of a lifetime, a career-defining part. Like one of those little rabbits in front of a greyhound they were just like pulling it away as I was snapping my jaws at it. Anyway, when it finally comes out, maybe I can rest.
These are characters and that we're familiar with but you guys both bring different takes to them. Michael playing a younger version of Tony Soprano, and Alessandro playing Christopher Moltisanti’s father Dickie. Alessandro, you had a bit of a blank slate when it came to it. This is a character that we knew about watching The Sopranos, but you could bring whatever you want to it. Whereas Michael, you had a little bit more weight and responsibility with a character that's so well known, so established, obviously, played by your father. How did you bring your own voice to it?
Michael Gandolfini: That comes down to David. David's such an incredible writer that it was on the page. When I started reading the script, started doing the audition, I started to really see this is a completely different Tony. This is a completely different version of him. It's not what I expected, at least. I think as an actor, when you read something that surprises you, you get really excited. I was surprised and really exhilarated that this wasn't a gun-wielding Tony. In many ways, that sensitivity and curiosity and nerdiness and goofiness that is in the show, and with older Tony, can be brought up to the forefront. In some ways, it makes Tony a bit more of a tragic figure, which I was really interested in. This is going to be a completely different Tony, yet it's the right version. Of course, an 11-year-old isn't going to be shooting up a poker game. It makes sense, but it's not what you might expect. You see the pain, resentment and anger float to the top and stay with him for the rest of his life.
Alessandro Nivola: 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.” I felt like that was really liberating, that I probably had total freedom to invent the character from my own imagination. [I figured a lot] from the research and 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. I really just relish that time, which involved all kinds of different ways in. I started in Newark. I had a friend who was a priest, who was a big Sopranos fan. He was an Italian American guy who'd grown up in that in this neighborhood where the movie takes place. Not a lot of Italians still lived 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 20s through the 90s. There were pictures of Joe Pesci and his doo-wop band at 17 years old.
Alessandro Nivola: I started getting visual images of different types of people in neighborhood. There was one that I fixated on as a mental image. I had friends who had friends who were part of groups of guys who were in small-time… organized crime, I guess, you could say. 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 watched Raging Bull about 50 times. I worked with a dialect coach, three times a week for the months leading up and really tried to develop a voice that was specific. In a lot of ways that was the biggest challenge of everything. Because these Italian American mob characters are such a cliché. Everybody has their imitation of a goombah guy, but you've got to try and find a way of bringing the reality of that person in that time and place. Have it feel somehow different than all the mob characters that had come before. Allow it to be its own creation. [That] was probably my biggest hurdle. A lot of that was in the voice.
Tony idolizes Dickie. Obviously, in the movie, he's a lot different than he grows up to be. He's naiver and a lot more open to things. What are some of the things that you both think that Dickie did and didn't do that might have affected how Tony grew up in the long run?
Michael Gandolfini: One of the things we worked on that I thought about; physical presence in this household was very important. Familial touch. Even the way Tony puts his hand on the neck of someone. The kisses on the cheek. There's a beautiful scene Livia is in. This guidance counsellor basically tells a story about her just laying with Tony. I think one of the most important things with Tony is that no one was there in his life with him. But Dickie would pick him up from football games. 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. A lot of people don't have that. Tony definitely didn't. So when Dickie leaves, Tony has no one. He's got to be the father basically, and the husband in this household because Johnny's gone 24/7, and Livia is asking so much of him. I think one of the things was just that Dickie was always there for him. For a kid that young, he just had someone there.
Alessandro Nivola: It's a tragedy of missed opportunities. A fathers’ missed opportunities. What's heartbreaking to me about it is that Dickie wanted a son so badly [and] didn't have one until late, really well into middle age. The whole first half of the movie in the 60s, they weren't able to conceive. He had this opportunity to have a surrogate son in Tony. 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. You can't have it both ways I've learned as a parent, myself. That scene early on, when he comes into the younger Tony's bedroom to try and tell him to stop gambling in school is a perfect example. It's also turned to comic value. He's been tasked with having to set this kid straight and put him on the right path. Instead, he just flails around hopelessly. He is incapable of really just talking to him like a parent should. Instead [he] 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.
Michael Gandolfini: The other side of that is that I always saw this man with a moral compass. He begins to lose it as the film goes on. It's like a noir. I think that Tony also sees that. He starts seeing he's looking for a moral compass, but he's looking to the wrong person. He learns how to use violence. All the things that start happening to Dickie Tony feels inside. I guess what I'm trying to say is Dickie begins blaming himself for all these problems. Tony starts to do that to himself, too. Fundamentally, Tony blames himself that Dickie’s not around anymore, that Johnny's not around, that Livia is the way Livia is. That's going to plague him for the rest of his life.
Alessandro Nivola: Also, I think, he just misses the opportunity to tell Tony what he really thinks about him, which he says to other people. “This kid has got what it takes. Who knows if he could be a professional football player or not? But you don't want to like kill a kid's dreams.” I say these things to Livia, and to Johnny, but I never say it to him. I never say like, “Kid, follow your dream and fuck this. Don't look at me. My life's a mess.” I don't ever reveal to him or anyone else the total chaos that's in my own heart. In all those ways, it's this missed opportunity to be the figure in his life that I really want to be.
You are revisiting a story long after the iconic series itself left television. What kind of pressure – if any – did you feel? How did you deal with that?
Michael Gandolfini: Definitely, you feel the pressure. 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 want to make Alessandro proud. One of the greatest gifts was getting that six months of preparation that Alessandro summed up. You get it all out of your system. I had an emotional dump the first time I watched [The Sopranos]. Then the second time I watched it, I just enjoyed it as a fan. It was the first time I ever met Tony Soprano. I didn't know Tony Soprano. So I enjoyed it. Then the third watch through… I really watched [the] full [series] the first time. Then I really only watched the first four seasons, because after four, it takes a much darker tone and my dad's accent changed. He forgot how to do it. I only watched the first four. Also tonally that was a helpful thing because that's really where it blends this slapstick versus very tragic story that David does so well in his genre bending. I got desensitized to it after a bit.
Alessandro Nivola: More than just the feeling of the pressure of the show, I just felt the pressure of having been given a breakthrough role relatively late in my film career. I've been making movies for 25 years and hadn't ever had an opportunity like this to be a lead role in a movie that was going to get this much attention. That was going to offer me the opportunity to show so many colors in the performance. The fear of not living up to my own expectations for what I could do with the part, definitely that weighed on me. I've been at this a long time now. I was just like; I'll be damned if I going to fuck this up.
Michael Gandolfini: It was just like playing… I don’t know, whoever… John F Kennedy. I have 86 hours of actual therapy sessions inside the head of a character. 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 in that lisp and the nasality, because that's not a New Jersey accident, whatever that thing is. It's really fun to do, but I had to do it right. Then get his body because I knew that Tony expresses himself so physically. That was the other thing that was important. Then just learning his triggers and things like that. Once I got to set it was just: “What is it? What can I do for Alessandro? What can I give him and what can I learn? And David, is this what you want?” It was these little goals that I did to stay away from that.
So much of the film is based on Tony’s relationship with Dickie because of the dysfunctional state at home with Livia and Johnny. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Johnny blows a hole through Livia’s hair.
Alessandro Nivola: Someone really did that. David was telling us that comes from a real story.
I'd love to hear the real story. What was it like building the structures of becoming the man that he is because of the dysfunction that he has with Livia and Johnny? What was it like building that family with two brilliant actors?
Michael Gandolfini: It was really crucial. I had always seen a clear archetype triangle between Livia, Johnny and Dickie. They're all unable to reach their heightened potential but the three of them create the perfect mob boss who can make it to the top. You have 86 hours of a show, months to develop rapport with people like that. We had two hours, so those six months were incredibly crucial. It started though with the heart, which was 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. [DeMeo was a New York gangster in the 1960s and 1970s]. We both read it and talked about that and watched Dirty Harry together. Spent a lot of time [to get] that familial feeling. Because there's nothing to express it. You don't have therapy sessions, so Tony can't say, “This is how I feel about Dickie. This is how I feel about that.” You just have to feel it.
Yes, you do.
Michael Gandolfini: Then I would do opposite activities. I boxed with Jon [Bernthal, who plays his father] and created this aggressive mano a mano intensity that was really important. We hit it off as well. Vera [Farmiga, who plays Livia] and I also spent a lot of time talking about our families and emotional life, because that was very important. Tony gets his aggressiveness from Johnny. He gets his manipulation and his business wits from Livia. His sincerity and love, Dickie is the person that ropes it all together. Building that triangle was crucial.
You never know a person until you walk a mile in a man’s shoes. You've spent six months in these characters who are dark, and some people would perceive as evil. What's the insight that you've gotten from doing these characters?
Alessandro Nivola: 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. 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 that I've seen in movies – was that all of his crimes are crimes of passion. They all come from an eruption of emotion and 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. In fact, his proclivity to these bursts of rage is increasingly a source of confusion for him. He 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 is wrong to have to mop up after. Slowly, it just starts to drag him down until he's the architect of his own destruction. Those things are very human.
Michael Gandolfini: My Tony is still not there yet. He craves some sort of control. I think that's what we see when he acts out, just him searching for some control. When he doesn't want to cry, he gets angry. But I don't think he's there yet.
Alessandro Nivola: 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. I haven't killed anyone, yet. But I understand that feeling. To me, this is a character who is struggling with his own psychological abuse from childhood but is totally ill equipped to understand it or to pick it apart. This is the pre-shrink era. There's something sad and tragic about his inability to understand that. I see Ray [Liotta]'s character in the prison – he can be perceived either as a real person or as a figment of Dickie’s imagination or his conscience – he's a proxy for Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos. It's an opportunity for David to show this character struggling to understand the mess he's made of his life. That felt to me very human, even though he does these extremely violent and abusive acts.
There were definitely racial elements of the film. You show the riots in Newark in 1967. This was written prior to George Floyd. How did you feel about this movie being filmed and having this racial reckoning happening in America?
Alessandro Nivola: I think David's feeling in general is that nothing ever changes. That's a theme that he keeps reintroducing into the series and to the film. It probably came as no surprise to him that the news was a year later reflecting the riots that we shot in the film the year before. I think we all had that feeling. It's just horrible and upsetting to see something on television in the modern age look so much like something that we're so ashamed of back in the late 60s during the Civil Rights Movement. But I don't think that most liberal-minded people at least were that surprised. Everybody knows that racism exists in the country still. The degree to which it's evolved from the late 60s to now is really debatable. Certainly these last four years or whatever have stirred [things] up, beat the hornet's nest or whatever, in a way that is, has revealed some awful truths for the country. But yeah, you [had to] be flabbergasted turning on the television and seeing how closely it looked like those scenes. The scenes seemed like they were just being recreated in front of our eyes. I think we were all really curious as to how that was going to affect the way that those scenes were perceived in the movie by audiences. How those themes in the movie were going to rise in in relevance to the fore in ways that maybe they might not have in the same way, if all of the George Floyd stuff hadn't happened before the movie was released.
Michael Gandolfini: I completely agree with basically everything that all Alessandro just said. I think that there's a cynicism. What are we going to do? We can tell a million stories like this showing that racism is still in America, but is it ever going to change? The thing that I had thought about was I hadn't seen it yet and I was excited to see what Leslie [Odom Jr.] did and have this experience of what Leslie was going to teach me and bring to this. I mean, how many movies have we seen where it's like white people being racist, and it's like, don't do that. Now in this film, Leslie has complete autonomy as a human being, and has an opinion and a motor and wants and needs and relationships. So I was really excited to see what he did.
Alessandro Nivola: The biggest counterbalance in the movie to Dickie is Harold [Odom’s character]. I hadn't even really realized that that was going to be the case until I saw the film. What I came to understand was that David, on the one hand, was determined not to sugarcoat the racism of the Italians in the movie. Was determined that that be as ugly as it was in real life in his memory, in his experience. Then on the other hand, to give Harold's character a real three dimensionality to it, and a weight that would be the counter to Dickie’s story.
Michael Gandolfini: I think that one of the testaments about the movie that's so interesting is that it is a beating heart of the movie, and then you go to the Sopranos’ house, and it's like, nothing ever changed. They don't talk about it. It's like it doesn't even exist. I think that's a real expression of the white privileged people and these Italians. They're not talking about it. It doesn't affect them at all. Then you go to Harold, and you watch it destroying his life.
You mentioned you had to audition. Was that something when you heard about the project? When you first heard about the project did you think I might have a leg up on this?
Michael Gandolfini: No, I definitely didn’t think that. The first I heard about it in…
Alessandro Nivola: He literally looked the part. (laughs)
Michael Gandolfini: Sure. I thought at least [I was] skinnier and had a little more hair. I had heard about it walking on to stage actually. I was doing a play. It was hard to walk on stage [after] 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. I grew up mowing lawns in New Jersey, going to the shore. A regular, normal childhood. So it was like, good for them. Can’t wait to watch it. Nice. Then someone's like, “Well, yeah, there's a younger Tony.” I was like, great. Of course. Then we had heard there will be an older [teenaged] Tony, would I like to audition? I said, No, no, I don't want to do it. Not only because of all the stigma with my dad, and I wanted to be my own person, but also, I knew nothing about the character. I knew nothing about him. So auditioning and watching the show for the first time was one of the best parts. Getting to fall in love with this show. I auditioned for like three months. It was a long, long period. I auditioned three times. Then after that, I didn't hear back for forever, just waiting and waiting, going to college. Moving on. And yeah, that was the night 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. It wasn't like I didn't make a decision because I had so much time to marinate on it.
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