When James Gandolfini Let Down His Guard

In a candid interview, the Sopranos star came clean about nervous moments, favorite co-stars and that time he threw up in an airport.

Photo by Chris Buck

Editor’s note: During the winter of 2004, as The Sopranos was heading into its fifth season on HBO, actor James Gandolfini agreed to a rare interview with reporter Rebecca Brill Moody. The story originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of New Jersey Monthly.

Tony Soprano wasn’t in the cards when James Gandolfini was studying communications at Rutgers University. The future Emmy winner never even took the stage while matriculating on the banks of the Raritan. But when he moved to Manhattan after graduating in 1983, he enrolled in acting lessons and caught the bug, a twist of fate for which Sopranos fans can only by grateful.

Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, a child of Italian immigrants, and graduated from the local public high school. After college he worked as a nightclub manager, a bouncer, and a bartender while honing his acting chops in off-Broadway plays. His first Broadway show came in 1992, when he landed a role alongside Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin as Harold “Mitch” Mitchell, Stanley Kowalski’s Army buddy, in A Streetcar Named Desire. His film credits include supporting roles in Get Shorty and A Civil Action and, more recently, star turns in The Mexican and The Last Castle. These days he’s preparing for a real stretch—starring with John Turturro in Cigarettes and Romance, a musical produced by Joel and Ethan Coen.

In January, Gandolfini, who’s divorced, became engaged to Lora Somoza, whom he met on the set of The Mexican, the 2001 movie in which starred with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. Although he rarely grants interview, he agreed to meet during a recent Gandolfini family get-together. After dinner we sat down to chat—outside, so he could smoke his cigar.

You’re a fairly reserved guy. Is it difficult to deal with the fame of being the star of The Sopranos?
Yes, but only because in reality I’m so boring that I don’t want people to get close to me, because they’ll realize how boring I am, and they won’t want to watch anymore. I’m just a normal guy. It’s the writing that is interesting, and the characters. The less said about me, the better.

Do you ever get a true reprieve from Tony Soprano or from the mass celebrity of the show?
Yeah, it’s not that bad. I can go down the Shore or stay inside. It all comes with the territory. But mostly people are nice. I mean, I’m tired and there are twenty people coming up to me. But people are mostly kind.

Can you describe any time when your fans did something that bothered you?
One time I’d gotten sick on an airplane… I vomited outside the airport. And right after, some woman came up and said “Can I take a picture with you and get an autograph?” She had seen me vomit but she ignored it completely. I just said, “Uh, no. Not right now.” I thought that was a little insensitive.

What do you do to relax or to take a step back from all that?
I read a lot. And my son—playing with my son [4-year-old Michael] really takes me right out of all this, because it’s all about him. Are you freezing?

No. When did you first decide to act?
I guess I thought about it seriously after college. I was about 24 years old. A friend of mine was doing a class, and I thought it was interesting. But nobody in my family had ever really done anything like that. I thought it was pretty silly, but I really liked the class. So I went back and kind of got hooked into it.

What had you planned to do after college?
My major was English literature and communications, but I didn’t have a clue, so I moved to New York. I managed nightclubs; I started at a club called Private Eyes on 24th Street. I saw a lot of different kinds of people doing a lot of different kinds of things. It was an interesting learning experience.

What was your first break in acting?
My first really big break was when I got hired for a Broadway play—without an agent. Some friends of mine knew the casting director, and I got the job. That was A Streetcar Named Desire. Most of my first roles were parts in original plays that most people would not recognize.

What’s the difference between stage acting and TV and film?
Stage acting is about two hours of concentration, and the concentration is intense. Film acting is concentration in little snippets all throughout the day. After a day of film, you’re exhausted; at the end of two hours of stage, you’re energized from the interaction with the audience. That is why 95 percent of the time after a play, everyone goes out to eat or do something. After a film, everybody goes home because they’re exhausted. Stage is more energizing, and there is something about it that is really wonderful. It’s a communal experience. It’s like going to see a movie-with an audience in the theater—rather than watching it alone at home. It is that experience. It’s been going on for hundreds of years. There is something nice about that.

Which stage or film role were you most nervous about?
Get Shorty, because I didn’t know what to do with the character, and at the time, I didn’t have any experience to be able to fix it. When I opened my mouth, a Southern accent came out. To this day, I don’t know why.

What was your favorite role?
My characters in True Romance or A Civil Action, or maybe Mitch in Streetcar. Obviously, I love Tony Soprano—that goes without saying—because the writing is so good. He’s from Jersey. How hard is that?

How do you feel about the scenes with Dr. Melfi? Were those the most difficult?
I think those scenes made the show. They were kind of like the ancient Greek chorus, which allowed the audience to experience what the character was experiencing. I think these scenes let you into Tony’s head, bringing him a little closer to the audience.

Do you think there should be more of those scenes, perhaps taking the audience into the minds of some of the other characters?
I would love that. I think Christopher [Moltisanti, played by Michael Imperioli] should go to therapy—but don’t ask me. I’m not a writer.

What do you think about the role of women in the show?
One of the best things about the show is that the women are incredibly strong—as strong as, if not stronger than, the men. For example, look at Carmela. Tony is afraid of one, possibly two people in the world: his mother and his wife—and his daughter. Actually, those are the three people Tony probably fears the most. I also like the show because older characters have power, are intelligent, and still have sex. Where do you see older people still having a healthy sexuality? Very few shows. This show is one of them—just the fact that these older characters still have a life and are valued.

Do you have a favorite Sopranos episode?
Probably the one where I took Meadow to college. It showed the two sides of Tony’s life. But my favorite character in the show is Uncle Junior. I think he is such a great character. He has such grandeur. I think Uncle Junior is an old sage. He’s smart, bitter, and hysterically funny.

Can you recall any mistake you’ve made on stage or film?
Forty million. But, one time—oh, I can’t tell you that story. All right, this one. I was doing a play in Sweden, and there was a ten-foot drop into the orchestra pit. When the lights went out, you were supposed to walk offstage. Well, I was on the end, and I walked straight off the edge of the stage into about twenty metal chairs. The noise was unbelievable. I’ve also forgotten lines on stage. One time—I can’t tell you what happened—but it was during Streetcar. It was in the last scene, and something happened that made me start laughing. So did this other guy, and the two of us could not stop. We just sat in our chairs giggling and put our heads down. It’s not a comedy, but we were laughing so hard that I thought I was going to puke.

I know family is important to you. Can you tell me a little bit about your family?
A: My family is a good family. They keep me in line. They are very smart people. They have kind hearts. We’re like any family though—we have our idiosyncrasies. But I would never be afraid to bring anyone home to them. I think that they would back me up on anything I ever did. That is really all you can ask for in a family.

Do you think your parents, James and Santa Maria, ever dreamed you’d come this far?
No way! My parents laughed at me. At one point when things were starting to happen, I was thinking about changing my name, so I asked my family. We talked about it, and I got up to go to the bathroom or something, and my sister and my mother were hysterically laughing. They were saying, “Who the hell does he think he is? He thinks he’s going to have to change his name.” Now they are bothered all the time about their names. So I got the last laugh.

I heard you play practical jokes on members of your family.
I like to give my nieces various taxidermic animals for holidays and birthdays. Usually I give them money and stick it in some orifice—any weird body parts I can find—so they really have to touch the animal to get it out. It grosses them out.

Knowing what you know now about this profession and the invasion of your privacy, would you do it all again?
Yeah, I’d probably do it all again. Ultimately, it’s been a good experience. I’ve had a chance to go to a lot of places and meet a lot of people. Wherever I’ve been, people have treated me well because they’ve known me through television.

What is one of the most interesting places you’ve visited during your career?
Well, I went to Moscow when I did one of my first movies, with Charlie Sheen [Terminal Velocity, in 1994]—that was wonderful. I got to go to Mexico City, which I thought was amazing. For The Sopranos, we went to this place in East Orange, basically a crack den, a couple of days ago. I met the warden of Leavenworth Prison. You get to see places and meet people you wouldn’t otherwise. Actually, the research is one of the most interesting parts for me. You go out and talk to people. So, am I being funny enough?

Yes. With whom have you enjoyed working the most?
Everybody on The Sopranos. Gene Hackman [in Get Shorty and Crimson Tide]. Alec Baldwin [in The Juror]. I’ve never worked with an actor that I did not like. I don’t see any of these stories that you hear about people. People worked too hard to get where they are. There aren’t a lot of problems. George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon [in Twelve Angry Men] were amazing to work with. I mean, I have been very lucky.

The media often suggest that you’re typecast. Do you agree?
On one level, I am typecast, because this show is so popular, so in-everybody’s-face. I’ll make a conscious effort after this is over to take other roles. I can’t keep doing Mafia roles. That would be idiotic. I think having a son, I don’t want to go to those places as much, you know what I mean? You want to play different types of characters that your son could se. If you do character after character of dark people, I think eventually it might begin to bug you. So am I typecast? In a way, well, yeah. I’m 260 pounds and look a certain way. I’m not going to play Tinkerbell.

Do you have any advice for aspiring young actors?
People concentrate on making contacts, on their resumes and on their phones. All that is nonsense. Work—do plays, learn your craft, and go to school. Keep working. Nobody is going to give you jobs for going to parties or any of that nonsense. Go out, look around, do things. Stay out late a couple of nights and have some fun—but work, that is the thing. I did little plays where six people saw me. Some nights I was awful. You learn from that. You get up and go back the next day. And you know what? You get better. Tennessee Williams rewrote Streetcar like 26 times before he got it right. Nobody gets it right the first time.

What was your most important life lesson thus far?
That nothing comes easily. Nothing. There were many nights during that first season of The Sopranos where I felt completely overwhelmed by the amount of work. I sat in my house alone studying, getting three or four hours’ of sleep, thinking, There is no way I can do this. You know what? You must work and keep working. You must get up and keep going. Hard work—I know it sounds silly—but I’ve worked for years, and I’m proud of that. I’m actually proud that I got through it. For The Sopranos, I’d work fourteen or fifteen hours on the set. I’d come home and eat. Then my friend would come over to run lines. Then I went to bed. It paid off because we worked hard.

Did you have trouble memorizing lines?
I did in the beginning, but I’m much better. It’s like a muscle now. I was so used to doing two pages for film. I mean, in the first two weeks, I was in shock. Slowly you get into a groove with it, and you can’t do anything else. During the week, I can’t do anything because otherwise I’m not prepared. There are 200 people standing there the next day. If you’re not prepared, you feel pretty stupid.

What were some of your favorite New Jersey memories?
Playing football in high school, driving down the Parkway to the Jersey Shore, chasing girls at Rutgers, and hanging out with my college friends, who I still see.

Where did you go as a kid?
I went to the Jersey Shore with my family, to our house in Lavallette. We had what seemed like a palace there.

Where did you hang out as a teenager?
The places I mentioned before, and I hung out at the Ridge Diner in town.

Are you a Nets or Devils fan?
Nets, Jets, and Giants. But mostly Jets.

Do you think being a Jersey guy has helped you as an actor?
In the TV show, especially since I’m playing someone from Jersey, definitely yes. Coming from Jersey, you’re exposed to many cultures and nationalities. Being so close to New York, there are so many opportunities for actors.

What memories do you have about your parents?
Normal kid memories. My father coached a baseball team and wouldn’t play me. He told me I stunk. Now he tells me we all stunk. And I remember my mother was always prodding my father to let me play.

What would you like people to know about you?
The only thing I’m really ever trying to say about anything is about the average guy—the average guy who has to deal with all this crap from the government, rich people, and everything else. It’s the only reason I like doing this. Sometimes, you get to tell a story about someone. I don’t really want to say anything about me. That’s why I don’t do a lot of interviews, particularly on television. I come from a very blue-collar family, people who work hard and are honest, A lot of young actors get interviewed and go on television, and it makes them start to think that they are important. And we’re not, not anymore than anybody else.

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