Michael Gandolfini is at a pretty desirable crossroads, with one of the paths lit up with flashing lights that say “Tony Soprano.” Though, at the same time, it’s understandable why he’s also wary. Oh, make no bones about it: Michael Gandolfini wants to continue playing Tony Soprano – which he does to great effect in The Many Saints of Newark – well, at least into Tony’s 20s. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to be known for playing Tony Soprano. This actually makes a lot of sense.
As stated, Gandolfini is terrific playing young Tony in the second half of The Many Saints of Newark. (In the first half Tony is played by William Ludwig, who Gandolfini helped with line readings.) It’s not the same Tony we know from the show. There are hints of the rage lurking inside of him, but for the most part Tony is just a kid who likes to listen to rock music. Ahead, Gandolfini talks about what it’s like to step into a role made famous by his father. (On a somewhat personal note, as someone, too, who lost his father to a heart attack, this is a pretty heavy thing to do and I find it pretty inspiring.) And he talks about the one thing that led to a disagreement on set between he and director Alan Taylor and creator David Chase … which was Tony’s accent.
I’ve been thinking about your performance in this a lot. I lost my father from a heart attack and it’s still really tough. And if someone came to me saying, “Hey, this thing your dad is really known for doing, do you want to step in and do it?” That’s heavy. And the fact that you did that is actually really inspiring.
Oh, thank you so much. That does really mean the world to me. I mean, in some ways it was a very tough decision at first. But then the more I sort of started working on it, thank God I didn’t play… I wasn’t playing my dad. I was playing Tony, which was a very big and clear distinction for me. One of my ways in was the way I studied, sort of, Tony and his mannerisms and how he sounds and how he looks and his ideas on life. Those aren’t my dad. So that was one of the things that was a clear distinction in mind to really get to know and get to play Tony, which is awesome.
Because I read the interview where you said your first reaction was, I believe it was, “Fuck, no.” So how did you wrestle with that?
Yeah. Well, my first reaction was no, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be a lot of pressure, all those things, you know? But the thing is that it became pretty quickly not about that. It became a thing about these little bite-able chunks. To be completely honest, I was doing a job. I mean, the first time I was watching the show and seeing my dad, that was tough. And I did it with a group of people, and I could have this emotional vomit of sorts, and then it became a job. And I had David and incredible, incredible castmates, like John and Leslie and Vera and Alessandro. I just leaned on them, because then it was about what kind of actor do I need to be. I wanted the best actor possible.
And it’s not the same character. I mean, it is, but it isn’t.
Totally. So it became about doing the best job, not thinking about any of the bigger stuff.
So in the first half of the movie William Ludwig is playing a younger Tony. Did you ever talk to him about the role? “Well, here’s some stuff I’ve learned about this, maybe if you want to try this out,” kind of thing?
Absolutely. William is incredible in the movie, and he also really did his homework. Me and him met and I recorded all of his lines in my accent. And he went back and listened to them to sort of replicate kind of how I sounded. And we talked about how he walks – and he definitely does, he does the hunching, he touches his nose, too. He absolutely was curious. And we met quite a few times, and he’s a really talented actor, and he does a really good job in this, because he did do his homework.
I assume he’s too young to watch the show.
He has not watched the show.
I know. Yeah.
So that’s a lot of information you’ve got to give him then.
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think he got the script either. So it was like filling in the parts that he wasn’t completely sure of, but he was completely up to the task and did a great job.
When I spoke to David Chase I brought up that’s a pretty heavy initial ask what he’s asking of you. He basically said he hadn’t really thought about that but in retrospect, yes it is.
I love David, as a human being and as an artist. I think I can learn from him, I think a lot of people can learn from him, he always is so curious. He’ll have an initial response, but then he always thinks and goes back and says, “Actually, I don’t know.” Or like, “Oh, you know what? I didn’t think about that. That’s true.” No matter what, and I think it’s a testament to he never marries his opinions. He’s always open to asking things and learning things and thinking about things no matter what. And I think that’s so inspiring.
When you’re on set, if Alan Taylor says, “Hey, you should do it this way,” or David Chase says, “You should do it this way.” But you feel, “No, I’ve done all this research. I should do it this way.” Who wins that argument? I mean, I guess the director, but at the same time you have a pretty firm grasp on where you’re coming from with this character.
I think that it depends on the note. I mean, for me, the only thing that I really would push back on is specific things. Like in the beginning, there was some sort of conversation around this accent and there was a conversation regarding maybe it’s a little “too much.” Maybe we should take it down a notch. And that was really the only time I was like, no, I can’t do that. I can’t, because people know this accent. This accent is very important to recognizing the Tony Soprano they know from the series. And so, little things like that. But other than that, it’s not my character, nor is it my dad’s character. We add our own things, but this is David’s world. So I wanted to respect that and do service to Alan and David as much as possible, but of course you have your autonomy as an actor and you bring ideas. But David and Alan, they really let the actors for the most part come in and explore.
It sounds like you won that, I don’t know if it’s an argument, but conversation, which is not always the way it goes for actors.
Yeah. I was very lucky that they definitely listened to me. And again, you’ve got to, because it was important to me and because I was flexible about everything else, that was just something that I knew I had to replicate.
You’ve mentioned you would be on board for doing more Tony if this continues. But you also mentioned how much time the series took from your father. Are you wary of that? If this becomes a series, then maybe there’s a movie you can’t do.
No, I think it’s a good question. I think that what I’ll say is that there is… This is such an incredible character and incredible group of actors and incredible filmmakers that I learned so much. This is going to jump to the priority to get to work with David or anyone again. But I am not so much interested in playing 30-year-old Tony. I think it there’s an interesting part after this movie, before the show, that we can explore something about Tony that hasn’t been explored, in his youth, in his 20s. After that, we’re getting a little too old. My dad really explored and David explored everything about that. So is there a time limit around other movies? No, not so much. But the older I get, there is a cutoff where it just naturally goes into the show.
It does seem like from what you’re saying and from what I’ve read, this is a character that you really want to play, and you’re really excited to work with all these people. But you don’t want to just be known for this. And, obviously, you did The Deuce and I know you really want to do other stuff, too. So, that seems like a tough balance and decision.
Yeah, it is. I mean, it is a tough decision. This is what I want to do for my entire life, and I want to grow. So right now, as a 22-year-old, my main goal is to learn as much as possible. So with the idea that I can work with Jon Bernthal and Vera Farmiga and Corey Stoll and Billy Magnussen – and whoever comes back and whoever new actors are brought in, and David – I’m going to learn from that experience no matter what. So in some ways that’s a win. But yeah, like you said, I do want to go on and do other things. Who knows what scripts are being written right now that I don’t even know exists? You know? So I just want to learn to really challenge myself as an actor. Whether that’s another Sopranos thing or not, that’s sort of my goal.
And like I said, you blew me away in this, and it made me think a lot about things going on with me and it is inspiring that you did this. Anyway. That’s it.
Thank you very much. I really, really appreciate that.‘The Many Saints of Newark’ opens in theaters and streams via HBO Max this coming weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.