The Making of Michael Gandolfini

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Photo credit: Cody Lidtke
Photo credit: Cody Lidtke
Photo credit: Cody Lidtke
Photo credit: Cody Lidtke

It was late July, and Michael Gandolfini was strapped into a funfair ride on New Jersey’s Seaside Heights boardwalk, the same stretch of creaking rollercoasters and cheesesteak stands he’d been visiting since he was a little kid. The 22-year-old dangled in suspense as the machine cranked him a few metres off the ground, gearing up to fling him skywards. But then an “uncomfortable” feeling suddenly flooded his body. Someone was shouting at him.

‘Oh my God!’ came a cry from the bustling crowd below. ‘Are you Michael Gandolfini?! You’re playing Tony Soprano!’

“Everyone, and I swear everyone, turned and looked at me as I’m just sitting on this ride,” he tells me over Zoom a few weeks later, laughing and scrunching his eyes tight with embarrassment. The young actor has grown accustomed to public attention over the past few months – ever since the first trailer for The Many Saints of Newark, the feature-length prequel to The Sopranos, dropped online – but this was something else. “I had nowhere to go! And I was just like… yeah?”

It would have to do. Because before he could think of anything better to say, Gandolfini was hurtling far above the boardwalk and into the blue.

It was four years ago that Michael first auditioned for the film that nobody thought would ever happen, and three years ago that he was cast in the role that his late father, James Gandolfini, made so iconic: Tony Soprano. When news broke at the beginning of 2019 that Michael would be playing a teenage version of the character in the Many Saints of Newark, a reverent ‘Oh!’ rang out across the world. Fans of The Sopranos marvelled at the uncanny resemblance between father and son, as well as the irresistible sense of destiny behind the decision. A lot has happened since that initial burst of excitement – a global pandemic, most notably – but the fervour around Many Saints, and Michael’s decision to step into his dad’s shoes, has only grown.

There was faith, too, that Sopranos creator David Chase, who co-wrote the film with long-time collaborator Lawrence Konner, would never revisit the TV show regularly ranked as the best of all time (during the pandemic, US viewing figures of the original series went up by 200 per cent) unless he had a very good reason to do so. Set against the backdrop of the Newark race riots of 1967, Many Saints centres on the exploits of DiMeo mobster Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola), father of Christopher and a hallowed name in Sopranos lore who died long before the series was set. Devotees of the show – which follows an emotionally complex mafia boss as he attempts to balance his home life with the pressures of running a New Jersey crime family – will know that the character had a profound impact on his young ‘nephew’ Tony, and the film sees Dickie play a pivotal role in the capricious capo’s coming-of-age story.

Photo credit: Cody Lidtke
Photo credit: Cody Lidtke

Many Saints was scheduled to arrive on screens this time last year, and then in March of this year, but that wasn’t to be. On the plus side, those endless Covid delays provided director Alan Taylor with plenty of time for reshoots, and they also allowed Michael to run the gamut of emotions. Now, as we finally approach the film’s UK release on 22 September, he’s found peace. “I’ve gone through all the panic, all the nerves, all the anxieties,” he tells me from his New York apartment. “Now it’s just a real excitement for everyone to see it.”

Before trying out for the role of Tony, Michael had never seen a single episode of The Sopranos. Even as a child running around The Sopranos set, his father would shield him from the character’s brutality and temper. He could feed treats to a black bear, no problem, but the man known as ‘Skip’ was off-limits. As boss of the crime family, Tony was capable of some horrendous acts. He was volatile, violent and, in the right scenario, even murderous. “I saw a very filtered version of the show. I’d watch scenes where someone was taking out the trash, or Tony was buttoning his shirt,” he tells me, scraping his long hair back with his fingers. “My dad really didn’t want me to see Tony Soprano.”

In 2013, James Gandolfini died of a heart attack while on a holiday in Rome with his second wife, Deborah Lin, their daughter Liliana, and Michael (Michael’s mother is Gandolfini’s first wife, Marcy Wudarski). Gandolfini was 51; Michael was 14. Getting into acting as a young teenager – his first major job after moving from Los Angeles to study at New York University was on HBO’s The Deuce – helped him to explore his grief. But he’d still never witnessed his father transform into Tony.

Photo credit: Cody Lidtke
Photo credit: Cody Lidtke

This, he has said, was the hardest part of Many Saints. After accepting an invitation to audition with casting director Doug Aibel, he set about watching all six seasons of The Sopranos from start to finish: first alone and then with friends, often in the dark and almost always with a portion of cannoli at hand. Then he recorded four hours of audio of the duologues between Tony and his therapist, Dr. Melfi, and played them constantly as he made his way around New York. He’d walk for hours to the sound of his father’s voice.

Michael knew that to get this job he’d have to imagine Tony’s early days, before the pressures of commanding a criminal enterprise came to weigh so heavily on his hulking shoulders. What was it that filled Tony with such anger and anxiety? How different would a teenage Tony be to the man he became? For Michael, a single scene provided more insight than any other.

It takes place midway through season four of The Sopranos, in an episode titled ‘Watching Too Much Television’. Tony is driving through the snowy New Jersey night towards an as-yet unknown destination, when a song comes on the radio: ‘Oh Girl’, by the Chi-Lites. “He starts singing, and then he starts crying, and then he gets mad at himself because he's crying, and then he laughs at himself,” says Michael, visibly awed by the memory of his father's performance. “He literally spans like, four emotions in the matter of forty seconds! And they're all so grounded and I remember being blown away by him.”

It represented a lightbulb moment for the young actor. “That was a way in. Of like, ‘Oh, that is the Tony that I’m building!’ All this sensitivity and pain inside of him. He just articulates it through anger, but it’s not true.”

When Michael did reach the final audition, standing on the stage of the Vineyard Theatre in New York, David Chase handed him a script that he’d never locked eyes on before. It was the scene that ultimately appeared in the first few seconds of the trailer: Tony, exploding with rage out of a phone booth and tearing into another teenager. Up until this point the 19-year-old actor had been nagged by doubt that he was up to the task, but something changed in that moment.

Photo credit: Cody Lidtke
Photo credit: Cody Lidtke

“I remember reading it and going, ‘Oh, I know exactly how to do this,” he says with an assured grin. “I was really like, ‘If I can just get some pages on day one and know how to play it, then I can really do this.’ It gave me the confidence, and I think it gave them the confidence, that I am right for this.”

He won the role, but now it was time to understand Tony’s childhood on an even deeper level. It wasn’t about, as Michael puts it, simply doing an impersonation. “I had watched the show to get my dad's mannerisms. The accent, the sort of things that you can call back to Tony,” he says, itching his nose with the back of his hand. “But then I went outside and did my own stuff.”

That included sitting down with someone who worked for the same Italian-American mafia family who inspired The Sopranos; specifically, the cleaner. “I was fascinated with what it was like to have a feeling in that household. They told me it was just this constant air of anxiety, this constant air of ‘You don’t talk about that, you don’t ask your dad where he’s going, and this constant gaslighting,” he says, alluding to the come-and-go presence of Tony’s capo father, Johnny, played in the film by Jon Bernthal. “I thought about what that would have done to me at sixteen, and what it would do to young teenagers. It’s a very volatile household to be in. You’re scared, you don’t know if your dad’s going to come home at night. You don’t know what’s going on or what their job is. And people start to ask questions.”

That, he thought, was a wellspring for the anger and discomfort that would come to define Tony Soprano. To access his character’s volcanic temper, James Gandolfini famously deprived himself of sleep, drank copious amounts of caffeine and even placed stones in his shoes. Did Michael employ any of those methods?

“I’ve always wondered about the sleep thing,” he chuckles, leaning back into his chair. “I’ve heard that before, but I also feel like my dad had the worst sleep apnoea and he was like, ‘I’ll tell people I do that.’”

Photo credit: Cody Lidtke
Photo credit: Cody Lidtke

He tells me that he did try the rock trick, the coffee thing too, and says that skipping meals will “piss me off like no belief”. But it was pulling together his own playlists that allowed him to fully immerse himself in the emotional life of the character. “Music has always been a very big thing for me, listening to songs that either remind me of times in my life that I get upset about or make me angry. It’s kinda like, whatever you’ve got to do to get there.”

Painful footwear aside, I’m interested to know what important life lessons Michael learned from his father? And in what ways is he most like him?

He smiles and takes a few seconds to think. “I’d say my dad taught me how to be a really hard worker. How to prioritise working hard and being a good person over everything,” he says. “That’s sort of the legacy that matters to me, is just being a good person. I know that’s what my dad would want me to be.” But there’s something else too.

“I also think I sort of got my dad’s anxiety, and a little bit of the fraud complex that he had. ‘Is this the right career? Am I good enough? Do I deserve this?’ I think a lot of those thoughts are my dad too.”

At the wrap party to mark the end of filming, Michael got the answer he was looking for.

“David [Chase] in many ways is unsentimental in-person, but he does say things that mean a lot,” he tells me. “I remember he just looked at me and said, ‘You did your job.’ That was the most meaningful thing he could have said. In some ways it’s unsentimental, but I just wanted to do a good job as a young actor. Him saying that meant the world to me.”

In May 2020, New York was in lockdown and Michael Gandolfini turned 21. It was a challenging period for everyone, including a young actor keen to kick on from a huge role that came with an even greater professional and personal legacy. He had been attempting to keep busy by self-taping auditions at home.

“I just started to get so frustrated,” he says. “Some people are so good at these self-tapes, but a big part of my acting is these rituals. I like walking to set or taking the subway, or playing a playlist that I’ve made for a character,” he tells me. “So changing out of my sweatpants and putting on jeans but standing in my living room? It was just so hard for me to… I really didn’t feel like an actor for a long time, and in some ways I still don’t.”

His response to his angst was as unlike Tony’s as you can get. He decided to air his struggles and upload his own self-taped blooper reels on Instagram. “They’re the only way to keep it light,” he says. “They make me laugh.” (Watching them, it’s impossible not to laugh too. They are, there’s no other way of saying it, adorable.)

He also used his 21st birthday to mark three years of being in recovery. “Technically, I’ve never had a legal drink,” he tells me, laughing to himself. “I’m part of the sober ‘never had a legal drink’ group that I love.”

It’s a journey of addiction he has felt compelled to post about online, especially as new fans begin to follow his burgeoning career. “I had this disease in me, it runs in my family, and I’m so proud that I’m sober,” he says. “I had to get sober young because I knew that from history and from just my acting out, I sort of have this disease. And I was depressed and low and it wasn’t going to help me out. I’m very vocal about my sobriety, because it’s saved my life and it’s allowed me to have gratitude... it saved my life.”

He believes that working on The Many Saints of Newark, as well as The Deuce and Cherry, a film by the Russo brothers released earlier this year, helped him to stick to the right path. “I think acting was a big part of it. I knew I wanted to be the best actor I could be, and part of that was not numbing my feelings through many different ways,” he says. “I’m an addict. Like, I chew my nails like a crazy person, it could be PlayStation tomorrow, and it could be eating. This woman said, ‘If it’s not a man it’s money, if it’s not money it’s a martini, if it’s not a martini it’s a muffin.’ That’s so true! I’m sober to try and be a better person, because that’s what’s important to me.”

Photo credit: Cody Lidtke
Photo credit: Cody Lidtke

He shared a lot of special moments with the cast of The Many Saints of Newark, and talks affectionately about them, particularly his on-screen parents, Jon Bernthal and Vera Farmiga, who plays Tony’s mother, Livia. But one sticks out. It was the first and only scene in which most of the actors were gathered together; a family reunion that came at the end of an arduous 16-hour day.

“We were all kind of getting the giggles and fucking up, and Jon started choking on this piece of chicken. It was just amazing,” he laughs. “But more importantly, I actually think I went back there and took a picture of the table, and I just remember thinking, like, ‘This is my dream. I get my dream to work with people that I’m so inspired by, so touched by. I just can’t believe I got to be in a scene with them all around this table.’

“I remember thinking, ‘Take a moment and never forget this. Because this is what I’ve been searching for, for so long.’”

The Many Saints of Newark arrives in cinemas on 22 September

Styling by Charlie Ward

Photography by Cody Lidtke

Grooming by Kumi Craig

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