The Many Saints of Newark star discusses the intensity of becoming a young Tony Soprano, Italian-American meme culture, and mental health while standing on the precipice of fame – Heavy? Forget about it!
Taken from the autumn 2021 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
A funny thing happened to Michael Gandolfini on the way to our interview. He was walking down the sidewalk in Manhattan when a construction worker caught his attention and called out to him, “Ah, there he is!”
There was no further explanation, no explicit indication that the builder recognised Michael or, perhaps more likely, Michael’s resemblance to his late father, James Gandolfini, the actor known in perpetuity for portraying Tony Soprano on HBO’s flagship series The Sopranos. Maybe it was just a weird New York moment; maybe it was something more. “That’s what he said to me, I don’t know why – ‘There he is!’” Gandolfini recounts, laughing. “Like he’s been waiting for me to walk by.” Nowadays, the 22-year-old is an actor himself, and he’s gearing up for the long-awaited October release of The Many Saints of Newark, a cinematic prequel to The Sopranos, co-written by the series creator, David Chase, in which he steps into his dad’s storied role to play a teenage Tony.
We’re meeting at a cafe in Chelsea that Gandolfini describes as a safehaven: he comes here all the time, meets friends here, and learned all of his Saints lines here. I make a mental note that I probably shouldn’t mention the name of the place in this piece; despite earlier roles in HBO series The Deuce and the Russo brothers’ Cherry opposite Tom Holland, it’s only since the official Saints trailer dropped at the end of June that he’s begun to get recognised in public. Why blow up his spot? Indeed, when I walk into the cafe, Gandolfini’s already been sitting there for a while, drinking iced lattes and learning lines for a new series he’s auditioning for.
He lives around here and also went to school nearby, later studying acting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for a term before transferring into NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he took classes in psychology, history, and anthropology to create his own major called, aptly enough, ‘Character Study’. He realised that what drew him to acting in the first place was his interest in people, so he wanted to start there. Preparing for his role as Tony in Saints would turn into something of a character study in itself, requiring Gandolfini to watch The Sopranos for the first time.
“Who knows if I’d have watched it if I didn’t have this job?” Gandolfini admits. “To go back to the show, it’s just an intense experience: my dad being gone, and that time being gone. I look back at the Soprano house, and I can just see me (as a child on set) running around, sleeping in the Soprano bedroom. Having the excuse of being like, ‘It’s work’, was nice, but if I didn’t have that, it’s like looking back at your childhood in this very intense way.”
After the initial emotional purge, he says, “I treated it just like if I was going to play JFK or something. I have 86 hours of tape to watch a character and how he acts, the way he thinks, why he thinks of things, triggers, habits.” Again, this was an opportunity to dig into the roots of Tony Soprano’s trauma: his violent rage, his immense sadness, as well as his softer, nerdier side that, in adulthood, we may only glimpse when he watches old movies alone with a bowl of ice cream on the couch.
All told, Gandolfini has only watched the whole show once all the way through, though he estimates he’s seen the first four seasons seven or eight times – mostly because he realised that, between seasons four and five, his dad’s accent changed. Tony always had a bit of a lisp, and in the earlier seasons, his S-es were softer, but later on, they became more cartoonish Sh-s. For Saints, he wanted young Tony to have the original effect. When I ask if he thinks his dad made the change on purpose, he answers quickly, “I think he forgot how to do the accent, I really do. I think he was just like, ‘All right, this is close enough’.”
To get the voice down, he’d keep the show playing in the background while he was doing other things, like cleaning his house – which, he acknowledges, is a pretty Gen Z way to watch television, not unlike how Billie Eilish has described The Office as her constant soundtrack. In that sense, Gandolfini watched The Sopranos the same way that many millennials and zoomers have come in droves to, particularly during the pandemic: streaming it on various screens while interacting with the memes and commentary online, all filtered through nearly two decades of hindsight. This new generation of Sopranos fans is rotely familiar with many of the things the show touched up on as taboo: therapy, SSRIs, late capitalism, toxic masculinity, nihilistic ennui.
For the Adderall-boom generation watching it today, one of the most baffling moments of the show is when Meadow Soprano seeks out literal methamphetamine to study for the SATs. The series begins when Tony decides to start examining himself – and was he not doing some iteration of a personal ‘character study’ in Dr Melfi’s office the whole time? In the pilot, which aired on January 10, 1999 (the same year Michael was born), known Boomer Tony confides, “I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” If that was the end, where are we now?
“To go back to the show was an intense experience: that time being gone, my dad being gone. I look back at the Soprano house and I just see me running around" – Michael Gandolfini
That baseline of introspection makes The Sopranos a perfect source material for some digital gallows humour, and Gandolfini is also obsessed with the show’s meme culture. During our meeting, he pulls up TikTok on his phone to show me the account @slimthickgabagool, which is run by a nurse named Gaby Petrilli who lives in Florida and makes parody songs about Sopranos characters to the tune of “Eleanor Rigby”. (Speaking of: does Gandolfini himself make TikToks? “Oh my God, no. I’d rather die.”) He particularly loves the adjacent Italian-American meme culture, centred on the show’s characterisation of tri-state Italians. “I was the biggest supporter of this emoji,” he says, pinching his fingers together and holding them aloft in the quintessential Italian ‘hand-purse’ gesture – the ma che vuoi?, the ‘what do you want?’ – which was finally inducted into the emoji lexicon in 2020.
For Gandolfini, it seems the process of immersing himself in The Sopranos’ extended universe has opened the door for even more introspection. When the trailer dropped, part of him wondered, “Is life as I know it over?” If fame is a club, was he gaining entry? For what it’s worth, the Sopranos cast was always a bit anti-Hollywood (some may remember when the whole cast and crew showed up to the 2000 Emmy Awards in a bus), and, on his dad’s accord, Gandolfini didn’t grow up in that world – he grew up mowing neighbours’ lawns in Jersey.
Speaking of Eilish, as well as the rising stock of TikTok celebrities, he’s fascinated by how other young celebrities have talked about fame and its toll on their mental health. As he stands on the edge of it, he’s not quite sure what this next part looks like.
“I have always sort of rejected (The Sopranos) – before this, at least – because, again, I want to be my own person,” says Gandolfini. “I was doing a rebellious teenage thing of like, ‘Fuck the show, fuck that, I’m not a part of it. It was my dad’s thing; it’s not my thing’.” He knows there’s more real estate to be had from mining Tony’s psyche. He also knows that, whatever role he takes next, it must both challenge and scare him. (On his inner forearm, he has a large tattoo that reads, “Faith over fear”, stylised like an equation.)
Participating in the film meant emotionally preparing himself for public criticism, a barrage of, ‘Why would you do this? Don’t do this’. But instead, he says, a gift has come out of it. He feels the support of the Sopranos network, its makers, and its fans. It trickles in, showing itself in strange ways... Ah, there he is!