‘Many Saints’ Star on Playing Young Tony Soprano

For most of us, Take Your Kid to Work day meant being parked at an empty desk in Dad’s office for a few hours, maybe with a snack from the vending machine. For Michael Gandolfini, it was a trip to Silvercup Studios in Queens, home base of The Sopranos. Gandolfini was born right after the groundbreaking HBO series’ first season, eight when it ended. In between, his father, James, who played the iconic Jersey mobster Tony Soprano, brought him to set often. Little Michael would grab some treats from the craft service table and wander the soundstages, rapt with wonder at all these people his dad worked with — guys holding boom mics, extras milling around in ugly shirts and pinkie rings, PAs scuttling to and fro, muttering into headsets. And when he grew tired and needed a nap, Jim Gandolfini made sure his son got the best bed available: Tony and Carmela’s.

“I loved everything about it,” Michael says over brunch at Bubby’s, a TriBeCa institution he frequented with his father, who used to live a few blocks away. Now 22, Michael is just a couple of inches shy of Jim’s six-foot-one frame, broad-shouldered and handsome. He grows more and more animated recalling his time on the Sopranos set, a plate of home fries going cold in front of him. “I didn’t know what anybody did, but I could tell that they each had their own job and their own tools, and that they were all coming together to make this show. I would get upset on the days he didn’t take me.” 

The bed Michael slept in was where Tony Soprano would have some of his most memorable dreams, whether a fantasy of a beautiful Italian mother figure or a nightmare where his traitorous friend Big Pussy turned into a talking fish. For Michael, being at Silvercup was the dream. Seeing Wicked on Broadway when he was seven cemented it: He wanted to be part of that magic — specifically, to be an actor like his father, even though his father wanted no part of the profession for him. Jim worried the business was too transient, actors too often subject to the whims of others; he urged Michael to be a director or producer instead. But as Jim should’ve known better than anyone, escaping the family business is not so easy. 

With the October 1st release of The Many Saints of Newark, a Sopranos prequel film co-written by series creator David Chase, Michael’s dream becomes extraordinary reality, with him playing a young Tony Soprano coming of age in the early Seventies. Even beyond his uncanny resemblance to his dad, his performance is magnetic, flashing hints of the moodiness, tenderness, and even propensity for violence that Tony would develop as an adult. When he first nailed the character, none other than Chase himself called it “miraculous.” 

Michael Gandolfini photographed by Joe Pugliese for Rolling Stone. Produced by Walaa Elsiddig & Shelby Gordon. Set Design by Ward Robinson for Wooden Ladder. Grooming by Jamie Taylor for Forward Artists. Styled by Luis Campuzano. Polo shirt by Sandro.

Joe Pugliese for Rolling Stone.

“I remember looking across the room at the table read,” Chase says. “And he was sitting there like this [re-creates adult Tony’s suspicious posture], and it wasn’t his scene. He was doing this thing and I thought, ‘Holy shit. That’s incredible.’ ”

Despite how it turned out, when Michael was invited at 19 to audition for Many Saints, he balked. “Fuck that! No way!” he told his manager. For any other young performer, it would be the role of a lifetime. For Michael Gandolfini, it was a reminder of the profound loss of Jim, who died of a heart attack in 2013 while traveling through Italy with his son, then 14. The experience left Michael unable to even watch The Sopranos, let alone consider whether he could live up to one of the most revered performances in pop-culture history. “I was so scared,” he admits now. “It just seemed so daunting.”

In person, it seems like little could be daunting to Gandolfini. It’s not so much that he looks like his dad — particularly compared to photos of Jim around the same age, when he had more hair, like the floppy cut Michael reflexively runs his fingers through whenever he needs to summon a thought — but the infectiously positive vibe that radiates from him. His Many Saints colleagues are effusive. Vera Farmiga (who plays a young Livia Soprano): “We revolved around his light and beauty.” Corey Stoll (young Uncle Junior): “He was a mensch.” Costume designer Amy Westcott: “He was a ray of sunshine.” Jon Bernthal (Tony’s dad, Johnny Boy Soprano): “I love this kid. I love him with all my heart.” 

Michael seems to have inherited the fundamental generosity of spirit that made Sopranos actors speak of Jim in awestruck tones even when he was alive, without the darkness that could overwhelm his father. “Jim was tough but gentle,” says John Magaro, who co-starred with the elder Gandolfini in two films, and plays the young Silvio Dante in Many Saints. “He was so giving and caring and supportive of everyone else. But he was also very hard on himself, very critical. I’d see it when he was working. Michael has his head up on his shoulders in such a strong way, and has such a warm character, that he’s able to, in a healthy way, deal with his anxiety, and those weird, neurotic things we all feel as actors.”

Where Jim hated talking about himself or his work with the press (“He liked to say, ‘Nobody wants to ask a plumber about his job,’ ” Michael remembers), Michael is, at least at this nascent stage of his career, far more open. He is an enthusiast. He speaks glowingly about the food at Bubby’s, about family trips to the Jersey Shore, about the songs he puts on playlists to psych himself up for auditions. He loves the things he loves so much that he wants to experience them over and over. As a kid, he rewatched favorite movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark until he could perform them from memory for his parents, an adoring Jim patiently filming the whole thing. A while back, he saw a public screening of Point Break at a Los Angeles cemetery, and thrilled when he and everyone else there screamed out, “I am an FBI agent!” along with Keanu Reeves. 

“I have that personality where [when] I watch something, it does something,” he says. “It moves me, it energizes and inspires me, and I just get so addicted. I watched Mad Max: Fury Road, like, 12 times after I first saw it.” 

Putting those movies on repeat is about more than the pleasure they give him, though. He wants to figure out how filmmakers and actors make the things he loves. “I’m just chasing the, ‘How do you do that?’ ” he acknowledges, while forever worrying about overthinking. “It’s a constant battle between you don’t want to control a performance or get too stuck in it. You want to leave some room, but you want to prepare. That balance always changes.”

Before he was old enough to break the process down into its component parts, Michael simply enjoyed the idea of performance itself. His parents (Jim Gandolfini and Marcy Wudarski divorced in 2002) wanted him to be an active kid, but he disliked organized sports. “I hated karate so much,” Michael says, “I would hide pieces of my uniform in my parents’ apartments so they couldn’t make me go.” He jokes that his father was “such a hypocrite, because he was like, ‘I want you to play sports,’ always sports. But then he would want to play dress-up and run around. He loved playing guns and robbers and cops and stuff like that. We’d explore a lot, go on hikes. It was fun.” After The Sopranos ended, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Michael made a new group of friends who were jocks, so he decided to give hockey and football a try. By then his height and build contained the makings of a varsity athlete. He grew into such a passionate competitor that he played through multiple injuries, until a torn meniscus in his knee brought an end to his brief quest for gridiron glory. 

With sports out of the picture, and the death of his father at that point still close, he took a sensory-based acting class, as much for therapy as for something to do. He loved it, and felt encouraged enough to start auditioning. Over his junior and senior years, he was cast in his high school’s productions of Into the Woods and then Shrek: The Musical, where he had the title role. (“I was channeling my dad a little there,” he jokes.) A talent manager was in the audience for Shrek, and suggested Michael go out on professional auditions. Then a producer he knew through his dad, Michael Tadross, invited Michael to read for a small part in Ocean’s Eight. He was cast as a busboy who disrupts the thieves’ plan by getting into an argument with a co-worker about weed. It was technically his second film role — as a kid, he appeared briefly alongside his father in the indie drama Down the Shore, as an obnoxious boy on an amusement-park ride — but the first of his attempt to make this a career. 

Michael Gandolfini in ‘Down the Shore’ (left) and ‘Ocean’s Eight.’

“It was all the giddy feelings of getting to dress up in a suit,” he recalls, beaming, “and not knowing what the fuck I’m doing, and standing in this giant soundstage, just thinking, like, ‘Oh, my God, my dream’s come true.’ And everyone was so nice. And I got to work with Sarah Paulson! It was just a blast. We had a huge snowstorm happen in the middle of it. And I remember pacing outside, freezing, just saying my lines over and over again. There are, like, two lines.”

Ocean’s Eight filmed in New York, and Michael had been missing the East Coast. He decided to study acting at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, but the program at the Stella Adler Studio never felt like a good fit. Over winter break in his freshman year, he was gripped with anxiety about returning and had “just this crazy clean-slate moment,” he says. “I left Stella Adler. I left Tisch. I left all the people that I had known at NYU. I ended up leaving my first management. Got to my dorm room, completely shifted everything. I changed my bed around. Threw all my clothes out. And I was petrified. I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ ” 

He transferred to NYU’s Gallatin School of Independent Study (he’s still a few credits shy of graduating, though he intends to finish), while a new management team took him on for a trial basis, sending him to three auditions. One was for The Deuce, the HBO drama about prostitution and pornography in Times Square in the Seventies and Eighties. He landed the role of Joey Dwyer, the son of Chris Bauer’s construction boss turned pimp Bobby.

“You see a lot of actors in a day,” says Deuce co-creator George Pelecanos. “I have head shots and résumés in front of me on a table, but sometimes it’s happening so fast, I don’t study them too closely. I recognized the last name, of course, but no one said, ‘That’s James Gandolfini’s son.’ ” Pelecanos, David Simon, and producer Nina Kostroff Noble were unanimous that Michael should get the part, and so pleased with his work that Joey returned, as a young man working on Wall Street, for the third and final season.

The Deuce was important to me,” Michael says. “No one knew my dad. I had auditioned and gotten it.”

Bauer, who describes his former co-star as “one of those kids that every parent wishes they had,” recalls Michael’s initiative during an episode where Bobby hurled Joey down a set of stairs. “On his own, he spent a weekend working with a stuntman so he could arrive on set knowing how to fall down the stairs and not waste anybody’s time,” he says, adding with a laugh, “He told me that, and I was like, ‘What’s the matter with you? You’re making me look really bad here.’ But he’s so considerate. He just understands that it’s not about him. He really gets the fact that, whether you’re an actor or a grip, your responsibility is to do your best for your co-workers.”

Michael Gandolfini as teenage Tony Soprano

Michael Gandolfini as teenage Tony Soprano

Warner Bros Pictures/New Line Cinema

Many Saints director Alan Taylor had seen Michael on The Deuce, and knew that he could act. Chase had kept in touch with Michael enough over the years to watch him age into a young man who looked unmistakably like Jim. While they began talking about the best way to approach Michael about auditioning, Michael heard that the movie was in development, assumed the whole thing would be set when Tony was still a kid (William Ludwig plays that part in the film’s first half), and looked at it as a sideways entrance into his father’s world: He would go see Many Saints, and then finally try to watch The Sopranos again after previous failed attempts. It was only when he heard that there would be a teenage Tony, and that Chase and Taylor wanted him to play the part, that he began to panic. But his manager told him he had no real choice in the matter: The Deuce was essentially his entire résumé, and it would be valuable just to audition for Douglas Aibel, a casting director who works regularly with Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, among others. 

So Michael swallowed his fear and got to work. Layers of secrecy surrounded the project, and he had to treat the audition script, where all the characters had code names (Tony was “Carmine”), “like a Sudoku puzzle, trying to figure out who the hell everyone was.” It was clear that he had scenes with two different father-figure types, but he wasn’t sure at first which were with Johnny Boy Soprano and which were with the film’s main character, Tony’s “uncle” Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola), a.k.a. the late father of Christopher on the series. He forced himself to watch the first few episodes, just to get a better sense of the accent Jim had used. 

“He’d really done his homework,” says Taylor. “And he did a great job in the audition. But there was a bigger sense in which it was so obvious that this was the right thing. He’s such a warm, positive kid. Just spending time with him in the room … it felt so right. One of the compasses of making it was knowing that that was the right choice. And the quality of family it brought into it.”

For most of their time together, Jim had done his best to shield his son from Tony Soprano — perhaps not only because of the innate monstrousness of the role, but also because of the effect Tony had on the man playing him. As a result, Michael grew up not appreciating exactly who the character was, nor realizing the global impact of the series. “Honestly, it was at his funeral,” he says, that he first understood The Sopranos as a phenomenon. “There were so many people there, and it was clear how much [my dad and the show] had meant to them.” At that service at St. John the Divine on the Upper East Side, Chase spoke with both love and regret about the emotional toll being Tony Soprano took on Jim, recalling one time when he destroyed a prop refrigerator in anger, and another where Jim, going through a crisis of faith, met Chase by the banks of the Hudson and told him, “You know what I want to be? I want to be a man, that’s all. I want to be a man.”

It’s only when I ask about Chase’s eulogy, and what he said about the difficulty Jim had shaking off Tony’s stench at the end of each day, that Michael’s relentlessly upbeat persona falls. He looks down at the table for a long time, then says quietly, “I can’t speak for him, but there was a lot of time lost on that show, many a birthday missed. Yeah. It was very demanding on him and very hard on him. I think he hated playing such a bad guy, in many ways. I’m not sure. But that’s what I had seen in him.”

The more he spoke with Chase and Taylor, though, and read the material he’d been given, the more Michael understood that he wasn’t being asked to play that Tony Soprano. His Tony was “a sensitive, kind, loving kid who gets whittled down into this life,” he says. And once he saw the ensemble he’d be working with, he realized what an incredible opportunity he’d been given. But there was still the task he’d put off for so long: He had to watch The Sopranos already, all of it, and no fucking ziti for him until he was through.  

It had been so hard to watch even a couple of hours of it alone prior to his audition, Gandolfini says, he knew he needed company. He asked a close friend to sit through every episode with him. Some times they would have groups come over for a mini marathon. “It was amazing,” he says, “because I got to have an emotional dump: ‘I’m with someone. I can talk about what’s really hard. I can talk about ideas.’ ” He took notes on his phone during those sessions, then went home and watched each episode again alone, writing down more ideas in a trio of notebooks.

By the time production began on Many Saints, he had seen every episode three times. Some of it was grueling to sit through, particularly Season Six scenes focused on a gut-shot Tony unconscious in an ICU bed. But at least he had a friend with him so he could say, “Man, that sucked. I did not like watching that.” Weirdly, though, the overriding emotion he felt during these sessions was comfort: “The first thing that happened, which I really didn’t fucking expect, was the more I watched it, the more I knew what to do. I just knew my dad. It was in my blood. I just knew how to do it, and it happened naturally.” 

He wanted to sprinkle in a few mannerisms that fans of the show would recognize, and found a lot to choose from in the show, since “Tony expresses 90 percent of the show with his body.” I request an example. His eyes narrow, his brow furrows, and he asks, in an aggrieved tone, “What’d you say?” I nearly fall out of my chair, it’s so intimidating and spot-on. Michael smiles broadly.

As we talk about other things he learned from watching Jim, I mention that my favorite Tony scene comes at the end of Season Four’s “Watching Too Much Television,” where hearing “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites on the radio causes a previously enthusiastic Tony to become sad, then confused, then angry, until he decides to deal with this swirl of emotions by beating up Assemblyman Zellman for the sin of sleeping with Tony’s former mistress. Michael’s eyes brighten; that’s his favorite scene too. It is both the essence of Tony Soprano the character and Jim Gandolfini the actor: the former unable to understand or deal with his feelings in a healthy way, the latter so in control of his instrument that he can play this turbulent scene against thin air.

“He’s so annoying,” Michael says of his dad with a laugh. “He’s so fucking good.”

Meeting his co-stars led to an even deeper immersion in Sopranos-infested waters. He and Bernthal teared up listening to “Oh Girl” together. When he went to the home of Farmiga, she stayed behind the front door, performing Nancy Marchand’s dialogue from the first Tony-Livia scene until Michael figured out what she was doing and played along. He and Nivola hung out a lot, visited some of the Newark locations where the film would take place, and even met a few actual wiseguys. (“They were just a bunch of Paulie Walnuts,” he recalls. “Very ridiculous, very cocky, and not really scary in any way, shape, or form. But funny.”)  

Right before filming began, Alan Taylor says, there was a large group dinner for many in the cast and crew. “Michael stood up and said he wanted to thank everybody for this chance to say hello to his father again, and goodbye again. There was not a dry eye in the house. It felt like a good thing for him to do, and a good thing for us to have him to do it.”

Still, by the time he filmed his first scene — one that ultimately got cut from the movie, where he spent a day being slapped by Nivola and Bernthal — it had become a job for him, rather than elaborate grief therapy. It was never a thing while filming,” Gandolfini insists. “I think I said on the first day to everyone, ‘Look, this movie is way bigger than me and my dad. The movie takes on way bigger points.’ The fact that I’m playing Tony, I understand all the poetic implications of it, but it should be completely coincidental in some ways, in regard to the movie as a whole. It’s about so much more, so many more people. My goal was not ‘Be Tony Soprano, make my dad proud.’ My goal was to be able to be a good enough actor that I could give Alessandro, Jon, Vera, all of them, the best partner they needed. If they needed something from me, I could give that to them.” 

He set a goal, and he achieved it. He’s convincing as the adolescent Tony, and compelling when the scenes are specifically about him. But when a moment is more about Dickie, Livia, or Johnny, Michael doesn’t pull focus from them. This is a sweeter and shyer Tony, offering painful glimpses of the man he could have become if he’d been born into another clan. He only wants his mother and father’s approval, seems genuinely ashamed when he gets in trouble at school, and obviously loves hanging with Uncle Dickie.

Right after she agreed to play Livia, Farmiga got an email from Michael. “It was the most adorable thing,” she says. “‘Ms. Farmiga, I’m a big fan. I can’t wait to learn from you. I would love an opportunity to have some coffee so I would have a familiar face on set.’ I just fell absolutely head over heels for him.” 

Bernthal, who recalls Michael traveling the country to prepare for the role by talking to people who knew Jim well, calls him “a serious, serious artist and a beautiful human being. The Sopranos is one of the greatest pieces of art that’s ever been made in this country, period. Full stop. Those are shoes that are impossible to fill. And he’s stepping into those shoes. What’s asked of him, he was in a more unique spot than anyone else. He stepped up and was really a leader on that set — completely available, completely present, completely lovely, supportive.”

“When I was that age, that pressure would have left me dead in the gutter, probably,” says Magaro. “He’s a much stronger, better developed young man than I was [then].”

Michael wore a gold chain of his father’s throughout filming, and later gave Bernthal one of Jim’s watches as a present to thank him for their work together. But he maintains thinking about his dad wasn’t the burden during the shoot that his peers assumed. “It was hard physically,” he says, “and as an actor. But the thing about my dad felt completely separate. It was more like doing a movie about, I don’t know, Roosevelt. It was strictly a character.” 

Given that feeling, I wonder, did playing Tony Soprano help him understand his father more? “No, I wouldn’t say so,” he says. “But I understood what he went through. I understood how hard it was, and I felt pride in how hard he worked, and how much of a toll that must’ve been for so many years. But him? I wouldn’t say I understood him more.” 

(L-r) VERA FARMIGA as Livia Soprano and MICHAEL GANDOLFINI as Teenage Tony Soprano in New Line Cinema and Home Box Office’s mob drama “THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Barry Wetcher

Vera Farmiga, left, and Michael Gandolfini in ‘The Many Saints of Newark.’

Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros Pictures/New Line Cinema

Where once he wanted no part of the job, Michael now says he would “absolutely” play Tony again if Chase wanted to continue telling stories with the Many Saints cast. (“I’ve always been interested in Tony and Carmela’s beginning relationship,” he suggests.) In the meantime, he’s eager to re-create the experience in a broader sense: trying to work with filmmakers and actors as gifted as the ones from this movie. The dreams inspired by his childhood visits to Silvercup have grown and changed shape. Recently, he says, “I’ve been having a lot of dreams about plays. I really feel like my subconscious is yearning for a play. In a dream world, I’d love to do three films a year — new crew, new cast, three months, three a year. I love that.” 

Outside of those homemade re-creations of summer blockbusters, and that brief appearance in Down the Shore, Jim Gandolfini never really got to see his son act. Michael doesn’t know for sure how his dad would have felt about his career choice, but he wants to believe that if Jim saw this older, very committed and passionate version of him, he would have supported him. 

“Or not — I don’t really know,” he acknowledges. “But after that acting class, there was no stopping me. This is what I’m going to do for life. I like to think that he would be happy if I was happy. I think he just wanted me to avoid the trials and tribulations of being an actor, which is such a ridiculous statement. Because we put on other people’s pants and we dance around. Also, I can’t make a decision to save my life. That’s why I’m an actor! Because they’re like, ‘Stand there. Say that. And wear this.’ And I’m like, ‘Great. Thank God.’ ”

In Many Saints, Gandolfini never gets to lie in Tony Soprano’s bed the way he did back in The Sopranos days, though he memorably stretches out on the floor of Tony’s bedroom, his head resting between a pair of speakers, Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” blasting him into classic-rock bliss. It’s probably just as well. You climb into your parents’ bed as a way to remain a child. Michael went back into Tony’s bedroom to become an adult — even if it also turned out to be the place where he found his father again.

Alan Sepinwall is Rolling Stone‘s chief TV critic and co-author of The Sopranos Sessions.

 

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