By Heather Corcoran
Michael Imperioli might just be the city’s most underrated actor. For the past eight years, we’ve known him as Christopher Moltisanti, the troubled mafioso on “The Sopranos,” but this month he stars in two very different and unexpectedly subtle roles. Catch him as a dopey sage in the film “The Inner Life of Martin Frost,” premiering this week at the New Directors/New Films Festival, or as a desperate schemer raising fighting cocks in “Chicken” at Studio Dante, his own off-Broadway theater. Turns out, this actor has a lot more to offer.
Could you tell me a little bit about Studio Dante, the theater you founded with your wife, Victoria?
MI: I went almost 10 years not being involved in theater at all, but I produced and directed plays and acted in plays off-Broadway and founded a company with a couple of other people in my 20s. She decided that we were going to find a space, and eventually found a space, and proceeded to build it with her father. And that was the birth of it. From the beginning, our goal was to really focus on new plays, stuff that hasn’t been done.
And now you’re starring in the new play “Chicken.”
MI: We had done another production of [writer] Mike Batistick’s work two years ago. I just like his writing, I like his characters and I loved the play from the first time I read it.
The play is so New York, is that something that attracts you?
MI: Mike has a really good sense, and especially an ear for New York and New York characters and the melting pot that is the city. His plays are really filled with multi-cultural characters all the time. He has a real love for New York and how it brings people together and how people bring all this diversity. And then it kind of gets stirred up in the cauldron, and he puts them in these pressure-cooker environments. When it has that feeling of authenticity or just knowledge and connection to the city, it’s something that attracts me.
There’s so much detail—from the Key Food bags to ConEd bills.
MI: That’s also Victoria, her set design, which is very, very detailed and a lot of thought and layers of detail. We try to do that on every level of the production and get really good people in every department like lighting and sound, and even the guy that designs our posters. That kind of corresponds to the detail that was put into the building of the theater.
MI: We’re doing a play—another New York Play actually—called from “Riverdale to Riverhead.” It’s written by Anastasia Traina and it stars Annabelle Sciora.
What’s next for you?
MI: I’m about to finish the “Sopranos,” in the next couple of weeks we’re wrapping that up.
What’s that experience like?
MI: It’s bittersweet. It’s been such a great job with such great people and great work, but I think it’s time. I’ve made a lot of good friends that I know I’ll keep, hopefully the rest of my life. It’s a very big experience. We did the pilot almost 10 years ago, in August it will be 10 years.
It’s not like an ordinary television show; it’s so cinematic and dramatic that it must require a lot more from the actors.
MI: I think so. I think that was the beautiful thing about it, was that it’s something that kept you on your toes, and you kept having to stretch and push yourself as an actor and not just fall into doing the same thing over and over and over again. It also had long intervals of hiatus, which was good to allow me to get stuff done here at the theater.
How do the two compare—theater vs. filming?
MI: Somehow theater to me is less complicated. You come at 7 o’clock and 8 o’clock you’re onstage and you’re done at 10. And you do the whole story. There’s nothing quite like a live audience to really keep you on your toes. There’s no second take. If you screw up, you’ve got to fix it somehow in the moment. There’s an edge to your performance that you don’t have in front of a camera.
“Chicken” is at Studio Dante (257 W. 29th St.) through March 31.