As Tony Soprano, He did the impossible by Making a mobster loveable.
By Heather Corcoran
He has been a pornographer, an enforcer, a stuntman and a gay hitman. Now he’s holding court as a mob boss. But really, James Gandolfini is a sensitive guy.
Gandolfini recently wrapped shooting the biggest role of his career so far, the lovably goofy mafioso Tony Soprano on the HBO smash hit “The Sopranos.” Now, with the show in the middle of its sixth and final season, it’s hard to believe that it was nearly 10 years ago when by the pool, in his robe and mid-panic attack, Gandolfini became a star. Showing the vulnerability of troubled mob boss Tony Soprano made “The Sopranos” a different kind of show, and Gandolfini was the man who brought him to life.
“He is both a hero and an anti-hero. He brings a weight to the role; both a physical weight and an emotional one. You can almost see him think. He is both an observer and a participant,” said Ron Simon, a curator with the Museum of Television and Radio and self-professed fan of the show.
As Tony, Gandolfini dominates the camera. He’s a big guy at more than six feet tall and well over 200 pounds. The actor, who has slimmed down for other roles, has said that no one would trust a thin Tony, and it works. Even red-faced and panting with beads of sweat dotting his brow, he commands a confident sex appeal. Maybe part of his charm is the childish light in those expressive eyes and the slow, shy grin that reveals the inner workings of this mobster’s mind.
Ever since the show’s first season, Gandolfini’s reflective portrayal has been the hallmark of a series lauded for its complexity and depth. His work has won him three Emmy Awards for Best Actor in a Drama, but as it turns out, the real Gandolfini is a lot more like Tony Soprano the neurotic family man than Tony Soprano the made man.
The two – Gandolfini and his fictional counterpart – have a lot in common. The obvious connection is their shared New Jersey upbringings and Italian heritage. Then there’s the sensitivity. Off-camera, Gandolfini is known for shying away from the spotlight. As he famously said, “I’m a neurotic mess. I’m really basically just like a 260-pound Woody Allen.” Even in the earliest days of his career, Gandolfini’s thoughtful and even uncertain side has attracted a lot of attention.
“He had a very small part, but I noticed him immediately; I noticed the sensitivity in his body,” said Susan Grace Cohen. It was 1992, and Gandolfini, then 30, was debuting on Broadway. The play, a revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin, was playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater and Cohen, an acting coach, had been called in by Gandolfini’s agent to check it out.
Though Cohen was struck by Gandolfini’s natural ability – the way he acted “throughout out his whole body, his hands, his gestures” – he was still rough around the edges. And he had a movie coming up and needed to prepare.
Gandolfini enrolled in class at the Susan Grace Cohen Studio but, not happy with the class environment, he move on to one-on-one instruction. Cohen taught him the Method, an intensive acting technique made popular by Lee Strasberg, with whom Cohen had studied. Together, they worked on becoming comfortable in front of the camera, accessing emotion and taking the time to think things through. But most importantly, Cohen said, he learned the confidence to open up and bring his own ideas to the set.
“He became more confident in the acting process as a craft. He was very determined and focused and inspired,” said Cohen. It was a pivotal point in the actor’s career and within the next two years came six of Gandolfini’s rapid succession of star-making roles.
It was Tony Scott’s 1993’s “True Romance” that many consider Gandolfini’s star turn. In the drug-fueled love story, Gandolfini played Virgil, a hired gun who beats up a woman in search of cocaine. The shoot-‘em-up story was a key moment for Gandolfini and fellow newcomer Quentin Tarantino (who co-wrote the script), with Gandolfini going on to star in blockbusters including “Crimson Tide” and “Get Shorty.”
And then there was “The Sopranos.” It was a script that impressed the actor, but a role he has said he never imagined he would get. Now, Gandolfini is not just the star, but part of a close-knit circle of cast members.
“I really couldn’t ask for somebody better to work with,” said Robert Iler, who plays A.J., the son of Gandolfini’s character Tony on the show. “Since the first day, he hasn’t changed and he’s been such a great guy all around.”
For Iler, the award-winning actor was something of a mentor, though in typical Gandolfini fashion, it happened without pretense. “Through the years of watching and being with these people and seeing the way they act and seeing how they are professionally, you find yourself learning,” said Iler.
While filming “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini took advantage of the long stretches of hiatus to continue filming movies. Recently, he added “Lonely Hearts” with John Travolta and Salma Hayek to his already impressive list of more than 20 films.
Next up, Gandolfini returns to the big screen as Ernest Hemingway in a biopic of the author’s life. For viewers, it will be another chance to see the actor playing a troubled soul full of machismo. For Gandolfini, it’s a chance to take on a new role: that of producer.
Even with $1 million-per-episode paychecks behind him, it looks like Gandolfini is sticking to the working-stiff determination that has served him so well.