Michael is roughly the age of The Sopranos series after being born during the show’s first of six seasons (in 1999). When he was 11 years old Michael would casually ask his father, James, what the groundbreaking HBO crime drama was all about. James Gandolfini died of a heart attack in June 2013 at age 51, and he left behind great affection for his acting abilities and his Sopranos’ legacy.
Michael, now 22, was asked by creator David Chase to audition for the part of the teenage Tony Soprano in an original movie, The Many Saints of Newark, and he nailed the role, watching the episodes for the first time as a study guide for the role. Now the story is an integral part of the young actor’s life. “We read a bunch of other actors and I said, ‘We should really try Michael,’” Chase recalls. “There was no doubt about it!”
In The Many Saints of Newark, young Anthony Soprano is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark’s history, coming into manhood just as rival gangsters begin to rise up and challenge the all-powerful DiMeo crime family’s hold over the race-torn city.
Caught up in the changing times is the uncle that Tony idolizes, Dickie Moltisanti, (Allesandro Nivola), whose influence over his nephew will help make the impressionable teen into the all-powerful mob boss, Tony Soprano.
Considered one of Hollywood’s rising stars, Gandolfini was recently seen in the movie Cherry, opposite Tom Holland and Bill Skarsgård. In 2019, he reprised his breakout role of Bobby Dwyer in the HBO series The Deuce, and he is about to join Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey on the black comedy film, Disappointment Blvd.
Nivola, one of the most versatile actors of his generation, is best known for his roles in American Hustle, Laurel Canyon, Selma, Face/Off, and Disobedience.
He recently finished David O. Russell’s Untitled Film opposite Christian Bale, Robert DeNiro, and Margot Robbie, and later this year will star opposite Ethan Hawke in Satan Is Real, based on a country music duo.
The bond between the young actor and his seasoned mentor was instant. “It was on the second day of the speaker scene, and it was really clicking. Like all that I have to do is look at Alessandro and he’ll take me along with him,” Gandolfini exclusively told Monsters & Critics.
“So, that has remained one of the greatest acting gifts I’ve ever had, so I believe I’ve walked away to become a better actor and knowing how to do my job correctly,” he said. “I learned what my job was, and how to do it.”
Monsters & Critics: So, Michael, how did this movie change your life?
Michael Gandolfini: Well, the way it changed me the most was walking away becoming, I believe, a better actor. When you get to work with Alessandro, and David [Chase], and the incredible cast; John [Magaro], Leslie [Odom Jr]., Vera [Farmiga], and Corey [Stoll], what a gift that is for a young actor to learn from them. The one thing I learned is listening is a really important thing for an actor. And when you go to acting school and acting class; you don’t always get what that means.
M&C: Thinking back when you were younger, what did it feel like being on the set of this movie knowing that The Sopranos had been part of your life, even though you were never actually in the show?
Michael Gandolfini: To be completely honest, it wasn’t so much of a thought. I think if I let myself go to those places it would start opening a door to becoming so overwhelmed or making the fans, or the legacy of the members of the show proud. Growing up I didn’t really have an insight into Tony Soprano in any way, shape, or form. Luckily, I played Tony and not my dad, and that was the distinction in my head; I wasn’t playing my dad.
I had never met Tony Soprano until I began watching the show when I started auditioning. But when I got to The Many Saints set, I had spent so much time with Alessandro and we really began developing this world and these characters, all I wanted to do was be able to show up and do my job as best as I could.
M&C: When you were going back and watching The Sopranos, as part of the preparation, what were you looking for?
Michael Gandolfini: I had created a system where I would have this emotional dump with friends. I’d watch it the first time through, and then I would go back to my house and I would rewatch. I think there’s a lot of different layers. Of course, specific mannerisms.
I think Tony’s a very physical character and you know how the way he moves and looks at someone what he’s feeling. So physically it was a very important thing. I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry about manifesting Tony Soprano emotionally as long as I can get his physicality.
M&C: How did both of you bond while making the movie?
Michael Gandolfini: We spent a lot of time together before we started shooting at this place called Junior’s Cafe in downtown Brooklyn, and we would just sort of hang out and get to know each other. And we watched Dirty Harry together because there’s a reference in the movie where Dickie uses a quote from Dirty Harry. And then he responds in kind, so we had to believe that we’d both seen the movie.
Alessandro Nivola: By the time we started filming, I think that we were both cast six months ahead of time. This was very unusual for me, I’m normally cast like a week before we start shooting because somebody else has dropped out. This time we had a real buildup to it, and in that time,
I think we developed an ease and a rapport together that was very important. Because David is so unsentimental that he doesn’t write the scenes between Dickie and Tony where they talk about their feelings. And so, you just had to believe that that kind of affection and filial protectiveness and everything was just there, and then we could play the opposite really. So, we were lucky to have been given time together to develop that bond.
M&C: Alessandro, how did this movie change your life?
Alessandro Nivola: [He laughed] I developed anger management issues, became naturally violent, and started saying “Gagootz” a lot.
M&C: Why do you think that the show and now the movie is so relatable, and all the buzz that has come from the prequel?
Alessandro Nivola: Well, it’s funny, it is interesting. It was so ahead of its time really tonally, and it’s kind of brand of cynical humor I think was very modern. I think a whole younger generation now, every generation is somehow more sophisticated than the one before.
And yet this series still seems to satisfy even the most cynical, swaggering, New York 20-somethings that live in my neighborhood in Brooklyn and pal around with my son. And those who watched all of the seasons during lockdown spawned an entirely new generation of fans.
M&C: Were there big challenges for you in making this movie?
Alessandro Nivola: The challenges were seemingly insurmountable. It was the first time for me that I’d ever been given the opportunity to play a lead role in a movie that was going to be this high profile, and so I felt that kind of pressure from the minute that I was offered the job.
I felt like it was going to require a big transformation for me because even though I’m from an Italian-American family on my dad’s side, my experience is just so far removed from the world depicted in the film.
M&C: What else went into play for you?
Alessandro Nivola: I’d gone to posh schools and grown up in a family of artists and academics. So, it was going to require a whole character work of the kind that I’ve spent my whole career doing, but on a much bigger scale and in a way that was going to be much more exposed. So yeah, it was daunting but also extremely exciting and the sort of life-changing opportunity.
M&C: What’s the take-a-way from the movie?
Alessandro Nivola: I think that depending on what your relationship is to the series, either you’ll feel the warmth and comfort of returning to that world in a new way or the excitement of seeing origin stories and new characters brought to life. Either way, you’re going to get to experience a kind of crime drama that studios don’t really make anymore. I like to think of this movie as a 70s crime drama from that kind of golden age of movies that we were able to make only because of the popularity of the series.
From Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema, The Many Saints of Newark will be released in theaters and HBO Max on Friday, October 1.
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