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Exclusive: How William Ludwig learned to become the young Tony Soprano – curse words and all

(L to R)  Michael Gandolfini, David Chase, and William Ludwig
(L to R) Michael Gandolfini, David Chase, and William Ludwig. Pic credit: Dave Allocca/StarPix/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

When William Ludwig landed a film role that would change his life and the chance to tell the backstory of the iconic family man/mob boss, Tony Soprano, in the long-awaited crime drama, he clearly learned from the best.

The 14-year-old L.A. native, who has wanted to become an actor since preschool, says it was an honor to be tapped for his role in The Many Saints of Newark, also called The Sopranos prequel.

Ludwig plays the young Tony Soprano and 22-year-old Michael Gandolfini takes over the role as the teenage Tony; the role made famous by Michael’s father, James, a three-time Emmy Award-Winning actor.

After attending film camp, Ludwig met and signed with an agent and started auditioning. Next came short films, commercials, and television series. He has appeared as Don Kuko in the fan-favorite Nickelodeon series, Side Hustle, and guest-starred in Disney Channel’s successful series, Just Roll with It. His other credits include Revelation, Bake Sale, and Kids on Patrol.

Clearly, a rising star, Ludwig has many people in his life to keep him grounded, including his parents, younger brother, and friends in ninth grade, while basking in the glow of learning from noted actors in the world of The Sopranos. He is well aware that the original series is beloved around the world despite the fact that the six-season series came to an end in June 2007.

Michael Gandolfini really wanted to get this right, and I really wanted to get this right because this is such an iconic role that is extremely important to a lot of people,” Ludwig exclusively told Monsters & Critics.

“So, I wanted to make sure that everything was set and correct, I just wanted to do right by the Sopranos fans,” he explains. “Overall, I really just wanted to make Michael Gandolfini proud!”

Monsters & Critics: William, what did you learn from the actors that you worked with closely?

William Ludwig: Well, I learned A LOT from Michael Gandolfini, because the second that I booked the role he reached out to me and he really helped me understand who Tony Soprano is as a character. He helped me adopt his mannerisms, the way he talks, and how he acts. And he helped me understand the innocence of Tony.

M&C: who else served as a mentor for you?

William Ludwig: Someone else who really helped me was Alessandro Nivola because he’s such a serious, down-to-earth actor, and every single time that you’d walk on set he’d been in the mood that his character would be in.

There’s a scene at a funeral on my first day ever on set, he was sitting down and just brooding, looking at the floor.  So, I walk in and he snapped out of it so quickly. He goes, “Hey!  William!”  He runs up to me, gives me a big hug because this is the first time we were meeting in person.  He just snapped out of that character and then snapped right back in, and it was amazing to watch that.

M&C: Since you are young, did your family have a connection to The Sopranos TV series?

William Ludwig:  Well, the show ended the year I was born, if you can believe that, but my parents were big fans of The Sopranos and they would watch it. I hadn’t really seen it; I’d heard of it. I knew it was iconic, I knew it was amazing but I didn’t really understand the meaning of it until I got the audition for this, and my dad and everybody, we talked about this started freaking out. I was like, “Wait, what?”  I thought it was just a cool thing that I booked a movie. But that’s how I started understanding the meaning of Tony and really what Tony is to a lot of people.

M&C: What’s the universal appeal of these stories and these characters?

William Ludwig:  I think The Sopranos is so compelling to people because of all the heart in it. It’s a gritty, down-to-earth family, but deep down Tony is a guy who just wants to do the right thing. And you can really see that in the movie, how he feels like he’s trapped in this mobster box that he has to grow up in. And you can see throughout the movie how he becomes angrier and angrier, and he feels like he has to be this big, scary guy, where really deep down he just wants to do the right thing.

M&C: Was there research into the mob lifestyle or anything beyond the script that David gave you?

William Ludwig:  Well, my dad sat down with me and we watched a few episodes of The Sopranos.  We watched the whole first season and a few other key episodes. When we got to all the Bada Bing! parts, he would cover my eyes. Another major help to me was my [movie] dialect coach, Kohli Calhoun, who would have me go around my house, pointing at certain things and saying for example, “F-in’ drawer!” “F-in’ couch!” “F-in’ dog!” Just to practice the F-word right.

M&C: Have your parents been supportive of your career from the beginning?

William Ludwig:  Well, they weren’t so sure about the whole kid actor thing because I had wanted to do it since preschool. I had seen my friend in a Halloween commercial once and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. They knew I loved acting and they wanted to support me, and so they let me go to camps and do extracurricular activities at school with acting.

M&C: When you weren’t doing your scenes how did you hang out with the other actors?

William Ludwig:  Well, I didn’t get the chance to hang.  I don’t know if a lot of people know about this, but kids have to do school on set. They have to do a minimum of three hours a day which totally sucks. I’ll be honest, it sucks. And I would have to go back to my trailer and do school with my set teacher, Donna. It was a bummer because I wish I could have hung out with more people.  But just to be included in this was amazing; it’s such an honor.

M&C:  So, if David Chase called you again and said I’ve got another project for you, would you ask a lot of questions or just say yes?

William Ludwig:  I would do it in a heartbeat.  That guy is so amazing.  I don’t know how his mind works, but whatever he’s doing he needs to keep that up because he’s just such a genius and I’d do anything, anything to work with him again.

M&C: What do you think are the takeaways or life lessons from this movie?

William Ludwig: I learned a lot about being patient. To quote Michela De Rossi [who plays Giuseppina Bruno] last night she told me, “Baby, be f-in’ patient.  Because things will come and it takes a while for things to come.” She’s been working at this for almost 10 years now and this movie is going to be huge for her.  Again, be patient is what I’ve really taken away from this?

M&C: Do you have life lessons from your own family? 

William Ludwig:  Yeah, they’re really good at keeping me grounded, I’ll say that.  My little brother has been supportive of me ever since the beginning. Last night he just gave me a big hug and he just told me he was so proud of me, and that really, really made me feel good.

M&C: How old is he?

William Ludwig:  He’s 10, and we covered his eyes through the majority of the movie.

M&C: What about some of the salty language?

William Ludwig:  He actually never wants to run lines with me, he’s not a big fan of the acting thing. He’s like, “That’s Bubba’s thing.”  But he loved running the F-word scene with me. The scene where young Artie and I walk off the bus and we’re just cussing, cussing away. And he was like, “Hey Mom, can I run lines with Bubba please?” They were like, “Oh yeah. He needs to work on this scene, let’s do this scene.” And he’s like, “No, can we do this scene?  Can we do the F-word scene, please?”  And he had it memorized by the time we started filming.

M&C: So, I assume that there are words that you said in this movie that you’re not really supposed to say around the dinner table?

William Ludwig:  Absolutely. My mom has taught me a lot about compartmentalization and figuring out what’s right and wrong to do and think about at certain times.

William Ludwig. Pic Credit. Dave Allocca/StarPix/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

M&C: Are there any other actors in your family?

William Ludwig:  No. My dad works for Peacock in marketing. And my mom does market research, so they’re on the other side of things. I’m the first one to really want to do this in my family and I’m really excited.

M&C: Were there Italian-type meals on the set?  Did you get that Italian food vibe?

William Ludwig: Sometimes there was. But it was mostly like we are all just absorbed in this Italian world so we need a little bit of normalcy. But there’s young Janice’s confirmation scene and I was eating penne pasta, and I was eating that for eight hours straight and I had the worst stomach ache I’ve ever experienced.

M&C: And now you don’t want to eat penne pasta for a long while, right?

William Ludwig:  No, now it’s in my nightmares.

M&C: Yeah, I bet. Many years ago, I spent an afternoon with Aida Turturro, who played Janice in The Sopranos, and the fans went crazy. Are you ready for that kind of mega-buzz from people?

William Ludwig:  I don’t know if I’m ready, but I’m going to try my best to prepare myself. I have so many people keeping me humble and I’m so grateful for them. I just want to stay nice; that’s what my main goal is right now.

M&C: What’s your brother’s first name?

William Ludwig:  Jackson. We all call him Jack-Jack.

M&C: And he calls you Bubba?

William Ludwig:  He calls me Bubba, yeah. I think William was too hard for him to pronounce when he was a baby and so he just started calling me Bubba.

M&C: What’s your favorite subject in school?

William Ludwig: Last year I would say math, but geometry is pretty tough this year so I’m not going to say math. Probably English because I really like writing.

M&C: Do you have your next project lined up?

William Ludwig:  First, I’ve got math homework. [He laughed]. And I have a Nickelodeon episode that they’re bringing me back for which I’m excited about. Funny enough, I actually play a mobster in that, too. I play a mob boss of an underground robot fighting ring.

M&C: What advice do you have for a young actor who watches you and says, “Yes, I want to do that.” 

William Ludwig: I’m going to relay some advice that I got from Ray Liotta, which is don’t take yourself too seriously. This is an awesome job. All we do is we put some gel in our hair, and we get some makeup done, and we put on a costume and we play a character. We have an awesome job and we’re just normal people. Again, don’t take yourself too seriously is a really important thing.

M&C: What’s your take on success and fame?

William Ludwig: I think success is having people around you who care about you. Not just there to be there, to get fancy things. I think fame’s a little bit stupid because I feel like deep down everybody’s the same, and we all have minds, and we’re all people. That’s what really matters.

M&C: Why should my readers go to see The Many Saints of Newark?

William Ludwig: Well, Sopranos fans will definitely be able to point out a bunch of gems like in the way that Silvio walks around. But really you should watch this because it’s an awesome mob movie. It has thrills, suspense, and it’s just a fun movie to watch, and it has a lot of good laughs in there, too.

M&C: Will you keep in touch with Michael Gandolfini and the other actors in this movie?

William Ludwig:  Oh yeah. Michael and I have been texting.  Sometimes out of the blue he’s like, “Hey, I’m in Los Angeles, do you want to go out and get some ice cream?”  We’ll meet up with Samson who plays Big Pussy, we’ll all have ice cream together and chat.  And whenever we’re both in New York we reach out to see if we can hang out.

M&C  Sounds like a big brother from another mother.

William Ludwig: That’s exactly what it feels like. Michael is such an amazing guy!

The Many Saints of Newark opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max on Friday, October 1.

For more about what’s on HBO: House of the Dragon: HBO officially confirms that production has begun.

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