Michael Gandolfini: ‘I was always, like, I want to make my dad proud’

Michael Gandolfini: the actor is consciously tying himself to his father with The Many Saints of Newark. Photograph: Devin Oktar Yalkin/New York Times
James Gandolfini’s son takes on his father’s iconic role in The Many Saints of Newark, playing a young Tony Soprano. But knowing his dad hardly prepared him for the work ahead

When Michael Gandolfini was filming his role in The Many Saints of Newark, a period crime drama that casts him as a precocious teenage troublemaker named Tony Soprano, he was having trouble sleeping and would stay up late at night, working on his scenes for the next day.

Sometimes he would reflect on the motivations of his character, whose loyalty is torn between two paternal figures: his frequently absent father, a New Jersey gangster named Johnny Boy; and the film’s protagonist, a charismatic mobster named Dickie Moltisanti.

In his efforts to get inside his character, Gandolfini would try to identify with Tony’s desire to please both men. He would find himself drawn back to Johnny Boy and repeat the wish to himself like a mantra.

Gandolfini treasures good times they shared, grumbles about life lessons his father imposed, admires him as an actor and misses him the way any child would yearn for a parent taken too soon. ‘I truly wasn’t aware of the legacy of him,’ Michael says. ‘My dad was just my dad’

As Gandolfini recalls, “I was always, like, ‘I want to make my dad proud. I want to make my dad proud.’” It didn’t take a psychiatrist to decipher what it all meant. “Of course that was something inside of me,” he says.

Gandolfini is the son of the actor James Gandolfini, who played the menacing but engrossing Mafia boss Tony Soprano for six seasons on the revered HBO series The Sopranos, and who died suddenly of a heart attack, at age 51, in 2013.

The 22-year-old Michael has naturally inherited many of his famous father’s features. They share the same immersive eyes and smirking smiles; like his dad, Michael is softly spoken with a salty vocabulary and admits to an occasionally argumentative temper.

And when Michael – who was born four months after The Sopranos made its debut, in 1999, and had barely watched the show before preparing for The Many Saints of Newark – thinks of his father, he does not conjure up Tony Soprano, the larger-than-life character. He remembers James Gandolfini, the man.

He treasures good times they shared, grumbles about life lessons his father imposed, admires him as an actor and misses him the way any child would yearn for a parent taken too soon. “I truly wasn’t aware of the legacy of him,” Michael says. “My dad was just my dad.”

Now, as he pursues his own prospering acting career, Michael Gandolfini is consciously and irrevocably tying himself to his father with The Many Saints of Newark; in his most prominent film part to date, he is playing James Gandolfini’s quintessential role – one of the most talked-about and influential characters in TV history – at a younger, more innocent age.

With that decision come demands – to fulfill an audience’s expectations and to meet his father’s benchmark – that Michael anticipated. But there’s an added responsibility he didn’t consider until he started making the film.

“The pressure is real,” he says. “There’s fear. But the second layer, that a lot of people don’t think about, which was actually harder, is to play Tony Soprano.” When he stepped inside the role, Gandolfini says, “not only was it the feeling of my dad – it was, like, Tony Soprano is a hard character.”

Michael Gandolfini: consciously and irrevocably tying himself to his father with The Many Saints of Newark. Photograph: Devin Oktar Yalkin/The New York Times
Michael Gandolfin. Photograph: Devin Oktar Yalkin/New York Times

On a bright morning in September, Gandolfini, wearing a stubbly beard and a denim shirt, was walking through the Tribeca neighbourhood of New York where he’d lived as a boy: past the cobblestone alley where he’d learned to ride a bike and storefronts he visited after being given his first rudimentary cellphone, programmed with his parents’ numbers, at the age of eight or nine.

Although his father and mother, Marcy, divorced when Michael was three, James remained a continuous presence in his life. Sometimes young Michael would tag along to neighbourhood bars where his father hung out with friends. But more often Michael was doing chores his dad assigned him: “Mowing lawns, cleaning my room and getting $5 for it, going to shelters to feed the homeless and I would be grumpy about it,” Michael says.

Despite the fame that his father enjoyed from The Sopranos, Michael says he showed little interest in the series. “I remember asking my dad, maybe at 13, What the hell is this? Why do I hear about this all the time? What is this about? He’s, like, ‘It’s about this mobster who goes to therapy and, I don’t know, that’s about it.’”

After Michael attended middle school and high school in Los Angeles, he returned to New York to study acting at NYU. The craft, he says, called out to him not because it had been his father’s but because he wanted to see if he could do it himself.

I had spent so much time thinking about my dad, the last thing I wanted to do was think about my dad

“I was craving an answer,” he says. “How do you do that – transform like that? Am I good? Am I not good? Am I going to get up and be embarrassed? That fear is an indicator that there was something that I wanted.”

But in his first semester at Tisch School of the Arts, Gandolfini says, “I did feel a target on my back.” He was insecure and lonely, unable to find a community with other students and eager to mix it up with his teachers. (“I’m a bit of an arguer,” he says with a grin. “I find it fun.”)

Instead Gandolfini transferred to NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and, within a few weeks, had booked a role on the HBO series The Deuce. “It was a cosmic sign of a good move.”

Elsewhere in the WarnerMedia empire, plans for a Sopranos film were starting to come together. David Chase, the creator and mastermind of the original HBO drama, says that Warner Bros gave him no restrictions on the scope of this film. So he and his co-screenwriter, Lawrence Konner, decided to focus on the show’s 1960s and 1970s prehistory, particularly on the character of Dickie Moltisanti (father of Michael Imperioli’s character, Christopher Moltisanti), who had been referenced on the TV series but never fleshed out.

“We wanted to make a gangster film, more than anything else,” Chase says. “And we wanted to have a credible, believable, realistic member of La Cosa Nostra. And right there for the taking was Dickie Moltisanti.”

James Gandolfini and son Michael Gandolfini seen together on the boardwalk at the Jersey shore during a family vacation in 2004. Photograph: Brian Ach/Getty
Michael Gandolfini on his father’s shoulders in 2004. Photograph: Brian Ach/Getty

The prequel story also allowed the screenwriters to show Tony Soprano in boyhood, before he has committed to pursuing a life of crime.

“We certainly didn’t want to depict him as the schoolyard rat or punk,” Chase says. “He was up to no good, in certain cases, even as a nine-year-old. But then, what boys aren’t, except the ones you want to beat up?”

But as the film-makers looked to cast the role of the adolescent Tony, they were unsatisfied with the actors they saw. As the start of production drew nearer, Chase and his wife, Denise, happened to be having lunch with Michael Gandolfini, whom they’d known intermittently when Michael was growing up.

Chase says he expected a boy to sit down with them but looked across the table “and there was an entirely grown man.”

During their casting dilemma, Chase says, he remembered that lunch. “I just thought, That’s going to be the guy,” he says. “That’s the guy. It has to happen.”

Michael Gandolfini on playing Tony Soprano: ‘I have to create my own Tony from my life’
Michael Gandolfini in The Many Saints of Newark: ‘I have to create my own Tony from my life’

Gandolfini was not nearly as certain that he wanted the role. He knew it would require him to immerse himself in the life of his father, whose painful absence he is constantly reminded of. “I had spent so much time thinking about my dad, the last thing I wanted to do was think about my dad,” he said.

Even so, Gandolfini agreed to an audition, if only in the hope of impressing the film’s casting director, Douglas Aibel, and landing other roles with him later on.

To prepare, Gandolfini studied The Sopranos at length for the first time. Before, he’d only caught glimpses of the pilot, but now he watched the entire 13-episode first season, by himself, knowing it would be an emotional process. “It was hard to watch my dad alone and then having no one to lean on to,” he says.

As he watched his father play the character, Gandolfini realised that his unique connection as a son had taught him nothing about being Tony Soprano. “Maybe I could know how to play my dad,” he says, “but I don’t know how to play Tony. I have to create my own Tony from my life and still play the things that made him Tony.”

Actors James Gandolfini (R) and Tony Sirico are shown in a scene from the series finale of the The Sopranos. Photograph: Craig Blankenhorn/Reuters
The Sopranos: James Gandolfini (right) and Tony Sirico in the series finale. Photograph: Craig Blankenhorn/Reuters

And he was utterly fascinated with the multifaceted Tony – “a character who will cry, become angry at himself that he’s crying and then laugh at himself all in one scene.”

Gandolfini was determined to assimilate the physical quirks and tics that he saw in his father’s performance: Tony’s lumbering walk and hunched posture; the way he bit his lip when he smiled and clenched his fists in his therapy sessions.

After a weeks-long audition process, Gandolfini came away with the role and a new appreciation for his father. “He so was not Tony,” he says. “The only insight that I think I gained was deep pride in him. I’m exhausted after three months – you did that for nine years?”

Alan Taylor, the director of The Many Saints of Newark, says he had some wariness about having Gandolfini try the role. “I’d never really seen him act,” Taylor says. “It was not knowing if he was up to it and not knowing if was the right thing, emotionally, to ask him to do. Because it’s such explosive territory to ask a young guy to go into.”

But Taylor, who directed several episodes of The Sopranos, says he was won over by Gandolfini’s carefully prepared audition – and by remarks that Gandolfini made to his colleagues at a dinner just before filming started.

He was incredibly humble and told me, somewhat unnervingly, that he was relying on my expertise to guide him

As Taylor recalls, “He stood up and said, ‘I want to thank everybody here for giving me a chance to say hello to my dad again and goodbye again.’ From that point on, I never questioned it.”

In the weeks before production Gandolfini spent time getting to know Alessandro Nivola, who plays Dickie Moltisanti, as they went to diners, talked about life and watched Dirty Harry together.

These exercises were necessary, Nivola says, because the film is so unsentimental in how it depicts the relationship between Dickie and Tony. “We don’t talk about how much we love each other,” he says. “So that feeling had to exist without our needing to put it in words.”

Nivola says that it was easy to bond with Gandolfini over the important opportunity that the movie represented for both of them.

“He being at the beginning of his career and knowing that he was going to be defined so early by this role that was originally his father’s, me because I was late in my career for a break,” Nivola says. “He was incredibly humble and told me, somewhat unnervingly, that he was relying on my expertise to guide him.”

James Gandolfini with The Sopranos creator David Chase. Photograph: Getty
The Sopranos: James Gandolfini with the series creator, David Chase. Photograph: Getty

What impressed him most about Gandolfini, Nivola says, “was his ability to completely remove the sentimental, personal, genetic connection that he had to his dad and the legacy of the role and approach it forensically, the way that you would any other role that you were cast in.”

With a chuckle, Nivola adds, “You could say that kind of compartmentalisation is the quality of a psychopath, but also people who are able to perform in these kinds of situations.”

Jon Bernthal, who plays Johnny Boy, says that he and Gandolfini had spoken before filming about the burden they felt to live up to James Gandolfini’s standards – one that disproportionately falls on Michael’s shoulders.

“He had talked to me about this mission he had been on, to get to know his dad better,” Bernthal says. “To try to fill the shoes of Mike’s dad, it’s an impossible task for all of us but especially for him. And Mike did that the whole time, with the rigour of his work and how much he put into it.”

Despite their being from different generations, the 45-year-old Bernthal says he was surprised at how easy he found it to bond with Gandolfini as a peer and a friend.

“His dad was my favorite actor, and I think he’s striving enormously to be the kind of artist his dad was,” Bernthal says. “Similarly, so am I. We hold each other accountable to that. It’s remarkable that I can go to this man, who’s half my age, for advice just as much as he goes to me. He’s wise beyond his years and a committed and gifted actor.”

Though Gandolfini has also worked with the directors Anthony and Joe Russo (on Cherry) and Ari Aster (on the upcoming Disappointment Blvd), he is hardly a star and has enjoyed his low profile up to this point. But whatever reception greets The Many Saints of Newark, he knows his inconspicuousness won’t last long after its release.

“I love my anonymity,” he says. “I get recognised from time to time, and it gives me definite anxiety.” He says he still has a few remaining safeguards, though: “My beard helps.”

As he steps into a world beyond Tony Soprano and the shadow of his father, Gandolfini also has a personal philosophy that is neatly distilled into a tattoo on his left arm: the word “faith” underlined above the word “fear”.

“You can live your life in fear, and I mostly do,” he says, rattling off the self-criticism that runs constantly through his mind: “I’m not right for this. Don’t hire me. This is a bad idea.”

He continues, “Or, because it’s all hypothetical, you can live your life with some faith that it’ll work out: ‘It’s going to be good.’ ‘I am right for this.’ ‘Someone knows what they’re doing.’”

Gandolfini flashes a familiar smile and says, “If it’s not up to me, why not have a positive outlook?” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

The Many Saints of Newark is on general release