Life & Culture

The Prince of New Jersey: A Conversation With Michael Imperioli

Steven T. Hanley of Deeper Into Movies calls Michael Imperioli – aka Christopher Moltisanti – to discuss The Sopranos, its legacy and why Steve Buscemi is to thank for casting the greatest TV Show ever made

As a film curator, people always ask what films or TV shows they should be watching. I have a top ten memorised, which always features all six series of The Sopranos.

From the opening with a mob boss walking into a therapist’s office through all 86 episodes, The Sopranos captured life – family, relationships, marriage, race, religion, food, money, movies, music, drugs, addiction, anxiety, depression, therapy, sickness, death; all spun through the thrilling world of an Italian-American mafia crime saga.

At the centre of the show there was New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano played by the force of nature that is the late, great James Gandolfini. By his side was his mafia prodigy Christopher Moltisanti played by Michael Imperioli, already a staple of the New York theatre and indie movie scene.

Christopher was the young hot-headed nephew of Tony – loyal, impatient and hungry to be a leader. He was also a movie fanatic and aspiring filmmaker, so of course this guy was going to be my favourite character.

A decade after the series cut to black, Imperioli – alongside Sopranos co-star Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri) – has launched the definitive podcast series called Talking Sopranos: an in-depth, episode-by-episode series featuring interviews with additional cast members, producers, writers, production crew and special guests.

I called Imperioli to discuss the show, its legacy, the podcast and why Steve Buscemi is to thank for casting the greatest TV show ever made.

Deeper Into Movies: How did you land a role on The Sopranos?

Michael Imperioli: It was the casting directors. I had been in a couple of movies that they cast. So, anything I was remotely right for they would bring me on to audition for – we actually had them on as guests on the podcast recently. They said that when they read that script, they really thought that I should get that role. So they were really instrumental. I auditioned for the creator of the show, David Chase, and I did not think the original audition went particularly well because he kept giving me direction. I thought ‘well, I’m not getting this part’, you know? But David, which I didn’t know at the time, had kind of a poker face, so it didn’t seem like he was satisfied with my audition, but as it turned out he was. Then they flew me to Los Angeles to test for the HBO network executives ... And that’s how I got it.

DIM: Obviously it’s clear now it’s truly a great show but I was wondering what were your initial thoughts on production. Was there a moment when you realised, ‘wow, this is really something of a show’?

MI: Well, when I read the script, I liked it, I liked the part, I thought it was fun. I wasn’t quite sure of the tone. I wasn’t sure what a series on cable television would be like. What most impressed me was the people that started to get cast. Some of whom I’d known like Edie Falco [Carmela Soprano] and Lorraine Bracco [Dr Jennifer Melfi] who I knew, and Tony Sirico [Paulie Gualtieri] and Vincent Pastore [Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero] I knew as well. I didn’t know James Gandolfini [Tony Soprano] but I’d seen him in a play and I liked him. He had a good reputation. I did the pilot and then we got picked up and we came back a year later to shoot the rest of the first season. It was during that time – I’d receive script after script, every few weeks and they just kept getting better and more interesting and the canvas got wider and more complex and intricate. The writing kept getting deeper and deeper and by the end of season one I just thought, ‘this is fantastic; this is what I’d always wanted to do’.

DIM: I suppose you gotta remember that this is before the golden era of TV which we know now like … You guys, The Wire, Mad Men, Deadwood and all the other top-tier shows.

MI: Right, I saw we were making something great but whether or not people are going to catch on or if it’s gonna be a success, nobody knew because there had not been – or hardly been – serious television that could be found on cable especially, there hadn’t been real hits.

DIM: How was it working with James [Gandolfini]? I was just realising that other than Eddie you guys share most scenes together in the show. How was your dynamic and process working together?

MI: It was incredible. We became friends very quickly, very good friends. We spent a lot of time together on and off set and hung out together and drank and travelled at times for different things and I’ve acted with him more than I’ve acted with any other actor. Probably more than I ever will act with another actor. We had to go to some difficult, raw, dark and very emotional places as actors together. We’ve been through a lot and we both gave a lot as a responsibility for each other because we respected each other.

DIM: How did your relationship with Paulie [Tony Sirico] develop? You guys together are just hilarious when you’re antagonising each other. Was that in the script, or did that come through with your chemistry together?

MI: That was in the script. I think Tony looked at Paulie and Christopher’s relationship like he was his tough uncle. A lot of his stuff is, you know, ball-busting to try and toughen him up but there’s a lot of affection at the same time. Tony and I became very good friends on The Sopranos and we loved working together. You know that chemistry, a lot of it’s in the writing, then the actors have to take it and run with it.

DIM: I have to mention the now legendary episode Pine Barrens [season three, episode 11] – it’s the fan favourite and an amazing hour of catastrophic comedy in the snow. 

MI: Well, oddly enough it was not written to fit the occasion. A couple of days before we went up and we shot it quite a way out of the city. With most of the stuff we shot was close to New York City – in New York City and close to it in North Jersey. We shot this in like an hour’s north so we were going on location basically and it was snowing, it was a blizzard. At first they were thinking, ‘we gotta wait until this is over and until it clears up’, and then they were like ‘hey, wait a second, this is kind of a blessing’. You know, we’re trying to film a story about two fish out of water and well ... This really makes some fish out of water because it’s like an alien environment so kinda really helped; being under-dressed in this really cold weather. That was a really fun episode I have to say.

DIM: And that was a Steve Buscemi-directed episode.

MI: Steve was great, he just really understands acting. Directors, especially TV directors, often come from different backgrounds. Sometimes they come from being cinematographers, sometimes they’ll come from being producers, sometimes they’ll come from being writers, but Steve was a great director. He really knows the process and really knows how to communicate those ideas, and I love working with him. I was actually in his first film that he directed.

DIM: Trees Lounge (1996) – that’s a great under-seen movie. I think it’s out of print sadly. I really wish he made more movies.

MI: Yeah, me too. Actually, David Chase hired Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken, Christopher Walken’s wife, to cast The Sopranos because he had seen Trees Lounge and had loved the casting so much.

DIM: Watching the series back recently I remembered just how wild the surreal aspects of the show were. For example Tony’s dreams or your nightmares in the first season. The Test Dream [season five, episode 11] was so audacious and groundbreaking with a 20-minute dream sequence. This was such a bold move.

MI: That’s the thing – the show did have good writers and directors. I think that’s why the show is so exceptional. With the podcast we’re re-watching all the episodes and I’m seeing things that I’ve never seen, like certain thematic elements, and metaphorical stuff; allegorical and symbolic themes that are repeated ... It’s very interesting.

DIM: Do you have any insight into why it’s had such a resurgence recently? Even to the point where there’s a fantastic Instagram account called @sopranosstyle, which is based on the fashion in the show.

MI: I’ve seen the accounts too, I think streaming is responsible for the renewed interest. There was no streaming when the show came out. Like with HBO it was Sunday night at nine o’clock, week after week, and then you’d wait nine months for the next season. I think part of it is the accessibility; young people can stream it and binge it and really immerse themselves [in it]. There’s a certain colourful, entertaining aspect to this world. There’s something about the sense of humour and there’s something about the kind of familiar loyalty to the show and characters.

DIM: What made you start the podcast?

MI: One of the reasons why we decided to do the podcast was because there’s a whole new generation of young people who are becoming rabid, obsessed fans of The Sopranos ... Like teenagers and people in their twenties and thirties which we never could have foreseen or predicted. Also, the show appeals to a very broad audience. It has its intellectual, cinematic, psychological appeal. It has a very action, gangster movie, B-movie appeal to it as well. To be honest, I never would have thought a young generation of people would just turn on to the show. It’s very surprising, very pleasant. It makes me very happy.

DIM: And finally how was life after The SopranosAfter those six seasons ... Personally and from an acting perspective?

MI: Well The Sopranos is a very big experience in my life on a lot of levels: on a professional level and on a personal level, on a life level. But during The Sopranos there was a lot of downtime and I did independent movies. I did some Hollywood movies. I built and opened a theatre, I produced and directed new work at the theatre and that’s always been my life. I always have lots of different things going on ... so life after is kinda the same in a way, you’re just doing different things ... I’m always one who generates a lot of my own work, you know, I don’t just sit around and wait for Hollywood to fucking call me and give me a job. I’ve always done that, and I started producing theatre in my early twenties, and a lot of my work has been on the independent side in theatre and film, and now in podcasting. In some ways I just feel like the path keeps going, the journey continues.

Talking Sopranos is available on Apple Podcasts & Spotify and can be streamed here. Buy a copy of Michael Imperioli’s book here.