James Gandolfini dies: A last interview with Tony Soprano
By By Nicole Sperling
James Gandolfini described himself as a “300-lb. Woody Allen," when I met him at the end of November, just about six months before he passed away at 51 from a heart attack while on vacation in Italy.
Appearing a lot more vulnerable than his heft would convey, Gandolfini didn’t use the world "neurotic" when we huddled in the empty bar at the Roxy to talk about his most recent collaboration with "Sopranos" creator David Chase, the indie film “Not Fade Away.” But he did say he had “an active mind” and that it was often “exhausting.”
That mind seemed to be filled with a slew of contradictions. He certainly loved his job and felt fortunate to be able to act for a living, especially in parts he found funny — as the frustrated husband in the play “God of Carnage,” the sharp-tongued U.S. general in Armando Iannucci’s satirical “In the Loop,” or his trademark character of conflicted Mafia kingpin Tony Soprano, a part he says he initially took because it made him laugh.
But Gandolfini would catch himself devolving into actor-speak, whether it was detailing a complex scene or explaining his inspiration, and cut himself off, as if he felt a little ashamed by Hollywood pretensions. “This isn’t very interesting,” he said, stopping his story mid-sentence. “There’s no reason to put that in there. It’s just actor-y [nonsense].”
While I was, of course, surprised to find Gandolfini much sweeter and kinder than his infamous mob-boss character, what was most intriguing about this actor with those incredibly sad eyes was the ambivalence he felt toward his impressive career.
His truth-meter always seemed to be on high alert, which probably accounted for why he was always good in every role he played — and how utterly exhausted he found so many aspects of his profession.
Hollywood and its celebration of grown men playing dress-up didn’t align with his humble background, a childhood in New Jersey raised by a dutiful father, a WWII vet who won a purple heart but never talked about his heroics until the end of his life. Gandolfini said he grew up around people who mostly did what they were supposed to do, which clearly in his mind didn’t mean becoming an actor.
But over the years, especially since “The Sopranos” went off the air in 2007, the actor made peace with the requirements of the job.
One anecdote he told in full is an exchange he had with Brad Pitt, with whom he starred in 2001’s “The Mexican” and 2012's "Killing Them Softly."
“People say ‘Oh we’re lucky.’ Actually, I think I said it once to Brad Pitt, because I had nothing else to say,” said Gandolfini, that heavy breath audible between his words. “And he said, ‘Oh, come on. You’ve worked for it.’ And I have. I worked my [butt] off. I don’t know anyone who’s done really well and is lazy.”
Gandolfini was still working. He was no longer willing to travel far for a part, but he was still finding colorful characters, whether as a romantic lead in Nicole Holofcener’s new film "Enough Said" or as a washed-up criminal opposite Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace in the Dennis Lehane crime drama “Animal Rescue.” They were both roles he found funny and interesting, claiming “humor is a big thing for me now.”
Upon hearing yesterday's news, I felt particularly sad. The world saw a complex actor, which he was, but after interviewing him I’d realized just how much empathy he had too.
In recent years Gandolfini had been living in Los Angeles with his second wife, his 2-year-old daughter and a 13-year old son from his first marriage. At the end of the conversation he started to sound like a typical father. Ironically, while he played one of the most violent characters in the history of television, he seemed concerned about the brutality in modern entertainment. He defended “The Sopranos” yet criticized the most recent superhero movies:
“There is some really violent [stuff] in there, and 9- and 10-year-olds go to these things," he said, adding, “There are so many ways now to view things. It’s literally almost impossible to keep children away from watching certain things.”
Then his truth-meter went off. “It’s difficult and blah, blah, blah. ... They are going to be fine.
"I don’t know how great our generation has done," he said, more reflective. "We seem to have destroyed the planet and [messed] up a lot of [stuff] in the last 30 to 40 years. Maybe they’ll do better.”
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