How the ‘Many Saints of Newark’ Stars Remade Key ‘Sopranos’ Roles

From its debut in 1999 to its blackout finale in 2007, “The Sopranos” set a seemingly unsurpassable benchmark for acting. The cast members of that HBO crime drama, leading players and supporting performers alike, became synonymous with the menacing mobsters and manipulative family members they portrayed. When it was all over, you couldn’t imagine anyone else playing those roles.

This posed a problem for the creators of “The Many Saints of Newark,” the cinematic prequel that explores the origins of “The Sopranos” during the 1960s and ’70s, and that enlists new actors to play younger versions of those indelible characters.

It also a presented a challenge for the actors in “The Many Saints of Newark” — some of whom were “Sopranos” fans and others who had never watched the series — and who had to walk a careful line between preserving what audiences already expected from their characters and putting their own stamps on the roles.

Vera Farmiga, who plays the film’s Livia Soprano, explained that their task was complicated by the typical time constraints of making a movie. We didn’t have the luxury that a series allows you — that indulgence to get to know your character and get multiple tries at them,” she said. “I could do the ‘Saturday Night Live’ version, but you have very little time to get it right. And what does right even mean?”

Here, five stars from “The Many Saints of Newark” discuss how they landed their roles and prepared to live up to the standards of “The Sopranos.”

Vera Farmiga

Role: Livia Soprano

Originated by: Nancy Marchand

Watched original run of “The Sopranos”? No

When Farmiga, a star of “Up in the Air” and the series “Bates Motel,” was approached to play the role of Tony Soprano’s controlling mother, Livia, she knew that it was significant — but only by proxy. “There were loads of giddy responses around me,” Farmiga said. “My husband was freaking out. My agents were freaking out.” Though she hadn’t seen the series when it first aired, she said, “I understood that it was a cultural phenomenon. I understood it came with a legacy.” Farmiga also found it meaningful that David Chase, the “Sopranos” creator and “Many Saints” co-screenwriter, did not require her to audition: “All he wanted to do is meet up at a really beautiful spot and eat together,” she said. “So we blasted through a couple bottles of white wine at dessert. We got loaded and jacked up on sugar.” For her performance, Farmiga studied the work of Marchand, who died in 2000, and requested a prosthetic nose to more closely resemble her. Farmiga also sought guidance from Chase, who based Livia on his own mother. But the screenwriter proved to be characteristically tight-lipped, as Farmiga recalled: “I would press David — let’s talk about your mother. ‘Nah, she just was.’ But why? Was she dissatisfied with maternity? She wanted a career? ‘Nope. She just was. That’s who my mother was.’” Eventually, Farmiga said she found her answers in the screenplay: “You know what? Just give me the words,” she said.

Corey Stoll

Role: Corrado “Uncle Junior” Soprano Jr.
Originated by: Dominic Chianese
Watched original run of “The Sopranos”? Yes

Stoll, the ubiquitous star of television (“Billions,” “House of Cards”) and film (“Ant-Man”), was a “Sopranos” devotee who watched the series to its conclusion, then binged it again with his wife, Nadia Bowers, when she was pregnant with their son and yet again in preparation for this film. But Stoll said he may have gained just as much from catching a serendipitous revival-house showing of “The Godfather Part II,” in which Chianese, then in his 40s, played the mobster Johnny Ola. As Stoll explained, “It was super-helpful to see that Dominic Chianese, kind of like me, was always a little bit older than his years. I’ve been playing old men since I was 11. It was good to see that I didn’t have to do back flips to make him a young man. Just being in my body and in my voice, that is different enough.” His key to Uncle Junior, Stoll said, was listening to Chianese’s rhythmic speech patterns: “He has this staccato — he can speak very quickly and ratatat — and then he also has this wistful, lyrical mode that he goes into.” For extra motivation, before a scene Stoll would utter an obscene phrase favored by Junior that can’t be fully reproduced here — the first two words are “your sister’s.” “Sometimes shouting it, sometimes whispering it,” Stoll said. “But there’s something about those three words that just brought me right into character.”

John Magaro

Role: Silvio Dante
Originated by: Steven Van Zandt
Watched original run of “The Sopranos”? Yes

Magaro (“First Cow”) became close with Chase when he starred in the writer’s 2012 directorial debut, “Not Fade Away.” As their friendship progressed, Chase shared a crucial piece of information: “David said that he was going to do a ‘Sopranos’ prequel,” recalled Magaro, who had no expectation he would be involved. “Then a couple of years passed and he and his producing partner Nicole Lambert, started mentioning, would you be willing to shave your head? Would you be willing to gain a lot of weight? It seemed like there was an idea of someone I could play in the film.” That turned out to be Silvio, created by Van Zandt, whom Magaro also knew from “Not Fade Away.” And there was plenty of source material that Magaro could study from the guitarist’s performances and interviews with the E Street Band: “There’s a confidence, there’s an ease to his language,” Magaro explained. “Even the way he carries his shoulders raised a bit from years of playing guitar. I kept an eye on that stuff and let it inform where I would go with the young Silvio.” The movie also confirms what some “Sopranos” viewers suspected about the older Silvio: that he is bald and wears a hairpiece. “To achieve that,” Magaro said, “I agreed to shave the horseshoe shape in my hair. For the ’60s version we would shave that every morning and make it look like a balding man. For the ’70s we would throw on a really crappy toupee.”

From left, Samson Moeakiola as Big Pussy, Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano and Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts.Credit…Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros.

Billy Magnussen

Role: Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri
Originated by: Tony Sirico
Watched original run of “The Sopranos”? No

Magnussen, a dashing star of films like “Aladdin,” “Into the Woods” and “No Time to Die” and TV’s “Made For Love” may not immediately strike you as a young Paulie Walnuts, but he was just flattered to be a part of “The Many Saints of Newark.” As he explained, “I had the opportunity to audition for a different role” — he did not say which one — “and so I did an audition that way.” Through exaggeratedly clenched teeth, he added, “I guess I didn’t get that role. But they came back and they were like, hey, what do you think about trying Paulie? Would you want to do that? Knowing the ‘Sopranos’ legacy, I would be honored. Because, yeah, I think it’s a stretch. But isn’t that what acting is about?” To get into his role, Magnussen used a prosthetic nose (“My nose isn’t that wide, is it?”) and watched Sirico’s speech patterns on the TV series: “I had noticed how he talked out of the side of his mouth. And then it’s just sitting there with it, over and over again, to where you don’t have to think about it.” Magnussen may have undertaken other efforts to get to know his predecessor, too: “I broke into his house,” he said. “I went through his trash. I’m sure I slept in his underwear.”

Samson Moeakiola

Role: Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero
Originated by: Vincent Pastore
Watched original run of “The Sopranos”? No

Moeakiola, who is appearing in his first Hollywood film, didn’t have the benefit of a full immersion in the “Sopranos” TV series (“My parents wouldn’t let me sit around to watch it as a 7-year-old,” he said) or even know quite what he was auditioning for when he tried out for what he was told was called “Untitled New Jersey Project.” But as he remembered, “on the breakdown you can see who’s directing and who’s producing. I saw Alan Taylor and then I saw David Chase, and I was like, oh, this is ‘The Sopranos.’” But once he landed the role, Moeakiola got a leg up from Pastore, who befriended him and helped him practice dialogue. “We were on the phone at first and he was like, ‘Let me hear you, you do it first,’” Moeakiola said. “Finally I was like, just record it, bro.” Moeakiola also visited an acting class that Pastore teaches, but had to maintain strict omertà about his involvement in the film. “He was like, this is my nephew — don’t bother him, he’s not even here,” Moeakiola said. “Some students were like, you know, they’re making a prequel to ‘The Sopranos,’ you should play Vinny. I’m like, ah, I’m not an actor.”

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