Michael Gandolfini and the Riddle of Tony Soprano

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.

As Gandolfini recalled recently, “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 said.

Gandolfini is the son of the actor James Gandolfini, who played the menacing but undeniably 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 soft-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 said. “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.

Gandolfini as a young Tony Soprano opposite Jon Bernthal as his father in “The Many Saints of Newark.”Credit…Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros.

With that decision comes 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 said. “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 said, “not only was it the feeling of my dad — it was like, Tony Soprano is a [expletive] hard character.”

On a bright morning in September, Gandolfini, wearing a stubbly beard and a denim shirt, was walking through the Tribeca neighborhood 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 8 or 9.

Though his father and mother, Marcy, divorced when Michael was 3, James remained a continuous presence in his life. Sometimes young Michael would tag along to neighborhood 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 said.

Despite the fame that his father enjoyed from “The Sopranos,” Michael said 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 here to study acting at New York University. The craft, he said, 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 was craving an answer,” he said. “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.”

At a preproduction dinner, the “Many Saints” director recalls, Gandolfini thanked everyone “for giving me a chance to say hello to my dad again and goodbye again.” Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

But in his first semester at Tisch School of the Arts, Gandolfini said, “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 said with a grin. “I find it fun.”)

Instead, Gandolfini transferred to N.Y.U.’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,” he said.

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, said 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 ’70s 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 said. “And we wanted to have a credible, believable, realistic member of La Cosa Nostra. And right there for the taking was Dickie Moltisanti.”

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 said. “He was up to no good, in certain cases, even as a 9-year-old. But then, what boys aren’t, except the ones you want to beat up?”

But as the filmmakers 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.

Father and son on a Jersey Shore family vacation in 2004.Credit…Brian Ach/Getty Images

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

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

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 hopes 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 onto,” he said.

As he watched his father play the character, Gandolfini realized 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 said, “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.”

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,” he said.

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 weekslong audition process, Gandolfini came away with the role and a new appreciation for his father. “He so was not Tony,” he said. “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?”

Gandolfini in “The Deuce,” which he booked the first year he was also studying at New York University.Credit…Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Once Gandolfini won the “Many Saints” part, he realized, “Maybe I could know how to play my dad, but I don’t know how to play Tony.”Credit…Warner Bros.

Alan Taylor, the director of “The Many Saints of Newark,” said he had some wariness about having Gandolfini try the role. “I’d never really seen him act,” Taylor said. “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,” said 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.

As Taylor recalled, “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 said, 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 said. “So that feeling had to exist without our needing to put it in words.”

Nivola said 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 said. “He was incredibly humble and told me, somewhat unnervingly, that he was relying on my expertise to guide him.”

What impressed him most about Gandolfini, Nivola said, “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 added, “You could say that kind of compartmentalization 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, said 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 said. “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 rigor of his work and how much he put into it.”

Despite their being from different generations, the 45-year-old Bernthal said 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 said. “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 said. “I get recognized from time to time and it gives me definite anxiety.” He said he still had 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.”

Gandolfini explained, “You can live your life in fear and I mostly do,” he said, 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 continued, “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 flashed a familiar smile and said, “If it’s not up to me, why not have a positive outlook?”

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