Call Him a Made Man

  • Here are the reasons, in case it's unclear, that certain actors get profiled in the national press: they're appearing in a TV series and/or a few movies bestowed upon the world simultaneously (our subject qualifies); they're so physically blessed they make John Kennedy Jr. look like Don Rickles (well, maybe not); they're just terrific at what they do (another check mark here). It helps too if there is anything in an actor's history that could be construed as extraordinary. And with James Gandolfini, as it turns out, there happens to be: he's a New York City actor who has never been in therapy, which is as rare a find as a professional figure skater with an aversion to sequins.

    What makes Gandolfini's distance from the universe of projection and transference even more compelling is that the character actor (featured recently in A Civil Action and now in 8mm) has come into fame as the star of hbo's sublime series The Sopranos, the story of a suburban mafioso's efforts to deal with an identity crisis. The show shares the premise of the current hit film Analyze This, but unlike that comedy The Sopranos has a rich life beyond the wackiness of its conceit. For help with his troubles, Gandolfini's Tony Soprano--overburdened Mob manager, conflicted husband, beleaguered son--attends sessions with Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Melfi in scenes that betray the exhaustiveness, risibility and discomfiture of the 50-min. experience in a way that movies and television almost never achieve.

    "An ex-girlfriend made me try therapy once," Gandolfini admits. "I didn't like it." Says Sopranos' creator David Chase: "James claimed to be having trouble with the therapy scenes. He didn't have anything to hang them on, but he did them brilliantly."

    A native of the New Jersey suburbs, Gandolfini, 37, was a latecomer to acting, but in the nine years since he committed himself to it, he has managed to deliver intensely layered performances that are devoid of the promiscuous emoting and, seemingly, of the cerebral prep work that can make more experienced actors' work--Al Pacino's in the '90s, say--less than what it should be. As Tony, Gandolfini is masterly at conveying the simmering rage beneath his character's humanity. He brings all the right sweaty fidgetiness to a man whose life demands that he take his daughter to a college interview and kill a Mob informant in the same afternoon.

    At one point, Chase recalls, Tony was supposed to be angry at his nephew-employee, and the scene called for the elder Soprano to give the younger a light slap. Gandolfini thought it would be truer to have Tony go for his throat. "That taught me a lot about my character," Chase reflects. "It helped keep me honest."

    Gandolfini discovered the stage after spending years as a Manhattan bouncer and nightclub manager. When a friend took him to an acting class in the late '80s, he was left so unsettled and challenged by a focusing exercise that involved threading a needle that he knew he had to return. "I'd also never been around actors before," says Gandolfini, "and I said to myself, 'These people are nuts; this is kind of interesting.'" After touring Scandinavia in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire ("I remember lots of old people falling asleep in dinner theaters," he says), Gandolfini immersed himself in Manhattan's downtown theater world and then started to land the kind of film roles--in True Romance, She's So Lovely--that eventually caught Chase's eye.

    The actor still possesses the self-effacement that comes with having once supported his craft by driving delivery trucks for Gimme Seltzer. "You go into these TV things always worrying about the kind of egos you're going to encounter," says Sopranos co-star Edie Falco, "but he just doesn't have one." 8mm director Joel Schumacher was equally impressed by the actor's lack of pretension and gift for capturing a character's telling moment or gesture. He recalls how Gandolfini, who plays a pornographer in the film, persuaded him to have a diary hidden in a toilet tank instead of in a silver chest. "Life had taught him that's where the stash is kept," says Schumacher. Bet Ed Norton wouldn't have known that.