“I Can Do This”: Michael Gandolfini Tells Jonah Hill How He Became Tony Soprano
Since losing his father at the age of 14, Michael Gandolfini had been unable to watch The Sopranos. But when it came time to play a young Tony Soprano in the HBO drama’s prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, the now–22–year-old actor had no choice but to binge the show that made his dad a larger-than-life star. At first, it was a burden. Though eventually, as he tells his friend Jonah Hill, it became a gift.
JONAH HILL: Hey buddy.
MICHAEL GANDOLFINI: How are you, brother?
HILL: I’m honored to be here. I have a deep amount of personal love for you. You’re what I like to call a superhero because you’re so young, but you think about life in a way that I wasn’t able to do at your age. Now that you’re going through this, I wanted to be helpful in any way that I could. It’s a scary, weird process, and this is a really good way for you to talk about how insane this is going to be, with someone who loves and wants the best for you.
GANDOLFINI: I feel like I’m able to do good work because I have friends like you.
HILL: I got to see the movie early. I brought my dad and my best friend who are huge Sopranos fans, so I was like, “Guys, I got the hookup.” The movie’s great. It’s like the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Sopranos fans. But it’s funny because when we met, you hadn’t seen The Sopranos.
GANDOLFINI: Yeah. We met on Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen.
HILL: We were feeding the homeless. Everyone who’s reading should know that Michael and I are good people. I didn’t know anything about you but was like, “I love this fucking guy. He’s so sweet, he’s showing up on a day like today to do good shit. That’s my kind of dude.”
GANDOLFINI: When we met, I was in the thick of watching it for the first time, reading mob books, and going to Newark. There was a heaviness when I started watching. I was like, “I cannot fucking watch this in my house alone, it’s too much.” It’s funny, because when it was on, so many people had Sopranos parties, and I did that. We’d invite whoever, order dinner, and watch a season in a day. It was just nice to have someone there. I read this great book called For the Sins of My Father, which is by Roy DeMeo’s son. This book is fucking crazy, shit like discovering his dad was in the mob, and his dad going on the lam and him finding masks and guns. Long story short, when I met you was right around when I was starting to sink my teeth into that.
HILL: I’ve had intense experiences with moviemaking that were reflecting real life, but I can’t imagine what it was like for you. I think your performance is the most beautiful thing in that film. I was stunned by it. My dad had no idea of the relationship, and he was like, “Holy shit, the guy who played Tony was incredible.” It was amazing to see it through his eyes, because he didn’t have the context.
GANDOLFINI: For me, the emotional part was watching the show for the first time and being so proud of my dad and so shocked at how good the show was. Even when I watch it now, it feels like spending time with my dad. It’s a gift that a lot of people don’t have with their lost loved ones. It’s also frustrating because you’re so close to getting him back, but there’s a separation because it’s not him. But once I had that emotional vomit and started to get closer with J.B. [Jon Bernthal] and Vera [Farmiga] and Alessandro [Nivola] and really lean on them, it became fun. I had to let go of, “How am I going to make my dad proud?” and, “How am I going to play my dad?” and focus on, “How am I going to look at this as an actor?” and, “How am I going to be a professional on set?” Those are much more tangible goals.
HILL: The prep seems heavier than the shoot. Because the prep is more solitary and coming to terms with it before you actually have to go and execute it. You didn’t watch the show when it was on. Was that a choice you made with your family?
GANDOLFINI: I was the exact age of The Sopranos. I was born during the first season and it wrapped when I was 8 or 9. I was on set but never really saw my dad act. He did not want me to see Tony Soprano or know Tony Soprano. When he passed and I started to get older, there was a double feeling of, “I will watch it one day, but when do I want to put myself through it?” And also the natural rejection of a teenager, of being like, “I’m my own person.”
HILL: Did you know David Chase growing up?
GANDOLFINI: He was somebody that I’d grown up with, but he was just my dad’s friend. When I moved back to New York from L.A., I got lunch with David and his wife, Denise. I hadn’t seen him since my dad passed, and that was probably a year and a half before the world knew that this movie was even going to be a thing.
HILL: So you reconnected, and maybe it’s somewhere in his mind. How did you get the information that they were considering you?
GANDOLFINI: I saw on Deadline that the movie got announced, and I was like, “Great, cool.” I still hadn’t seen the show. My manager called me and said, “They want you to audition,” and I said no. It was really terrifying. I didn’t know anything about The Sopranos and was nervous about the nepotism thing. But my manager told me I was not in a place where I could turn down auditions, and that’s when I started watching the show. The first season was the hardest. On top of watching my dad for the first time, I had anxiety about going into an audition room. I auditioned three times, I think.
HILL: This is not a comparison in any way, but the only thing that could come close to this for me, without the emotional context, was The Wolf of Wall Street audition process, which was two or three months long. I remember them being like, “It’s going well, but you gotta come back.” Tell me yes or tell me no.
GANDOLFINI: It’s that weird thing, where you have to keep a character close to you, but you know it’s still not yours. How much do you invest? Because if I get a no and I give it my all, it’s heartbreaking.
HILL: But if you didn’t get it, there would have been a reason.
GANDOLFINI: That’s true. I told my mom about it, but no one else. The whole thing was very secretive. It’s mobesque, knowing that this cultural thing might happen and telling no one.
HILL: What was your mom’s energy towards it?
GANDOLFINI: Supportive. I got so sick. I had the worst diarrhea, there’s no other way to say it. My mom was like, “How are you going to do this movie if the audition process is this taxing?” Watching the show for the first time felt like a withdrawal period, just sweating out the nerves. Once they were out, it went from a burden to a gift. Probably the first time I went, “I can do this,” was during the last audition. Cold reads are so weird. You’ve done no prep, but I remember looking at it and being like, “I totally know how to do this. I know exactly how Tony would react, how Tony thinks.”
HILL: I’m kind of savage in this way, and I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I can love the person and really not respond to their work. But your performance is stunning and it’s not based on the emotional connection to it being you. All bullshit aside, you really threw it down and it’s undeniably one of the great first movie performances for an actor, where you’re like, “Who the fuck is that guy?” What was it like when the trailer came out?
GANDOLFINI: It felt like it was everywhere, and it was everywhere so fast. It was like, “Whoa, this is going to be really big.” It was exciting and scary all at the same time. It’s one of those weird experiences where you’re like, “I guess I’m an actor now.”
HILL: There’s a point in making anything where it becomes not yours, and this one must be harder for the reasons we’re talking about. As I get older, what I try to do is once I lock something, as a director or an actor, is to never think about it again. But this is your first time, so you should enjoy it.
GANDOLFINI: It’s about staying positive. My mom does this thing, like, “What are three things you’re grateful for today?” And every day I’m like, “Mom, leave me alone.” But recently it’s been so good.
HILL: I got my gratitude list right here, and it’s ultimately what’s right in front of you. You could become obsessive about looking at what people say or what they think and I don’t think there’s value in that.
GANDOLFINI: It’s less that and more like, I’m recognized on the street now, which is like, “What the fuck?” I had been around fame more than normal people, but my dad and my mom kept me so protected, so while I had a privileged upbringing, I still felt like a kid. I thought I had four more months of being fine. The thing is, we shot this in 2019, so I started when I was 19 years old. I’m 22 now.
HILL: Dude, I forget that you’re so much younger than me. Have you thought about what you want to do next? I hated it when it was my first movie and people were like, “What do you want to do next?” You’re like, “I don’t fucking know. Whatever is offered to me, whatever the fuck they want me to do.”
GANDOLFINI: I’m waiting for the right opportunity. It’s the people who matter and who teach me things. Great directors, great actors, great writers, any of those things, I’m there. I won’t feel disappointed in a performance, as long as I learned something. I’d say the hardest part of shooting Saints was playing younger. I feel mature and have a lot of older friends and I relate more to older characters. So the hardest parts were reacting in such big or violent ways. I would do it, and Alan would say, “He’s 17. He’s not there yet. We’ll get there, but let’s pull it back.” I find it much harder to play younger characters, for sure.
HILL: I was 21 or 22 when I did Superbad, and I looked young, so I was stuck in that zone for a while. You just take the best shit that’s in front of you and learn the most and eventually you get old like me. Then you can play old people. I spent my twenties playing imaginary chess about what I should be doing, when ultimately I made the best decisions that were in front of me at that moment. You trip out over all this stuff, and then you just live your day-to-day life and it unfolds for you. You really have no say in it. But it’s going to be so exciting to watch your journey and be your friend along the way. I’m so proud of you.
GANDOLFINI: I can’t make my dad proud, but I can make you guys proud, and that means the world to me.
HILL: He would have been super fucking proud, and he is, for sure.
Grooming: Kumi Craig using R+CO at The Wall Group.
Fashion Assistant: Sean Nguyen.
Special Thanks: 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge.