Before the Sopranos Prequel Airs, Michael Imperioli, a.k.a. Christofa, Speaks About What Inspires Him
The Sopranos' prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on October 1. The much-anticipated film is part of a larger Sopranos revival that includes Talking Sopranos, the self-proclaimed "definitive rewatch podcast," hosted by Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, who played Christopher Moltisanti and Bobby Bacala, respectively. The idea for the podcast came up in 2019, around the show's 20th anniversary, when Imperioli and Schirripa saw the many Sopranos fan pages and meme accounts that had emerged over the years.
The two launched Talking Sopranos during the pandemic to appease fans on Instagram, many of whom first joined the series during the quarantine. The duo recorded the series episode by episode and, according to Imperioli, interviewed "almost everyone involved in the show": Executive Producer David Chase, actor-musician-consigliere Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Manfred Dante) and the beloved Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano). The upcoming book by Schirripa and Imperioli, Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of the Sopranos (out November 2), continues to fuel this new wave of soprano enthusiasts.
In the upcoming prequel out this weekend, series creator David Chase adds new chapters that cover the characters' past lives. It's Newark in the late 60s (1967 and 1971 in particular) where the younger versions of faces fans know well - Pussy, Uncle June, Paulie Walnuts, Silvio Dante - are still gallant with their girlfriends and pow-wow in somber back rooms are. Rival gangsters in striped bell-bottoms test the apparent invincibility of the DiMeo criminal family. We also meet new characters, like Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola), who was only alluded to in the original series. Through Nivola's portrayal, we understand Dickie's profound influence on Tony Soprano, his nephew, and Christopher, his son. In typical David Chase fashion, he inscribes the fate and meaning of every detail; “Many saints” means moltisanti in Italian.
Although Michael Imperioli, the actor who played the most popular fan figure who became known affectionately as Christofa, does not appear in Many Saints, it is his haunted voice that tells the film as an eerily omniscient scene-setter. A few weeks before the premiere of Many Saints, Imperioli over lunch in Manhattan's Upper West Side discussed the upcoming premiere, his band's new single, and why he was introducing Lou Reed in the novel he wrote for his son.
Her character, Christopher Moltisanti, was born in 1969 and his father Dickie was killed when Chris was young. Dickie Moltisanti was in the foreground for both Chris and Tony. What did you learn about Christopher from this elaborated version of his father that the new film features?
Michael Imperioli: The main takeaway for me about the relationship between Christopher and the movie is that Dickie, as the current father, even though he's a gangster, could really have been of help to Christopher. Dickie had some noble qualities, and if Christopher was raised by someone like him, who knows? Perhaps he would have avoided the pitfalls of the mob, and perhaps his psychology would have been something other than addictive and compulsive.
Vincent Pastore; James Gandolfini; Tony Sirico; Steve Van Zandt; Michael Imperioli
Left to right: The actors Tony Sirico, Steven Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli and Vincent Pastore in The Sopranos
In the original series, Dr. Melfi (Tony's psychiatrist, played by Lorraine Bracco), the profound influence that parenting figures had on Tony. How do you think life without his father shaped Christopher?
I think Christopher had a big hole in his psyche as he grew up without a strong male role model. Though Tony stepped in, he wasn't Chris's father, and his love only went so far. He didn't treat Chris like his own son, and although Chris looked at him like that, he resented the limit to love.
You started writing a coming-of-age novel in 2013 to get in touch with your eldest son Vadim, who was then 16 years old. The Perfume Burned His Eyes reads like Sailnger in 1976. The story tells of 17-year-old Matthew how he meets the seductive dark side of Manhattan through the eyes of an unexpected friend, Lou Reed, and a love interest, Veronica, a city girl grew up quickly.
It started as a coming-of-age story. Lou died about three months after I started writing. And it hit me in many ways, for example as a friend, knowing him as an artist, as a New Yorker, as someone who had admired him so much as a fan. It hit hard. The idea of just having him in the story somehow popped up. But it wasn't originally.
Towards the end of the book there is a scene in which Matthew is writing the lyrics of Lou Reed's "The Blue Mask" on his body. He says, "I became the song." Why "The Blue Mask"?
“The Blue Mask” is one of my favorite songs from him. One night I went to him and got to know him a bit backstage. That night he played this song. I didn't expect to hear it, but I heard it a lot. The song has always touched me. The lyrics are so powerful. For me, “The Blue Mask” embodies and illustrates who he was as a lyricist and musician. Robert Quine is one of my favorite guitarists so the fact that he's on this track means a lot.
The idea of this boy looking at these lyrics which are very ... BDSM, hardcore, disturbing, violent lyrics. This young kid takes that in and connects her with this guy, Reed, with whom he had an emotional connection. That is much. The song refers to Matthew's state of mind at that time, what it does to his state of mind where it takes him. I thought that just made sense.
A strong nostalgia for the New York punk scene of the past comes through - especially the 60s / 70s, which are also the time of the prequel.
I grew up out of town. If you take the train north 25 minutes, you'll end up in my old bedroom. When I was 17, I spent most of my time in Manhattan. I wanted to go to Columbia with my best friend and I applied the first year they were co-educational but I couldn't get in. The next choice was SUNY Albany. The night before I was supposed to move in, I told my parents that it was not for me. I wanted to go to drama school. Instead of college, I took acting classes. Music and movies have always drawn me to New York in the late 60s and 70s. And in '83 there was still this feeling here. It was a very fruitful time.
Cast from The Many Saints of Newark, including (left to right) Corey Stoll, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Michael Gandolfini (plays a young Tony Soprano), Gabriella Piazza and Alessandro Nivola
You recently performed the song "Heroin" by The Velvet Underground from 1967 in the Mercury Lounge with your band ZOPA. They are still singing in this intergenerational way for this era. They also listed a number of originals. A lot of people don't know you're in a band, but it seems that music is just as important in your life as acting.
My band mates Elijah Amitin and Olmo Tighe and I recorded our first album La Dolce Vita almost eight years ago and have not played any shows since then. I got a lot of interest in my music through Instagram, so we thought, why don't we just release our first album? We released it on Bandcamp last summer. That led to our show at the Mercury Shows and some upcoming gigs in Jersey and Seattle. These are our first live shows in almost eight years. We have some new things. Yesterday we recorded a new single with producer Jon Agnello (Sonic Youth, Patti Smith, Dinosaur Jr.).
In your book, you and Steve joke about the ego. "I have an ego, but I am not vain," you say. Have you thought about this idea of the ego in your art?
I practice Buddhism, which is about disassembling the ego. The book I am reading right now is Cynicism and Magic by Chögyam Trungpa. He is talking about the ego. What I learned through Buddhism is that one can relate to the ego as something separate. The ego, when viewed healthily, can be about self-confidence. I have dedicated my life to being an artist, be it writing or music. I've done all of these things from the start. It only became public later.
Every time I get to the set on the first day, I still feel like I don't know what I'm doing. I was just talking to another actor about it and I was like, "It's really, really horrible to think you've been doing this professionally for 35 years and feel like you can't." But then there is something in me that says, No, I did that. It's like remembering that you have a right to do so.
A scene from The Many Saints of Newark
Photo: Courtesy of © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
How about as a musician?
It took a lot longer with the band. When we started in 2006, we played a lot of shows for seven years. Hundreds of shows - wherever they made us play, we played. We were new and found what we were doing. When we finally started playing again this year, I felt good about myself. We spend a lot of time together and there is something special about the three of us.
In the fourth season of Sopranos, you wrote the episode "Christopher," which relates to the show's bigger existential questions, how we justify our actions and where we draw the line. Does this have anything to do with Buddhism?
You have to have ethics. I wrote that before I studied Buddhism. But related to that, when they passed the [six-week abortion ban] in Texas, I posted something indicating that I am in favor of the election. Many people call me a hypocrite because I am a Buddhist. They think Buddha was not up to the election. It's not like Catholicism, where there's a clear stance. There is no clear Buddhist stance on abortion. It's not about telling people how to behave. Buddhism is about your individual teacher and mind. Buddhism is not about telling people how to behave. It's an individual way. I post a lot about gun control. And people say, "You glorified violence and gangs." I think if you look at The Sopranos and you think what they're doing is kind of cool, then you have bigger problems.
This interview has been edited and shortened for the sake of clarity.
Originally published in Vogue
In this article:
American actor and producer
American film and television actor
Steven Van Zandt
American screenwriter, director, and producer
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