(The Many Saints Of Newark opens this Friday in theaters and will be available on HBO Max.)
Prequels can be tricky things.
The stories they tell will almost have a certain predetermined ending that butts up somewhat to the pre-existing TV series or film franchise that they are a part of. That often times can lead to a lack of tension or suspense over the proceedings.
The Many Saints Of Newark manages to thread the prequel needle rather neatly, by focusing on a character often mentioned, but never seen as he had been long dead, on the gangster drama The Sopranos – Dickie Moltisanti. Dickie served as a mentor to a young Tony Soprano and it is the relationship that the two share which is at the heart of the new film.
Siting down with a round table of journalists a few weeks before the release of the film, Alessandro Nivola, who plays Dickie in the film, talked about what it was like to prepare to play a character that Sopranos fans knew the name of, but very little else.
“David [Chase, creator of The Sopranos and the co-writer of Many Saints] said to me when we started filming, ‘Don’t listen to anything anyone in the series says about your character, because they’re all liars,'” recalled Nivola, with a laugh. “So I felt like that was really liberating that I had total freedom to invent the character from my own imagination and from the research and the process of preparing to play the role over a six month period.”
For Michael Gandolfini, also at the press round table, the preparation period was a bit more daunting, as he was playing a teen-aged Tony Soprano, the character at the heart of the Sopranos series who was portrayed by his father, the late Jame Gandolfini. At first, he was hesitant about even pursuing the role.
“Not only because of all this stigma with my dad and that I wanted to be my own person,” he explained. “But also, I knew nothing about the character. I knew nothing about him. So I’m auditioning and watching the show for the first time. It was one of the best parts, getting to fall in love with this show.”
Gandolfini stated that he had never really watched the show when it initially aired, but he watched and re-watched it several times during the audition and preparation process. During that time, he not only studied how his father physically held carried himself as Tony, but also what ultimately motivated and drove the character. “I mean, playing Tony Soprano is not a small feat. I wanted to make my dad proud. I wanted to make the fans proud. I wanted to make David proud. I wanted Alessandro proud.”
What intrigued Gandolfini about the role was getting to explore a side of his father’s character that was present, but not always at the fore
“David is such an incredible writer that it was on the page, so when I started reading the script, I started to really see, this is a completely different tone,” he explained. “I was surprised to see and really exhilarated that this wasn’t a gun wielding Tony. That in many ways that sensitivity and curiosity and nerdiness and goofiness [that Tony has] in the show was brought up to the forefront.
“I think in some ways it makes Tony a bit more of a tragic figure, which I was really interested in. This is going to be a completely different Tony yet, it’s the right version. You know, of course, an 11 year old isn’t going to be shooting up poker games. So it makes sense, but it’s not what you might expect.”
With his own father Johnny away in prison, the film finds the young Tony Soprano somewhat rudderless, in need of a father figure. Enter, Dickie Moltisanti, a mobster cohort of Tony’s father, who desperately wants a son – he and his wife are having trouble in that department – but doesn’t quite know how to be a father.
“It’s a tragedy of missed opportunities,” said Nivola. “What’s heartbreaking to me about it is that Dickey wanted a son so badly, but didn’t have one until late in life, really well into middle age. So he had this opportunity to,have a kind of surrogate son in Tony. And he really wants to be his father, but he also doesn’t really want to bear the responsibilities of a parent and would rather be his best friend. And you can’t have it both ways.
“That scene early on when he comes into the younger Tony’s bedroom to try and tell him to stop gambling at school is a perfect example, where he’s just sort of been tasked with having to kind of set this kid straight and put him on the right path and instead he just flails around hopelessly.”
And for Gandolfini, that relationship is a portion of the foundation that the older Tony Soprano’s character will be built from.
“I had always kind of seen a clear archetype triangle between [Tony’s mother] Livia, Johnny and Dickie,” he elaborated. “They’re all unable to reach their height in potential, but the three of them create the perfect mob boss. Tony gets his aggressiveness from Johnny. He gets his manipulation and business wits from Livia and Dickie sort of is the person that grows it all together.”