Volatile, vicious and violent: Gandolfini was Soprano

Actor James Gandolfini.
Actor James Gandolfini.

Ever since The Sopranos made its debut in 1999, turning Tony (anxiety-prone dad, New Jersey mobster, suburban seeker of meaning) into one of the most recognisable figures in popular culture, the character's frustration and anger had often been indistinguishable from those qualities in James Gandolfini, the actor who brought them to life.

The role was a punishing one, requiring not only vast amounts of nightly memorisation and long days under hot lights, but also a daily descent into Tony's psyche - at the best of times a worrisome place to dwell; at the worst, ugly, violent, and sociopathic. Some actors are capable of plumbing such depths without getting in over their heads.

Not so Gandolfini, for whom playing Tony Soprano would always require to some extent being Tony Soprano. Crew members grew accustomed to hearing grunts and curses coming from his trailer as he worked up to the emotional pitch of a scene by, say, destroying a radio.

An intelligent and intuitive actor, Gandolfini understood this dynamic and sometimes used it to his advantage; the heavy bathrobe that became Tony's signature, transforming him into a kind of domesticated bear, was murder under the lights in summer, but Gandolfini insisted on wearing it between takes. If he struggled to remember lines, he berated himself in disgust, cursing and smacking the back of his head.

It did not help that the naturally shy Gandolfini was suddenly one of the most recognisable men in America. At 6ft tall and upward of 18st, he had no place to hide.
By the winter of 2002, Gandolfini regularly refused to work. He would claim to be sick, or simply not show up. The next day, he would feel so wretched about his behaviour and the massive logistic disruptions it had caused that he would treat cast and crew to extravagant gifts. 'All of a sudden there'd be a sushi chef at lunch,' one member of the crew recalls.

It came to be understood by all as the trade-off for getting the remarkably intense, fully inhabited Tony Soprano that Gandolfini offered.

In a scene in the series pilot, Soprano's young protege Christopher is complaining about not receiving enough credit for a job. In the script, Tony gives him a quick slap, but instead, according to the show's creator David Chase: 'Jim f****** went nuts - picked him up and grabbed him by the neck and just about throttled him. I thought, "Wow. Right! That's exactly right!" '

This is an edited extract from Difficult Men: From The Sopranos And The Wire To Mad Men And Breaking Bad, by Brett Martin, published by Faber & Faber Ltd. Full excerpt in the July issue of GQ US.

- Mail On Sunday

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