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'Sopranos' Star Michael Imperioli On 'Oldboy' And The Best Thing About James Gandolfini

11/22/2013 01:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 23, 2013
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The physical features on Michael Imperioli's face change when his former co-star James Gandolfini is brought up. There's certainly no sense that Imperioli doesn't want to talk about Gandolfini -- in fact, he mentioned Gandolfini's name first -- but it's obvious that speaking about the late actor is hard for former friends and colleagues.

I was wary to discuss "The Sopranos" at all with Imperioli (who, of course, played mobster Christopher Moltisanti on David Chase's acclaimed show) out of fear that since the subject comes up so many times in his day-to-day life he may just be over it by now. This is not the case. Imperioli's eyes light up as he recounts tale after tale -- including an admission that he wasn't a huge fan of the first script.

Imperioli, who I met at his lower Manhattan hotel room, is now co-starring in Spike Lee's "Oldboy." He plays Chucky, a bar owner who helps his childhood friend, Joe (Josh Brolin), on a mysterious quest to find out who has imprisoned Joe for the last 20 years. The results are ... well, not really what you would expect (unless you've seen the Korean film on which "Oldboy" is based).

Did you audition for "Oldboy," or was the role offered?
Spike called me -- I had worked for him a bunch of times. And he called out of the blue and had assumed that I had already gotten the offer from my agent, which I didn't. So he called and said, "I'm really psyched we're working together again." And I'm like, "What? What are we doing?" He's like "Oldboy! You're playing Josh Brolin's best friend." I said, "Spike, I don't know what you're talking about."

It's interesting when Spike Lee makes a kind of movie that isn't what he is most known for doing.
Yeah, he is a filmmaker. Because when he started out, he was identified with being a "black filmmaker." He was telling these stories and they were mostly black characters. They weren't necessarily, like, "She's Gotta Have It," could be any race, it doesn't matter. Because he really was at the forefront of a new kind of generation of cinema where a lot more African Americans were going to be making films. Originally, they started calling him "the black Woody Allen," and he probably hated that title. But, that's only a part of who he is ... he's a lot of things and over the years, we've seen that his filmmaking and his art encompasses all of those things.

Did you watch the original movie?
No. This one I haven't seen, either. I'm going to see it at the screening tonight here in New York, then I will see the original.

There's something I've always wondered. On "The Sopranos" you were playing younger...
Yeah, my character was younger than me.

After "The Sopranos" ended, did that ever affect you for other roles? That people assumed you were younger?
I think people always thought I was more of a Guido than I am. That's more the issue.

They knew you were acting, right?
Not necessarily. They kind of thought it was more like "Jersey Shore" when it came out.

What?
I'm not kidding! I think a lot of people thought that we were not necessarily even actors -- that they had found us in New Jersey and put us on television. I think a lot of people had that perception.

Not after it had been on for awhile, right?
No, no. At the beginning.

That's insane.
A lot of people are insane [laughs]. And then they'd meet me and they would be kind of disappointed that they weren't meeting Christopher.

That's fascinating.
Sad but true.

Like a lot of people, I recently watched all of "The Sopranos" again. It was better than I even remembered it was.
Obviously David Chase's vision of the whole thing, it's beyond brilliant -- and really, really creative and amazing. But, in addition to that, I think the fact that it's really funny. Like really. Like pee in your pants funny. And in an absurd, sometimes even slapstick way, which is great. But, there's this kind of magic that happened with "The Sopranos" because a lot of the actors, for me, I knew and had worked with most of those people.

Two of the actors, John Ventimiglia and Sharon Angela -- Johnny played Artie and Sharon played Rosalie Aprile -- I was in acting school with them when I was a teenager. I had done movies with Vinnie Pastore and Tony Sirico, and I know Edie Falco, we had done some stuff together. So, in some sense, it was kind of like this generation of New York actors having this moment to do it together, like as a band. Rather than something that was cast in Hollywood and you got a bunch of good actors and made a good TV show. So, there was that other added element of magic that I think happened.

You've been on television shows since then. Can you tell when that magic is missing?
When I read the pilot of "The Sopranos," I wasn't terribly blown away by it. I'll be honest with you.

Really?
Number one, I needed a job at the time. Number two, there really wasn't big shows on cable. Yeah, I thought it was a good character, it was kind of fun, but I wasn't so clear on the tone of the show. I thought it was more of a spoof of the mob. So, if you just read the pilot, you don't really get a sense of how deep he was going to go, David Chase. I knew it was good, but it wasn't something like, "I have to do this," or that I was blown away by it.

But then I saw some of the people who were going to do it -- like Edie and Lorraine [Bracco] and Vinnie and Tony. I didn't really know Jim [Gandolfini], I didn't know his work. But, when I saw those actors -- especially Edie, who was always one of my favorites and who I had a lot of respect for for a long time -- I was like, "okay, that's cool." But it wasn't until we started shooting the first season when the other scripts started to come in -- when you saw, "Oh, wow." The scripts kept getting better. So, it wasn't until we started seeing those scripts.

You wrote a few episodes. How did that come about?
I wrote a spec script after the first season, because I had really fallen in love with the show. Particularly with all of the characters. I wanted to get into the minds of the other characters. So, I wrote a spec script between the first and second season and gave it to David. And during that time, also, "Summer of Sam" came out -- I was one of the writers there -- and David saw that. So, between those two things...

He's famously tough on his writers. Was he as tough on you, even though you were in the cast?
Yeah, he was very tough -- tough on everybody. But, not in a bad way -- in a very good way. And I think the biggest thing I learned from that guy was the detail. Because, as a writer, his attention to detail and specifics was incredible. Nothing was ever generic; nothing was ever taken for granted. If ever a delivery boy shows up at the door with a pizza, it was always like, "A Pakistani guy with a Brazil soccer jersey who has a limp shows up with a pizza" -- and the guy has no lines! Everything was like that. Always.

I just interviewed Alan Taylor for "Thor: The Dark World" about of all the death scenes he's directed...
Alan Taylor directed "Thor"?

"The Dark World," yes. You didn't know that?
No. I had no idea. That's pretty cool.

But Christopher was his favorite death scene.
You know, when I was 17 or 18, I worked on an NYU film and he did the sound on it. And when he came on "The Sopranos," I recognized his face. I was like, "You went to NYU, did you do this?" He's like, "Yeah, I was the sound guy." It's so weird.

I don't have a question, but I just want to say that I met James Gandolfini randomly at a bar one night and he was nice to me when he didn't have to be and I never forgot that.
Yeah, he was that kind of guy. You know, I think the thing with Jim was, my mom called and said, "everyone is calling me," after Jim died. I said, "Why is everyone calling you?" She goes, "Because everyone feels like they knew him." When someone like Michael Jackson dies, this huge mega-star that people are mad about, he always seemed like they worshiped him from afar. He was on this pedestal. Whereas with Jim, I think they all felt like he was one of them.

And he was a big part of this city. He was just out and about everywhere.
Another friend of mine who is an actor who lives in Tribeca said there was a big snowstorm and he looks out his window and he saw Jim shoveling some woman's car out of the snow. And he said, "I feel kind of safe knowing that Jim Gandolfini lives in the neighborhood." And I understood what he means, because you would see him out and about. He's not someone who traveled with bodyguards in limousines.

Have you seen "Enough Said"? It's very touching.
No, I don't know if I'm going to see that. It's tough. I mean, I've seen some clips from it and it seemed like more than anything, that's closer to who he was than anything else I've seen him in.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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