Ray Liotta: James Gandolfini will be 'the proudest guy in Heaven' seeing son Michael play Tony Soprano (exclusive)
Watch: The people behind The Many Saints of Newark talk to Yahoo about the Sopranos' prequel
Gangster movie legend thinks James Gandolfini will be looking down with a smile on his face when he sees his son Michael's performance in The Many Saints of Newark.
“He really did a great job,” says Liotta (who appeared with the late actor in 2012's Killing Them Softly) of Gandolfini Jr's performance as young Tony Soprano in the Sopranos prequel movie.
Before Tony Soprano became the head of the New Jersey mob, his biggest problem in life was finishing high school, and in The Many Saints of Newark, that’s exactly where we find him.
Set in the late 60s, this long-awaited prequel movie to HBO’s game-changing hit The Sopranos sees a teenage Tony eager to start college and embrace whatever life might bring. However as fans of the show know, fate had different plans for this future crime family capo.
Written by series creator David Chase and directed by classic-episode helmer Alan Taylor, the movie — which hits cinemas this week — takes us back some 30 years before the events of the show. Here, we find a 17-year-old Soprano struggling to juggle school, friends and his overbearing mother Livia, played by Vera Farmiga doing a pitch-perfect take on the role Nancy Marchand made iconic years earlier.
Read more: Where are the cast of The Sopranos now?
Just like when we meet him on Dr Melfi’s therapy couch, life for this Don-in-waiting is full of grievances and contradictions. But don’t be conned by the movie’s marketing: this isn’t his story.
Instead, Chase introduces us to someone who loomed large throughout The Sopranos but was never actually seen. Played by Alessandro Nivola, Dickie Moltisanti is the father of Christopher Moltisanti, the fan-favourite character tragically brought to life by Michael Imperoli in Chase’s groundbreaking series.
While race riots cause havoc in his native Newark, Dickie’s forced to fight a string of internal and external battles. His father, Aldo ‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti, played by the unpredictable Ray Liotta, and Corey Stoll’s slightly-younger but just as accident-prone Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano, are making life tricky, and Leslie Odom Jr’s young upstart Harold is swiftly transitioning from friend to foe. It’s a narrative shift that gives The Many Saints of Newark a fresh and accessible lease of life. And according to Chase, it was the plan all along.
“Our primary intention was to make a good gangster movie; a respectable, earnest, no-f***ing-around gangster movie,” he tells Yahoo, hitting home the importance of ensuring the the story resonated for both The Sopranos mega-fans and newbies alike.
According to Taylor, the key was in Chase’s choice of main character: “Structurally, we had [something that worked] because Dickie Moltisanti would only exist in our movie, and he has a beginning, middle and end — so clearly it’s a stand alone story,” says the director.
“I thought of myself as a fan of the show and wanted to make the movie I wanted to see. I tried not to think too much about the distinction between the two.” Liotta was also fond of the movie’s universality: “The great thing David did was: you don’t have to know and [have seen] the series in order to appreciate the movie,” he says. “It stands on its own.”
While audiences will meet Dickie for the first time in theatres, they’ll already be familiar with one of the movie’s key supporting roles. Stepping into the shoes of his father James Gandolfini, the 22-year-old Michael Gandolfini makes a subtle-yet-unforgettable splash as young Tony.
Read more: The greatest ever Sopranos moments
Despite only having a handful of scenes, this new star packs every moment of available screen time with enough familiar mannerisms, charged glances and I’m-sure-I’ve-seen-that-before expressions to deliver a performance that’s as thoughtful as it is uncanny. It’s undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie, but for Gandolfini, joining the family business was no small thing.
Watch the trailer for The Many Saints of Newark
“My gut reaction was they asked me to audition and I said ‘I don’t want to, no’” he laughs, recalling the moment the offer was first put on the table.
“I thought, ‘I haven’t even seen the show, I don’t know if I can do it, I want to have my own career and be my own person, it comes with a lot of pressure…’ I was hesitant but then, I didn’t have the job,” he explains. Thankfully, his agent convinced him to consider it and a world of possibilities soon opened up. “I started auditioning and began to see the opportunities of playing such an incredibly complex and incredible character,” admits Gandolfini. “I started to really fall in love with this different Tony.”
Despite occasionally visiting the The Sopranos set as a kid, that his father — who passed away in 2013 — didn’t want him to see or know anything about the show’s main mobster. Did that make it easier or harder for him to tackle the role? “I think it made it easier,” he reasons.
“If I had known Tony or anything about him, I would have had too much influence or expectation but not knowing Tony at all allowed me to really get to know him like a historical figure. I got to meet him in the show,” he says, recalling binge-watch sessions after he’d bagged the role.
“I got to learn about his thinking, his opinions, the way he moves and holds his eyes, and his accent. I got to meet him like a new person, which was a real gift.”
Taylor, who had directed Gandolfini’s father in many of the show’s key episodes, praises the young actor’s ability to make the performance his own: “A lot of credit should go to Michael. He watched the entire series for the first time in his life, as he’d never seen it when his dad was alive.
"He studied it and got himself a chipped tooth to match his dad’s tooth. He got the shoulder roll, the mannerisms, the quick nose-wipe,” he chuckles, mimicking one of Tony’s signature moves.
“He picked those up on his own so I was able to focus on just the tone of the performance. Mostly it was holding him back from being his dad and letting him be the kid that was unformed,” he adds. “Only at the end do we start to see a couple of moments where the brute is starting to rise.”
It was a performance that impressed those around him too, including Goodfellas star Ray Liotta, who, in case you were wondering, hadn’t seen the show before joining the project. “I saw a few episodes when it started but at that point in my life, I wasn’t watching a lot of television,” he reveals.
“Every now and then, if it was on I’d catch it - and I know one day I’ll see it from beginning to end,” Liotta assures us. “I thought [Michael] did such a great job. He didn’t try to imitate his dad and, I don’t want to make this a downer, but this kid was on vacation with his Dad when he passed away. Then he decided to take this on and honour his Dad in a way that I’m sure James is looking down now and he’s got to be the proudest guy in Heaven,” he says candidly. “He really did a great job.”
After a year-long wait and two Covid-related delays, all involved are excited to finally let audiences experience The Many Saints of Newark on the big screen. “I hope that if people feel safe enough, they go see it in the movie theatre because it really is a movie,” grins Gandolfini. “It feels like a 1950’s noir movie. It’s very different and cinematically it should be seen in cinemas.”
For Chase — the producer who created a series that was instrumental in blurring the lines and bridging the quality-gap between small and large screen entertainment — letting audiences return to the world of The Sopranos in the immersive expanse of a cinema is a pretty big deal.
“I’m very happy,” he says, with his typically understated charm. “I believe they’re going to like what they see.”
The Many Saints of Newark arrives in cinemas on 22 September.
Watch: The Sopranos podcast brings in new fans to HBO's classic mob show