The Sopranos remains one of the most acclaimed and adulated television shows of all time — no matter how many people still complain about its divisive series finale.
Fourteen years after the David Chase-created series wrapped up its eight-year, six-season run on HBO, the mythology of the New Jersey crime family lead by James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is expanding with the movie The Many Saints of Newark. Set in the late-‘60s, the prequel centers around conflicted mobster Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who becomes a mentor to a young Tony, a high school slacker played by Michael Gandolfini, the son of the celebrated actor who died in 2013.
Deeply faithful in aesthetic, tone and spirit and chockfull of Sopranos characters and Easter eggs, Many Saints will surely satisfy fans of the show with its snappy one-liners, Italian feasts and brutal kills. Early reviews for the film have been largely positive. But almost as inevitable in 2021 will be sharp cultural critiques — the type we’ve seen in recent years leveled against the show — challenging the sanctitude of its oftentimes casually (and sometimes violently) misogynistic and racist mobsters in a post-#MeToo, post-#BlackLivesMatter world, authenticity be damned.
Chase is undeterred. “In a sense, I didn’t care about all the recent sensitivities. It’s not about that. You know, it takes place in 1967. I’m sorry. The world wasn’t as enlightened as it is now. Too bad,” the 76-year-old seven-time Emmy winner tells Yahoo Entertainment in an interview earlier this month.
In a wide-ranging interview, the film’s producer and co-writer also talked about the pressures of revisiting the iconic Sopranos universe, finding the perfect lead in Nivola and that time an unknown Lady Gaga played a bit part on the show.
Yahoo Entertainment: Very shortly after the series finale in 2007, you said you weren’t thinking about a movie at the time — at least a follow-up to what we saw on HBO. When did this idea that would be ultimately become The Many Saints of Newark first strike you?
Chase: There wasn’t any kind of a lightning bolt. A muse didn’t come down all of a sudden. I made a movie after The Sopranos [2012’s Not Fade Away] and then I wrote a six-part thing for HBO, which we couldn’t get together with on the money. And [I had] another script that wasn’t working, that didn’t sell. So all along, Toby Emmerich, the head of New Line Cinema [and current Warner Bros. chairman] had been hocking me on doing a Sopranos movie. And around 2018 or so, it seemed to be the time to do it, to get back to work and do something.
Did you ever consider making it a series on its own or was it always conceptualized as a film?
Only as a film.
How daunting was it returning to this world, knowing how beloved that series was, and not only facing gargantuan expectations that come with something like but knowing the level of scrutiny it could face from fans?
Of course that thought went through our minds, that we could disappoint people. And the movie hasn’t opened yet, so who knows? But there was a worry that if it was really bad, if we really f***** up, it would destroy the memory of the series. But you know, you can’t really live your life that way. I personally also had enough armor from doing the series for so long, and for it being so beloved, that it wasn’t too hard for me to just go in and do it, just take it on.
I think the film definitely passes that key smell test — within the first 10 or 15 minutes you’re comforted by the fact that it looks and feels and sounds like an extension of The Sopranos as we knew it.
And that was the pleasure we had. We had the same pleasure you did. “Oh, we’re back in that world. So what’s the next line of dialogue? Something from that world.” It was fun, creatively.
Our culture has shifted what seems like exponentially in the years since The Sopranos went off the air. Were there elements of the show that felt trickier now to re-capture, things like the misogyny and racism of some of these characters — not that that’s necessarily inaccurate or inconsistent, but was there concern at all how people might react to it in today’s environment?
Yes. Well, I was foolish enough to just disregard it. It’s my feeling, if you don’t want to watch it, don’t turn it on, don’t go to the movie theater. What can I tell you? And in a sense, I didn’t care about all the recent sensitivities. It’s not about that. You know, it takes place in 1967. I’m sorry. The world wasn’t as enlightened as it is now. Too bad.
There’s also the diversity element. A key plot point involves the racial unrest that was occurring at the time in Newark, which is obviously very topical right now—
That became very topical. That was always there. But it wasn’t that topical, say, in the first year of shooting the movie and cutting it and all that. And then George Floyd’s death and all the other regrettable things that happened made it topical again. I’m really opposed to changing historical atmosphere for the sake of peoples’ feelings. You can’t look at the past squarely? What good does that do you, to say, “We don’t want to see that happen because people don’t like that anymore.”
Again not that The Sopranos ever felt inaccurate in portraying the sort of insular nature of this Italian crime family, but in folding in the racial unrest and Leslie Odom Jr.’s key character, was that something on your mind crafting the story for this, making this world more inclusive?
No. Do you think it makes The Sopranos world more inclusive?
In terms of its cast and characters, yes.
Oh, as far as the cast goes. I mean, it’s really very simple. The Soprano crew were headquartered in Newark, New Jersey. My mother and father grew up there and so I have a lot of contact with that. So they were from Newark, New Jersey and once we started to go back into the past, that’s where we would be is in Newark. And one of the most interesting, regrettable, unforgettable things about Newark were those riots. What else is Newark known for? Well, I’m sure people in Newark would say, “Well, we have a great art museum.” But from a dramatic standpoint, or any kind of a standpoint, those riots are a singular occurrence.
Michael Gandolfini has said playing the role his father made so famous was the toughest decision he’s ever had to make. Were you aware what a struggle it was for him, and what were those conversations like with you guys where he was grappling with this?
I was aware it was a struggle. We had conversations, but I didn’t really get into the depths of it. I was there to do a job, and that’s what I basically focused on. And I assumed that he was there to do a job, and he was, and he did. I wasn’t thinking about his problems. And that’s cold of me, in a way, but I was just caught up in the work. More and more as we go on, as it’s about to open, I’m starting to see what it must’ve been like. If someone had asked me to play, my father, I’d say no, but that’s for different reasons.
There are so many great performances in this film, from Alessandro Nivola on down — and especially with some of these performers so impressively channeling these characters we know so well. Vera Farmiga and Corey Stoll blew me away, especially, I must say. But you also have Paulie, Silvio, Big Pussy, all these younger versions of these guys. How tough was that to find actors who could channel such iconic characters?
That was difficult. I’m not sure that we saw a lot of people for those roles. I don’t think we did. We knew of people we thought could do it. I don’t think we’ve read a lot of Silvio’s or a lot of Paulie’s. I don’t really remember that happening.
What made Alessandro so right for your lead as Dickie Moltisanti?
I had seen him in American Hustle and A Most Violent Year, and I just thought he was a really good actor. Really good. And I was saying to myself — especially because he’s [of] Italian heritage, there’s fewer and fewer of those left — I just kept saying to myself, “Where have they hidden this guy?” I just knew he could do it.
Speaking of casting, this is unrelated to Many Saints, but I’ve gotta ask: We now know that Lady Gaga made her big acting debut in The Sopranos. She played a character called “Girl at Swimming Pool #2” in an episode in Season 3. Obviously now she’s not only this massive pop star but also an Oscar-nominated actor. Do you remember her at all from that bit part, did she make an impression on you?
I remember seeing the dailies and cutting the film. I remember seeing those girls laugh. I can’t really say I would be able to pick it out if I saw. But in my memory, I can’t really say which one Lady Gaga. But I remember that they seemed like real teenage girls, bad girls. They seemed good.
Finally, do you think there’s room for more connective tissue between the events of Many Saints and The Sopranos? Could we see a sequel to this?
Yes. Theoretically I could, yes.
The Many Saints of Newark opens in theaters and on HBO Max Oct. 1.
Watch the trailer: