He had millions sympathise with him when he played a stone cold killer for almost ten years as he became part of the American family.
Everyone expected him to act many more years, and many more characters, each one subtly reshaping the working class hero he’d become.
But his unfortunate accident in Rome cut his life short and James Gandolfini never got the chance to flex those muscles.
He played Tony Soprano as the lugubrious mob boss with mother problems who started seeing a female therapist and became one of the most indelibly mythic characters of American TV.
Gandolfini was one of those actors who changed the medium in which they performed. It’s often said that he introduced an era of TV antiheroes with various others shows coming out after including Deadwood, The Shield, Mad Men, The Wire and of course Breaking Bad.
What he definitely managed to show us is that bad men who hurt other people do it out of their own vulnerabilities.
Becoming a celebrity, there was something that kept Gandolfini from wholeheartedly accepting his status or the privilege it could command.
It was as if, after thinking of himself as a struggling actor for so long, he didn’t want to lose touch with who he was. He stayed loyal to his old Jersey friends, even as he started hanging out with the likes of Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.
His fellow actors saw something special about Gandolfini almost from the beginning. After getting his first real break in the 1993 crime thriller True Romance he developed the reputation as an actor with an absolutely fascinating emotional range.
He would also have an acting coach, Susan Aston, with him on nearly every set, something hotshot movie stars rarely do.
Gandolfini met Aston in the eighties when he was working construction and as a bouncer in nightclubs in New York City. They became acting partners and friends.
They were both studying at Actor’s playhouse, a centre for method acting and specifically the Meisner Technique.
Studying the system allowed Gandolfini to use the various tricks to build his anger, whether it was staying up all night the night before a performance, or putting a sharp rock in his shoe, it helped him stimulate anger.
What contemporary actors do have in common is not so much a set of techniques but a conviction that acting has a serious purpose. To do it well one must prepare their mind to convey emotion clearly and immediately. And doing that requires a certain amount of individual psychological integrity, even fearlessness.
Training in this technique for almost three years he devoted to developing the various tools. Many of the students actually had Broadway parts already and were making their way towards careers.
Gandolfini had no real acting credits but threw himself into the process. He was very competitive and if he saw good work he’d either be depressed, thinking he couldn’t match it or he’d be inspired to work even harder, try to equal it.
Gandolfini and Aston spent a couple of years touring around various theatres promoting their wares in a play titled Tarantulas Dancing. He went on to do other acting gigs wherever he could often for no pay.
That he could bring a kind of intensity to the stage made him stand out. But it was with Aston that Gandolfini kept honing the character he wanted to project, the working class everyman whose feelings were both tender and explosive.
Other plays he performed in included The Danger of Strangers and even A Streetcar Named Desire.
He started his film career in New York, appearing in small parts in several films before he moved away from Theatre and went to Hollywood with the boys.
Wherever the movies were set, Gandolfini alternated between playing thoughtful, reluctant, bipolar, or just plain likeable brutes, and portraying average working class guys for whom violence was contemptible or at least unthinkable.
Sometimes he played characters that weren’t killers, but brought a similar kind of animal ferocity to the screen.
By 1995 Gandolfini seemed on the verge of breaking through. He had major parts in two widely anticipated Hollywood productions: Get Shorty and the Crimson Tide. Although it’s in the Juror that we begin to see what you might call the Gandolfini effect:
his performance is so good that it comes close to capsizing the movie. Even Roger Ebert the great film critic said that the Juror would have been a much better movie if the entire script had been pitched at the level of Gandolfini’s performance.
He went on to play other supporting roles in an attempt at expanding his character actor credits. Films such as Night Falls in Manhattan, She’s so Lovely and even Gun a six part TV series filmed by director Robert Altman.
The distinguishing mark of Gandolfini as an actor was his ability to find sympathy for the devil within the characters he played without, somehow, surpassing the deviltry. His gift as an actor was to show us how to dance along the line between good and evil, only to suddenly drive across in a blur of immediacy.
He learned to let people glimpse the monster of his temper as an actor and it was thrilling.
The scene in True Romance were he viciously beats Patricia Arquette in order to get her to tell him where the hidden cocaine is incredibly brutal and took five days to shoot.
The scene is almost a movie in itself, a journey of character discovery with an astounding denouement. What stands out is Gandolfinis thoughtful, almost playful attitude until the very end.
The chilling way he clothes his anger in a slight smile, while not really hiding it at all was really a virtual audition for his part as Tony Soprano.
His commitment to technique demanded complete immersion in the character in order to achieve his startling spontaneity.
It became almost standard part of the process for Gandolfini’s to try and quit every part he ever landed and that is why Aston was there – to bring him back to the character. She’d be on set to go over the next day’s script with him that night, and they could be very long nights.
Even in his audition for the Sopranos, he stopped in the middle of his audition with David Chase the creator and begged to be allowed to come back and do it again due to having a family illness at that time.
Gandolfini asked to be auditioned at Chase’s house which he ended up doing in his garage late at night. But he did have his reservations believing he was not good looking enough to clinch the roll and that it could be more appropriate for George Clooney to take on.
Even when Gandolfini got the part to play Tony Soprano, a week before production was supposed to start he sent a letter to the director and staff giving them an option to fire him requesting them to see if they thought he is right for the part. He also included names of three other actors he thought were available and who could do a better job.
Talk about being humble. In an industry as ego driven as show business, his behaviour was, to put it mildly seen as unusual.
He had a hard time seeing in his performances what other people saw; he noticed mostly the flaws. And that didn’t change as he got more famous as an actor.
Gandolfini was always there to fire us a glimpse of the monster and the best lesson he ever learned in acting school was that audiences don’t come to see ‘The Guy Next Door.’
Letting us glimpse the monster is what made him such a good actor – that sly little smile in the mirror recongnises that Gandolfini’s done it again and he’s proud of the effect.
But finding that monster, bringing him up and putting him on the screen in a way that seems entirely convincing does not come without some psychic cost. He could bring up the authentic monster but doing so for years could make him a physical wreck.
Gandolfini didn’t get his first sizeable role in True Romance until he was 32 and he didn’t land his first lead role as Tony until he was almost 39 which allowed him to spend his life outside of the media maelstrom.
‘You’ve simply got to work with what you got’ he said in an interview, ‘I wouldn’t have had the roles I’ve gotten if I looked like Peter Pan.’’
He saw being famous a little like being Geppetto. You work at it and work at it and one day people may think you’ve made a real boy. Nothing to fuss over really.
He became very good at hinting at depths of sadness and vulnerability that were left mostly to the imagination.
He always kept the practice of developing character notes for each of his roles, writing them down in a notebook, just as he had done with Susan Aston for Tarantula’s Dancing. The notebooks were filled with social background, family details, bits of memory and a dozen or so alternative histories for each character he was to portray.
Memorisation was his big problem. During shooting weeks on Sopranos he had to memorise more dialogue in less time than he ever had before. He’d forget his lines and sometimes smash phones while speaking with David Chase late into the night that he could not do it. Eventually they’d both start to laugh and lo and behold he always managed to pull it off and learn his lines.
So much of acting is about discipline, concentration, and preparation, combined with endless sitting around and waiting, that it seemed almost designed to challenge Gandolfini’s temper. And that might be why the guy who never backed away from a physical challenge was so drawn to it in the first place.
At an end of a day’s shoot on Sopranos set Gandolfini was never free to just go off with the other actors to a bar or a restaurant. He’d go back to Aston’s place in order to go over the eight or ten pages of dialogue for the next day’s filming. He had to, in order to be prepared.
Gandolfini suffered from his inability to get away from the role of Tony. But then he became different. A man who could eventually deal with his insecurities.
We need those vulnerabilities to make art. But that means as artists we live scared lives. We have to dedicate ourselves to being vulnerable if we’re going to go on making serious art, not just doing what is comfortable. And Gandolfini saw this and learned how to deal with it.
Living Scared is a pretty good description for an actors life and Gandolfini was someone who was almost comfortable with the psychological state. – Rest in Peace Jimmy boy.