“David [Chase] really let me off of the hook at the beginning of the shoot by saying don’t listen to anything anybody in the series has said about Dickie Moltisanti— because they’re all liars.”
That statement comes from the great Dickie himself, or the actor who plays him in the latest installment to ‘The Sopranos’ universe, ‘The Many Saints of Newark.’ The feature film acts as a precursor to the series which debuted on HBO in 1999 and follows the main character of the series, Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini in the show) as a young kid in high school, now played serendipitously by Michael Gandolfini, James’ son.
Throughout ‘Saints,’ ‘Sopranos’ creator David Chase wanted to follow the Mobsters of the ’60s and ’70s in Newark, New Jersey, and specifically Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s favorite uncle — the father of the Christopher Moltisanti that we see and get to know throughout the series.
“In my case, every once in a while and maybe only once, roles come along that your agent calls a no-brainer,” explains Nivola. “It’s the role of a lifetime, so no question this was an opportunity to play a beautifully written, morally complex character that was just full of dynamic range that was as broad as you could ask for: humorous, charismatic, dangerous, tragic, emotional— it just had it all really.”
Nivola describes this role as “career-defining,” and with the effects of the original HBO show still ringing loudly throughout pop culture decades after its premiere, it’s easy to see why he holds that sentiment. For the young Gandolfini however, stepping into the role of his late father was not as easy of a decision.
“I was asked to audition and for many reasons my gut was no—that’s so cheesy and cliche, I want to be my own actor and I want to be my own person,” Gandolfini explains. “[But] there was no way I wasn’t going to turn up for Doug Abel who was casting it, he’s a very talented and great casting director. After 2-3 months of auditions, I just got more sections of the scripts and I became so enamored by how different this Tony was. I think when you’re an actor and you read something that surprises you, you become super interested in it and David really surprised me. I thought maybe I can do something really interesting with this, which shows the opposite of the Tony that everyone knows. I was getting really excited about everyone thinking he’s going to be this gun-wielding gangster when really he is wearing a sweater vest playing catch with his dog.”
In ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ the focus broadens off of Tony and onto the family that made him who he is— which is already a central theme in the show and that bleeds into Chase’s feature, directed by Alan Taylor. But it’s not meant to be a set-up for the show, instead, it more or less is surprising with its cast of characters. Instead of seeing Tony Soprano sporting a tracksuit and running a trash company, viewers get a peek into a sensitive kid’s life, one where his home is plagued tumultuous by an absent father (played by Jon Bernthal) and complicated mother (Vera Farmiga).
“This Tony is first and foremost a kid. I know that’s really obvious, but he’s curious and sensitive and creative and kind of nerdy. I can’t even say that he doesn’t want to be in the mob…I’m not sure if he knows what that even is yet,” continues Gandolfini. “I think he was enamored by his Uncle Dickie so much. He loved Dickie, but he knew he didn’t want to be his parents. I think that’s what was the draw, kids who grow up in intense households with an absent father and a complicated relationship with his mother—he just wants to get out.”
Throughout the series, one character that lives on even though he never steps onscreen is Moltesanti. Dickie acts as a ghost of sorts that commands the screen, an ominous presence that holds just as much water as some title Sopranos, and now people finally are introduced to him. In many ways, he suffers down some of the same paths as Tony Soprano himself. They are both sucked down by anger and resentment and many of the pits of Tony Soprano are the pits of Dicki Moltesanti.
“All of his crimes are crimes of passion—at least in the story. They all come from an emotional eruption that happens in the blink of an eye, usually with people that he has a very complicated, personal relationship with as opposed to cold, mob hits or whatever,” explains Nivola. “His proclivity for violence is something that he doesn’t seem to even understand himself or can’t control from a result of an an abusive childhood. When these flashes of rage are over he’s totally kind of left confused and lost and not sure how to mop up the wreckage of it and that seems to happen again and again until he’s destroyed himself. That’s something that was unique to me and something that David either knowingly or unknowingly had done with this character, gave him some sort of humanity despite all of the horrible things that he does in the movie.”
It’s interesting to take an up-close look at murderers, thieves and criminals overall. It’s something the country in terms of pop culture is fascinated with whether it be outlaws in the wild west, a hitman traveling on fatal missions or mobsters sporting nice clothes and violent tendencies. But it’s also what drives the series and now, the movie.
“My wife’s dad was a criminal defense lawyer and he always said the murders he represented were the nicest people because they usually killed the one person who had driven them insane. I think he was being tongue in cheek, but certainly, there is humanity in people who have done irrevocable acts of violence in their lives, and in those cases they’ve ruined their own lives while taking the lives of other people,” continues Nivola.
Besides Moltesanti and the young Tony Soprano, ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ also takes a look at many other central players from the series and beyond, all of which mold the cast we know today. Leslie Odom Jr. enters in as Moltesanti’s ally turned rival Harold McBrayer and Ray Liotta’s double entendre of a role as senior Moltesantis definitely stand out. But in many ways, ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ acts as its own compelling story with twists, turns and an in-depth look at a colorful cast of mobsters and what makes them tick.
“I think [David and I] both really wanted to not defy, but push away from expectations. Some people think Tony is badass and cool and an original Dickie Moltesanti, some people think he’s a villain and a despicable person,” finishes Gandolfini. “I think this sort of gives you a new light. One of the things that David does so well is he leaves things open to your interpretation and what it adds on is making Tony a little more of a tragic figure whereas you go into the movie with different expectations.”
“The obvious connection is its talking about the mentorship of a character that was central to the series and trying to understand how his childhood and his relationship with his surrogate father—which dickie is to him—shaped him and ultimately led to his becoming that guy you know from the series,” continues Nivola. “Equally, the movie exists as an autonomous story on its own. I don’t think you need any knowledge from before to understand that or to get into the self-contained arc of the characters that are in the film, it’s a tight little gauntlet that David had to run there. It feels like he managed to satisfy both of those things.”
‘The Many Saints of Newark’ drops in theaters and streaming on HBO Max October 1.