A gentler Gandolfini. Sopranos star a do-gooder in indie film.
LOS ANGELES — Doug Riley is no Tony Soprano.
The bottled-up plumbing contractor James Gandolfini plays in the new indie movie Welcome to the Rileys could hardly be more different from the cable TV crime boss that made the actor famous.
“Kinder, gentler, older, fatter . . .” Gandolfini jokes about his latest appearance on theatre screens in selected cities. But like much of the work he’s done since The Sopranos came to its ambiguous end three years ago — such as In the Loop’s dissident but tentative general, his voice-over for one of Where the Wild Things Are’s volatile beasts or the Tony-nominated performance in the award-winning play God of Carnage — the actor was really drawn to something rich, deep and challenging about Riley.
“It was different,” Gandolfini, 49, says. “There was a stillness. And at the time, I’d just come from playing somebody whose every small emotion was, to him, a huge deal. Doug doesn’t think his emotions are that valid.”A quiet man with a southern Indiana drawl — itself quite a change for the New Jersey native — Doug has yet to get over the car-crash death of his teenage daughter.
He hasn’t taken it as bad as his wife Lois (Melissa Leo); she’s never left their home in the years since the tragedy. But Doug needs something, and discovers it in the unlikely person of a teenage stripper he meets while attending a trade show in New Orleans.
No, it’s not that. Kristen Stewart’s Mallory — or whatever her real name is — brings out all of Doug’s stymied paternal instincts. He devotes himself to helping her and trying to nudge her off of the downward path she’s taken.
“When you get to a certain age, you start questioning things,” Gandolfini muses. “In my life, I’ve been very lucky, but I think there are people who are unlucky, and not through any fault of their own, really. So I think Doug is contemplating — How did all of this happen? — and he just needed to go somewhere and figure it out. A lot of people would like to do that if they could.”
Maybe. But things like spouses tend to disapprove. When Lois gets an ambiguous I’m-not-coming-home call from Doug, she uncharacteristically jumps in the car and heads for the Big Easy. Things take a surprising turn when she learns what’s really going on.
Though deeply emotional, nothing about the production ever felt inappropriate, Gandolfini assures us.
“Not because I’m all that decent a human being, but it never crossed my mind to read anything lecherous into the relationship,” he says.
Gandolfini was also greatly impressed by Stewart, who between blockbuster Twilight episodes, has been building quite a gallery of lost-girl portraits in indies like The Yellow Handkerchief, The Runaways and Adventureland.
“She’s a young girl who reads,” he marvels. “She’s questioning things and she works very hard to do things that mean a lot to her. I like Kristen a lot and admire her. Especially when I think of myself at that age — which was, y’know, ridiculous.”
In his own pursuit of things that matter, Gandolfini has produced and appeared in another military documentary, Wartorn: 1861-2010, for HBO. The Sopranos network played his first such effort, Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, and the new documentary about the history of post-traumatic stress disorder debuts on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
“I was told that a lot of soldiers watched The Sopranos in Iraq,” Gandolfini says of how he got interested in military subjects. “So I went over there and met a lot of them, and I was really impressed by the quality of these kids. I respected their honour and duty, and taking care of what they have to take care of. Whether I am for or against this whole thing that’s happening, I think that we owe them, at least, to pay some attention. We are at war, and the cost to these kids coming back and the cost to their families are some things we need to look at.”
While the work is rewarding, Gandolfini was never very comfortable with the fame that came from being TV’s favourite neurotic mobster. After three years, he says, that aspect of success has become more bearable.
“It took a little bit — everybody kisses your a– a little bit — but it goes away,” he notes with a relieved sigh.
“I live in New York City, y’know? Drive a Toyota and walk around. It’s fine; after the show ended, it got much better.
“It’s something you’ve got to get used to. I come from a family where nobody ever did anything like this, so it’s a little odd. And you’ve got to get used to some of the financial things too, to tell you the truth. It’s a different way of living — and that’s the trap! But I’ve stayed near a lot of old friends who certainly aren’t impressed by any of this, so it’s fine.”
That said, under the right circumstances Gandolfini would trade in the satisfactions of professional independence for a return to TV stardom.
“Maybe not at the same intensity, but I think I’d go back to a TV series,” he reckons.
“It’s great to develop different characters.
“But if you’ve got a group of people that wants you, that’s a bit like having a family. And if you’re doing good things and have got good writing, a series is a nice thing.
“It’s longer hours, but it’s less disruptive on your family and the people around you than the change that happens all the time with film.”
‘Not because I’m all that decent a human being, but it never crossed my mind to read anything lecherous into the relationship.’