‘The Many Saints Of Newark’ Stars On Their Characters, Fan Pressure, And Racial Parallels To Today (Interview)

We’re less than two weeks away from the debut of the highly-anticipated The Many Saints of Newark a prequel film to the uber-popular HBO series The Sopranos. Having seen the film, I can confirm that it features absolutely captivating storytelling and a career-best performance from Alessandro Nivola that elevates the film’s excellent gangster story that just so happens to lay the foundation for the Tony Soprano we all know. Read our full review here.

Speaking with stars Michael Gandolfini and Alessandro Nivola (Tony Soprano and Dickie Moltisanti respectively), both shared their approaches to the film, including delivering on the premise and meeting expectations 14 years after the iconic series went off the air.  Said Gandolfini, “You feel the pressure… playing Tony Soprano is no small feat. You know, I wanted to make my dad proud, I wanted to make the fans proud, I wanted to make David proud, I wanted to make Alessandro proud.” The young actor portrays a younger version of the character made famous by his late father, James Gandolfini. “You know, I kind of had an emotional dump the first time I watched it [The Sopranos], and then the second time I watched it, I just enjoyed it as a fan… it was the first time I ever met Tony Soprano, you know, I didn’t know Tony Soprano.” In fact, both Gandolfini and Nivola had never seen the show prior to being cast in The Many Saints of Newark. Gandolfini continued, “I watched it full the first time and then I really only watched the first four seasons, because after four, it takes a much darker tone and my dad’s accent changed… he forgot how to do it.”

“More than just the feeling of the pressure of the show, I just felt the pressure of like having been given a breakthrough role relatively late in my film career,” shared Nivola. “[I] hadn’t ever had an opportunity like this to be a lead role in a movie that was going to get this much attention and was going to offer me the opportunity to show so many colors in the performance. The fear of not living up to my own expectations for what i could do with the part, and that weight on me. I mean, i’ve been at this a long time now and i was like ‘i’ll be damned if i’m going to f*** this up’.”

Photo from IMDb

It was clear from speaking with both actors for such a short time that the relationship portrayed on screen between their characters is mirrored in reality between them. Both also spoke about crafting their characters and preparing for the film, which began shooting back in 2019. Showing a different side of Tony was exciting to Gandolfini, who stated, “I was surprised to see and really exhilarated that this wasn’t a gun-wielding Tony and that, in many ways, that sensitivity and curiosity and nerdiness that, it is in the show with older Tony, can be brought up to the forefront. I think in some ways it makes Tony more of a tragic figure, which I was really interested in.” Nivola, however, didn’t have much to work with. “I had total freedom to invent the character from my own imagination and from the research and the, you know, the process of preparing to play the role,” he shared. While Gandolfini was able to dive into the 86 episodes of The Sopranos to get ready to play Tony, Nivola took a different approach. “I started really in Newark, I had a friend who was a priest who was a big Sopranos fan and had grown up, he was an Italian-American guy who’d grown up in this neighborhood where the movie takes place, which not a lot of Italians still live there.”

Nivola’s research on the ground likely came in handy given the film’s backdrop of the racially-charged 1967 Newark riots. While filming had long since wrapped, the release of The Many Saints of Newark is taking place following tragic events involving the murder of George Floyd and others, leading to demonstrations and protests, as well as some violence, that is forcing the United States to confront long-existing racism. Asked about how they felt the film would be received given recent events, Nivola referenced series creator David Chase, sharing “David’s feeling in general is that nothing ever changes. I mean, that’s, I think, a theme that he keeps reintroducing in the series and into the end of the film. So I think it probably came as no surprise to him that the news was, a year later, reflecting the riots that we shot in the film a year before.” He went on to add, “I think we all kind of had that feeling of like, it’s horrible and upsetting to see something on television in this modern age look so much like something that we were so ashamed of in the late 60s in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Photo from IMDb

Gandolfini echoed Nivola’s sentiments and also spoke to Leslie Odom Jr.’s performance in the film, sharing “I was excited to see what Leslie did and have this experience of what Leslie was going to bring to this because… how many movies have we seen where it’s like, white people being racist and it’s like “don’t do that!”, but now in this film, Leslie has complete autonomy as a human being and has an opinion, and a motor, and wants, and needs, and relationships.”

The Many Saints of Newark opens in theaters and on HBO Max October 1st, 2021.

Cover Photo from IMDb

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