How James Gandolfini Immediately Took Tony Soprano Beyond the Writers’ Vision

Sopranos creator David Chase knew he had his man right when James Gandolfini tried out for the part of Tony Soprano. Even though his first audition went terribly, Chase was willing to wait until Gandolfini was ready to try again.

That eventually happened at Chase’s house (in his garage), and Gandolfini would end up delivering one of television’s great performances. But to Chase, Gandolfini was much more than a brilliant TV actor. “You don’t get it, you’re like Mozart,” Chase recalled telling his star.

“He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time,” Chase said following Gandolfini’s 2013 death. “A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes.” Of course, there was no way Chase could have known they’d get all those classic episodes down when he first wrote the story.

However, once they got on the set, it didn’t take long for Gandolfini to take Tony Soprano beyond what Chase had imagined for the character. In fact, Chase watched it happen on the first day of shooting The Sopranos.

Gandolfini played Tony with a casual ferocity that got Chase’s attention.

James Gandolfini performs in a scene from HBO drama series ‘The Sopranos.’ | Anthony Neste/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

In every story, the viewer (or reader) finds a character at the moment when the tale begins. So it’s up to the writer and actor to reveal what came before (i.e., how the character got that way). You can either write it into the story or show it.

In a New York Times interview from early 2019, Chase recalled Gandolfini doing some of that heavy lifting right off the bat. Before everyone had gotten used to their wardrobe and makeup, Gandolfini set the tone in a scene with Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti).

As Christopher ponders a movie script he’s planning to write, Tony was supposed to (in Chase’s vision) give Chrissy a little slap and ask him if he’s crazy or what. But that’s not how Gandolfini played it.

“We came to do it, and Jim pulled [Imperioli] out of his chair, shook him by the collar and was, like, ‘Are you f—in’ crazy?'” Chase recalled. “And I thought, ‘That’s Tony Soprano.’ He just felt like a real gangster.”

Though Gandolfini and Chase tired of each other, they worked together again.

James Gandolfini (R) and actress Edie Falco pose on site for the filming of the final episode of “The Sopranos” March 22, 2007 in Bloomfield, New Jersey. | Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images

Since The Sopranos ran for six long seasons (the final installment had 21 episodes), the writers and actors had plenty of time to become familiar with one another. And by the end, Chase and Gandolfini grew sick of one another.

Gandolfini began calling Chase and the writers “vampires” for the way they’d take things from actors’ lives and use them for the same person’s character. “Toward the end, [Jim] was tired of it and he was tired of me,” Chase told the Times. “And I was tired of his foibles. That’s all.”

Still, they weren’t too tired of one another to make another project together. When Chase directed his first feature film (Not Fade Away) in 2012, Gandolfini played a major role.

Also see: The ‘Sopranos’ Stars Who Have Died Since the Show Aired