‘The Sopranos’: When Steven Van Zandt Finally Realized He Was in the Acting World

Without exaggerating, you could say Steven Van Zandt fell into the world of acting. Prior to playing Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, Van Zandt hadn’t done the grind. He hadn’t taken acting lessons, gone on auditions, and otherwise scrapped his way to roles. He hadn’t acted at all, in fact.

He was the first to note that when David Chase contacted him about working on The Sopranos. Van Zandt’s first reaction was to thank Chase for the offer and politely decline. But Chase convinced him to give acting a try, and Van Zandt agreed because it was such an interesting offer.

Van Zandt continued going with the flow all the way up to rehearsals for the Sopranos pilot. After a long career in the music industry (with Bruce Springsteen’s band and his own groups), Van Zandt wasn’t jittery about diving into a new profession. Yet everything changed when he saw a familiar face at the pilot table-read.

Steven Van Zandt was jolted by the sight of Dominic Chianese at his 1st ‘Sopranos’ table-read

Dominic Chianese as Johnny Ola speaks to John Cazale as Fredo Corleone in 'The Godfather.'
Dominic Chianese as Johnny Ola in ‘The Godfather, Paramount Pictures. |CBS via Getty Images

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Getting cast on The Sopranos for his first role felt “surreal,” Van Zandt explained on the Talking Sopranos podcast. “I’m serious about [acting], I’m not taking it lightly, but it’s all a little surreal,” he said. “I wouldn’t say nervous because I wasn’t smart enough to be nervous [laughs]. I didn’t know enough.”

Things took a turn at that first table-read, though. Though Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi), James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), and other actors were present, Van Zandt got a real jolt when he saw an actor from The Godfather: Part II. “I looked up, and across the table is Johnny Ola,” Van Zandt recalled. “Then everything changed for me. ‘Ho-ly sh*t. It’s Johnny f*ckin’ Ola!'”

Van Zandt was referring, of course, to Dominic Chianese (Corrado “Junior” Soprano). “The first two Godfather movies are extremely special,” Van Zandt continued. “And there’s Johnny Ola. I’m acting in a show with Johnny Ola. It was really a revelation for me. At that point, it became very, very real.”

Van Zandt made a complete physical transformation to play Silvio Dante

'The Sopranos' main cast members pose together in a cemetery
‘The Sopranos’: Tony Sirico, Steve Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperiol, and Vincent Pastore |Getty Images

So how does a musician go about becoming a character? For Van Zandt, it began with a physical transformation. “I said, ‘I gotta create this guy from the outside in,'” Van Zandt recalled on Talking Sopranos. “I figured, if I can see the guy, then I can be him.” And that began with a hairpiece and suits from John Gotti’s own tailor.

But Van Zandt had another edge — he’d created the Silvio Dante character himself. Van Zandt had a treatment of a retired hitman who’d settled down and opened a club. And Chase ran with that when he brought Van Zandt onto the show.

So when Van Zandt emerged from the trailer on that first day of shooting, he felt ready. “I looked very different, very unrecognizable,” Van Zandt recalled. “And part of my biography was that [Silvio] was fearless. In that sense, I wasn’t really nervous.”