TORONTO — “I’m still shocked. I still can’t quite believe it. What? He’s really not here?”
It’s been more than two months since actor James Gandolfini died unexpectedly at 51, suffering a massive heart attack during a visit to Italy. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has come to the Toronto International Film Festival to promote her latest movie, but she still can’t get her head around the news. And she definitely can’t pretend that this cinematic coming-out party is anything other than bittersweet.
“It’s not as fun as it could be, that’s for sure,” she says wistfully. “He never even saw the movie.”
That movie is “Enough Said,” a snarky-sweet romantic comedy starring Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as divorcees who find each other just as their daughters are leaving the nest, and then find that nesting in general presents a much different set of challenges the second time around. Catherine Keener and Toni Collette costar.
Though Louis-Dreyfus commands most of the screen time, and her fans will rightly rejoice that the Emmy-winning “Veep” star is finally getting a big-screen role that seems worthy of her talents, everyone involved acknowledges that Gandolfini was an enormous presence on set, and not just because he still looked the part of Tony Soprano, albeit without the weight of the Mafia world on his face. Holofcener is known for collaborative moviemaking that welcomes the contributions of her cast. Keener has been a fixture, helping to shape everything from 1996’s “Walking and Talking” to 2010’s “Please Give.” With “Enough Said,” Holofcener acknowledges adjusting her idea of Gandolfini’s character as they went along.
The script didn’t always describe a guy who has hands “like paddles,” for example. “That’s absolutely a line that was tailored to Jim,” she says. “Many lines were tailored to Jim. And I do that a lot when I make a movie. In ‘Lovely & Amazing’ , Emily Mortimer’s really skinny, and when I wrote it I pictured someone who was 15 pounds overweight talking about her body.”
It will come as no surprise that Louis-Dreyfus, with her background in improv (Chicago’s Second City) and sketch comedy (“Saturday Night Live”), had input on everything from her character’s wardrobe — it’s comfortable Keens for this California masseuse — to some of the film’s funniest lines and scenes. But she says her costar was no slouch in his on-the-spot contributions. In bed after sex, the portly Gandolfini ad libs to his petite new girlfriend, “Can you breathe when I’m on top of you?”
Louis-Dreyfus sees audiences being captivated and moved by this endearing, lesser-known side of the actor (a poignant end-credits dedication reads simply, “For Jim”), and she smiles while looking pained at the wealth of promise contained in his penultimate movie performance. (The Dennis Lehane-penned “Animal Rescue,” in which he plays a bar owner mixed up with the Chechen mob, is expected next year.)
“He played Tony Soprano for so many years — it’s iconic. I think a lot of people just thought of him as that,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “But look what he can do in this film.”
The feature-length exploration of his feminine side may have surprised even Gandolfini.
“At one point he did say, ‘Wait a minute. Am I in a chick flick?’ ” Holofcener recalls, with a chuckle. “I think he was self-conscious and a little embarrassed playing the emotional scenes — but embarrassed in the way that the best actors get embarrassed, if they’re vulnerable.
“He wanted the part,” she added. “He read the script. He wanted to do it.”
We can’t now know why. It could have been as simple as a desire to soften his image, and do it with a director known for making smart, witty, slyly subversive, and exceptionally honest films. But his costar, who knows a thing or two about not taking herself too seriously (she is, after all, both the immortal Elaine Benes of “Seinfeld” and the inspiration — according to Tina Fey — for Liz Lemon on “30 Rock”), says most performers understand that vanity and self-preservation have no place in successful comedy.
“To entertain and get a laugh, you have to be able to take a risk. You can’t play it safe,” Louis-Dreyfus explains. “If you go out there to entertain and you’re fueled by the fear of failure, you’re going to suck.”
In a scene with Louis-Dreyfus at a frozen yogurt shop, where Gandolfini watches customers swarm around teeny-tiny tasting cups before committing to a flavor, his character articulates it this way: “Take a chance. Put something in your bowl. You’re not buying a house.”
Janice Page can be reached at email@example.com.