I first noticed Michael Imperioli’s acting chops when he was about to be done in by a sociopathic mobster. No, not the long-doomed Christopher Moltisanti being snuffed out by Tony Soprano in season six of the Greatest TV Series Ever. Imperioli made that initial impression on me years before, as Spider in 1990′s “GoodFellas.” It didn’t end well for Spider. His feckless bartender tipped to the wrong side of Joe Pesci’s volcanic Tommy DeVito. The part was memorable, but with all due respect, a precursor to the role he will forever be glued to ― Christopher, Tony’s “nephew,” who was more like a son. Until he wasn’t.
The relationship between Imperioli and James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack eight years ago at age 51, was foundational to “The Sopranos.” The HBO series spanned 86 episodes between 1999 and 2007, inventing “prestige” television along the way. It’s been the subject of books, blogs, websites, research papers, YouTube anatomies, college courses, and a pile of podcasts. Last year, as COVID-19 was getting a chokehold on normalcy, Imperioli and Steve Schirripa (who played Bobby Baccalieri on the show) launched their own podcast, “Talking Sopranos,” which has racked up more than 20 million downloads. Their book with Philip Lerman, “Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of The Sopranos,” will be released Nov. 2. And earlier this month, “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to the series cowritten by “Sopranos” creator David Chase, debuted to mixed reviews in theaters and on HBO Max.
If Imperioli worries about being encased in amber as “Christofaaa!” because of this new barrage of buzz, there was no hint of it during our conversation. He says the podcast, and his conversion to Instagram ― ”To be honest, it’s changed my life in a really good way” ― have allowed him platforms from which to broach other subjects, too. Among them: Buddhism, a meditation class he teaches, music (including his band, Zopa), and his 2018 novel, “The Perfume Burned His Eyes,” which features the late Lou Reed as a character. (They were friends.) “All the personal things I do,” he says, “they come from the same creative place.”
Spoiler alert: We didn’t talk about what happened to Tony at the end, when the screen went black for 10 seconds that felt interminable. Because everyone knows he was killed by the man in the Members Only jacket.
Q. “The Sopranos” never went away, but it’s certainly having a major moment.
A. It’s been great. There’s been a combination of things. We started the podcast when people were binge-watching during quarantine. Young people were getting turned on to the show and getting vocal about it on social media. Through some kind of synchronicity and confluence of events, I’ve been able to use this renaissance to connect to a younger audience and turn them on to my other interests.
Q. When you signed up for “Talking Sopranos,” were you wary about taking on a project that involved dissecting 86 episodes you hadn’t watched since their first run?
A. It’s been an evolution. I had never done a podcast. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to talk for two hours about an episode. I’ve always done a lot of things. We built a theater, I produced theater, I directed theater, I directed an independent film, I’ve written for “The Sopranos” and screenplays. The band. I kind of assumed my fans knew that, which they absolutely did not. This sounds really stupid, but I feel like the last two years has been me presenting myself to the audience: This is the stuff I do, it’s here and it’s available.
Q. You seem to understand that everything else you do will in some way be measured against “The Sopranos.” But it must be gratifying to know the work remains relevant.
A. I know I come with a lot of baggage. It’s very hard for people to accept me doing, sometimes, anything other than Christopher, let alone another art form. Around the time of the 20th anniversary of the first episode airing, two years ago, I became aware of a whole new generation of fans. I was shooting something in Central Park and there was this 20-year-old kid with a tattoo of me on his leg. I was like, “What the [expletive]?” There were people who grew old with us, that watched it when it first came out, and Steve and Vinnie Pastore [who played Big Pussy] and I have done live shows ― “In Conversation With The Sopranos” ― which the podcast kind of came out of. So there was always this loyal fan base that had the pasta and pizza parties back in the day. But in 2019, I realized these were the kids of those people. It’s not a nostalgia thing for them; they’re discovering it now. That’s been incredible to see.
Q. The series made sociopaths relatable. They loved their children, they took care of aging parents, they were funny, and Tony had a soft spot for animals. But the writers ― which included you on five episodes ― didn’t gloss over their innate badness.
A. We’re doing the last episodes on the podcast, and even before Tony kills Christopher he’s starting to become just an evil, nasty guy. David [Chase] was making an effort to say that his moral corruptness has really taken over. Tony thought he could dance with the devil and still be a nice guy.
Q. Christopher does a lot of self-destructing. But he’s one of the few characters to entertain the idea of escaping the organized crime orbit. We see early on that it won’t happen, but it’s hard not to root for him. Is that how you played it from the start, that there would be no way out?
A. For me, the redeeming thing about that character was that he tried really hard, no matter what he was doing. He wanted to maybe get involved in Hollywood and he actually sat in a chair, got a computer, and wrote a script, however bad it was. When he really wanted to commit to the mob, he was working hard to rise up the ranks. He ultimately failed in many of these things, but he wasn’t a slacker. He gets distracted easily. Christopher’s not the smartest guy, but his willingness to do the work made up for that.
Q. I won’t ask about the ending, but I do have a question about the series’ opening scene ― a mob boss in a therapist’s waiting room. What would it have been like if Christopher was the one seeing Dr. Melfi?
A. It would have been hilarious. But there might have been some things for him to work out and discover through therapy. I always thought Dickie Moltisanti [Christopher’s father, who was murdered when his son was an infant] was much more of a mess like Christopher ― a druggie, hothead, impulsive. But after seeing the movie, I realize he was kind of a very together, decent guy, albeit a criminal. Which made me think that maybe Christopher didn’t necessarily inherit those things genetically; it was the result of him missing this father figure in his life.
Q. The scene in which Tony smothers Christopher is difficult to watch, but I was wondering about another tough one ― Adriana confesses to him that she’s been working with the FBI. There’s a silence during which the acting is all in your face. You go from shock to anger, and then an explosion of rage.
A. He knows in that moment that his life will never be the same again. In a scene like that, where the stakes are that high, it can hold whatever you bring as an actor. It’s almost like you can’t do too much. It was just juicy as [expletive] to dig into a moment like that.
Q. James Gandolfini delivered the greatest sustained performance I’ve ever seen. It must have taken a huge toll on him mentally and physically.
A. First, it was intense for him in terms of time, being on the set 14 hours a day, not having much of a personal life. Being totally consumed by it. On top of that, he had to perform very emotional, dark, and deep stuff with the level of commitment he brought to it. And then, becoming super famous very quickly, and being a big, recognizable person, he didn’t have a place to hide. It eclipsed everything he had done before that. He became Tony Soprano to the public, for better and worse. Jim felt he really needed to put it all on the line. I think he knew what that was going to cost him, but he was willing to do that. I’m not saying he knew it was going to cut his life short.
Q. Did some of the pressure on him transfer to you?
A. I didn’t work as much as Jim. I had much more opportunity for family life and for other things than he did during all those years. For me, it was always a pleasure to work with him. We were only about four and a half years apart in age, way closer than our characters were. I never looked up to him for advice. We were friends and colleagues and peers. People think we were more like the characters ― I was this young guy just starting out and he was the veteran. That’s not what our relationship was.
Q. Could “The Sopranos,” with all of its violence, misogyny, and homophobia, get produced now?
A. Would a network release something with characters that were so absolutely not PC? Maybe not. Although, the young generation, which is very aware of social issues, they get who these people are. They understand it’s not advocating it or saying it’s cool or right. It’s about who these flawed but very interesting people are.
Q. How did you end up doing the voiceover in “The Many Saints of Newark”?
A. They tried a couple of different framing devices to connect the series to the movie, one of which they shot with Edie Falco. I don’t know the context exactly ― her talking to some people about the old days. I think they found having her on camera was a little distracting. Then David came up with the idea that it’s Dickie’s story, it kind of makes sense to get Christopher involved, but Christopher’s dead. He said they were thinking of doing this “beyond the grave” voiceover, which seemed to make a lot of sense.
Q. Thoughts on the movie?
A. The expectations were so high, it was going to be impossible to please everyone. The movie is its own story, it takes place in the 60s ― the racial tensions, the origin of Tony Soprano and Dickie Moltisanti, this figure who looms large [offscreen] in the series in the lives of Tony, Christopher, and even Carmela. It goes into those stories really beautifully.
Q. You’ve talked a lot on the podcast and elsewhere about Buddhism. What has it brought to your life?
A. It’s probably better if you ask people who know me what it’s brought to me. I sought a few diverse spiritual paths around 2006 and 2007. Some weird ones, like occultism, shamanism, and various Eastern spiritual paths. I basically devoted all of my 20s to just pursuing acting. My goal was to be a famous actor, not just a working actor. Then “The Sopranos” happened, which at the time was exactly what I wanted to do. I got to write on it, to work with people I already knew and loved. We made money, we had awards, success, and fame. I had a nice family, friends. And yet, I was pretty miserable underneath that in a lot of ways. So obviously there were other things that needed to be tended to. For me, Buddhism isn’t so much a religion as it is a science of the mind. It’s not about adopting a new set of rules. It’s more about an individual path and how an individual is going to learn the truth about existence ― why you’re here and what’s the point.
Q. You mean it’s not, as Livia [Tony’s mother] said, “all a big nothing”?
A. No, absolutely not. Someone who says it’s all a big nothing, I feel that’s based on a lack of education and experiential knowledge. People who say you die and that’s it, what are they basing that on? Who told you that’s the truth?
This interview has been edited and condensed.