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With ‘Art of Self-Defense’ and ‘Sopranos’ prequel, Boston’s Alessandro Nivola takes center stage

Alessandro Nivola stars as Sensei in writer/director Riley Stearns’s “The Art of Self-Defense,” now in theaters.
Alessandro Nivola stars as Sensei in writer/director Riley Stearns’s “The Art of Self-Defense,” now in theaters. (Bleecker Street)

Alessandro Nivola’s about to break big, but the Boston-born actor’s no overnight success.

Instead, his buzzy upcoming roles — as a screw-loose sensei in the dark comedy “The Art of Self-Defense” (now in theaters) and a mobster in David Chase’s anticipated “Sopranos” prequel movie (out next year) — arrive after more than two decades spent toiling in Hollywood.

Across his career, the 47-year-old has played a paleontologist (“Jurassic Park III”), a pedophilic New York governor (“You Were Never Really Here”), real-life civil rights attorney John Doar (“Selma”), and just about every other kind of colorful character you can imagine in between.

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“I’ve always wanted to convince people I was someone else than myself,” said Nivola by phone. “The more different one role was from the one I’d just finished, the more attractive it was to me.”

So when “The Art of Self-Defense” writer-director Riley Stearns needed someone to fill the role of a messianic karate master capable of boring through someone’s skull with his index finger, Nivola never exactly questioned whether he was up to the task.

“I’ve played comically nefarious characters in the past, but this was maybe the first time I’ve had a leading role in a movie that was an out-and-out comedy,” he said. “That alone was a thrill.”

Cast by Stearns just a few days before shooting was set to begin back in 2017, Nivola found himself diving directly into the larger-than-life character, who’s known simply as Sensei.

“I dropped my bag in my hotel room and literally 30 seconds later there was a knock at the door,” he recalled. “There was our stunt coordinator, Mindy [Kelly], who pushed her way in and told me to kick my legs up in the air.”

The challenges of the role were mental as well as physical, especially in scenes Nivola shared with Jesse Eisenberg, who stars as a neurotic accountant who joins Sensei’s dojo after being attacked by a motorcycle gang.

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“Sensei’s always monologuing and speechifying, and there’s an insane amount of dialogue to learn that has to be word-perfect,” explained Nivola. “You want to be many things at once as an actor, as much as possible. That’s what makes characters interesting.”

The actor spoke to the Globe a week after wrapping another project: “The Many Saints of Newark,” a feature-length prequel to David Chase’s acclaimed HBO crime saga “The Sopranos.” Chase returned to co-write the movie with Lawrence Konner .

The film’s three-month shoot took place six months after Nivola first learned he’d been cast as Dickie Moltisanti, a charismatic made man who falls in love with his father’s younger bride, an Italian immigrant, against the backdrop of the 1960s Newark riots. Moltisanti, meanwhile, is tasked with mentoring a young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James).

At the center of a massively anticipated movie for the first time in his career, Nivola cleared his schedule in order to fully get inside Dickie’s head.

“It’s really been the better part of a year that I’ve been monomaniacally obsessed with the world of that film and the life of that character,” he said.

Nivola doesn’t think he would have landed the part were it not for his Italian heritage. “My name has been the biggest obstacle to my career that you could imagine,” he explained. “But finally, my biggest role came about — in large part, I’m convinced — because of my name.

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“It’s just ironic, for me, because I’ve spent my whole life trying to explain my name, spell it, correct people’s pronunciation, dispel confusion about where I’m from and whether I’m American,” said the actor. “And finally, this great role came along where everyone associated with the project knew how to say it. It was a big relief.”

Nivola’s father grew up a first-generation Italian-American in New York; he died a year and a half ago, right after Nivola came off filming another big project: “Disobedience,” with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams . It’s “bittersweet” that Nivola’s father won’t get to see his “Sopranos” character, said the actor. “Out of all the roles I’ve done, that’s the one he’d have the most to say about,” he said. But Nivola thinks he did his old man proud by digging deep into his roots to play the part.

“I really got to draw on a lot of my father’s experiences and my own personal history in ways I’ve never been able to before,” he said. “I could finally embrace that part of my identity.”

A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that Nivola’s father, political scientist Pietro Nivola, was an Italian immigrant. That was his grandfather, the Italian sculptor Costantino Nivola. The Globe regrets the error.


Isaac Feldberg can be reached at isaac.feldberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.