When Michael Gandolfini first heard that David Chase was interested in him for the part of young Tony Soprano in The Many Saints of Newark, the prequel to HBO’s The Sopranos, his response was a resounding no. His late father had etched the character into television’s Mount Rushmore, and he didn’t want to toil in the great man’s shadow. But then he figured he’d at least audition—as a young actor, he could use the exposure. Then he got the part.
Gandolfini knew he’d made the right choice when he started having Sopranos-like dreams. “I became overwhelmed by this character, but in a way that sort of signified that I was on the right track,” recalls the 22-year-old. In one particularly vivid dream sequence, he was auditioning for Chase. “Then I looked down, and my hands are my dad’s hands. When I got the part, I was like, ‘All right. I can’t do this alone.’”
By taking on the role of young Tony Soprano, he was embarking on a charged journey, finally immersing himself in the series that defined his father’s legacy—a process he had long rebuffed. (Gandolfini was born in 1999, the year The Sopranos debuted; James died while they were vacationing when he was 14.)
When he first told his mother and close friends about his decision to take on the character, they responded, he says, with a general sense of “yikes.” But eventually those friends helped him find comfort with the material. For his first time watching the series, Gandolfini chose to host watch parties with friends to cushion the experience. “Emotionally,” he says, “it was just hard to watch my dad. And I think I really became overwhelmed by this character.”
At the end of the day, Gandolfini had a job to do. “Fear, in some ways, is so temporary,” he says. “As I got closer with the material, the more confident I got.” He found himself moved by how Chase and his co-stars like Vera Farmiga and Jon Bernthal didn’t hold his hand or call attention to the obvious. “What makes me cry whenever I fucking talk about it,” he says, “is that everyone just treated me like an actor.”
Despite his father’s eternal association with the character, Gandolfini says he gleaned no answers about his dad’s life from binging the series. He did, however, have 86 hours worth of material to inform the biggest role of his career. “I would just steal my dad’s brilliant performance and try to replicate it,” he explains. For example, that phone booth scene where Gandolfini startlingly recalls his father’s intensity? That’s from one of Tony’s tense faceoffs with Gloria Trillo as their affair crumbles in late Season 3. (Not, as a popular Sopranos Instagram account guessed with a scene match-up, from a moment opposite Steve Buscemi in Season 5.)
“I was blown away,” Gandolfini says of finally engaging with his dad’s titanic performance. “I was so pissed that he was so good. I was so touched and proud of him.” As an actor studying an all-time great, he says there were a handful of moments where a choice James made was too “baffling” to even begin to replicate, let alone understand. Like, for example, Tony learning Dr. Melfi had dinner recently with his next-door neighbors the Cusumanos in Season 1’s “A Hit is a Hit.”
“He’s about to leave and he turns and goes, ‘You saw my house.’ And he stares at her and it’s such a weird moment. It’s intimacy, but he’s really made uncomfortable by it, and he’s kind of angered by it, and he thinks it’s hot. Every time I watch it, I’m like, What the fuck is… How did he get there? What is he thinking?”
After three years in the role—auditioning, researching, filming, waiting for its delayed release and finally watching the film at the world premiere—Gandolfini’s journey as the young Tony Soprano is finally at its end. But he’s having a harder time moving on than usual. “Something about Tony really stays with me,” he says. “I’m not sure whether I love the character so much or whether it’s something to do with my dad. Maybe I don’t want to fully let my dad… I don’t know what it is, but it’s a real fear of like, ‘What do you do next?’”
New projects like a role in Ari Aster’s highly anticipated third film will surely help. After all, fear is temporary.