The upcoming prequel movie to legendary mobster drama The Sopranos is fascinating for many reasons – but chief among them is a compelling bit of casting. In the show, 21st Century mafia boss Tony Soprano was perfectly played by the late, great James Gandolfini – who passed away in 2013, a few short years after the show’s final season aired in 2007. Set in the 1960s and 70s, film The Many Saints Of Newark – co-written by series creator David Chase, and directed by Alan Taylor – features Gandolfini’s son Michael as the young Anthony Soprano, growing up amid the 1967 Newark riots. Though he previously starred in HBO’s The Deuce, and had a small role in the Russo Brothers’ Cherry, it’s a bold move for the young actor – to take on his dad’s most iconic and cherished role for his first major performance.
It’s a unique situation (“probably the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make,” he admits) that’s not lost on the actor. “You know, I didn’t want to put pressure on myself to walk out of this feeling like I’d grown in terms of my feelings towards my dad,” he tells Empire in the new issue. “I just wanted to be the best actor I could be, portraying Tony in the way David wanted, scene by scene. I didn’t think about my grief because… well, I would have shit the bed,” he laughs. And while there are clear echoes of his father’s performance, Michael is offering a different iteration of Tony Soprano here. “My dad’s character had all this beautiful sensitivity underneath this aggression,” he explains. “This version of him is the reverse. His curiosity and sensitivity comes first. He’s not a gun-wielding gangster. He’s a kid who gets whittled down and pulled in.”
Even though James Gandolfini wasn’t there in person, his memory was regularly invoked during the shoot. “We all had dinner one night,” says Taylor. “At one point, [Michael] stood up and said, ‘I want to thank everyone for doing this because it was a chance to say hello to my father… and goodbye again.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Read Empire’s full The Many Saints Of Newark feature – getting the complete story on the making of this year’s most ambitious crime movie – in the upcoming Celebration Of Edgar Wright issue, on newsstands from Thursday 2 September and available to pre-order online here. The Many Saints Of Newark comes to UK cinemas from 22 September.