Alessandro Nivola Commands Respect in The Sopranos Prequel ‘The Many Saints of Newark’

A decade ago, Alessandro Nivola made a consequential decision. He wasn’t going to hold out for the showiest roles in movies that might struggle to get distribution or recognition. Instead, he wanted to work with the best filmmakers in the business. It didn’t matter if it was a cameo or the lead — he was up for anything.

“I had kind of disdain for directors as a younger actor,” Nivola says. “I felt dismissive of them. I thought that I was more intelligent than them and that I knew how to play the role, and they should just get the fuck out of my way.” At a certain point, Nivola recalls having a complete change of heart. “I had an epiphany that movies totally belong to directors, and their success or failure is completely down to the talent or inspiration of the director. So I started saying yes to the directors once I agreed to make a movie. I stopped arguing, and whatever they wanted me to do I would try it in good faith.”

In many cases the parts were small, amounting to one or two showy scenes in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” or Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon,” but they demanded attention. Nivola started appearing on the short list for showy movies and found he enjoyed the process more when he removed the friction that had been a staple of his earlier work. This professional recalibration culminates in his lead role in next month’s “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to “The Sopranos” that’s been feverishly anticipated ever since the HBO series abruptly cut to black in 2007 as Tony, Carmela and their brood feasted on onion rings in a New Jersey diner.

The film is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s against the backdrop of the Newark riots as la Cosa Nostra contends with changing mores and rising racial tensions. Nivola plays Dickie Moltisanti, a made man in the DiMeo crime family who experiences an existential crisis in between performing hits and stealing merchandise from the backs of trucks. Dickie is the locus of the film — his romantic struggles and his moral dilemmas drive the action, and his relationship with a young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini, stepping in for his late father, James Gandolfini) provides its emotional crux. It’s an acting tour de force, with Nivola moving seamlessly between gentle moments and acts of savagery, coaxing viewers to care for him at certain points before lashing out and reminding them that they are feeling empathy for a hardened killer. It should kick open doors that had remained closed to Nivola much as “The Sopranos” helped launch Gandolfini into another orbit.

“This is the biggest role of my career, and it comes at a time where I’m not a kid anymore,” says the 49-year-old actor. “I don’t know how the movie will do. All I want to do is to work with the best directors in central roles. I don’t care about anything else. I don’t want my life to change in any other way, but if I get more of those opportunities, that’s a wonderful thing. I can’t predict it. I’ve had so many disappointments over the course of my career. I’ve had roles where if millions of people had seen the film, I think it would have changed everything, but they didn’t get released or no one saw them. So I tend to be realistic in my expectations.”

Alan Taylor, the film’s director, says he and “Sopranos” creator David Chase were blown away by Nivola’s audition and the wide array of notes he was able to hit in the scenes he recorded.

“It wasn’t like we went charging in thinking, ‘Yes, he’s the guy,’” Taylor says. “We were aware of his work for a long time. But he’d never carried a film like this before. He hadn’t played a character with this many tones and facets. But when I watched his tape and when I talked to him later, it was clear he could handle all of this. He could be a romantic lead, who’s also slightly crazy and prone to violence. He could find humor and convey everything going on cerebrally. He could juggle all the things that Gandolfini did on the show, but in his own unique way.”

The transformation was even more remarkable because Nivola’s life seems so far removed from Moltisanti’s hardscrabble, Darwinian existence. He conducts the interview with Variety in an Italian restaurant near the Brooklyn home he maintains with his wife, actor Emily Mortimer. It’s a post-gentrified sliver of the borough filled with leafy side streets, brownstones and parents pushing strollers. It’s also a far cry from the atrophying Newark where Moltisanti and his fellow gang members feel their hold challenged by a racial reckoning and economic upheaval.

Moreover, Nivola’s upbringing as the child of artists and academics and as the grandson of Costantino Nivola, a notable Italian sculptor, unfolded on a different side of the tracks from the one where Moltisanti came of age. Nivola grew up in Washington, Boston and Vermont, as his father, political scientist Pietro Nivola, held down various teaching posts. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school, and received a B.A. in English from Yale University. Despite traveling a path through the ivory tower, Nivola says he understood intimately how the wounded heart of his character was forged by deprivation and prejudice.

“There were certain things about my family history that I would draw on,” says Nivola. “Even though I grew up going to fancy schools and was the son of an academic and was well spoken, I still grew up in an immigrant Italian family, so the physicality and the vocal inclinations were something that I heard all my life. My dad was definitely first-generation immigrant, so he may not have been scraping his way through street fights, but he was discriminated against and made to feel as though he was a wop, or he was less than in some way.”

Then there was the physical transformation. Nivola slicked back his hair, wore gold chains and adopted a New Jersey accent, hitting vowels with a thud and elongating words with the requisite hint of menace. He also poured himself into research, exploring the neighborhoods where Moltisanti would have run herd, talking to real-life racketeers and reading books like Gay Talese’s “Honor Thy Father,” a magisterial history of the Bonanno crime family. He wanted to get a sense of the stifling predestination that Moltisanti experiences in the film. His on-screen alter ego sometimes wants to reject his criminal life but feels as though his course has been irrevocably set because his father was a gangster, as are his friends and family.

“That’s the tragedy of the story — it’s someone living the life of a violent criminal who has an unspoken longing to do something good in the world,” says Nivola. “So much of the movie is Greek tragedy. It’s a cycle of abuse that he can’t escape.”

As Moltisanti flails, he drags down young Tony with him. He wants to be a good role model, but he is unable to use his influence over the budding gang leader to get him to take a different path, one that would lead away from the Bada Bing! and the HBO series that carries his surname. To ensure that Dickie and Tony’s filial bond seemed authentic on-screen, Nivola and Gandolfini spent hours talking and getting to know each other at Junior’s coffee shop before cameras ever started rolling.

“There was a lot of laughter and getting comfortable so when we need to go someplace difficult there’d be no hesitancy,” says Gandolfini. “You need to know the love is there and to know what buttons to push if we need to push them on the day.”

“The Many Saints of Newark” feels like a glorious, glittering anomaly in a Hollywood dominated by superhero films and special effects-heavy adventures. It’s a movie filled with antiheroes, one that challenges its audience with narrative twists and the odd, occasional turn into surrealism.

“This kind of a movie isn’t being made anymore by studios,” says Nivola. “I see it as a Trojan horse where they have it disguised as this piece of preexisting IP. That’s what made it possible in this current climate to be able to make a classic studio drama like this in the old-fashioned sense. If it hadn’t been for the popularity of the show, it never would have been made and Warner Bros. never would have been comfortable casting me.”

Most of the film was shot before the pandemic, but Nivola was scheduled to resume work on reshoots in March 2020, only to have his first day back on set canceled as COVID-19 shut down New York City and then the rest of the country.

“It’s something about the voice,” remembers Nivola. “You have to live with it for a long time before you settle into it. I was worried that all the time off would make it seem fake. I had to go through the process of getting Dickie back in my body again.”

Six months later, shooting was completed on “The Many Saints of Newark.” But the film will enter the public square in a very different manner from the one that Chase, Taylor and the rest of the crew originally intended. Warner Bros. is premiering its entire 2021 slate, a collection of films that includes “Dune” and “The Matrix 4,” on HBO Max on the same day they open in cinemas. Nivola understands that the pandemic has changed how movies are released, but he’s torn about what it means for the industry.

“As a cinephile, I worry about what the effect would be on the future of movies,” says Nivola. “Could it mean all the studios stop having exclusive theatrical releases and will that bury cinemas? I worry about these tectonic shifts. David felt like he wanted it to be clear that this was a movie and it was made in a different way than the TV series. He wants people to watch this in a cinema.”

Next up for Nivola are a series of comedic turns in Russell’s new, untitled period film and a leading role opposite Lil Rel Howery and Aubrey Plaza in “Spin Me Round.” He’ll also film a cameo in Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” a Netflix production that happens to star his teenage children, Sam and May.

“Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig play their parents, so they really get to trade up,” jokes Nivola.

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