James Gandolfini on Acting: It's a Matter of Showing Up Every Day, Even When You Don't Feel Like It
There’s no doubt that James Gandolfini was an incredible actor. With countless awards under his belt, such as 3 Screen Actors Guild Awards, 3 Emmys, and a Golden Globe — all for his portrayal of Tony Soprano in The Sopranos – there is much to be learned from a talent like him. He appeared on Inside the Actor’s Studio, hosted by James Lipton, back in 2009, and shared with the audience many pearls of wisdom about acting: the struggles of portraying a violent man, working with directors, and the most important factors of choosing a role. Take a look inside the mind of the late, great James Gandolfini.
As he demonstrates in his interview with James Lipton, Gandolfini was a man of few, but powerful words. He touches on a wide range of topics and gives great insight into the world of acting:
On Starting Out
He describes how he got into acting in his mid 20s by going to an acting class with a friend, Roger Bart, from Rutgers, his alma mater.
I talked about taking acting classes, but it wasn’t really something anyone in my family ever did. And he kept pestering me to go to this class. And I went to this class — it was a Meisner technique class. I went in an I was scared to death. I was shaking.
He explains how his acting instructor, Kathryn Gately, helped shape him into a better actor by teaching how to control his emotions.
I remember one thing she did for me that got me to a new level was — I had such anger back then. When you’re young a lot of people do. Everybody does. You’re pissed — and you’re not sure why — because you want to express something, but you don’t know what it is. She kept telling me to go ahead, but I never wanted to. I think she told a partner to do something to me and he did it, and I destroyed the place — and then at the end of it — I remember my hands were bleeding a little bit — and she goes, “See, everybody’s fine. Nobody’s hurt. This is what you have to do. This is what people pay for. If you don’t want to do it, get off — these are the things you need to express and be able to control.”
Gandolfini has worked with many directors, including Kathryn Bigelow, Joel Coen, Gore Verbinski, and Steven Zaillian. What he shares about his experience working with them is important for both working and future directors. James Lipton asks him what he wants out of a director, and Gandolfini responds:
I think the director is an eye, and if you trust the guy’s eye you can do a lot of stuff. A lot of times when you say to a director, “Oh, what if I try this or what if I do this,” they’ll go, “No.” I think you have to show them. They’re an eye that’s looking at it, and they’ll know where it fits — A good film director will know where things fit.
And what he doesn’t want from them:
To bug me too much — especially in the beginning, if we’re rehearsing. Just let me get there. I’ll get there. They have to trust that you’re gong to get to where you need to be. A lot of times some directors will have everything already blocked out. I personally don’t like that. I find the best directors are willing — because they know that if you’re doing something you’ll do it with more conviction — you know why you did it.
On Choosing Roles
Of course everybody knows Gandolfini as the brutish mob boss Tony Soprano, and like this character, many of his others were angry and violent men. However, it’s not these qualities of the character that drew him to choose these roles. When asked what the most important factors were when he chooses a project Gandolfini responds:
The writing. The writing. The writing. The writing. The writing. The writing. The writing. If it’s a good script — I think this is important with acting: you need to have a point of view. I think good actors have a point of view about things. They have a point of view about who they are and what they want and what they want to say in a character. You try to find something about what you want to say. To me it’s telling a story about Blue-collar America.
On Developing Characters
How was Gandolfini able to perform so well? What made him so capable of bringing to life characters like Tony Soprano, Winston Baldry from The Mexican, Virgil from True Romance, or even Doug Riley from the indie film Welcome to the Rileys?
Some scripts you do this (small hand gesture) much backstory. Some scripts, to support things, you need to do this (big hand gesture) much backstory to get everything in. But, you need it, I think. You need it. And the times I don’t do it and I think I don’t need it are the times when I get on there and the camera goes on and I’m standing there and I feel like I don’t got any pants on — because I didn’t do my work.
Gandolfini’s Favorite Curse Word
Anyone who watches Inside the Actor’s Studio waits for James Lipton to ask this question from the moment the show starts until the end when he asks it, “What is your favorite curse word?” Here’s what Gandolfini said:
It’s a Jersey one. Fucking douchebag.
Uproarious laughter is then heard from the audience.
James Gandolfini brought many deep and dimensional characters to his audience. He managed to help skillfully bring out the contradictory traits from what could have been very flat characters. He was able to demonstrate with great conviction the rage and selfishness of Tony Soprano the mob boss, while at the same time demonstrating the vulnerability and insecurity of Tony Soprano the human. He showed the full range of the complexity of a character — of human beings — something that all of us can relate to.
He will be sorely missed.