In the five years since The Sopranos ended, James Gandolfini has eschewed the spotlight, disappearing into a heap of character actor performances that have only further proved his wide-ranging talent.
This season offers a gluttony of Gandolfini, albeit in bite-sized parts. In Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden hunt docudrama Zero Dark Thirty, he plays Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. In David Chase’s ’60s period drama Not Fade Away, he’s the old-school father of a wannabe rocker. (Both movies open Friday.) And in Andrew Dominick’s crime flick Killing Them Softly, he plays an aged, washed-up hit man.
None of the roles are showy lead men, and that’s fine.
“I’m much more comfortable doing smaller things,” Gandolfini said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I like them. I like the way they’re shot; they’re shot quickly. It’s all about the scripts.”
His recent work has vacillated from comedy, his genre of choice (as a general in the political satire In the Loop) to heartwarming drama (a businessman moved to rehabilitate an abandoned teen, Kristen Stewart, in Welcome to the Rileys). He voiced the Wild Thing Carol in Where the Wild Things Are, a performance that, by stripping him of his sizable frame, highlighted his tenderness.
In Not Fade Away, Gandolfini, 51, reprises certain characteristics of Tony Soprano — an Italian patriarch displeased with his son — but the film also turns on a tender moment that bridges the generational divide.
“It’s the time when you find out, all of a sudden you realize as you get older, that maybe your father wasn’t just there to raise you, that he actually had dreams of his own and things that he wanted to do and things that he’s sacrificed,” says Gandolfini, a father of a 13-year-old son and, with his second wife Deborah Lin, a 2-month-old girl.
Gandolfini grew up in New Jersey the son of a bricklayer and a high school lunch lady. His background clearly informs his attitude about acting.
“People don’t know and they shouldn’t know that you work incredibly hard as an actor,” he says. “So in terms of a blue collar background, that matches up. But it is an odd way to make a living. Putting somebody else’s pants on and pretending to be somebody else is occasionally, as you grow older, horrifying.”