Life and times after Tony Soprano

Da boys: Cast members Ben Mendelsohn, left, Vincent Curatola, Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini attend a screening of the film <i>Killing Them Softly.</i>
Da boys: Cast members Ben Mendelsohn, left, Vincent Curatola, Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini attend a screening of the film <i>Killing Them Softly.</i>

There is plenty of screen work for James Gandolfini, but it's not in lead roles, and that's just the way he likes it. Jake Coyle reports.

In the five years since The Sopranos ended, James Gandolfini has eschewed the spotlight, instead disappearing into a heap of character-actor performances which, while they lack the heft of Tony Soprano, have further proved the actor's 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 Defence Leon Panetta.

In David Chase's 60s period drama Not Fade Away, he plays the old-school father of a wannabe rocker.

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 is just fine with Gandolfini.

"I'm much more comfortable doing smaller things," Gandolfini said recently.

"I like them. I like the way they're shot; they're shot quickly. It's all about the scripts - that's what it is - and I'm getting some interesting little scripts."

The 51-year-old actor takes scant pleasure in interviews and rarely does them. This is partly because Gandolfini - sitting attentively with his hands on his knees, his head back and his "let's hear what you have to say" eyes tilted downwards - distrusts the ego-inflating effect of attention.

Explaining his interest in a character, he breaks off: "I always wonder how interesting any of this is to people. It's just my own [stuff]."

Although Gandolfini's achievement playing Tony Soprano for eight years is unquestioned (he won three Emmy awards), the sensation of the show and the long time spent playing a violent, sometimes loathsome gangster grated on Gandolfini.

After The Sopranos, he didn't quite regain himself as an actor until he starred in the Tony-winning play God of Carnage on Broadway in 2009, he says.

He played half of a Brooklyn couple attempting to resolve a squabble with another couple over a fight between their children - a part that also revealed our underlying animalism.

"It really grounded me more as an actor again," says Gandolfini.

"Then I could go off and try different things."

Gandolfini's recent work has vacillated from comedy, his genre of choice (as a Washington general in the political satire In the Loop) to heartwarming drama (as a businessman moved to rehabilitate an abandoned teenage girl, 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 sizeable frame, highlighted his tenderness.

One of his favorite films, he says, was John Turturro's long-delayed Romance & Cigarettes, a funny, anti-extravagant musical about a working-class family.

He has produced several HBO documentaries about veterans: Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq and Wartorn: 1861-2010, which chronicled post-traumatic stress.

"He took up a lot of his time with God of Carnage and I was sort of missing him from the screen," says Chase, creator of The Sopranos.

"He's doing a lot of work now, but I think he was taking a cooling-off period."

For Gandolfini, reuniting with Chase on Not Fade Away was like "getting back to work" on a simple, small movie set after the "big, huge thing" of the The Sopranos.

Chase calls the actor his "first responder" to his scripts.

"The main thing we have is a small sharing of a certain amount of self-loathing and a sense of humour," says Gandolfini, laughing.

"I get David's sense of humour immediately."

In Not Fade Away, Gandolfini 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.

"Every guy who was in a band, that was the father," says Steven Van Zandt, Gandolfini's Sopranos co-star and a producer on Not Fade Away.

"It's the time when you find out, all of a sudden you realise 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 blue-collar roots clearly inform his attitude about acting. He sometimes seems almost embarrassed by his profession.

"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 someone else's pants on and pretending to be someone else is occasionally, as you grow older, horrifying."

But Gandolfini gravitated to acting as a release, a way to get rid of anger. "I don't know what exactly I was angry about," he says.

That inner rage helped Gandolfini land his breakthrough role as a brutal mob enforcer in Tony Scott's True Romance, a part that led to Tony Soprano.

His distaste for that character and some of Soprano's uglier nature is still present for Gandolfini.

"I try to avoid certain things and certain kinds of violence at this point," he says. "I'm getting older too. I don't want to be beating people up as much. I don't want to be beating women up and those kinds of things that much any more."

Killing Them Softly, though, is a rare return to the territory he has avoided. This older, end-of-the-line gangster completes an arc for him. .

"You know, I've played a lot of these guys and so I'm getting to a place where I want to play different people. This is kind of a guy who's a culmination of everybody I've played at the end. This is like the last nail in the coffin." AP

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