How did you first got involved with 'The Sopranos?'
I worked for [Sopranos executive producer] David Chase in 1993; he was producing a show called 'Northern Exposure,' and he called me and asked if I would be interested in playing myself. Or a character obviously based on myself--they were going to do an episode as a tribute to Orson Welles.
I had just published a book on Orson the year before. So I said sure. They wrote it for me, I went up to Seattle and we shot it.
David called me after the first couple of days of shooting and he said to me, have you acted before? [LAUGHTER] And I said, well yeah actually I started out as an actor when I was fifteen. He said, oh. I said, why do you ask? He says well you oughta do more of it, you got good presence. I said, oh thank you very much. [LAUGHTER] Very nice of you. So seven years later he called me again. [CHUCKLES]
He was doing a show called 'The Sopranos;' they were preparing to start the second season. And he said they were interested in whether I would want to play a shrink-- I would be the shrink of the shrink that was already in the show, Lorraine Bracco. And I said, it's a funny idea. So they asked me to come down, meet with the writers and David. We talked for about an hour, and they called and said we'd love you to do it. So that was that.
Did you know much about the part before you went in?
No. Just what they told me. That it was gonna be a shrink's shrink. Kind of a square guy.[LAUGHTER] Straight, square.
Now this season you directed your first episode...
Yeah. That's right I directed one in the fifth season, this coming up season. Also acted in a couple.
So what took so long for you to direct one? It seems so obvious.
I don't know. I didn't ask, they didn't ask me. And then David said, I wanted to ask you something. And I said, I wanted to ask you something. [LAUGHTER] I want to know if you want to direct one. I said, well, I was gonna ask you if you'd like me to direct one. I said, well, then we got a deal.
And what was the experience like, crossing over from the acting side.
Wonderful. Because the material is so good, the script is so good.
You know it's usually difficult coming in to something that's already going and not knowing anybody. As an actor, I only had scenes with Lorraine and a little bit with Gandolfini once. But I got to know everybody because I was around. And we got to be friendly, so it wasn't difficult to direct one.
Is it very different from directing a film?
Well, I think the biggest difference is that you're working for somebody who has a central creative vision-- in this case, it's David Chase's show. You're working to carry out his vision. And when you're doing a television film or a feature, you know, usually it's your own vision.
You know, I've had location managers come to me and say, oh, can we look through your houses? It's become a catch phrase: we're looking for a Sopranos-style house or a Sopranos-style diner.
For example, David asked me to shoot more than I would normally shoot.
I'm not a big shooter, I don't shoot a lot of material; he knew that about me.
I remember reading about your film 'The Cat's Meow' that you said there was about a minute and thirty seconds that you shot that didn't make it into the movie.
Yeah everything we shot was in the picture. I shoot very tight. David asked me to shoot a little bit more stuff than I would normally.
It's an interesting thing about series television that directors are alternated during the season. Do you think that benefits the show?
I think probably if they had the same director, it'd be easier. But I don't know how you do that; it'd be pretty tough. You know, you're doing an awful lot of stuff in a short amount of time.
Well, they aim for between ten and twelve days.
And, and is that pretty brutal? What kind of day does that mean?
Oh, they're fourteen-, fifteen-hour days.
Do you find yourself these days drawn more to being in front of the camera or behind it?
Oh, I go where the job is, you know? I like acting and I like directing. I haven't got a problem with either.
Is your heart more on one side? You started out as an actor.
Not really, I like doing both. I wouldn't want to do one or the other exclusively. I'm also writing. I just finished a book that's gonna be out this year. Knopf is publishing it in October.
What's the book?
It's called, 'Who the Hell's In It?' It's my observations and conversations and experiences with twenty-six superstars
Can you give us an example?
John Wayne, Cary Grant. James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Audrey Hepburn, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Sidney Poitier, Sal Mineo, River Phoenix-- like that.
On one of The Sopranos DVDs, you mention that you watched all of season one at one time.
Yeah, before I did the interview with David for the DVD, I looked at all of the first season's work in order. They sent me all thirteen and I looked at them all. I think I'd seen one or two but I hadn't seen the series.
It was extraordinary to watch it like that. Thirteen in a row, it was great. I didn't want it to end.[LAUGHTER] It was so riveting, so much better than most movies. It's an extraordinary piece of work, as a concept and the way they've carried it out. It's no coincidence that it's popular.
Do you you find yourself drawn to any of the characters, in particular?
Well, Edie Falco's character, I'm very fond of, very interested in.
But she's such a marvelous actress also. I like all the characters...I generally tend to be drawn to the women. But that's just me.
You've written a lot about film and film history. There have been a lot of popular mob movies and series-is there something different about 'The Sopranos' that you think resonates?
Yeah, because it's not really a mob show, even though it's about a guy who's in the Mafia. I don't think it's really a mob film in the way that 'The Godfather' or 'GoodFellas' was. I think it's more about America. It's more about a kind of slightly-more-violent-than-normal family.
But it's a dysfunctional family that I think represents a cross section of a certain kind of American public that isn't involved with the Mafia. That's why I think it resonates with people. It isn't just a mob show. It's more down to earth. It's about you and me and your neighbors. It's not about some people that you read about in the newspapers.
I think it has enormous cultural relevance to American life at the end of the twentieth century, the start of the twenty-first.