There’s a scene in Goodfellas in which gangster Tommy DeVito, played by Joe Pesci, shoots dead a young bartender called Spider who had unwisely told him to “go fuck yourself”. Pesci won an Oscar for the film – and while Spider the bartender was a small role for the then little-known Michael Imperioli, it was to be his big break.
“I wanted that job at all costs,” Imperioli says. “It was Martin Scorsese – he’d made some of my favourite movies. I was all in.”
During the shoot for the scene, Imperioli had to detonate tiny devices attached to his chest that spewed blood, then hurl himself backwards. But it didn’t go as planned and he smashed into a tray of drinks, badly cutting two of his fingers. He was rushed to hospital where doctors thought he really had been shot.
“I’m trying to explain, I’m an actor in a movie with Robert De Niro! But they thought I was delirious, just out of my mind – until they cut my shirt open and saw all the wires.”
He leans back in his chair, smiling. You can tell he’s told this tale a thousand times. But the symbolism gets him each time. To become a “‘made man” in the mafia, he explains, gangsters go through the ritual of having their finger pricked and the blood burned on a picture of a saint. “So there I am – my finger being cut in the presence of Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci! That’s me being made,” he says.
He was probably right. After numerous successful roles, eight years later he auditioned to play Christopher Moltisanti in a TV show called The Sopranos – about a dysfunctional New Jersey crime family. Christopher was the hot-headed, drug addict gangster who aspired to be a Hollywood scriptwriter – heir apparent to mafia boss Tony Soprano.
At the time, Imperioli remembers he wasn’t that excited about it. He knew nothing about David Chase – the series’ creator – and, based on the first script, he wasn’t sure if the show was any good: “Is this a comedy? Is this a spoof? What is this?” he thought.
He left the audition convinced he’d blown it – “It didn’t seem like I was impressing him [Chase] at all – but I didn’t really care. It wasn’t like I was auditioning for Scorsese.” Chase offered him the job – and, after some deliberation, Imperioli accepted.
The 55-year-old actor is speaking to me from his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where he lives with his wife, Victoria – “our youngest [of three] went off to college last year”, he says. It’s half an hour from where he grew up in Mount Vernon and only four blocks from where his Italian ancestors lived when they moved to the US in the 1890s – he knows this because he’s working on getting dual citizenship with Italy. “I’m proving that I’ve always been Italian,” he says.
There have been reams written about The Sopranos, often rated as the greatest TV series of all time. It won Imperioli an Emmy in 2004, one of 21 the show picked up. After the late James Gandolfini – who played Tony Soprano – Imperioli is probably the show’s most recognisable character.
Even though the show ended nearly 15 years ago, it’s more popular now than ever. HBO reported a 200% surge in viewers last year in the US. And on the back of that, Imperioli and fellow cast member Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri) have written a new book, Woke Up This Morning – named after the show’s theme song – which they are billing as the definitive oral history of The Sopranos.
The two actors have teamed up, too, with the actor Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore for a live stage show – In Conversation With the Sopranos – which goes on tour next year. Though Imperioli’s recent activities have included DJing on avant garde radio station NTS, and leading Buddhist meditation sessions on Instagram, he is at the centre of all three Soprano spin-offs – the book, the show, a podcast called Talking Sopranos – so I ask him if there’s life after the series or whether he thinks he’ll for ever be defined by it.
He ponders for a moment. “I think I am defined by the Sopranos – but I don’t think it’s a detriment,” he says.
He takes me back to his first day on set. The young Christopher was supposed to drive backwards down a pavement, all the while talking to his boss, Tony Soprano, in the passenger seat. Imperioli didn’t know how to drive. “But I thought, how hard could it be – you’re on a set, they’re gonna block off traffic.”
He got away with it at first, he says, but then they asked him to do the scene again – this time at twice the speed and for double the distance. “Boom, right into one of the trees, airbags go off, Jim’s [Gandolfini’s] head snaps back, smoke everywhere. I’m thinking this guy is the star of the show, they’re gonna fire me.”
He wrote off the $60,000 Lexus – but Gandolfini found the whole episode a hoot. It was the start of what was to become a close friendship. After long days of filming they’d go out carousing in New York, sometimes to Little Italy, “to have dinner and be around wise guys”, and sometimes to Imperioli’s own speakeasy, the Ciel Rouge in Chelsea. “If we wrapped at four in the morning we could always go and open the bar – I had the keys.”
On one Friday night, they started drinking before filming had even started. It was an episode in which Christopher and Tony were disposing of a body – Ralph, a made man who Tony had strangled in the previous episode. “We had to throw his body off a cliff and it was out in the woods,” recalls Imperioli. “It took a long time to set up so we went back into the trailer and started drinking – and drank a lot.”
In the end, the two men got so drunk the crew were worried they would fall off the cliff during the scene. “So they chained us to trees and covered the chains with leaves – that way we could go to the edge of the cliff and throw the body off.” He gives a big guttural laugh at the memory. Gandolfini didn’t enjoy the fame that came with The Sopranos, Imperioli says. He lived in New York – like most of the show’s actors – but he lost all his privacy. “You know, you’re on the street a lot, he didn’t blend into the background – he stood out, he was a big guy – it was Tony Soprano walking around town.”
Imperioli had been with Gandolfini for a movie premiere just weeks before he died – and it seemed as if he had finally made some peace with the whole Tony Soprano hoopla, he says. He was calm and relaxed and happier than he’d ever seen him. “And then he was gone.” Gandolfini died in 2013, aged 51. The day Imperioli found out, called while walking down the street in Santa Barbara, California, he says, “was one of the worst days of my life”.
Imperioli has watched all 86 episodes over the past year while working on the book. Some of his favourite scenes are when the characters are taken out of their comfort zones, “When they lose a little bit of that mojo.” There’s an episode when Christopher’s drug addiction is the target of an intervention from his friends and family, which rapidly goes downhill. “They’re gangsters, a completely dysfunctional group of people, and now they’re in this therapeutic modality of recovery, which none of them are suited for.”
The ultimate fish out of water episode, he says, is Pine Barrens – when Christopher and Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri – played by Tony Sirico – get lost in freezing snow in the woods, chasing a Russian guy they thought they’d killed.
Of all the actors in The Sopranos, Sirico is the most like the character he plays, Imperioli says. The two knew each other before The Sopranos – but Imperioli always felt a little intimidated – not least because Sirico had ties with the real mafia as a younger man and even did time in prison for sticking up nightclubs. “He could be very insulting and nasty – and when I heard I’d gotta do this series with him, I wasn’t looking forward to it,” he says.
But then – as with Gandolfini – Sirico wound up becoming one of Imperioli’s best friends, and still is. It’s something about the unique chemistry of the show, he thinks.
He suggests that’s why The Sopranos is better than everything else. “It’s like alchemy.” You can talk about the quality of the writing, the acting, the film-making – but it was also a group of people with similar backgrounds that were in the same place at the right time. “We just liked being together. It was family.”
Woke up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of The Sopranos by Michael Imperioli and Steve Shirripa is published on 11 November. The stage show In Conversation With the Sopranos goes on tour next year.