Before the Sopranos Prequel Airs, Michael Imperioli, a.k.a. Christofa, Speaks About What Inspires Him

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On October 1, the prequel to The Sopranos, The Many Saints of Newark, premieres in theaters and on HBO Max. The much-anticipated film is part of a greater Sopranos revival that includes Talking Sopranos, the self-proclaimed “definitive rewatch podcast” hosted by Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, who played Christopher Moltisanti and Bobby Bacala, respectively. The idea for the podcast began in 2019, around the time of the show’s 20th anniversary, when Imperioli and Schirripa saw the many Sopranos fan pages and meme accounts that had sprung up over the years.

The two launched Talking Sopranos during the pandemic to appease fans on Instagram, many of whom took to the series for the first time during quarantine. The duo charts the series episode by episode, interviewing, according to Imperioli, “almost everyone involved with the show”: executive producer David Chase, actor-musician-consigliere Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Manfred Dante), and the beloved Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano). Schirripa and Imperioli’s forthcoming book, Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of the Sopranos (out November 2), continues to fuel this new wave of Sopranos enthusiasts.

In the upcoming prequel, out this weekend, series creator David Chase adds new chapters that cover the characters’ past lives. It’s Newark in the late ’60s (specifically 1967 and 1971), where the younger versions of faces fans know well—Pussy, Uncle June, Paulie Walnuts, Silvio Dante—still galavant with their girlfriends and pow-wow in dim backrooms. Rival gangsters in striped bell-bottoms test the DiMeo crime family’s ostensible invincibility. We also meet new characters, like Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola), who was only alluded to in the original show. Through Nivola’s portrayal, we come to understand Dickie’s profound impact on Tony Soprano, his nephew, and Christopher, his son. In typical David Chase fashion, he inscribes fate and meaning in every detail; “many saints” in Italian is Moltisanti.

Although Michael Imperioli, the actor who played the favorite fan character who lovingly became known as Christofa, does not appear in Many Saints, it is his immersive voice that narrates the film as an eerily omniscient scene-setter. A few weeks before the premiere of Many Saints, over lunch in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Imperioli discussed the upcoming premiere, his band’s new single, and why he featured Lou Reed in the novel he wrote for his son.

Your character, Christopher Moltisanti, was born in 1969, and his father Dickie was killed when Chris was young. Dickie Moltisanti loomed large for both Chris and Tony. What did you learn about Christopher through this fleshed-out version of his father that the new film offers?

Michael Imperioli: The main takeaway for me regarding the relationship between Christopher and the film is that having Dickie as a present father, despite him being a gangster, could have really been a help to Christopher. Dickie had some noble qualities, and if Christopher were raised by someone like him, who knows? Maybe he would have avoided the pitfalls of the mob, and maybe his psychology would have been something other than an addictive and compulsive one.

From Left to Right: Actors Tony Sirico, Steven Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli, and Vincent Pastore in from The Sopranos

Vincent Pastore;James Gandolfini;Tony Sirico;Steve Van Zandt;Michael Imperioli

From Left to Right: Actors Tony Sirico, Steven Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli, and Vincent Pastore in from The Sopranos
Photo: Anthony Neste/Getty Images

In the original series, Dr. Melfi (Tony’s psychiatrist, played by Lorraine Bracco), emphasizes what a profound influence parental figures have had on Tony. How do you think living without his father shaped Christopher?

I think Christopher had a big hole in his psyche, having grown up without a strong male role model. Even though Tony stepped in, he was not Chris’s dad, and his love only went so far. He didn’t treat Chris like his own son, and even though Chris looked to him for that, he resented that there were limits to the love.

You began to write a coming-of-age novel in 2013 to connect with your eldest son Vadim who was 16 at the time. The Perfume Burned His Eyes reads like Sailnger set in 1976. The story chronicles 17-year-old Matthew as he meets the alluring underbelly of Manhattan through the eyes of an unexpected friend, Lou Reed, and a love interest, Veronica, a city girl who grew up too fast.

It started as a coming-of-age story. Lou died about three months after I started writing. And it kind of hit me in a lot of ways, like as a friend, as I knew him as an artist, as a New Yorker, someone who had admired him so much as a fan. It hit hard. The idea of just having him In the story somehow popped up. But originally he wasn’t.

There’s a scene towards the end of the book where Matthew writes the lyrics of Lou Reed’s “The Blue Mask” on his body. He says, “I became the song.” Why “The Blue Mask”?

“The Blue Mask” is one of my favorite songs of his. One night I went to see him and got to know him a bit backstage. That night, he played that song. I wasn’t expecting to hear it but had been listening to it a lot. The song always resonated with me. The lyrics are so powerful. To me, “The Blue Mask” embodies and exemplifies who he was as a lyricist and a musician. Robert Quine is one of my favorite guitar players, so the fact that he’s on that track means a lot.

The idea of this young boy looking at those lyrics which are very...BDSM, hardcore, disturbing, violent lyrics. This young kid takes that in, connecting them to this guy, Reed, whom he had an emotional connection with. It’s a lot. The song relates to Matthew’s state of mind at that time, what it does to his state of mind, where it takes him. I thought, This just makes sense.

A strong nostalgia for the New York punk scene of the past comes through—specifically the ‘60s/’70s, which is also the time period of the prequel.

I grew up outside of the city. If you take the train 25 minutes north, you would end up in my old bedroom. When I was 17, I started spending most of my time in Manhattan. I wanted to go to Columbia with my best friend and applied the first year they went co-ed but didn’t get in. The next choice was SUNY Albany. The night before I was supposed to move in, I told my parents it wasn’t for me. I wanted to go to acting school. Instead of college, I took acting classes. Through music and movies, I was always attracted to that New York of the late ’60s and ’70s. And in ’83 there still was that kind of feeling here. It was a very fertile time.

Cast members from The Many Saints of Newark, inlcuding (left to right:) Corey Stoll, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Michael Gandolfini (playing a young Tony Soprano), Gabriella Piazza, and Alessandro Nivola

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Cast members from The Many Saints of Newark, inlcuding (left to right:) Corey Stoll, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Michael Gandolfini (playing a young Tony Soprano), Gabriella Piazza, and Alessandro Nivola
Photo: Barry Wetcher/Courtesy of © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

You recently performed The Velvet Underground’s 1967 song “Heroin” with your band ZOPA at Mercury Lounge. You’re still singing to that era in this intergenerational way. You also performed a set of originals as well. Many people don’t know you’re in a band, but it seems music is just as important as acting in your life.

My bandmates Elijah Amitin and Olmo Tighe and I recorded our first album La Dolce Vita almost eight years ago, and we hadn’t played shows since. I started getting a lot of interest in my music through Instagram, so we thought, why don’t we just put our first album out? We released it on Bandcamp last summer. That led to our show at the Mercury shows and a few upcoming gigs in Jersey and Seattle. These are our first live shows in almost eight years. We have a bunch of new stuff. Yesterday we recorded a new single with Producer Jon Agnello (Sonic Youth, Patti Smith, Dinosaur Jr.).

In your book, you and Steve jokingly talk about the ego. “I have an ego, but I’m not vain,” you say. Have you been thinking about that idea of ego in your art?

I practice Buddhism, which is about dismantling the ego. The book I’m reading now is Cynicism and Magic by Chögyam Trungpa. He talks about the ego. What I learned through Buddhism is you can relate to the ego as something separate. Ego, if you look at it in a healthy way, can be about confidence. I’ve dedicated my life to being an artist, be it writing or music. I’ve been doing all of this stuff since the beginning. It just wasn’t public until later.

Every time I get on set for the first day, I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I was just talking to another actor about this and said, “This is really, really horrible to think you’ve been doing this professionally for 35 and you feel like you can’t.” But then there’s something in me that says, No, I’ve done this. It’s like you remember you have a right to do it.

A scene from The Many Saints of Newark
A scene from The Many Saints of Newark
Photo: Courtesy of © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

What about as a musician?

It took a lot longer with the band. When we formed in 2006, we did a lot of shows for seven years. Hundreds of shows—anywhere they’d have us play, we played. We were new and finding what we were doing. Finally this year, when we started playing again, I felt comfortable in my skin. We spend a lot of time together, and there’s something about the three of us together that’s its own thing, it’s special.

In the fourth season of the Sopranos, you wrote the episode “Christopher,” which relates to the show’s larger existential questions about how we justify our actions and where we choose to draw the line. Does this relate to Buddhism?

You have to have ethics. I wrote that before I was studying Buddhism. But related to this, when they passed the [six-week abortion ban] in Texas, I posted something indicating that I’m pro-choice. A lot of people are calling me a hypocrite because I’m a Buddhist. They think Buddha wouldn’t have been pro-choice. It’s not like Catholicism, where there’s a clear stance. There’s no clear Buddhist stance on abortion. It’s not about telling people how they should behave. Buddhism is about your individual teacher and mind. Buddhism isn’t about telling people how to behave. It’s an individual path. I post a lot about gun control. And people say, “You glamorized violence and gangs.” I think if you watch The Sopranos and think if what they do is kinda cool, you have bigger problems.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Originally Appeared on Vogue