David Chase on the Last Time He Saw James Gandolfini (Q&A)
In the wake of "The Sopranos" star's death of a heart attack on June 19, friends and collaborators remember a titan of the craft and a man of complex integrity.
This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Hollywood Reporter: When and where did you first meet Jim? What were your first impressions?
David Chase: I met him right around this time of year, July 1997, when we were casting the pilot. That was a two-month process. Halfway through, I knew we had the guy. I don't recall my first impressions of him, but it was a casting call in a room above this dance studio. He came upstairs, did the part, I remember he was very good. But he didn't finish. He said, "I can't do this," and he left. I guess Sheila Jaffe, the casting director, probably called his agent and we had a couple of near misses with him after that. But then he read for me at my house in L.A. We taped him inside my garage in Santa Monica. He was excited and said he was born to play the role but probably had some trepidation about the intensity of the work. He'd never carried a movie or his own show. Anyone with half a brain going into the one-hour genre would have felt the same. It's a lot of work, and potentially really boring.
THR: What was your and Jim's toughest moment making the pilot?
Chase: Those therapy scenes -- there were three of them -- were real mothers. He and Lorraine [Bracco] were sitting in chairs and there was nothing but page after page after page of dialogue that had to be memorized. I don't know how familiar Jim was with the feeling of a psychiatric office -- I believe Lorraine had been to therapy before, I don't believe he ever had. That was the only real rehearsal we did on the pilot. We met in a hotel room for a day and went over and over and over those scenes. So much talking and so much bottled-up emotion. Lying and deceiving and covering up. There were a lot of levels. He had to master all of that.
THR: What do you remember about his approach to the work on set?
Chase: Unfortunately, there was never a lot of rehearsal time. He had the read-through for each episode but really didn't get to rehearse until he was on the set starting to block it. I know he worked intensely with Susan Aston, his good friend and dialogue coach, and ran scenes. It was very difficult because he'd work 14 hours a day, then go home and have to memorize another five to six pages of work for the next day. I don't know how he did it. It was terrific to see him thrive when the show became a hit. We all felt that way, we were glad for one another. There was a camaraderie -- I felt it, he felt it. There was never any TV star bullshit going on. Never any "My trailer has to be as far from the stage as her trailer." None of that. There were arguments of course. It was a family, but a great spirit.
THR: Jim was open about his struggle with fame and rarely did media during The Sopranos' run. How much did you help him overcome these feelings, if at all?
Chase: There was no coaching -- I let him cope with that on his own. You know, I was a newbie to all that myself, so that was his thing to work out. His feeling was that he wanted people to react when they were watching the show not to his personality or his high school career -- he wanted it to be pure and clean. He was very hard on himself -- extremely hard on himself. It was never really enough; he was never really enough for himself. He knew we had to move on and there was a schedule, but he was pretty self-punishing. He had no interest in watching dailies. He had very little interest in even watching the show -- he approached that with a great deal of trepidation. He was very gregarious on set, but in his trailer he did a lot of sleeping. He was working so hard, he needed the rest.
THR: How often were you and Jim in communication after The Sopranos ended in 2007?
Chase: We had very, very little communication at all, and that went on for a period of years. We'd talk occasionally or I'd see him at a function. But the show had been very intense on everybody's part, and we just didn't do it. I don't think any of us was that interested in rehashing anything, or talking about it. Then I did Not Fade Away, and I wanted him to be in it and he was right there. He said, "I don't know what you want me to do, but I'll do it." We had a great time working on that movie, and ever since then, our relationship was really good.
THR: How did it feel to work together again?
Chase: To me, it felt really good. You know, when Sopranos started -- I was older than he was -- we were both Italian-American kids from New Jersey and probably grew up about 18 miles apart and were from the same social class. And we brought that ethos to the show when it first began. We were just amazed we were able to do the work! Then as the show went on and became a huge starship gliding through the galaxy, it became very complicated with a lot of stress … it was all about work. It was pure work, it was fun, but there wasn't the same level of feeling of discovery as at the beginning. But when we did Not Fade Away, it was very simple and pure and more like us working when we first started. Even though we couldn't have done the movie without the Sopranos experience, it felt like we went back about 12 years and it was very refreshing and tremendously enjoyable and creative. All the publicity and all the whole being Jim Gandolfini and me being me was a job in itself, but once we came together on that movie, we were sort of back where we started.
THR: When was the last time you saw him?
Chase: The day before Easter he had a party at his apartment in New York. We'd gotten this invitation out of the blue. He and Deborah [Lin, his wife] were having a party with the new baby. It was a really nice afternoon, 30 or 40 people. Everything Jim did had a family feeling to it. But he had never done anything like this before -- an out-of-the-blue party? Very casual, with wine and pasta. I think his relationship with Deborah and his new baby were very nutritious for him.
THR: How did knowing Jim change you?
Chase: As a person? I really can't say, it's probably for somebody else to answer because I don't have that clear of a picture of myself. Did I learn from him? I'll say this. Working with an actor of his tremendous ability and aliveness taught me to truly enjoy working with actors. Before, it was something I was not fond of at all. But with him, it became a complete joy.
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