‘Saints of Newark’ Star Alessandro Nivola on ‘Sopranos,’ David Chase
“I’ve never been here. This is not a representation of my character,” says Alessandro Nivola, sliding into the broad, beige-y booth of a Park Avenue joint with a decidedly ladies-who-lunch vibe one recent Sunday morning in New York. The lighting is flattering. The prices alarm. The waitstaff scurry about as if catering to nobility. “I’ve got some photo shoot around the corner,” Nivola demurs, dimples flashing, about his request to meet here. “I’m not like, ‘This is me!’”
In fact, Nivola has spent the better part of the past few decades trying to explain to Hollywood folks (casting directors, regular directors, industry bigwigs) who exactly he is — a character actor in a leading man’s body — and what exactly to do with him. It’s not that he hasn’t gotten work; he has, and an enviable amount of it, his restrained charisma enlivening such disparate offerings as Junebug, Face/Off, Disobedience, and any number of European costume dramas, including Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, where he met wife Emily Mortimer (“I dragged her back to L.A. with me”). But he’s never quite had the success of friends like Ethan Hawke and Jude Law. When he has managed to book leading roles, he’s measured how far down the list of choices he was by how little time he’s had to prepare (for 2019’s The Art of Self-Defense, he says he had 24 hours to learn black-belt karate). “It’s usually somebody more famous than me has dropped out or whatever,” Nivola tells me. “Things have never just dropped into my lap. My agents are fucking exhausted. I was the lead in 10 or 11 movies that never got released. I’ve had nights with my agents where we’ve gotten drunk together and gone through and counted them and just laughed about how much work I’ve done that’s never been seen.” In other words: “It’s been a grind. A real grind.”
This might have just been the way of it. This grind may have been his fate. Then one day in 2018, he got a call: The Sopranos was making a prequel movie, and he was being asked to audition for the role of Dickie Moltisanti, to tape five scenes playing the lead in what was likely to become a blockbuster. “I would never have been given the opportunity to star in a film like this if it weren’t for the fact that [the studio] told David Chase he could have whoever he wanted,” Nivola states baldly. And Chase apparently wanted him. “I just remember Alessandro from American Hustle and The Most Dangerous Year,” the Sopranos creator tells Rolling Stone, citing a couple of Nivola’s small but notable roles. “I always thought he was great. And he’s Italian. I thought, ‘Where has this guy been? Why doesn’t he get jobs?’ And I decided to get him a job.”
Nivola worked on the audition for weeks. After Chase and director Alan Taylor invited him to lunch in TriBeCa, he prepared by picking the brain of his neighbor Tim Van Patten, who had directed episodes of The Sopranos. “I said to Tim, ‘What’s David like?’ And he said, ‘Listen, don’t expect him to laugh at your jokes or whatever.’” The lunch went swimmingly nonetheless, in large part because Nivola had the Italian bona fides Chase prizes.
“I knew that David and I would have a lot to talk about because he’s so curious about what exactly each person’s immigrant experience might be,” says Nivola over his scrambled eggs. “I definitely have had times where I felt like my name was an obstacle just because no one can fucking say it. And then finally this thing came along where it was a strike in my favor, and there could be no mistaking the fact that there was some part of me made to play this part.”
Still, after an offer to send him the full script, a month passed with no word. Nivola was on an extended layover in Los Angeles, eating lunch at the Chateau Marmont, when the call came through that the part was his. “I went into the public bathroom down there, closed the stall, and just put my head in my hands and cried for a good 10 minutes,” he tells me. “I think they thought I was getting divorced or something terrible was happening. I just let it all hang out. It was such a relief.” Finally, it seems, fate had given him favor.
That’s more than you can say for Dickie Moltisanti, Tony’s uncle, Christopher’s father, and a character who is referenced in the HBO series but never actually appears. If anything, the movie is a study of his genetic, predestined inability to be the man — the son, partner, father figure — he imagines himself to be. “David is playing on all these Greek tragedy themes,” says Nivola. “The whole thing is about fate, trying to escape out from under your fate, and it not being possible. It’s about these cycles of violence in families, cycles of abuse. It’s hard-wired, and it’s totally self-defeating.” It is the stuff of which shrink visits are made, and The Many Saints of Newark — which takes place during the race riots of 1967 and casts Jim Gandolfini’s son Michael as a young Tony Soprano — does much to set that stage.
But the real star of the show isn’t Tony, it’s Dickie, which gave Chase a chance to extend the Sopranos narrative and Nivola a chance to create a character almost out of whole cloth. He got a dialect coach. He toured Newark with a Catholic priest who pointed out the stained-glass windows that had been bequeathed by the Mob. Through a friend of a friend, he made the acquaintance of some contemporary made men in south Brooklyn (“It’s not quite the same, but there’s still some fraud going on”) and ended up at a party where, he says, “the guys knew all the different judges they’d been up in front of and were doing imitations of them.” He kept mum about his job. “I didn’t want them to start playing up to being like the movies. Because now it’s so hard to separate: Are people imitating those movies or are the movies imitating the people? If you were a fly on the wall at some of these dinners, you’d think Mob movies are way underplaying it.”
As he researched, he soaked up an Italian American experience he felt was at arm’s length from the one he knew. His dad’s Sardinian father and German Jewish mother had met at art school in Milan, fled Italy in the Thirties when they learned a friend had been informing on them, and joined the bohemian expat scene in Greenwich Village. They eventually landed in an enclave of abstract expressionist artists near Amagansett, New York, hobnobbing with Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, who once gave Nivola’s grandfather a painting he returned because it “made him nervous,” and that was later bought by the MoMA for $25 million. “Yeah, they really fucked up,” says Nivola. Though not so badly: His father went to Harvard, taught at Harvard, and worked for a time for the Brookings Institution. Nivola attended Phillips Exeter and Yale. One of his grandfather’s sculptures shows up in a scene of The Sopranos, when Tony is visiting catacombs in Naples, Italy; it just happened to be on display.
Nivola grew up feeling like he was straddling two cultures — speaking Italian at home, saddled with a long Italian name, but then “I’d go to Italy to see my cousins, and to them I’m as American as apple pie,” he says. “It’s almost like they want to touch my blond hair, you know what I mean?” He was a serious child, probably made more serious by what he describes as an “itinerant” childhood moving from New England college town to New England college town for his dad’s career. He realized he wanted to be an actor after seeing his cousin in a Williams College production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. “I was 10 years old or something,” he says. “I mean, what the fuck? I don’t know why that resonated with me.” His dedication to his craft was not deterred by the fact that his stage debut was as a porcupine in Winnie the Pooh. “In that scene where all these animals pull Pooh out of the hole, I just walked on in a furry suit, pulled him out of the hole, and then walked off. That was it. But I was committed. I pulled with all my might.”
High school was spent “going into the woods and listening to Frank Zappa” with his theater buddies “[in] our tie-dye shirts and long hair.” Undergrad was spent trying to worm his way into productions at the prestigious Yale School of Drama. One year out, he got his big break when he was cast in a Broadway production of A Month in the Country alongside Helen Mirren. “Jude Law and Damian Lewis and Rufus Sewell and Billy Crudup, they were in plays at the same time, and we were all just tearing New York apart, all night,” he says. “We would meet up at Cafe Un Deux Trois, start drinking, go downtown to Alphabet City, end up in somebody’s apartment till the sun came up, sleep all day, and then do our shows again. That was every night for five months or something. It was one of the most exciting times of my life.” So of course it couldn’t last. “One by one, their shows started closing, and they all went off to Hollywood, and I was left here on my own, like, ‘What the fuck? Where did everybody go?’ I thought, ‘Oh well, I guess I should be doing that too then.’”
In between doing that, Nivola has established himself as an archetypal Brooklyn Dad, settling into the type of domesticity that eludes men like Dickie. He and Mortimer “got in on the ground floor” of their Boerum Hill neighborhood 15 years ago. They sent their kids, now ages 11 and 17, to the same artsy school once attended by Noah Baumbach. They founded production company King Bee. They have date nights, as they did the evening before (“We saw 8 ½ at Film Forum, had dinner at Bar Pitti”). Those Alphabet City jaunts are a distant memory. “I’m a night owl forced to wake early because [of] my wife,” says Nivola. “I can hear the sound of her eyelids opening at 5:30 every day, and she’s totally ready to go. And ever since I had kids, I just can’t sleep in. So much of my life has been built around my kids.”
Some years back, he started organizing his life around a new principle when he decided that he would choose films not by the character he’d be playing but by the director who’d be in charge. This often meant taking much smaller roles in much more ambitious projects, an approach that led him to work with the likes of David O. Russell, Ava DuVernay, J.C. Chandor, Nicolas Winding Refn — and, ultimately, Many Saints director Alan Taylor. “He’s so down,” says Taylor. “He’s called upon [in this movie] to be the romantic lead, the avuncular hero, the most screwed-up guy in the whole story — to be all these things, and be funny. [He] blew me away.”
Of all the parts he’s played, Dickie Moltisanti feels like a culmination of something professional and personal, giving Nivola the opportunity to “showcase a whole lot of different things that I’ve done in other roles but not all together” while also tapping into his family’s past. “It was the first time that I’ve really excavated my dad’s personal history, what his experience had been assimilating into American culture. My dad was always fascinated by the other immigrant experience, [people] growing up in the outer boroughs and having to tough it out.” His dad passed away three years ago, shortly before he got cast. “But of all the roles that I’ve done, this is the one he would have wanted to see. No question.”
So it was particularly frustrating that on March 13th, 2020, as Nivola was getting ready to shoot the last five scenes of Many Saints — in character, in costume — there was a knock on his trailer door telling him that production was being shut down. He ended up moored in the English countryside, where Mortimer’s adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love was one of the first shows to go back into production (“with testing and masks and hazmat suits”). Even their two kids had roles in it. Meanwhile, Nivola spent his days staring out at an empty field, waiting for his new life as a Famous Leading Man to start, and basically “going out of my fucking mind,” he says. “It was one of the most bizarre, psychedelically upsetting periods of my life, just not being able to let go of this thing, knowing that it’s not finished and not knowing how it’s going to play out when it was all right there at the one-yard line. Finally, in September, I got the call, and they’re like, ‘OK, come on back to New York. We’re getting the old gang back together.’”
Now that the movie is finally being released, I ask if he’s somewhat apprehensive about his luck changing, about what Famous Leading Man status might really mean. “No,” he says immediately. “I don’t think my life is going to change that much. The thing that I am ready to change is [having] the opportunity to work with the best directors in roles that are really meaningful.” And a few of those are on the horizon: He’s wrapped a (second) David O. Russell comedy and is working with Ethan Hawke to produce a biopic in which they play the Louvin brothers, a famous 1950s country-music duo. Tomorrow he flies to Cleveland, where his kids are shooting a Noah Baumbach film in which he has a cameo (though not as their dad). But the real momentum, the upshift from the grind, is only getting started. “This has been a marathon from the time that I was offered this job, which was a life-changing moment, to the time that it’s actually coming out,” he says. “I’m lucky I’m not dead by now.” Clearly fate had other plans.