The mob speaks: Cast of ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ talks character-building, origin-telling

still from Many Saints
Chase Films/Courtesy

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For the stars of new film “The Many Saints of Newark,” the latest addition to David Chase’s fictional mafia universe from his acclaimed TV series “The Sopranos,” references are key. Set in 1960s and ‘70s New Jersey, the film serves as an origin story for original program’s protagonist Tony Soprano, now played by Michael Gandolfini, following the impacts of a gang war amid city race riots. In an interview with The Daily Californian, the cast reflected on the joys and pressures of inserting themselves into the chaotic world of the iconic mob family.

“I sort of love how messy and complicated it is,” Gandolfini professed. The movie elaborates not only on the impact of the police riots on the young mobster, but the contentious devastation brought on by the death of uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a slowly unravelling abuser and crime boss himself.

“I think that’s very much what ‘The Sopranos’ is,” Gandolfini added. “When someone dies, they glorify (them) and sort of make up what they want to believe.”

As the film takes place several years before the original series, which premiered in the late ‘90s, Gandolfini was challenged with the assignment of preluding the notoriety of his character while remaining faithful to the signature traits of adult Tony as depicted on the TV show. Adding onto the actor’s plate was a steaming pile of expectations; the original Tony Soprano was played by his own father, multiaward winning actor James Gandolfini.

Recalling his intimidation upon inheriting his father’s role for the movie, Gandolfini thanked his own reliable acting strategies:

“One of the things that I sort of focused on was having these little bite-sized chunks … Like okay, the accent, okay, his mannerisms,” Gandolfini explained. “If I’d thought about playing Tony Soprano or an iconic character or even my dad, I think I would’ve become overwhelmed.”

Luckily, Gandolfini’s determination to overcome the pressure of the character, helped by an uncanny resemblance to his predecessor, paid off in the film.

“When I watched the movie for the first time, I felt so much pride,” Gandolfini beamed. “I really got to do this with my dad as a son, as two Gandolfinis and also as two actors.”

Although Gandolfini’s joy came from the rewarding experience of iconic character recreation, Nivola and Leslie Odom Jr. found themselves thriving in the freedom to develop and debut their own characters for the mythology.

“That was really liberating, to not feel that I had to honor something that had been said about (Dickie) or ways that he’d been described in the show,” Nivola confessed. “I had total freedom to invent the character from my imagination and from my research over the six months that we had before starting the shoot.”

Although Nivola’s character choices were certainly left unperturbed by Chase’s vision, the openness of assignment was even more extreme for Odom Jr., who plays ambitious mobster Harold McBrayer, the only prominently featured Black character in the film. Although the film alludes to Newark’s interracial tensions, the central narrative in Chase’s mob universe remains as it was in the show: white. With little references from Chase’s main work to assist in his character development, an undaunted Odom Jr. pushed forth with optimism and creativity.

“I knew that there was a rabid fanbase, and a thoughtful fanbase. A smart, thinking crowd of people that love this show,” Odom Jr. said. “I just wanted to hopefully offer a character that was as psychologically rich and interesting as they’ve grown accustomed to from David.

While Odom Jr.’s character has a surface-level friendship with the Italian-American mob, the film doesn’t censor any of the mutual distrust and racist abuse that was inherent to white gangsters in Newark during the story’s time.

“I think (Chase’s) main objective was to try and depict the language and attitudes and behavior of these guys at this time as brutally honestly as he could,” Nivola opined, referring to the frequently racist terms used in the film. “And, you know, not to in any way try and sugarcoat the way that people spoke.”

“I appreciate it, because it’s a look into the kitchens and into the living rooms and dining rooms that I’m not privy to,” Odom Jr. added. “Were the story reversed, I’d want to do the same thing. I wouldn’t want to clean it up either.”

Commending his fellow actors for their realistic portrayals of an older generation of Italian Americans, Odom Jr. reminded that sensitive subject matter can be grounds for impactful storytelling when done with intention.

“Bravest thing you can do is to knock out the fourth wall and let us see you live as you are,” Odom Jr. concluded. “To show us the ugly parts.”

The cast’s optimism about Chase’s additions to a well-known storyline sets expectations even higher for the prequel film. Ambitious in scope and readily-anticipated, hopefully “The Many Saints of Newark” lands the hit.

“The Many Saints Of Newark” is available to stream on HBO Max.

Contact Nurcan Sumbul at [email protected].