Michael Imperioli Knows Art Can’t Save Us

Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this story

Michael Imperioli was onstage last week when a performance of “An Enemy of the People,” in which he stars, was interrupted by protesters. “I wasn’t sure if the director kind of planted them there,” he told me not long afterward. The play was written by Henrik Ibsen nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, but it has echoes of the current climate crisis. In the new revival, Jeremy Strong plays a physician, Thomas Stockmann, who learns that lucrative mineral springs in his small Norwegian town are contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria. Imperioli plays the doctor’s brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann—a man who, fearing the town’s economic ruin, plots to turn its residents against the facts.

The production is designed to involve, and to implicate, the audience. Last Thursday, at the start of a contentious town-hall scene for which the house lights remain on, Imperioli, as the mayor, asked the assembly if there were any objections. “I object to the silencing of scientists!” a man called out from the top of the theatre. Two companions soon stood up and began shouting about the perils of a warming planet.

The audience looked stunned, and a little confused. The ushers were evidently caught off guard. Then something fascinating happened. Imperioli and Strong started to improvise, incorporating the disruption into the world of the show. “I’m sorry, you need to leave!” Imperioli, whose character is a stickler for parliamentary procedure, barked. “They do not have the floor. We do not recognize this person!” He pushed the first demonstrator up the stairs toward the exit.

I spoke with Imperioli the following morning. He joined me on Zoom from his Manhattan apartment, which was decorated by his wife, Victoria, and packed with Renaissance oil paintings and statues. Imperioli is best known for playing Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano’s sensitive and hot-headed protégé, on “The Sopranos.” Recently, though, he’s had a second creative flourishing. He starred in the latest season of “The White Lotus,” and will appear in the Paul Schrader film “Oh, Canada.” His band, Zopa, is releasing a new album. He’s working to adapt his novel, “The Perfume Burned His Eyes,” into a film. And, with “An Enemy of the People,” he makes his Broadway début. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, touched on topics including Imperioli’s many creative endeavors and how Martin Scorsese launched his acting career. But he was particularly eager to talk about the protest, which had left him surprisingly exhilarated.

You’ve got so much going on, I’m wondering if we’re going to go through a whole interview without any Sopranos questions.

We can talk about whatever you like!

Let’s see. I saw “An Enemy of the People” a week and a half ago and thought it was great. Your character, the mayor, is an operator. He’s a politician. He’s very canny. One of the things I got from watching you play a climate denier, as frustrating as their argument is, once you say, “I don’t care whether what I’m saying is true,” once you’re playing a different game, it looks—fun, almost?

Yeah, because you’re acting! A lot of these politicians, they don’t believe what they’re saying. You have to be an idiot if you don’t believe that polluting the environment has an effect on the environment. It’s just cause and effect. But they’re not going to admit that because, politically, it doesn’t suit them. Do you know what happened last night? Did you hear about this?

I did. Can you explain what went down?

During the town-hall meeting, we turn the house lights on. The audience becomes part of the town hall. Some nights, people shout. Well, someone started shouting about climate change. They were climate-change activists. I wasn’t sure if the director kind of planted them there, so I just stayed in character and started calling them liars, using lines from the play, saying, “This is all just speculation! You don’t belong here! Get out!” Nobody was taking control of the situation, so as the mayor, in that room, at that point, I took it upon myself to remove him from the meeting. That was not Michael. Michael would not have done that. And if I was playing another character, I would not have done that. Jeremy stayed in character and was agreeing with them and just saying, “I understand you, but let me make my points.” And then, eventually, they got these three protesters out. I mean, I kind of agree with the protesters! I think we’re headed for disaster, climate-wise. And it’s a lot more pressing than I think a lot of us want to admit. When we continued the actual lines of the play, I made a lot of different discoveries in the next scene, just because everything got heightened. It was very interesting.

Did you worry you were gonna get soup thrown on you? Because that was my first thought.

You never know! I hope not. I don’t want anything thrown on me or any of my castmates, or any of the audience members. I think the protester probably understood I was in character. I think he was kind of going along with me. I’m not really sure. I was not going to hurt anybody, that’s for sure. I was trying to do it very safely.

How do you make the choice in the moment to say, I’m going to react like Michael or I’m going react like Mayor Stockmann?

All night long I’m Mayor Stockmann. All the choices I make for those hours are Mayor Stockmann’s. It wasn’t, like, a decision. I was the mayor in that moment. I don’t know if you call that method acting. I guess. But that’s how I work. I’m in it. I’m that guy. I’m not Michael on that stage. When I started producing theatre, we did an Arthur Miller play called “Incident at Vichy.” My friend Tom Gilroy, who’s a filmmaker now, directed it. He wrote a letter to Miller, because Miller doesn’t give those rights very easily. He was alive back then. This was 1988. Reagan was President. And Tom said, “It’s important to do this play now because of AIDS”—he was talking about power and lies and how Reagan was ignoring this. He was making a comparison to Fascist regimes. Miller gave us the rights. We tried doing this thing where, when the audience came in, there were Secret Service guys dressed in suits with the earpieces who were surveilling people and asking them questions and asking them for I.D. and all these things. We were inspired by the Living Theatre and by Steppenwolf, who were doing things like that at the time. So I’m no stranger to that breaking the fourth wall. I was trained by a woman who was a [Lee] Strasberg disciple. I remember doing exercises that went on for four or five hours where we stayed in character. So that was right up my alley, I have to say.

What is the rest of that performance like? What were those discoveries that you made?

My emotions got to a little bit of a higher place. The discovery is of how deep these feelings go—to me, it was fascinating.

How deep did they go?

They’re life and death. This town’s gonna be destroyed. I’m gonna lose my job, my reputation. Maybe they’ll run me out of town.

This is kind of a weird fluid state, but does the mayor feel the same way about the production? That the show is being interrupted, that this is going to ruin it?

No, the interruption was because they were taking my brother’s side. That was why I was so mad. If they were making my point, I wouldn’t have stopped them. I would have sat there smiling. I might have brought them onstage. I don’t know.

I saw a couple of the videos, and it was electrifying.

I thought those protesters had a lot of soul and guts. I probably shouldn’t say that. But I did! When I come out for that scene, way before this interruption happened, I lock eyes with some of the audience. I do that. Often they smile back or they’re uncomfortable. And I locked eyes with this woman, and she just looked at me in a very curious way. I noticed that. It was, like, her energy’s very strange. And then we started the scene, and I looked at her again. And again, she gave me this funny look. She was one of the protesters! And I’m wondering if she was freaked out that I was looking at her. As if I knew what she was about to do.

One of the things a protester yelled that I thought was interesting was “Art will not save us!” Do you think art can save us?

Art can help. But if we don’t make big changes in terms of how we’re affecting the climate, everything else is going to be a luxury. When we’re constantly underwater or on fire, every issue is going to become secondary to that, which may very well happen. Unless things start to change, we’re seriously fucked. Let’s be honest.

The art-will-not-save-us guy, does he have the idea of art wrong?

He said he was a theatre artist. As the mayor, I said, “You should go back to drama school!” Because I had to. I would never have said that as Michael. You know, if they would have done that in the beginning of the play, during the first scene, I would have found it incredibly disrespectful. But they did it at a point in the play—and I’m not encouraging this, and I hope it doesn’t happen again, really—they chose a point in the play with a lot of, I think, thoughtfulness. And I think there’s something very touching about people who care that much. I think they know the show’s on their side. We’re all on their side. I’m on their side. The show is about this!

Maybe one of their messages was that you’re preaching to the choir. And then they’re, in turn, preaching to the choir. Because this is about climate change, and this is a Broadway audience. I’m sure people are like-minded. Maybe the criticism is you’re not changing minds.

I don’t think they were protesting the play or criticizing the play.

What I’m asking is, what is the value of doing something like this?

There’s young people coming to see this play. There was a girl, it was her seventeenth birthday two nights ago, coming to see this play. And after the play she was absolutely thrilled. Maybe that person’s going to become our next President, or run a company, or be a senator and make a commitment to doing something about fossil fuels and carbon emissions and change the world. Maybe. I mean, I went to the theatre and I was inspired to be an actor. So maybe the message of this play is gonna get through to someone. I don’t want to be highfalutin or pretentious about it. But you never know. You don’t know how you’re gonna inspire people.

Does there need to be action for this to be a success?

What do you mean “action”?

Do people need to feel inspired? And then go to a climate-change protest or something?

No, I’m not saying that. Just saying that is a possibility. They can just see it as a night of entertainment if they want. When I go see theatre, I don’t have to be educated. But I do want to be inspired. I do want to be moved. I want to be touched. Sometimes there’s people crying at the end of the play in the audience. It’s really moving when [the doctor] says, “We just have to imagine that at some point, the truth is going to be valued and that the water’s going to be clean.” That was written a hundred and fifty years ago, and we’re still dealing with that. It’s a very profound statement in our current culture, where our politicians blatantly lie to us, say an election was stolen when it was proven that it wasn’t, and then incite violence. You know that line, “In America, we won’t have to worry about things like this,” that line gets applause almost every night.

And laughs.

And laughs! Yeah.

Can I tell you what I thought was the most disrespectful part of the whole thing? When you began yelling at the protesters, someone else in the crowd, just an audience member, yelled something like, “Get him, Christopher!”

Oh, man. At that point, who knows what people were thinking? The audience is very confused without protesters in that scene. They’re not really sure what’s really going on. Jeremy’s first line in that scene is “It’s a quarter after, I think we should get started.” And people laugh because the house lights are still on, so they’re not sure if the play’s about to start or if it’s still intermission. So it’s just so chaotic at that point. Nothing is surprising.

But does that annoy you at all, when people refer to you by the name of your character in “The Sopranos”?

No! First of all, to have a career in this business is extremely hard. To have a long career is even harder. To have a long career where you’re getting good work is almost impossible. To be remembered for something, to be identified with a character, is really difficult. And that show, it just keeps going on. I mean, there’s kids who are discovering “The Sopranos” now. The show’s twenty-five years old. It’s crazy. I understand it.

What you said earlier, that you live the character—how long does it take to become Michael again?

It’s my thing. I can turn it on and off when I want to, but I choose to keep it on when I think it has to be on, which is throughout the performance, or when I’m on a set. I’m not very public about what I do, process-wise. I don’t really let my crew people in on that. But I really put myself there. I can do it at will. That’s how I work. That’s how I’ve always worked. That’s the fun of it.

Why keep it private?

I don’t know. It’s kind of like a magician who doesn’t want to reveal their tricks. And also, especially on TV, I don’t want the crew to have to be exposed to my stuff, I guess. But I get why some actors really want to be called by the character’s name. Being on a movie set is very fucking distracting. And then you have to just turn it on. So whatever you have to do, as long as it’s not disrespecting people, I get it. You can call me whatever you want. I don’t really care because it’s not gonna affect me.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you felt called, almost, to be an actor.

I was gonna go to college and be pre-med or something, I guess, because I think it is a very worthwhile profession.

Doctors can save us.

And nurses, and scientists.

Did you have bags packed and everything?

It was the night before I was supposed to leave for college. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. An actor, a director, or a writer, but it was very abstract. It's not like you go get a degree and then you can practice acting. I just started hearing about Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio—and all my favorite actors had gone that way. I just said, Well, why don’t I just go to that school? I told my parents that’s what I wanted to do. And they said, O.K.

Your dad was a bus driver, right, who did community theatre?

He was a bus driver in the Bronx and Harlem for thirty years. And then when I was in high school—he was, what, forty?—he decided to do community theatre. Never done it in his life. I thought it was incredibly courageous. My parents took me to see plays. My dad turned me on to “Midnight Cowboy” and “Dog Day Afternoon” and movies like that when I was young—probably too young, really. When “Apocalypse Now” came out in the theatre, I went to see it—I think I was eleven. And those actors, like Brando and Pacino and Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, those actors really fucking inspired me. Getting to work with some of them, which eventually happened, I was always pinching myself. I did a movie with Jon Voight and De Niro. I never did a movie with Pacino, but I rehearsed with him once in his house—“Merchant of Venice,” with him and two other actors. That was surreal. Probably out of any actor, he was the one that made me want to be an actor. I felt like I was playing basketball with Michael Jordan. He was, like, twenty steps ahead of me. I’ll never forget it.

If someone were there watching this, what would they have seen with you and Al rehearsing lines together in his apartment?

He just became Shylock in front of my eyes. It was very strange. Everything about him, like, physically, he changed. The color of his skin changed. It was very, like, alchemical. It was magic. It was something great actors do, really.

Hey, can you give me a minute? I gotta plug this in. [He walks with his laptop to a different part of the apartment.] O.K.! We’re back.

I feel like you’re in a palazzo.

My wife’s an interior designer. I reap the benefits of that.

You’ve got the statues. There’s the drapes. There’s the gilding. Who is behind us? What is that painting?

The statue’s Venus. And the painting, I believe it’s Santa Barbara. It’s an Italian painting.

Is your wife also Italian?

No, my wife is a Ukrainian Jew. But she loves Italian art and style.

Do you know where the Imperiolis are from?

Yeah, the Imperiolis are from Rome. They’ve been in Rome for a long, long time. Some of them are still there. I see them sometimes when I go there.

Like the “White Lotus” story line, where your character goes with his father and his son to find their Sicilian relatives.

Oh, yeah. I had that whole experience the first time I went to Italy. I was twenty-six. I had a phone number of my cousin who I’d never met. I called up. They said, “We’re going to eat in a little while—come over.” So I went over. I took the subway. I went to their apartment. They didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Italian—I speak a little Italian now. But they were making pasta, and the interesting thing was, the pasta sauce was the exact same sauce that my grandfather’s family made in New York. Because my great-grandmother and half of the kids, including my grandfather, came to New York, and half of them stayed in Rome. So the sauce was hers. And they still made it, and it was the same flavor. That blew my mind.

When you go on set for “GoodFellas,” with Martin Scorsese and Joe Pesci and all the others, do you have a moment like you had with Al Pacino?

Oh, my God, are you kidding me? To be an Italian American, New York actor, and all of a sudden—I mean, Scorsese and De Niro were idols, heroes. I saw “Raging Bull” when it came out, when I was fourteen. It blew my mind open. I say it was like you were playing college baseball, and suddenly you’re in the World Series at Yankee Stadium. That’s what it was like for me, man. But my first experience on a movie was “Lean on Me,” which was directed by John Avildsen, who did “Rocky.” And he was very impatient. He was not very nice, to be honest. I think he was overwhelmed because there were, like, a thousand high-school kids in this. He made me audition in the cafeteria during the lunch break with, like, hundreds of kids. It was horrible. I had one line. What happens is, we’re in the auditorium, which is full with extras. Morgan Freeman’s onstage reading out these characters’ names, calling them up to the stage where he’s gonna expel them, and every kid has a reaction. He calls my name, and my reaction is, “Hey, I’m gonna be a star.” But I’d never been in front of a camera. This was the eighties. There were giant Panavision cameras, and I didn’t know where to look. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I mumbled the line thinking maybe they won’t notice me or something. And then [Avildsen] comes and starts giving direction. He goes, “And you with that ‘Gonna be a star,’ you’d better give me something or you’re out of here!” I was horrified. I think, I’m horrible, I suck.

But a pretty great first line.

Pretty good. But they cut the line, actually. A year later, I get “GoodFellas.” And Scorsese was absolutely the opposite. He comes to my little honey-wagon trailer and says, “If you have any questions, come and get me.” He says, “Don’t feel shy. It’s good if you treat the actors like the character.” Which was really helpful, because now I don’t have to be a fanboy. So when we go on the set, he made me feel so comfortable, what I did was—the bar, the way it was set up would have me, as the bartender, making drinks with my back to the poker table. I told the set dresser, “No, you’ve gotta move all the bottles here. I have to watch them because it’s my job to make them happy, be attentive to them.” And Marty said, “Yes, yes. Do what the kid says.” I don’t know where I got the balls to do this. I guess it was because Marty was so kind and generous and welcoming. So now I’m rearranging the set. And then I said to the prop guy, “Listen, I want to reset the props at the card table between takes.” And Marty said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Let him do that.” I would never do that now, probably. So then De Niro comes in and sits down and I go up to him, and I said, “Jimmy, what are you drinking?”

He said, “A shot of Cutty Sark and a glass of water.” This is before we’re shooting—this is before rehearsal. He’s just coming to the set. So I bring him the shot. I think he was really happy, because the last thing he wants is me saying, “I’m a big fan, Bob! It’s so nice to be on a movie with you!” He wants to work.

And are you thinking the whole time, “I can’t screw this up”?

No, it wasn’t that at all! I felt like I belonged there. They made me feel that way. Marty made me feel like I was just as much a part of the cast as anyone there. And so did those other actors. You just had to be in the moment and behave and do the scene. The only line that was scripted was, “Why don’t you go fuck yourself, Tommy?” All that other stuff was different every take. He’s letting some guy who’s done nothing—me—create dialogue with all these stars. That’s why he’s who he is. To be able to give me all that confidence and ease—that’s because he’s great. I’ll always be indebted to him for that.

And so you’re willing to do whatever it takes for him at that point?

They had a stunt double for me. The stunt was he’s getting shot, he gets propelled backward, hits the bar, and hits the ground. I said, “I could do that.” Marty said, “Yeah, let the kid do it.” I had a glass in my hand. The prop guy didn’t give me a breakaway glass. It was real. I did the stunt fine, but when I hit the ground, the glass broke and sliced open two of my fingers really badly. Marty says, “Everybody freeze.” Because he saw what happened. I’m on the ground, and I look up, and there’s De Niro looking down at me. That’s when it got surreal. They took me to the emergency room. And we walk in, and the hospital staff starts freaking out: “Code blue!” And I’m, like, “Yeah, I cut my finger.” They’re coming at me with stretchers because I have three bullet holes in my chest. They think I’m about to die. It’s in Queens—they don’t know! I said, “I’m in a movie with Robert De Niro. I cut my hand.” They think I’m delirious. They put me on a stretcher and bring me into the trauma care, and they finally cut my shirt open and see all the squibbing. I said, “I told you, I’m in a movie. Robert De Niro!” And they said, “O.K., have a seat. We’ll be with you in a little while.” It was, like, three hours later when they finally stitched me up. And then I went back and shot a couple more takes. I think it’s the first take, though, that’s in the movie.

You’ve worked with Scorsese, with Mike White, with David Chase, Lena Dunham—you were in “Girls.” You worked with Spike Lee—

Many times with Spike.

What do you learn from them? Do they share anything that makes them all great?

The best ones make you feel like you belong there, give you a sense of freedom so you can feel comfortable, to be vulnerable and to express yourself. The worst directors yell and they’re kind of gruff, or they’re critical, and that closes you. So you don’t want to take chances, you’ll make safer choices. It’ll be less interesting. I guess the great artists have, you know, compassion. They’re also usually good human beings. That’s what I’ve found.

Since you’ve become a successful actor, you’re still into Tae Kwon Do, you’ve owned a couple of bars, you’re into Buddhist meditation, you wrote a novel, you’re in a band, and you ran a theatre, as you mentioned, for a number of years. Does the roundedness help the acting?

No. It’s the same thing. You’re expressing stuff that’s inside you. You’re just using different means to do it. It’s the same thing, really. I was never one who was going to sit around and wait for my agent to call and get me a job. I have to stay creative and busy or I become . . . not happy.

How did you learn that?

From being unhappy! Very often I wish that I only did one thing. The jazz bass player Ron Carter is someone I spend time with. He’s in his eighties now. And he goes, “You do all these different things? I’m still trying to figure out how to play the bass.” This very elemental instrument with just four strings, and he’s still discovering it. He’s a master, and teaches, and played with the greatest, and is one of the great musicians ever. In some ways, I’m very jealous of that singularity of focus. But this might just have been my path, to do different things. I don’t really recommend it, actually.

Are there any creative outlets or hobbies that you’ve had to give up?

I don’t have any hobbies. I used to like betting on horses. Going to O.T.B.—was that a hobby? I don’t know. It’s more of a vice, probably, because I lost a lot of money.

Are there things that are, like, “If only I had the time, I would love to get into surfing”?

No. My wife and I lived in Santa Barbara, and we’re the least outdoorsy people in the world. Everyone’s surfing and hiking and bicycling, and we did none of that stuff. No, no, no, no. Artistic expression—none of this was, like, “I want to try this.” Literature and music—they were like my oxygen. Acting, writing screenplays, expressing yourself through these things—they meant everything. My heroes, my musical heroes, my literary heroes, my acting heroes, they were like lighthouses for me in the darkness, in this very confusing, strange world that has a lot of suffering in it.

That’s what I was getting at earlier, when I was asking you about the value of the play, for example. Even if I don’t feel compelled to do something, or inspired to change things, there’s understanding, fellowship.

Exactly! That’s what these artists did for me. They made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world, that my mind wasn’t so strange, that the way I saw the world or the way I felt was not wrong, was not weird. That’s how it made me feel. People like that, it’s hard to overestimate their influence. So if there’s one person that comes to see this play and gets inspired, and it leads them to some kind of positive path, that’s incredible. And maybe that won’t happen, but there’s the possibility of it. And at least maybe people have a good time for two hours.

Hopefully you get some drama-free productions, from the audience, at least.

A little of this goes a long way. Message came through loud and clear. We’re good for now. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *