James Gandolfini was cast as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos for a surprising reason which had nothing to do with his previous gangster roles. The role of Tony Soprano made a household name of James Gandolfini, who had previously appeared on Broadway, and in intimidating supporting roles in movies like True Romance. However, his gangster roles in Get Shorty and True Romance had less impact on being chosen to play Tony Soprano than audiences might think.
The Sopranos was always much more than a gangster movie, and so it was vital that the actor playing Tony could capture the intimidating persona needed to be a mob boss, while also displaying the vulnerability, and anxiety of man struggling to cope with his responsibilities. Gandolfini’s performance was a vital part of The Sopranos‘ biggest success – the ability to get an audience to sympathize with a gangster. Gandolfini’s nuanced performance as Tony Soprano won him many accolades, and it was a forgotten role that convinced casting director Sheila Jaffe that he was right for the role.
An Unknown James Gandolfini Movie Got Him Cast In The Sopranos
In the book Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History Of The Sopranos, Jaffe remembered that she was working on a prospective indie movie by writer-director Melissa Painter. The project had been accepted by the prestigious Sundance Lab program, which was designed to flesh out the script through a series of workshops with two actors. The story concerned a young woman’s relationship with her free-spirited “hippy” father. Surprisingly, James Gandolfini was cast as the father for the workshop, opposite Clea DuVall as his daughter.
Jaffe said that it was Gandolfini’s performance during the Sundance Lab that convinced her to offer him an audition for Tony Soprano. Jaffe remembered that: “…we already knew he could do the tough stuff, but we hadn’t seen him have all these other layers.” It was his portrayal of a family man experiencing difficulties with his teenage daughter that proved James Gandolfini could portray every facet of Tony Soprano’s incredibly complex character. Presumably due to being cast as Tony, James Gandolfini didn’t appear in the finished Wildflowers movie alongside DuVall, which was released in theaters the same year that The Sopranos first aired on HBO in 1999.
Why Tony Soprano Was So Much More Than A “Heavy” Gangster
Although his roles in True Romance and Get Shorty got him noticed, James Gandolfini’s layers as a performer were perfect for the nuanced character of Tony Soprano. David Chase’s The Sopranos was always more than a black-and-white, good-versus-evil, cops and robbers show. It was a show about the pressures of Catholic guilt, of raising a family the right way, and coping with anxiety while also running a criminal empire.
Tony Soprano was capable of brutality and violent misogyny, but he also had a heartbreaking vulnerability. The scene toward the end of The Sopranos in which Tony pulls his son A.J. Soprano (Robert Iler) out of the swimming pool after a suicide attempt is utterly devastating. It’s the conflict between Tony’s family life and his crime family that made The Sopranos such a compelling and groundbreaking drama, and while James Gandolfini playing a free-spirited hippy father may not be obvious inspiration for one of the greatest bits of casting in TV history, it makes perfect sense in that context.