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‘I Worried About Being Killed Off’ – Talking ‘The Sopranos’ with Its Stars

We spoke to Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa about their podcast, which takes an episode-by-episode look at the greatest TV show of all time.

“De Niro is an asshole,” says Steve Schirripa on an episode of his new podcast. “He couldn’t be ruder. You say hello to him and he’s stuck for a fucking answer unless he has a script.”

Schirripa is known for playing the mobster with a big heart, Bobby Baccalieri, in The Sopranos. On his podcast, Talking Sopranos – co-hosted with Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher Moltisanti – he’s less held back. It turns out he’s also got no time for Werner Herzog, or the celebrity tightwads he encountered while running casinos in Vegas before his acting career: “Tiger Woods and Scottie Pippin? The worst tippers. Michael Jordan, we used to call ‘Hoarding Jordan’.”

But there’s more to the podcast that Schirripa’s historical beef; the honest and entertaining listen includes details, stories and insights from arguably the greatest TV show of all time. It’s an episode by episode run down – so will stretch to 86 shows in total – and features guests from the cast and crew dropping by to offer their recollections. By the pair’s own admission it took them a little while to get into the groove (having to do it remotely in lockdown), but it produces plenty of nuggets.

In particular, it seems like Tony Sirico – who plays Paulie – could have a multi-part podcast made about his life, with revelations about his past spilling out constantly. For instance: he says he used to give wedgies to Jimi Hendrix in a nightclub back in the day, and that he was once so hench that appeared on the front cover of a porn magazine for women.

Currently nine episodes into the series, I spoke with Schirripa and Imperioli about revisiting the show and exploring its legacy.

VICE: How’s it been returning to this world again?
Steve Schirripa: Great. Neither one of us has watched it since it aired. It’s a lot of fun seeing the show from the beginning, because I’d forgotten so much. It’s just like getting to have lunch with Michael once a week and then catch up with cast and crew.
Michael Imperioli: It’s been really cool to go back and have a lot of distance from the show – to approach it with a bit more objectivity. As well as to revisit those times and what was going on behind the scenes.

Do you guys like the show as much as everyone else? Is it the best TV show of all time?
SS: I think it really holds up every bit as it did 20 years ago. I’m enjoying it a lot more now. I also understand it a lot more, like the stuff with Dr Melfi [Tony Soprano’s therapist] more. I’m also realising how funny the show is, like it’s a laugh-out-loud funny show. I’m enjoying every minute of it. Even if I wasn’t a part of it, I think it’s the best show in TV history. It’s one of the few shows that I watch and I just never want to end. Some shows, it’s like, ‘When the fuck is this thing over.’
MI: I feel the same way. What I’m really reminded of is how entertaining and engaging it is on both an intellectual and comedic level, along with the gangster noir vibe. A lot of the shows that came after The Sopranos that got a lot of accolades, I don’t think they quite captured that same blend of comedy and drama.

Did the success of the show add pressure on you at all?
MI: I never felt pressure throughout the show, I just loved every minute. We were having so much fun, we didn’t have to worry.
SS: For me, the pressure came more after the show ended. You have some people that love you and some that want to see you fail. I remember being somewhere with Michael in Brooklyn, just after the show ended, and some guy came up to us and said: “So what are you fucking guys gonna do now?” Like it was over and we were finished, and I was going to go back to bagging groceries or something.

How’s your relationship to your own characters all these years on? How do you view them?
MI: As an actor it was a tremendous role to play. The range of emotions and situations that Christopher was in was an actor’s dream. I always admired his ambition, too, that he would always work towards things he wanted to achieve.
SS: Bobby was a good family guy who I think got into the mob by accident via his father. I like how he developed over the years; at the beginning he was just Junior’s dumb caretaker, but he developed to the point that he was sitting at the Soprano table for Sunday dinners. So maybe he wasn’t as dumb as everyone realised. He married the boss’ sister, even though she was kind of evil.

There are a lot of murders in the show. Was it hard on a personal level when someone would be killed off who you’d been working with closely for years?
MI: That was the hardest part. It wasn’t so much the character you mourned the loss of, but you knew when you weren’t going to be seeing that person at work anymore. We were close friends and there was a lot of camaraderie and fun. We lasted until the very end, but the people who were killed off before it, it was tough. We missed them.
SS: I felt for the guys who were killed off early. They were out of work, so missed out on money and the whole ride of the show. There was a lot to miss out on if you got killed in season two or three. It would have been hard for me. I would have really struggled if I’d got killed off early – both financially and missing working with friends.

Did you guys know from the off that your characters would last until the final season, or was it on a season-by-season basis?
SS: It was an episode-by-episode basis.
MI: We didn’t know at all. Although, I never really worried about it, as I figured that Christopher was too colourful a character to get rid of.
SS: I worried. The more your character got to do, the more invested the audience would become, and you had a better chance. The higher the stakes, the less chance you’ve got of being killed off. I was concerned, to be honest. I didn’t even buy an apartment in New York until the show ended – that’s how concerned I was. Every episode I sweated it out.

Tony Sicirco, who plays Paulie, sounds like he’s a real character off screen too?
SS: Tony is a wonderful guy and they broke the mould when they made him. There’s no other person on earth like Tony Sirico. We’ve had a lot of laughs with him.
MI: He’s a one of a kind. But a lot of the cast were characters in their own right; they led interesting lives before the show. Like Steve was in the casino business in Vegas for years. Tony had a life in crime before he got into acting. It wasn’t just actors playing roles, it was people who had lived and had a lot of experience in the world to draw from.
SS: Someone like Tony, and even myself, they start to write around your strengths. There was a lot of Tony in Paulie, and vice versa. He was a hypochondriac in real life also. He’s quirky. His invited guests for an event that we all went to one evening were nine of his doctors and their wives.

Those kinds of little details are the best part of the podcast for me.
SS: That’s the difference between our podcast and ones that exist by people who had nothing to do with the show. We lived it – they know nothing beyond what they’ve read.

Have there ever been any negatives attached to being in The Sopranos?
MI: It’s been overwhelmingly positive for me on a lot of levels in my life.
SS: The only thing for me was just being seen as the mob guy. I mean, I’m not going to play an English professor, let’s not kid ourselves, but there are other roles. They always want to see you play the gangster and to put you in that box.

How’s it been doing this podcast while having such a hole in the middle of it, due to James Gandolfini’s death? In some senses you must be revisiting the loss of a friend as well as the show?
MI: Yeah, it’s been bittersweet. I think one of the reasons I haven’t watched the show in so long, especially in the last seven years, is that it’s too painful. It reminds you that we have a friend who is no longer with us. We miss him, without a doubt. There’s a lot of other people, both cast and crew, who have passed away too. But it feels like the time is right now. It’s bittersweet, but it’s more sweet than bitter.

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