CINCINNATI — The Village at the Lift publicity tent has massive, thick walls of white canvas rising high enough to support a second floor balcony. Normally used for large parties, the tent was eerily empty despite it being the opening Friday of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Back in a corner, sinking so low into a couch that he seemed to be touching the floor, was James Gandolfini, who passed away last Wednesday from a heart attack. But when I saw him he was in in Park City, Utah to speak about the political comedy In the Loop, his first major role since wrapping eight years as mob boss Tony Soprano on HBO’s The Sopranos.
For whatever reason, maybe Sundance gridlock, perhaps some competing publicity events, none of the other journalists showed for the interview. So I spent solo time with the normally press-shy Gandolfini inside a tent that could hold a thousand Tony Sopranos.
Visibly upset by the thin turnout, Gandolfini turned the film’s publicist for answers. “Kevin Spacey is downstairs,” she replied (the Village at the Lift tent is two stories and sits atop a complex of brand lounges). I prepared for a Sopranos-style outburst.
Instead, Gandolfini relaxed, joked about a nearby snack table being clean of snacks and talked easily about his In the Loop role as a U.S. Army General caught up in a zany plot in the run-up to an Iraq-like war.
Celebrity interviews, more often than not, are banal and orderly affairs, with 15-minute blocks flowing from one journalist to the next.
But in this surreal setting borne of a once-in-a-lifetime coincidence, Gandolfini leaned forward and spoke about his love for comedy and making people laugh, his admiration for British comics, his In the Loop co-stars Peter Capaldi, Chris Addison, and James Smith, and how he prepped for the improvisational requirements of his role.
As the film’s director Armando Iannucci (up for an Emmy for his HBO comedy series Veep) and co-star Mimi Kennedy arrived and sat on the edges waiting for their turns, Gandolfini continued to talk about his future creative goals.
Unexpectedly engaged with Gandolfini, and with him smiling and relaxed, I brought up the success of the recent Sex and the City movie and asked the big question everyone wanted to know but he previously never discussed. Would he be interested in making a Sopranos movie?
“If I was broke, I would do it,” Gandolfini told me with a sudden scowl, a quote I used later that day for a news article. Then, he relaxed again and spoke positively about the possibilities. “Obviously it is the writing of the script and if David [Sopranos creator David Chase] and them come up with something, then that would do it for me. I’m very happy doing different things right now but obviously it would be great to bring everyone back together.”
What was it like trying to get Gandolfini to talk about something he doesn’t want to discuss? Well, it was a nervy moment, all things considered.
But now fans will never learn what happens to Tony Soprano and his family after the closing scene of the series, which featured the group sitting in a booth at Holsten’s ice cream parlor. Chase wanted to end The Sopranos with ample ambiguity regarding Tony’s future.
The same thing can be said about Gandolfini’s untimely death in Rome last week. Now, he’ll never have the chance to soften his mob-guy image with future roles or achieve the task of landing a part every bit as iconic as Tony Soprano.
Gandolfini used to refer to Alan Alda and how he was able to move past his M*A*S*H identity, reaching a point where audiences didn’t think about his TV character Hawkeye Pierce anymore. With Gandolfini, we’ll never learn if he could pull off the same feat.
Instead, what remains is Tony Soprano, a fictional mob boss growing ever more mythical as fans await the actor’s Thursday funeral at Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine.