From Gangsters to Governor Cuomo: Michael Imperioli on Playing the Tough Guys

When Michael Imperioli stars in the finale of Showtime’s historical prison-break drama, “Escape at Dannemora,” on Sunday, his roles will have traversed an almost 30-year arc from one extreme end of the law to the other: from New York gangster to New York Governor.

Imperioli first drew wider attention in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film “Goodfellas,” playing Spider — a harmless mob flunky who winds up on the wrong end of Joe Pesci’s jokes and worse. By the end of that decade, his characters weren’t so harmless. His Christopher Moltisanti, on “The Sopranos,” was ruthlessly brutal from Episode 1, cementing an East Coast moxie that is as necessary in Albany as in the Meadowlands.

“Michael is a great actor who has gravitas and a believable New York pedigree,” said Ben Stiller, who directed “Dannemora,” in an email. “I thought he could really embody the energy of Gov. Cuomo.”

Imperioli, who was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., spoke by telephone about that role, as well as his memories of “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos,” which debuted 20 years ago next month. He also talked about his debut novel, “The Perfume Burned His Eyes,” set in 1976 Manhattan. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Did you do much research to play Governor Cuomo?

I watched a lot of interviews. Then I went to his office and hung out with him. We spoke a lot about why he did what he did during the prison break. He said that since 9/11, there’s a lot of anxiety, and he feels a real responsibility to be where things happen so people feel like there’s leadership. I respect that.

[Read The Times’s review of “Escape at Dannemora.”]

How did the meeting happen? Did you call him and say, “Hey, I’m playing you?”

The production told Cuomo’s office I was going to do the role, then they invited me. I actually went to his birthday celebration. I sat with him, Bill Clinton and Billy Joel, so that was pretty cool.

Did you feel pressure to do him right, since you had gotten to know him?

Well, I wanted to do him right, regardless. It’s a strange thing to play somebody real, and with every character you play, you have to find something to respect, even when you’re playing a horrible or immoral person. But he’s neither. I think he’s a really good person, and he’s very good at what he does.

He has such a particular cadence.

Yeah, there’s a certain rhythm to his speech, especially when he’s in a more formal setting, when he’s speaking to the press or about official business. There’s a difference between the casual and the formal.

How do you feel about “The Sopranos” turning 20?

What’s kind of cool is there’s a whole generation of people who were too young to see it when it was on the air. I’ve met a lot of people in their 20s who are discovering it for the first time. The show is 20 years old, but they really relate.

How would you say the TV landscape changed because of “The Sopranos”?

The upside is the bar is really high on television now because of “The Sopranos” and a bunch of other shows that came right after it. The downside is now a lot of networks want movie stars. If you look at three shows that changed the landscape, “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” the leading guys — James Gandolfini, Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston — were known in the acting community but weren’t stars.

It’s almost like the old Hollywood studio system: You couldn’t star in a big movie unless you were a star. It’s becoming like that in television, which is not so great.

Looking back, how does your work on “The Sopranos” fit into your own narrative?

I’m really proud of what we did on that show. Psychologically or emotionally, it’s always great when you’re playing a role that’s somehow close to where you’re at or what you’re doing in your life. Doing that role now wouldn’t have the same feeling.

You felt psychologically close to being a gangster?

He was very ambitious, which at the time I was. He wanted to improve his standing in life, and that was really important to him. I felt connected to that.

What were your expectations going into the pilot?

A show about the Mob was really a risky thing. I thought it was a long shot that it would run for a long time, just because there hadn’t been anything like that. I was immediately impressed by the cast. It was really hard to tell from the pilot what the show would be. Was it going to be a spoof? Because there was a lot of funny stuff in the pilot. We didn’t really know until we started shooting the first season. I was, like, “Wow, we’re onto something good.”

Did you develop a familial relationship with Gandolfini?

Absolutely. Doing that show was like going down to the corner and hanging out with your friends every day. That’s a very rare thing. He was such a tremendous talent and such a good actor, so committed, passionate and kind.

How do you feel about “The Many Saints of Newark,” the coming prequel movie to “The Sopranos”?

It’s going to focus on Christopher’s dad. I like that it’s going in that direction rather than something right after the last episode ended, picking up those pieces. Doing something that has the DNA of the show but is its own thing is really smart. I’m sure it’s going to be great.

How do you look at the other series you’ve done that haven’t lasted as long as “The Sopranos,” like “Life on Mars” and “Detroit 1-8-7”?

You just need to take each job as it comes. If you say, “I’ve got to wait for the next ‘Sopranos,’” you may be waiting forever. It’s such a difficult business to have longevity in, to be frank. You’ve got to find what you’re passionate about, and if you’re not getting the roles on TV and in movies you want, then try to do it yourself — independent film, theater and writing books.

Your novel is set in the New York City of the ’70s. Do you feel that city is gone?

I do. I didn’t start spending a lot of time in Manhattan until 1983, but in the ’70s I’d go to the city with my family to see a show or go to Rockefeller Center. I have a lot of nostalgia for the movies of the time, and I was always drawn to that period. I mean, everything changes, and New York City has changed as much as everywhere else. It’s hard to know if that feeling of nostalgia is for your youth or the city.

What was it like to get your break in “Goodfellas”?

I am so grateful for the way Marty Scorsese treated me. I had done three tiny roles in movies no one had seen. I was on the set for two days, and he treated me like all his other guys, with a lot of respect and freedom. At the time, I just kind of went with it, but looking back I realize how rare that is. He trusted me enough to allow me to basically improvise everything. All the other actors were really generous, too.

Listen, I was 22, an Italian-American kid from New York. It was like going from college to playing in the World Series for the Yankees.

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