In The Many Saints of Newark, Alessandro Nivola plays a character from The Sopranos who was talked about but never seen: Dickie Moltisanti, a legendary Newark mobster from the 1960s who was murdered in the early ’70s. The series’s creator, David Chase, focused on Dickie in the prequel film because the character was a blank slate — the long-dead uncle to the lead character, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), and the father of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Tony’s protégé and surrogate son.
The filmmakers had to cast the role with an actor who could give a subtle performance as a believable human being yet also be mysterious, terrifying, and ultimately unknowable. The Dickie described on the show — a hero from an epic or a tall tale — doesn’t really exist here. This Dickie is easily distracted, lustful, impulsive, and prone to explosions of lethal rage. It was a tricky role, and Chase wanted to cast it with an actor who hadn’t appeared on The Sopranos but would be compelling enough to hold his own against the performers he had cast as younger versions of the show’s leads.
When Nivola’s name came up, Chase was intrigued. Nivola had made an impression with his performances as characters who could have been on The Sopranos — the sleazy prosecutor in 2013’s American Hustle and a Brooklyn gangster in 2014’s A Most Violent Year. Nivola also has strong ties to the old country: His paternal grandfather was Italian sculptor Costantino Nivola, whose work the actor affectionately promotes on Twitter.
We spoke to Nivola by phone last month about Dickie, Tony, Christopher, Chase, and the psychology and morality of drama. [Warning: Spoilers ahead for both The Sopranos and The Many Saints of Newark.]
Who is Dickie to you? How did you build him?
I feel like he’s somebody who wouldn’t have necessarily been a criminal or even been violent if he hadn’t been born into this life. He’s a person whose character and fate were determined by his early childhood, which was an abusive one. He has these reckless voices in his head that are guiding him, sometimes in earnest and sometimes comically, toward some kind of noble act of goodness. But he’s too unsophisticated and he doesn’t have the language of modern psychology to understand what those voices represent. All he knows is that this is the world where his dad beat him up.
Dickie has two defining qualities that I could seize on. One is that he loves Tony. The other is that he can’t control his violent impulses in these blackout moments when he’s provoked emotionally. All the crimes he commits in the movie are crimes of passion, whether it’s killing his own father and taking his young Italian wife, Giuseppina, as his girlfriend or drowning Giuseppina in the ocean after he finds out she’s been cheating on him. And all of these crimes are totally self-defeating. Like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, he’s the architect of his own destruction, and he does come to realize that too late. If there’s something redeeming about him by the end of the movie, which I believe there is, it’s that he wants to die as much as, or more than, the audience wants him to.
Dickie is forced to accept the fact that the best way he can help Tony is to never see or speak to him again, but at that point in the story, Tony is the only person in the world Dickie has left who he cares about. He puts that advice in the voice of Uncle Sally, who may or may not be real.
That’s interesting. Do you think Uncle Sally, the character Dickie visits in prison, is real?
Either way, he’s the voice of Dickie’s conscience — Dickie grappling with himself. And at the end of the film, Dickie breaks down and makes the decision to see Tony and tell him to run away. But he gets killed before he gets the chance to get that message across to Tony. I think he wanted to say it to him throughout his life and could never figure out how to say it.
The humor and heartbreak of the character of Dickie is that he’s willing to be a surrogate father to the character, but he’s completely incapable of it, except in a comically bumbling way. The scene with Tony as a kid, where Dickie comes to talk to him in his bedroom, is a paradigm for the whole movie. It’s like a sad little parody of a scene in an old sitcom where a dad counsels his son.
Did David Chase give you any marching orders as far as who Dickie was or how to play him?
No, nothing like that. The fact that Dickie was never seen on The Sopranos gave me total freedom to invent the character. The only thing David really said to me about Dickie was “Don’t believe anything that anyone said about him in the series because they’re all liars,” which gave me even more liberty to feel that I didn’t have to fashion myself into something that already existed or had already been defined.
That’s true. Whenever a Sopranos character tells you a story about themselves or somebody else, they’re always leaving things out, lying, or shaping things to make the people in the story seem better or worse than they actually were.
All of David’s characters are untrustworthy narrators. That’s part of the delight of the series.
When it comes to the world of The Sopranos, I assumed when I was cast that David was going to be a font of information and he was going to have a million people to introduce me to from that period of his life who were going to be my entry into authenticity. But David said he just didn’t know anybody! And whenever I asked detailed questions about, for example, the hierarchies within the mob and the structure of the DiMeo family, he didn’t really want to be bothered with any of that stuff. David was more interested in the interactions between the characters in the present tense and finding where the humor was.
What else did you and David talk about?
David was really fascinated by my Italian background and what that meant to me and what my experience had been in relation to that. On the one hand, I’m from an Italian family: My grandfather was an immigrant from Sardinia. My father and my grandfather spoke Italian in the house when I was growing up. But on the other hand, my grandfather was a sculptor and part of a kind of community of artists and bohemians who were living in the West Village in the ’40s and ’50s, much more in the vein of Robert De Niro’s family. In fact, my grandfather was friends with Robert De Niro’s dad. So my dad grew up in that kind of Greenwich Village bohemian life, which could not be further from the lives of the characters in this movie.
Then my father ended up being an intellectual, went to Harvard, and taught at the Brookings Institution for years. And I ended up going to Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale. My whole experience veered far off course from the Italian American immigrant experience of somebody like Dickie Moltisanti. But I was able to relate more directly in terms of physicality and speech rhythms and certain expressions — just behavioral things.
There’s always been an element of tragedy to gangster stories, especially on The Sopranos. There’s always the question of what impact unseen, possibly supernatural forces have on events and what’s real versus what’s imagined or distorted by people’s perceptions.
Very much. I think of Shakespeare as well. Think of all those scenes with Uncle Sally. It’s so powerful that Dickie comes face-to-face with him and he’s looking at the face of his own father, the man he killed. When Sally first comes into the visiting area at the prison, my character hasn’t seen him since he was 5 years old, and his first reaction is astonishment and terror. It’s like Hamlet seeing his father’s ghost.
Sally is fascinating. The way he’s written and the way Ray Liotta plays him, it’s like he has omniscient, all-knowing knowledge. Just like Dr. Melfi had. He’s there to be my confessor. But like Tony in Melfi’s presence, all I do is lie to him.
And like Dr. Melfi with Tony, Sally never grants absolution.
No! In fact, he makes me feel worse about myself.
Do you worry that Dickie is too beastly to be likable?
I don’t really think about it that way. There are so many tragic Greek characters you don’t love — you just understand and feel for them. Like Jason or Medea. Or Jake LaMotta. I keep coming back to Raging Bull. When you get to that scene in the prison where Jake is punching the wall over and over and saying, “You’re so stupid, you’re so stupid, you’re so stupid,” you’re not supposed to be thinking, Oh God, I love this guy! I wish I were married to him! It’s about understanding the pain of realizing what it’s like to hate yourself and knowing that you ruined your own life.
That’s obviously an important film for you, Raging Bull. What other parallels do you see between Dickie and Jake?
I think about Raging Bull in relation to that moment at the end of Many Saints where Tony comes knocking at the warehouse door and I don’t let him in but just sit there and cry. I had this idea, having watched Raging Bull, that at that moment, Dickie wanted to die the way Jake wanted to die. We had an earlier cut of that scene where I take my necktie and try to strangle myself with it. But then I have a scene after that with Silvio where I agree to meet with Tony, and there’s something so existentially broken about me in that one that it seemed like overkill to have the necktie scene right before that.
What do you think is happening to Dickie in that stretch of the story?
It’s about his awareness of himself as a monster. It’s a desperate realization. That’s what I hope is going to give the audience license to feel for him even though Dickie has to die, basically.
How do you play a guy like this without making excuses for him but at the same time not making him so loathsome that it turns everyone off?
I don’t know. I hope I got it, but a lot of the challenge here has to do with the difference between film and television as formats. When you have an anti-hero in a television series, a character you sit with in your home for years, they become part of the fabric of your family. Your relationship to all of their weaknesses is different than it is in a two-hour format, where there’s more burden on the actor to provide some kind of balance to whatever horrific, violent acts there are so as not to lose your audience for that character. The balance is tipped against a character in that two-hour format.
The people I’ve spoken to who’ve seen it don’t seem to hate Dickie, even though there are a lot of good reasons to think of him as monstrous. I’ve played so many characters that have made people say, “Oh, this person is an awful person,” but I haven’t really had that reaction to this character. I wonder if I will.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.