role call

Drea de Matteo Answers All Our Questions About That Episode of The Sopranos

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: HBO

Warning: Spoilers ahead for one of the biggest spoilers in modern TV history.

Her Emmy statue used to be displayed in a bathroom. “I was that guy who had to downplay everything,” Drea de Matteo explains. Then she moved it into her office and placed it on a stack of books on the floor, where it now resides. But honestly? All these years later, she’s still processing the whole thing. “It’s too big for me to wrap my head around it,” she says. “Like, how did I get this far? I was a mess of a kid and now I’m here with a fucking Emmy? Like, holy shit, when I won I almost died.”

Of course, mastering the art of the onscreen death is how and why de Matteo earned that 2004 Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series trophy in the first place. And it’s perfectly fine to admit that you’re still not over what happened. Her demise on The Sopranos, as seen in the episode “Long Term Parking,” remains the disturbing highlight on an iconic mob series that dispatched many of its characters with cruel regularity.

The trouble starts when her big-haired, bighearted Adriana La Cerva befriends a fellow mall rat (Lola Glaudini) who happens to be an undercover FBI agent. Once under the thumb of the Feds, Adriana’s coerced into giving up information relating to her Mafia connections — which includes her fiancé, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), the made-man nephew of one Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). The secrets come in dribs and drabs until Adriana gets entangled in a murder cover-up at her Crazy Horse nightclub. Her solution? Spill all to Christopher in the hopes that he’ll join her in the Witness Protection Program. This plan ends with our dear sweet Adriana scampering on all fours in the middle of the secluded woods as Tony’s consigliere Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) squeezes the trigger. (The company line: She dumped Christopher and impulsively moved away; her car may still be loitering in Newark airport’s long-term-parking lot.)

“I’m really proud of it,” the actress says of her role. “We changed the history of TV with that show, and I know my character was iconic. My daughter once looked up what I did and told me, ‘Oh my God, Mom!’” Now 50, de Matteo — who, for the record, does not speak in Adriana’s unrefined New York dialect — has gone on to make her mark in the likes of Desperate Housewives, Sons of Anarchy, Shades of Blue, and, most recently, the Amazon series Paradise City. And yes, she’s beyond excited to see the upcoming Sopranos origin-story film The Many Saints of Newark, in which Christopher appears as an innocent cooing baby circa the mid-1970s. So we asked her to divulge all the details about her infamous TV exit.

Do you realize how painful it is to rewatch this episode, even for research purposes? 
I know. She was a good girl.

She didn’t deserve to die!
I agree! Saint Adriana. She was the show’s sacrificial lamb.

So let’s do the math. Adriana meets the agent in an episode that aired in the spring of 2002. She dies two years later at the tail end of season five. When did you learn her days were numbered? 
You know, I went to series creator and executive producer David Chase at the beginning of season five because I wanted to direct a film during the hiatus. He looked at me and said, “I’ll get back to you.” And I thought, “Am I effing myself?” Like, I hope he’s not mad at me now because I wanted to do something that was not Sopranos related. In a lot of ways, I was his baby. I came in as a day player, and the role grew because he loved the character and loved me and gave me the chance of a lifetime. I didn’t want him to think I was too big for my britches.

Then he lowered the boom?  
I’ll never forget it. So everybody on the show who was about to get whacked always got brought into his office, and there’s a conversation and then he takes that person to dinner. Usually it’s the men. He’s like the Godfather in that sense. But in my situation, he sat me on a curb in between shooting the episode where Adriana is in a neck brace. He said to me, “I’m going to shoot it two ways: You escape in your car, and you get killed. Nobody will know how it’s going to end until the episode comes out because we have confidentiality issues on the show.” But the truth was that I was going to be killed. And they aired both scenarios in the episode because Adriana imagined that she was free.

What were your initial thoughts upon reading the script? 
I remember thinking that I was going to be happy that I was not going to have to cry again and could relax. I was very burned out because back in those days I was very Method. I took things maybe too seriously. And shooting that season, I really lived with Adriana because I gave it my all and was in turmoil. But I have to say, the actual death scene was nothing for me at that point. The scene I really struggled with was the one where I confessed to Christopher.

Well, he responds by flying into a rage and punching you and almost choking you to death. What was your relationship with Michael like at that point? 
Michael and I definitely hung out a lot. I always say that everything I learned about acting was from working so closely with him. When I came on, he was the easiest, most generous actor and so patient with me about hitting marks and all kinds of things not part of my repertoire. So I felt safe with him and was able to explore and become an actor. I mean, I remember in season one, David Chase came over to me at craft services and goes, “You know, people in the editing room think you and Michael are really a couple.” But we barely knew each other at that point! I said that maybe it’s because we both have enormous eyebrows.

How did you guys approach such an intense scene? 
He had a hard time with a lot of the violence that season. One time he had to grab me by my hair and drag me across the room using a harness. But the harness broke. I was sitting on the floor and crying, because I’m in the moment, and finally told him, “I’m not going to sit here and wait. You’re dragging me by my hair and you’re going to be okay with it.” He said, “I can’t do that.” And I said, “Yes, you can.” And we did it. So for the confession scene, I told him, “I don’t want to do more than one take so you need to not be careful. I’ll kick you in the nuts as a signal if you need to get off me.” And he was like, “I can’t.” And I said, “Then don’t, fine.”

You’re saying it was all faked?  
Well, the punch is a fake. But you can’t fake choking because they have a camera right on your face. So when he started choking me, I pushed my neck up into his hands as hard as I could to choke myself, so that my eyes would pop and my face would swell. It’s pretty good! The 50-year-old version of myself might not do that. But I loved that scene. It was like a cleansing because she finally just gets to say what she needed to say for so long.

That sight of Adriana alone in the driver’s seat of her car looking so peaceful is one of the most heartbreaking fake-outs in TV history. 
There was a scene shot for that episode where Christopher is hysterically crying and tells Tony everything and Tony says, “I’ll handle it.” I went to the writers and said that you can’t air it because then everyone will know that Adriana is walking into her own death. We needed her to go out with a bang, and we owe her that much. Stevie backed me, but I’m not sure about Michael. And they took out the scene because they realized it was a better way to keep people on the edge of their seats and used the scene as a flashback in the next season.

When we do see the reality, Adriana is riding shotgun with Silvio and in tears. Is she crying because Tony told her that Christopher had attempted suicide or because she knew that he had betrayed her? 
I think it starts one way because she is filled with guilt, and then she quickly realizes what is happening. The crying ramps up when he makes that turn off the interstate and she knows that her fate is sealed.

Drea, was there any way Adriana could have avoided that fate? 
She didn’t know how to navigate the situation. She could have gone straight to Tony Soprano from the beginning and they could have played the feds together. That’s what his kids would have done. But she wasn’t savvy like that or some grand manipulator. But Christopher also shouldn’t have been so impulsive and thought it through a little bit!

Seriously! Why was she so loyal to that guy? 
Adriana’s purpose on the show was innocence, and she was filled with love. You know, a lot of fans looked at the show from the aspect of the gunshot; they didn’t understand what was happening underneath the surface. I would be walking on the street and people were like, “You fucking rat, you junkie bitch, you deserve what you got.”

Is it true Steven Van Zandt didn’t want to drag you out of that car? 
It’s fair to say that I held every male character’s hand who destroyed Adriana’s spirit. Nobody wanted to do it, but I needed my side of the street to be easy, and the only way to do this was for them to help me and just go for it. Stevie understood that in the end, but boy, he didn’t want to do it at all!

Do you take all this resistance as a weird compliment, in that they cared about you so much? 
Well, that should be the norm in life! They did care about me, but a lot had to do with seeing the character go. Everyone knew this was going to change the trajectory of the show. These antiheroes that you’ve loved for so many years? You’re really going to see them for the monsters that they are. Subscribing to that school of thought was key to understanding the show.

Did David Chase take you out to a good-bye dinner like he did for everyone else? 
I got nothing. Well, I got a pinball machine and lots of flowers. But no dinner. Maybe because I’m a woman, I don’t know. To be honest, dinner with David Chase and all the dudes? Like, it would be uncomfortable for all of us. I was so fucking shy that it was like pulling teeth even getting me to the read-throughs.

Was it weird to watch the rest of the series unfold? Christopher ends up marrying and having a baby. 
It was weird. Like, Oh, this new woman gets to have a baby? I couldn’t have a baby! But when Tony kills him after a car crash, I saw it as karma.

What are your thoughts on Adriana’s legacy? Has it been a burden for you professionally? 
It’s never easy after you come up with a huge show like that because the expectations are so high. It usually takes a long time for people to erase that from their psyche, and it hasn’t been easy for me to find the roles that I love. But now I just want to play a character like that all over again because it was the richest with the most layers. And that accent was the most fun.

I must say, it is a little disarming to hear you not pronounce the name as “Chris-ta-fuh.”
I hated saying it at the time because I thought it sounded forced! I even asked David Chase if I could just say “Chrissy” instead. But now when I sign autographs, I sign “Christopher” with like 80 h’s at the end.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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