You could say that Alessandro Nivola got an offer he couldn’t refuse. After years of critically acclaimed work in films including American Hustle, The Wizard of Lies, and Selma—and an impressive stage career that earned him a Tony Award nomination for the 2014 revival of The Elephant Man—the 49-year-old actor is preparing for the biggest moment of his professional life, a season that will include a role in an as-yet-untitled David O. Russell project and the leading role in the hotly anticipated The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to The Sopranos, landing in theaters and on HBO Max on October 1.
The mafia family drama—which comes 14 years after the hit HBO series went off the air—centers on Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (uncle to Tony Soprano and father of Christopher Moltisanti, for fans of the show) and his rise in a New Jersey crime family. True to its television predecessor, Saints is a nuanced consideration of a life spent in la cosa nostra, but it also doesn’t skimp on thrills, twists or loving winks at classic mob-movie tropes.
“I must have watched Raging Bull about 30 times before I shot this film.” — Alessandro Nivola
“Dickie is funny and attractive yet violent and menacing. He let me do everything that I do best,” Nivola says over Zoom from Cleveland, where he and his wife, the actor and director Emily Mortimer, have come with their two children, who are making a movie in the city. “I’ve had so many opportunities to play a wide range of roles and to show how far I can stretch myself, but I’ve never had a role that was the center of the story like this. All I’ve wanted to be is a movie star who is a character actor.”
The Many Saints of Newark, then, is a seemingly perfect fit. Nivola was a fan of The Sopranos (one of only two television series he claims to have ever watched; the other is Friday Night Lights) and liked that series creator and, for this film, co-writer and producer David Chase made the film stand alone so it didn’t rely on the series. “The story could be told from scratch and I got to invent the character,” Nivola says.
For Michael Gandolfini, who plays a young Tony Soprano, the role originated by his late father, James, Nivola’s personal connection to the film is what made his work so impressive. “It was personal for me and it was personal for him,” says Gandolfini, who had a weekly date with Nivola at the Brooklyn restaurant Junior’s over the course of getting to know one another. “We both understood that we were sharing this intense experience, respecting and feeling the weight of it all. We connected very quickly, so instinctually. I trusted him, and I knew the film was going to be special. That is the trust we had with one another, just like Dickie and Tony.”
“All I’ve wanted to be is a movie star who is a character actor.” — Alessandro Nivola
It’s a feeling Nivola seems to have inspired in a number of his colleagues. When the actor first auditioned for Chase, the writer wondered why he’d only seen Nivola in supporting roles. “I had seen him in two other movies and felt he was an extraordinary actor and yet I hadn’t seen him in what we’d call ‘big movies,’” Chase says. “So, here was a man who would be a fresh face to many, but I enjoyed his acting so much I knew he would be able to handle Dickie.”
Considering the scope of the project and the source material’s rabid fan base, there was a lot riding on this role for Nivola, who had six months to prepare. “When I wasn’t on set, I was pretty isolated alone in my trailer,” he says. “This was my first opportunity to hold a big studio movie up on my own shoulders. I didn’t want to fuck that up.”
Nivola’s grandfather was an Italian immigrant who came to New York in the 1940s and raised his family in Greenwich Village, but the Boston-born Nivola had never been offered an Italian role before. “This film really embraced the immigrant experience and the whole culture that has grown up around that,” he says. “My personal history intersects in a lot of ways with it, and my dad always loved movies about Italian Americans. I must have watched Raging Bull about 30 times before I shot this film.”
The Yale-educated Nivola also read up—a lot—on crime families and studied the relationships between mob bosses and their sons. (Ray Liotta plays his father in the film and Dickie yearns for a son of his own for years.) “The person I read the most of on the topic was Gay Talese. His book Honor Thy Father, about the Bonanno crime family, is all about fathers and sons,” Nivola says. “It really delved into that relationship within the mob.” Other touchstones? Talese’s famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” essay for the April 1966 issue of Esquire and For the Sins of My Father: A Mafia Killer, His Son, and the Legacy of a Mob Life by Albert DeMeo.
He might not have real-life experience in organized crime, but Nivola is as much of a family man off-screen as he plays on-screen. The actor has been married to Mortimer since 2003 and the couple has two children, a daughter, May, 11, and son, Sam, 17; they all live in a townhouse in Brooklyn. That is, when someone in the family isn’t shooting a movie. Recently, May and Sam have been in Cleveland filming Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of the Don DeLillo book White Noise. And it’s not their first foray into the family business. Sam wrote and directed a short film, Neighborhood Watch, that premiered at the Tribeca Festival earlier this year and starred his parents and sister. “We’ve had misgivings about it but we reluctantly agreed to let them do it,” says Nivola. “I gave up trying to give advice to my kids many years ago. It was a source of frustration for me, but eventually it became a relief. Now, the burden isn’t on me anymore. They don’t turn to me at all.” The film stars Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig as the siblings’ parents and the duo had a month—a luxury practically unheard of in Hollywood—to rehearse and get comfortable. “It was the most civilized and hilariously unusual situation,” says Nivola, “but Noah tells me they’re doing great.”
He can’t be too surprised, really. If Nivola has learned one thing in the months leading up to the release of The Many Saints of Newark, it’s never to bet against the family.