"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“The Sopranos” knows that mobsters — for all their whacking, shylocking and bitch-slapping — are just people. Show creator David Chase and his crack writing staff respect their creations enough not to broad-brush them with insipid gangland stereotypes. The wiseguys might wear pinky rings and pinstripes, but they’re also full of quirky neuroses and colorful vocabularies.
Headed by James Gandolfini (acutely playing the agita-prone Tony Soprano), the series boasts a pitch-perfect ensemble cast of actors who give their dissolute characters an uncommon honesty and humanity. Although Gandolfini is certainly the show’s capo, you’d be “stoonad” to think the show would be half as good without its costars.
Dominic Chianese plays Tony’s family foil and covert cunnilinguist Uncle Junior. John Ventimiglia costars as Tony’s childhood pal, gregarious, morally conflicted restaurateur Artie Bucco. And Federico Castelluccio and Steven R. Schirripa play soldiers Furio Giunta and Bobby “Bacala.” I spoke to all four actors about real-life mobsters, their favorite movies and their careers as character actors over a chattering conference line. At the end, Furio finally told me where to get a good braciola.
Your show uses a lot of humor, often at the most unexpected times. One of the funniest moments from last season came after Uncle Junior’s speech about Richie, when Bobby “Bacala” says, “I’m in awe of you.” Are you self-conscious about having to recite funny dialogue without playing it strictly for laughs? Do you ever find it difficult to find the right tone? It seems like a delicate balance.
Steven R. Schirripa: It’s all in the writing. Uncle Junior’s character and my character are both funny yet serious. Bobby is kind of a pathetic character — not very smart, but very loyal. To take a comic approach, I think sometimes it’s best to take a serious approach.
John Ventimiglia: The lines are funny, but sometimes they’re not obviously funny till they come out. I’m trying to find a fine line between the comedy and the reality. I realize sometimes that it’s meant to be funny, but I don’t always try to play it that way. But Artie’s a bit nervous, he’s a little self-conscious, so his discomfort is going to seem funny at times.
Federico Castelluccio: As an actor, you learn that you don’t play the comedy. There’s a lot of comedy that comes out of the seriousness of the scene. There are times on set where we can’t compose ourselves we’re laughing so hard. We did a scene in the restaurant in Italy where one of the guys has to introduce Paulie Walnuts. The poor actor just could not get his name right and the whole place busted out laughing. Me and Tony Sirico had to leave the set to compose ourselves.
Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that “The Sopranos” “may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.” When you first read the script, did you think it was that good? If you could put your finger on it, why has this show resonated with so many people?
Dominic Chianese: Well, I’ll go first since I’m the oldest and the boldest. I got less hair than Johnny and less stomach than Steve. [Laughs] I knew it was going to be a script that people would like to hear. Of course, commercially I had no way of knowing how great it was going to be. I knew it was a good story. I feel that’s what’s really grabbing people and hooking them in.
Ventimiglia: Well, since I am the next baldest … [Laughs] When I read it, to be honest, I didn’t see how great it was. I think part of that was conditioning with me. You were talking about typecasting before and as an Italian actor, I get handed a lot of crap — stereotypical stuff about the mob and all that business. I never read a good one before this. When my agents handed it to me, I automatically said, “Oh, here we go. Another comedy about the mob.” I thought twice about going in.
Castelluccio: I actually knew from the moment I saw the first promo, and I hadn’t watched television for, like, 15 years. The music, the way the clips were edited. I saw the first episode and I knew there was something more to this. It was deeper than a normal television show. You had Tony fainting with the ducks and everything. It was brilliant. Coupled with the fact that it takes place in Jersey — I had a personal attachment to that. One of things that people also connect to is that it’s a very different landscape you’re looking at on television. It’s not just a show about a mob family, it’s about everybody’s family. That’s why everybody relates to it. When I read that first script, I just couldn’t help but laugh throughout the whole thing ’cause I was so excited about it. I never read something so good.
Even though the roles you play are extremely rich and multilayered, great character actors are always threatened to be typecast. How do you go about avoiding that fate and what do you do to keep your characters from becoming caricatures?
Schirripa: Once again, it’s playing it straight. As far as being caricatures, I don’t think anyone on “The Sopranos” is a caricature in any way, shape or form.
Ventimiglia: In all jobs, you have to have to find the truth of the scene. If you do that, it’s going to be fresh. You’re not playing a caricature, you’re playing a human being.
Castelluccio: First of all, keeping it from becoming a caricature is the writer’s job. I can make anything real as long as the writing’s there. I don’t worry about being typecast because if I go to an audition, the first thing people say is, “Oh my god. You’re not from Italy?” They’re really amazed I don’t speak with an accent and that’s actually an asset for me as an actor.
Speaking of the accent, how tough was it to perfect?
Castelluccio: I worked on that. I did my research before I ever went out to any audition. There was a scene where Tony is talking to Dr. Melfi and he says, “My family is from Adolino.” See, I was born in Naples and I remember that Adolino is near there, so the accent is going to be very similar. When I went into the audition, I worked on the Neapolitan accent when I spoke Italian ’cause that was a requirement. I kind of listened to my father’s accent over the years and some friends that I grew up with in my neighborhood in Patterson.
When you were growing up, did you ever fantasize about living the wiseguy life? Can you recall any personal experiences with real made guys that helped shape your portrayal of them?
Schirripa: This is Steve by the way — the fattest. [Laughs] You don’t really know growing up they’re wiseguys; they’re just your friends, your father’s friends. I certainly never wanted to get into that life though. I mean, there’s no one on the show that I haven’t seen a person like in real life — including Richie Aprile, who was a complete lunatic. He [David Proval] played a great part and every time you saw him on-screen he made you uncomfortable. I’ve known guys like that all my life.
Ventimiglia: If you ever meet one [a wiseguy] and you do know that he is one, they don’t say things like, “Well, I’m gonna eat lunch and then I’m gonna go crack somebody’s head open.” They just talk like guys …
Schirripa: Well, Johnny, you do get some guys over the top in real life …
Ventimiglia: Yeah, but not all of them are mobsters. A lot of these guys are just jerks.
Schirripa: [Laughs] Exactly.
Ventimiglia: These guys, they care about their families, they dress well, they eat well. I think it’s more of a cultural thing and it doesn’t necessarily mean mob stuff.
Chianese: My father used to take me by the hand and walk me around the neighborhood [the Bronx], pointing all the people out to me. I noticed only the guys with the hats and he would always say, “Those are racketeers.” [Laughs]
How do you respond to all those detractors who say your show reinforces negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans?
Castelluccio: Watch the show … and then shut up.
Unlike “The Godfather” and “GoodFellas,” “The Sopranos” examines the Mafia as it exists in its present state. Are you surprised at America’s continued fascination with mobsters, considering that the power and presence of organized crime have largely dwindled in recent years?
Schirripa: I think the show is fascinating because it’s about a family that just happens to be in a mob-type atmosphere. This show’s about a family.
Chianese: I don’t think “The Sopranos” has anything to do with the fascination with the Mafia really. It’s just the character of Tony Soprano is so interesting. I used to watch cowboy-and-Indian movies when I was a kid, and some of them were great. You loved the Indians in it, you loved the bad guys. We’re always fascinated by the villains.
From Silvio Dante’s Michael Corleone impressions to Tony’s fondness for “The Public Enemy,” “The Sopranos” makes many references to mob movies past. Are you personally fans of the genre?
Schirripa: Well, we’re talking to Johnny Ola. How could we not be? [Laughs]
Chianese: I like all kinds of movies. I don’t care if they’re about the Mafia or ballet.
In this season’s first episode, the FBI came off looking more amoral than the criminal they were chasing. If we could get philosophical for a second, what do you think it says about our culture that we find ourselves rooting for a gangster like Tony Soprano to get away with his crimes?
Chianese: Interesting. That’s a good question.
Ventimiglia: Well, I think whoever is rooting for Tony just didn’t want the show to end. [Laughs]
Schirripa: I don’t think we’re rooting. I think anybody with a brain knows that Tony Soprano is [a] good guy, but he is a murderer and thief, etc. I don’t think we’re so much rooting for him, we’re just interested in what we’re watching.
Castelluccio: In a sense, Tony Soprano is like the underdog and a lot of people love rooting for the underdog; that’s how they perceive him.
But don’t you think there’s somewhat of a double standard? Uncle Junior and Tony are in the same business, yet Junior always comes off looking like the evil one.
Schirripa: Well, I think Uncle Junior softened after the first year. I think people like him. He’s just kind of a crotchety, self-centered guy.
Chianese: He’s a mean sonofabitch. He’s a maniac, he’s got tunnel vision; he’s a lousy, despicable character.
Ventimiglia: He’s endearing. I love Uncle Junior’s character.
Your responses all point to the anomalous nature of Uncle Junior’s character. On one hand, he’s very good-natured and sentimental; on the other, he’s cantankerous and soulless. If it’s possible to get under this guy’s skin, Dominic, what do you think makes him tick?
Chianese: I think he’s frustrated. He’s a local kind of guy and he wants things to be nice in society. He expects too much. He hates bureaucracy. Every man got a little Uncle Junior in him. He’s a pretty well-rounded character in a lot of ways.
Schirripa: That’s why Bobby “Bacala” loves him!
“The Sopranos” is obviously incredibly popular. Are you cognizant of just how cool people think you are?
Schirripa: Well, I’ll tell you how cool I am, Ian: I’m sitting here in my underwear and I just finished a grilled-cheese sandwich. [Laughs]
Chianese: I don’t wanna hear any more now. I just lost my appetite. Who the heck cares?
Ventimiglia: As an actor, it’s important for people to recognize you — that’s a good thing. In terms of being cool, we’re all proud to be on a great show and we’re all proud to be working with the people we’re working with.
Castelluccio: I am cognizant of the fact that people think this character’s cool, ’cause every time I go out people are yelling “Furio!” There’s a large female audience as well that likes the character. It’s a great feeling.
The first two seasons produced some classic scenes. Which ones did you find the most fun to shoot?
Ventimiglia: I remember the one with Livia in the hospital. I loved working with Nancy [Marchand] and it was a beautiful scene to shoot. The one thing I remember didn’t have to do with the actual shooting, but in between takes where Nancy was lying [in] bed with a newspaper and started to read an obituary about the youngest member of an acrobatic family in Yugoslavia who just passed away. She was describing the act and the details of this person’s life and it was bizarre and fascinating. After about five minutes, I walked around the side of the bed and looked over the newspaper … and there was nothing there but an ad. She looked at me and winked. That’s something I’ll always remember. It was a gift.
Chianese: I always loved working with Nancy because of her subtlety and the same thing with Jimmy [Gandolfini]. You never know what they’re gonna give you and that’s what makes it wonderful — the give-and-take. She was so good. You never had to discuss anything. She just knew what to do.
Your costar, James Gandolfini, is notorious for being guarded about the way he works. From your perspective, what makes him so good as an actor?
Ventimiglia: He cares about the other people a lot. He’s one of the most sensitive actors I’ve ever met.
Schirripa: Jimmy’s just all about the work, you know. I met him the first day I came to the read-through on the set, and he made me feel as if I’d known him for 10 years.
Chianese: He’s very focused and he takes his job very seriously.
Dominic, as Uncle Junior you’ve had the benefit of saying some of the series’ most memorable lines. I’m rather partial to “The Feds are so far up my ass I can taste Brylcreem.” Do you have any personal favorites?
Chianese: That was a good one. My favorite is “Pass the red peppers” — ’cause it was a non sequitur.
The “I wanna fuck Angie Dickinson” line has to be right up there too.
Chianese: Oh, I thought that was brilliant. That was a hard one because I knew it was a funny, funny line.
Many fans of the show may not realize that you played Johnny Ola, Hyman Roth’s right-hand man, in “The Godfather II.” Do you feel any sense of pride being part of another pop-cultural phenomenon … or is this just another gig for you?
Chianese: Of course, I’m proud of both them. I knew I played both parts, obviously, but now I’m beginning to realize that “Godfather II” is a tremendous film. I’d like to think it got me the job on “Gotti” and then “Gotti” got me the job on “The Sopranos.” Careerwise, it was a big thing.
Steve, you have such an easy rapport with Dominic on-screen and your scenes together often require great comic timing. Can you talk a little about your working relationship together? Do you rehearse a lot, or is the acting chemistry natural?
Schirripa: I think it came pretty natural, don’t you, Dominic?
Chianese: 100 percent.
Schirripa: I listen to Dominic a lot. He helps me tremendously ’cause most of my stuff is with him. I learn a lot just by watching him. Even though we don’t get along so well on-screen, I love him … and I’m very loyal to him. Sometimes I gotta bite the inside of my mouth ’cause he makes me laugh, you know. He [Uncle Junior] yells at me and I wanna start laughing.
Artie Bucco’s an interesting character because he’s one of the few people with enough balls to call Tony on his actions. In real life, do you think you’d be able to stand up to someone like Tony Soprano?
Ventimiglia: Well, I’d call Steve Schirripa. He’s a big guy. [Laughs] That’s a hard question to answer ’cause you never know how you’re going to react in a situation. Sometimes you have to leave things alone and sometimes you can’t help but fight back. And when you fight back, you don’t sit in your room for three days brewing about it. If you’re sitting around thinking about revenge, it’s just gonna drive you crazy.
What do you enjoy most about playing Artie?
Ventimiglia: A couple of things. I like Artie’s relationship with Tony. They were kids together and in terms of what you were saying before about being able to give Tony a little shit — it’s like brothers. Sometimes you fight harder with your brother than with someone else in a way. Our relationship is special. I like Artie’s conflict. He’s a good man, he’s a moral man, he’s passionate, he’s emotional, he’s temperamental.
Federico, how do you account for the sudden popularity of Furio’s character? He seemed to become a fan favorite right from his first appearance on the show.
Castelluccio: The character was incredibly well-written from the beginning. Also, I think I bring an individualism that’s not seen in the United States … in that subculture. He’s [Furio] very distinct, very different from every other character in Tony’s crew. It’s another world coming to the United States and doing business here.
What’s one trait of Furio’s you wish you possessed?
Castelluccio: Maybe his flair for those clothes. [Laughs]
Describe the pressure of joining a show at the height of its success, knowing you’ll be working with such a close-knit group of actors. Were you nervous about being able to live up to show’s already high standards?
Castelluccio: I think everybody’s a little nervous knowing that, but I was very confident in what I could do as an actor and what I could bring to that role. I knew the show was going to be even more popular than it was when it first went on. Originally, I auditioned for the role of Johnny Sack. I wasn’t right for it, but I was very anxious to get on the show.
At this point, can you imagine what your personal and professional lives would be like if the “The Sopranos” hadn’t come along?
Chianese: I’d probably be here at Lucky Stripe with my son, wishing that I would get a TV show. [Laughs] But it happened, thank God.
Schirripa: I was working before, so I’d still be out there punching away, trying to get the best parts. Of course, “The Sopranos” helps ’cause no longer do you go into a room as just an unknown actor. You could be the same actor you were a week before, but now you got credibility.
What have you found to be the biggest perks of being part of a hit show?
Ventimiglia: I get into every kitchen of every restaurant I go into. [Laughs] The perk is the satisfaction of being able to do good work. Also, the people that come up to you on the street and say, “Hey, love you on the show.”
Schirripa: We get along well. We’re always busy, but when we’re together we have fun and we laugh — and that goes for the whole cast.
But getting into the restaurants ain’t bad either, right?
Ventimiglia: Ain’t bad, buddy. It’s great.
Sugar in marinara sauce: sacrilege?
Ventimiglia: Absolutely not. Depends where you’re from — it cuts the acidity.
“The Godfather Part III”: Buy the DVD or watch it on HBO?
Ventimiglia: If you’re home and it comes on — watch it.
Schirripa: Oh no. [Laughs] Pass every which way.
Ventimiglia: But Al [Pacino] always does great work. He’s always worth watching.
Better hair: Silvio or Paulie?
Ventimiglia: Paulie. He’s got the white wingtips.
Schirripa: The absolute greatest.
Does it irritate you when people can’t properly pronounce mozzarella and capicola?
Ventimiglia: I find it amusing, but those aren’t really Italian words.
Schirripa: I mean, if you have an Italian-American who doesn’t pronounce it right, that gets a little annoying. But you go to some places in the country and you have to mispronounce it or they won’t understand what you’re saying. [Laughs]
Creator David Chase is adamant that next season is going to be the show’s last. Who’s going to have a tougher period of withdrawal, you or the viewers?
Ventimiglia: Probably the viewers, ’cause they’re going to have to wait a long, long time to find something else that they dig as much.
Schirripa: Look, we’re journeymen character actors — we gotta keep on movin’ on.
What restaurant can you recommend for good braciola?
Castelluccio: Attilio’s in Denville, N.J.
Admit it, weren’t you just a little pissed when “The West Wing” won at the SAG awards?
Ventimiglia: No, I was relieved. I felt like they let us off the hook in a weird way. Listen, if someone keeps winning all the awards, after a little while you just want to see them go down. I prefer sometimes being the guy who comes home at night saying, “They should’ve won.”
Taking a page from the James Lipton handbook, what’s your favorite curse word or put-down in Italian?
Ventimiglia: Cretino (cretin).
Castellucio: Sciamo (stupid).
Schirripa: Doombalada (backhand slap). And if this interview don’t come out right … I’m gonna give you a doombalada.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)