By Miki Turner
Page 3 staff

For those of us who cover the entertainment industry interviewing actor James Gandolfini is akin to getting whacked by Gandolfini's alter ego Tony Soprano.

James Gandolfini, Jamie-Lynn Discala
Why can't Tony Soprano be on network TV? Oh, yeah, the F-bombs and the killin' and stuff.
It's a slow painful death.

Don't get me wrong, Gandolfini wasn't really unpleasant-- he actually sent thank you notes to TV critics who wrote nice things about "The Sopranos" during the show's first season-- but once you stuck that microphone in his face the neurotic teddy bear mobster turned into a shrinking violent.

There was no trace of the old Emmy-winning Gandolfini, however, during a press conference in January for the nation's television critics in Hollywood.

Gandolfini, along with cast members Michael Imperioli, Drea DeMatteo, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco (via telephone), and show creator and executive producer. David Chase (via satellite), spoke candidly about the award-winning show's iconic status, his role in it as the show approaches its fifth season (starting Sunday), its sixth and final season in 2005, and a little bit about his personal woes (the New Jeresey native went through a messy divorce in 2002, but now seems as happy as a mobster sharing pasta with his mistress at the Bada-bing).

1. James could you talk about the breakup of your marriage with Carmela on the show and the challenges and opportunities that presents you as an actor?

Gandolfini: Having just gone through something similar personally, it was a little difficult to have to dredge those things up sometimes. But in terms of acting, it's you know, anything that's huge and just makes you dig real deep is always going to come-especially when you're acting with someone like Edie Falco. It's just going to just take you places that you haven't been before. So sometimes it was hard. It was very difficult some of those days to do some of those things.

I was getting a divorce at home and at work. So there you go.

2. Are you ready to say goodbye to Tony or are you going to miss him?

I'm not ready to say goodbye to the character but I'm not going to miss him. Does that make sense? I want to end this the right way and I know that he-Mr. Chase-has something in mind and I trust him completely. So when he said 10 more episodes in the sixth year and that's what we need, I said fine. I will do everything I can. But when it's over the right way, I'll see you later.

3. What is it about The Sopranos that has made it so iconic?

It's the writing. I'm not taking anything away from everyone else that works on it, but I mean there was one episode that I read and when I came to a certain scene I just put it down and said holy s---.

3a.One of the criticisms of the show last season was that there wasn't enough whacking or violence. Would you concur with that?

You can't win. Remember the episode with the stripper that showed how brutal these guys can be? Then you get you're too violent, what's wrong with you? It's the kind of show that younger people shouldn't be watching. When I have kids who are eight years old come up and ask me for an autograph, I say, "How do you know who I am?" They say they watch the show and I'm like, "Omigod, Christ!"

James Gandolfini,  Dominic Chianese
Ah, the love between an uncle (played by Dominic Chianese) and his dear nephew. Nothing like it.
4.Your performance has been so acclaimed but actors are usually their own worst critics. Can you watch your own performance and say, "Wow, I rock."?

I sit home alone a lot and watch the show and-- no, you're just in a scene. Sometimes it works and sometimes it seems to work. There have been scenes where I just sit there and go, "What was I doing?" It's the same as anybody else. I mean, when the scene goes well it's the whole scene. And then when you suck in the scene you look at it and go, you screwed up.

4a.Some of your best scenes have been in the Soprano family home.

I think some of the best acting goes on in everyone's family inside the house there.

5.Although most of your movies haven't fared that well at the box office, do you get a lot of movie scripts sent your way?

Not really. I've been offered a few parts, but a lot of what happens in this business is there's a movie coming up about a fireman from a certain city and the director couldn't imagine me being a fireman from that city. Pre-Tony Soprano I think he might have been able to. That happens a lot and slowly that will go away. I haven't been bombarded in any way, but, you know, there's still a lot of good opportunities out there.

At this point, Gandolfini is about to answer a question when Broadway actress Elaine Stritch interrupts our conversation. Gandolifin's initial expression suggests he doesn't know who she is, but he hugs her. Then the bulb lights up and he gives her a hearty "How ya doing?"

Stritch: I want to see you. I just wanted to tell you that the level you go into acting is just fantastic.

Gandolfini: This is crazy to do this here, but thank you. Coming from you, ohmigod, thank you.

Stritch: You're the best, and when you argued about money I thought, "Oh what a son of a bitch." But then I thought about it and I said, "Good for him because that's hard work."

Scene from The Sopranos
How excited are we for the next big "sit down" to go down?
Gandolfini: But I am a son of a bitch.

Stritch: All right. You write your script, I'll write mine.

Gandolfini (smiling): Thank you.

6. Now, back to the question. Do you think there might be a dark ending to the show? Could Tony get whacked?

I don't know, I don't think so. I think Mr. Chase likes Tony and he doesn't want to kill him.

6a. It would be a way to get completely away from Tony.

I don't make any of those decisions. I'm a passenger on the train. Only occasionally do I say anything regarding the direction of the character and even then, I'm usually wrong.

6b. Why will you be glad to leave Tony behind?

He's got a lot of rage. You know, you have to scrape that up somehow and to do it 12, 14 hours a day... You know I'm not moaning or, as they say, have princess problems. I make a lot of money and I work with people I like very much. But eight, nine months a year, 14 hours a day... It starts to take its toll a little bit. That's all. And there's a big world out there and I want to do some other things. It couldn't get any better than this though.

Steve Van Zandt, Joe Pantolino, James Gandolfini
Getting your head chopped off (Joey Pants) probably assures that you will not be back in the fifth season.
7. Are you a more huggable, loveable kind of guy than Tony Soprano is?

No, not really (chuckles). It depends on the day like anyone else.

8.You appear to be a big football dad on the show with your son. Are you a sports fan?

I like football, but very little else.

font class="subhead">8a. Who's your team?

Jets. I would say Giants, but...

I understand.

9. Are you more comfortable with the press than you were a few years ago?

Yeah. Personally things are a little better now so I'm a little calmer. Before I was wound up a little tight.

10. You're going to star in a John Turturro film "Romance and Cigarettes". What do you play in that?

A guy who is the head of a dysfunctional family.

10a. Stretching out, huh?

(Chuckles) Yeah, ya think?