DATE May 31, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Joseph Gannascoli talks about "The Sopranos" episode
where his role got whacked and his new novel "A Meal to Die For"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
On the latest episode of "The Sopranos," Vito Spatafore got whacked. Bad news
for Vito but not so bad for the actor who played him, my guest, Joseph
Gannascoli. He had a big part this season. A couple of guys collecting
protection money at a gay bar spotted Vito dancing there. After word got out,
Vito panicked, left his wife and two kids and fled to New Hampshire, where he
got involved in a relationship with the owner of a diner who he nicknamed
Johnnycakes. Vito lied to Johnnycakes and told him he was a writer from
Scottsdale working on a book about boxing. Here's a scene right after
Johnnycakes figured out that Vito wasn't who he said he was.
(Soundbite from "The Sopranos")
JOHNNYCAKES: Are you even a sports writer? I mean, here we are talking about
taking the next step in this relationship. I asked you to share my home and
you can't even be straight with me.
Unidentified Actor #1: (Censored). Nice knowing you, Vincent.
Unidentified Actor #2: Jimbo, come on.
Mr. JOSEPH GANNASCOLI: (As Vito Spatafore) I'm not a writer, OK? I'm not
from Scottsdale. And the car's not my sister's. I'm actually from New
JOHNNYCAKES: I knew it.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: (As Spatafore) Some (censored) went down. I had to
leave--my home, my contracting business, my wife, my kids.
JOHNNYCAKES: Are you drunk? It's not even 11:00.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: (As Spatafore) You think it's easy? I miss my home so bad
my heart's a (censored) lump. I'm barely holding together. Stuck in the
sticks running out of money. Now this? You think I was looking for you?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Soon after this scene, Vito decided to return to New Jersey, where
mobsters were waiting to kill him.
Joseph Gannascoli was a chef before he became an actor, and he recently
co-authored a novel called "A Meal to Die For." It's about a gourmet chef
who's connected to the mob.
Joseph Gannascoli, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on this season.
It was--you've just been really good. It's been a great, great part for you,
and it was really fun to watch you.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Thank you.
GROSS: You've said that it was you who suggested that Vito, your character,
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Right.
GROSS: What made you think of suggesting that?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Well, it was from a book I was reading called "Murder
Machine" by Jerry Capeci. He used to write "Gang Land" for Daily News. And I
was just trying to find a way to sort of broaden my character and give me, you
know, more to do, and seeing that it does happen, it's something you never
really see portrayed that much on mob shows and movies. I thought it'd be
interesting, and they--I brought it in--this was in the middle of season
three--I brought it to the attention of Robin Green and Mitch Burgess, who
write and produce--no longer anymore. But--so they said they were interested
in it. They said, `Oh really?' And I showed them the book, and I gave it to
them. And it's not exactly what I had in mind, when--with that security
guard. I was on the wrong end of that but...
GROSS: You're talking about the security guard in the car of Meadow's
boyfriend when he's working construction. Sees you in a car in a compromising
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Uh-huh.
GROSS: ...with a security guard.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: When I first heard about it, you know Gandolfini had said,
`You know, I'll--we'll go talk to Chase. You don't have to do this if you
don't want.' And I said, `No, I'll trust them.' And I just asked that
they--I--not show it, and that's the last we hear of it. I mean--'cause I was
watching it with 20 people. I didn't tell them, and they were like--almost
fell off the chair.
GROSS: Now all the people in Tony's crew are revolted by the idea that Vito
is a homosexual...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Mmm.
GROSS: And after Vito is outed, they no longer trust you, and it's obvious...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Right.
GROSS: ...pretty obvious right away you're going to get killed eventually.
Do you have any friends who are as homophobic as the characters in "The
Sopranos" and who were revolted by your portrayal in the same way that the
characters in the series were revolted by Vito when they found out who he was?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: You know, I--you know--anybody--I mean, my friends were
like, `Eee, how many times are you going to kiss this guy?' And they would ask
like, you know, I guess, you know, I--if I would have killed 20 guys in a
night, there would have been, you know, I'd--you know--a lot more pleased with
that. But to be with another guy, it's something else. You know, anybody
that's really vocal about it, I think they usually have some issues with
themselves. I mean, I'm very secure. If anything, you know, I was a lesbian.
I was chasing girls my whole life, and I--I just recently got married. So I
never had a problem with it because I'm very secure with who I am. And, you
know, I'm from Brooklyn also, I got to restaurants that, you know, known mob
hangouts and, you know, some guys give me dirty looks, you know. They're a
little upset about it. But, you know, I'm acting, and, you know, it happens,
and it's a role that made me--you know, made a name for myself, so I don't
have a problem with it.
GROSS: Just as your character Vito is becoming sympathetic, you know, and we
realize, `Oh, you know, this character's been repressed. He could have had a
different life. He could have had a better life.' You know, `He didn't
necessarily have to be,' you know, `killing people in the mob.' Then, you
know, you decide that even though you're in New Hampshire, that you're in New
Hampshire and you miss your kids and you miss part of your old life in the
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Mmm.
GROSS: So you leave New Hampshire, and you're driving on this like country
road going back to Jersey and you hit a car that's stopped next to a mailbox
and the driver has been checking his mail. The driver insists that the
accident has to be reported to the insurance company, and you can't afford to
do that because then you'd be discovered and probably killed, so you just
shoot him in the back of the head.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Right.
GROSS: I mean, I thought the writers were so brilliant in that scene, because
really, you're not a good person in the series. You know, you've killed other
people. You shot Jackie Junior in the back of the head.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah.
GROSS: And that's like just one of the things that you've done. And you
still have it in it--in you to just be a killer. And--did you like that
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Up until then, I thought I was very sympathetic and--but one
thing great about David Chase is that he doesn't want you to really like these
people. Everyone--every--people start saying, `Aw, they're regular guys,' you
know, `they're sitting around watching a game at a strip place,' or `they're,'
you know, `just hanging out,' and then they do something like when Paulie
Walnuts had to kill his mother's friend just to give Tony, you know, some
money. And when people are thinking, like, `Yeah, you know, the guy just
wants to, you know, live and let live,' he shows them that's who they are.
They're killers. They're, you know, not nice people, and I was upset about
that because, you know, I thought, you know, these people are going to really
think I'm a sympathetic character then I did that. But that's what he does.
He doesn't want to you to like these people. That's who they are and Vito
missed the life and he wanted to get back, you know, get back in the mob life.
And that's what he missed, the action. It was a little boring although it was
great seeing people, you know gays, living with three people and getting along
and live and let live, but it was the old life that he missed. And his kids,
GROSS: Let's talk about how you were killed. There's like three guys with
bats who are waiting--baseball bats who are waiting for you in your motel
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Poolsticks.
GROSS: Poolsticks. Oh, I remembered them as bats. OK.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Mmm. Mmm.
GROSS: They're poolsticks. Yeah. So, and then--and then Phil Leatardo,
who's the number two in the New York mob is just like sitting on the bed
watching as they--as they beat you to death and, of course...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Well...
GROSS: ...you're his brother-in-law.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Right.
GROSS: So, can you talk about shooting that scene and how much of a beating
you actually took in it?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Well, first of all, did you notice what Phil came out of,
GROSS: What do you mean, what he came out of?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: (Unintelligible)...room.
GROSS: Oh, he came from behind the curtain, you mean.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: No. OK.
GROSS: Was it a closet?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah. He came out of the closet.
GROSS: You know, in my mind, I always remember things wrong. In my mind,
he's like standing behind like the drapes in the room, and he comes from
behind there. So he came out of the closet. That's funny. That's really
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah, that's funny. That's David Chase's sense of humor.
GROSS: Boy, that went right past me!
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah. So, they--first of all, because of my--I just had a
double hip replacement...(unintelligible).
GROSS: In real life. In real life.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yes. Seven weeks ago. And you always see me limping on the
Mr. GANNASCOLI: My leg's crooked. It was really hard to walk. Now I'm
pain-free. I was in so much pain, but I'm pain-free. And so it was hard to
do a lot of these scenes. For the most part, I tried to do as much as I
could. You know, in the fight scenes, I couldn't get down. But I'd push the
guy, and I did as much as I could, but it was very painful.
But--so I walked in, and they didn't really--they didn't hit me, they hit the
stunt double. Or did they hit me? I think they did hit me, but then I was
down on the ground. They showed that. But a lot of this stuff, my stunt
double did, and that scene there--I mean, I was really pleading for my life,
and it was very emotional, and a couple times...
GROSS: You're pleading with gaffer's tape over your mouth. You're trying to
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Exactly.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Exactly. And they didn't use a lot of it. I was--I was
surprised by it. I actually had chest pains 'cause I was really, you know,
pleading for my life. And I was upset they didn't use more of it because I
thought it was a great moment for me. Cause you saw the terror in my eyes,
GROSS: What was it like for you to watch the scene in which you get beaten to
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Well, you know, I had 16 people at my house watching it
Sunday. You know, it was a nice party. Knew something big was going to
happen. But, you know, I was just thinking
back...(unintelligible)...especially in Paris, which they showed too much of,
but David Chase's wife was fine, so when I heard that they, you know--the next
episode they're going to Paris, I was like, you know, I was saying, `Oh, man,
hopefully, I'm going. Maybe I--throw me off the Eiffel Tower, I'd be death
by...(unintelligible),' which would have been great.
But I'm the only guy in the show to play two different characters. I had one
scene in a bakery when Michael Imperioli shoots the kid in the foot, you know,
it's a little--again, a little homage--homage--to "Goodfellas" when they shot
him in the foot. But in the bakery scene, I played Gino, who is trying to get
a little bread, and I get thrown out of the bakery, and Michael wants respect
from this kid, and he shoots him in the foot. So I was looking, but just
thinking back, you know, then they brought me back for Vito Spatafore, and I
got that role, and then I got--when I first heard I was killing Jackie Junior,
I was just going back, and thinking about that, knowing that this scene with
the motel room was coming up, and you know, it was coming to an end. But on
this show, you know, you never really end because you come back in dreams, and
I'm hoping I do.
GROSS: Oh, you're going to come back in dreams?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: I hope. I hope. I haven't gotten that call yet or that
word. And Drea, she was back, right, in that episode?
GROSS: Oh, yeah. How much contact do you have as an actor in "The Sopranos"
with David Chase, who's the, you know, creator and the kind of key person in
overseeing the series? Do you talk with him directly about where it's heading
and where your character's heading?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: You know, up until the end, he--I didn't really see him
much, talk to him much. I approached the writer, and then she told David, I
guess ma--you know, make him gay. He called me in the beginning, she wondered
how much weight loss, you know, weight I had lost, and so he knew how to write
it in. It was a big thing in the first couple of episodes. And then, you
know, that thin club ad we did, which was pretty cool, and then, when I was
out of that and the gay--in the leather bar, I said, `David, I'd like to talk
to you.' I said, `Look,' you know, `I just got married. I've got a house now,
a mortgage. What's going on my character?' And he goes, `Well.' `Am I going
to live?' And he goes, `No, you're going either 11 or 12.' He didn't know yet.
And he says, `You sabotage yourself,' so, meaning that, you know, I could live
my life and everything would have been fine, or--but you come back, you miss
the life, and that's what happens. And I think Tony would have let me live in
HC, you know. He was sticking up for me, because I was going to give him
$200,000 and he, you know, would have some money coming in. But Phil got to
me and that was it.
GROSS: Now Tony was planning to kill you though. He just insulted-- Phil
Leotardo, you know, took out one of his own guys but Tony was going to get
someone to kill you.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah, that's true.
GROSS: Every time Tony has a good instinct, he thinks better of it.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah, it's true. It's true. That's right. He said, `No,
he's got to go, he's got to go.'
GROSS: My guest is Joseph Gannascoli. He played Vito Spatafore on "The
Sopranos." He also co-wrote a crime novel called "A Meal to Die For." More
after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Joe Gannascoli. He played Vito Spatafore on "The
Sopranos." Vito was killed on the latest episode.
So this season, you lost a lot of weight in real life.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah.
GROSS: I read it was something like 160 pounds...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yes.
GROSS: ...while the show was on hiatus. Did you have to like tell the people
`I lost 160 pounds, so you better write it in'?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: No, no, no. They knew I did it. Maybe at the end of season
five, which was maybe like almost three years ago now, I had the band--you
see, I was very thin, then I started opening restaurants, and I started
gaining weight, maybe 10, 12 pounds a year. I stopped going to the gym. I
didn't have time to work out. I stopped being active. And then my hips were
bothering me, so I didn't realize what it was, so I went less and less and
started eating and drinking and gambling, which we'll get into about what's in
my book, but 10, 12 pounds a year. So then, finally, I had enough, I had the
band done, the gastric band, and you know, I started--that was in the end of
season five, I had it done. And when we came back, I just, you know, was
losing weight so maybe a 2 1/2-year period. So they knew I had it done, and
they knew that, you know, you know, there was going to be weight loss. So
they worked it into the script. Mmm.
GROSS: There's several characters on the show who are very heavy. I mean,
over the years, Big Pussy, Bobby. Tony's put on a few pounds lately.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah. Tony put on--well, Bobby Baccalieri, they put a fat
suit on him.
GROSS: Oh, really?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: What was--that wasn't his gut.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah, he's a big guy and he put on some weight but that
wasn't--he had a big gut on him. They took it off him this year. Tony's put
on weight, and I think that was for another role he did. And I think it goes
with his character. I mean, that's an in-joke. Like nine times out of 10,
any time you see him, it's usually in the house, he's always eating.
GROSS: Do you think your weight helped you get the part?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah. I think it definitely did. I think they were looking
for a big guy. I mean, there is a lot of big guys in the mob. You know, they
eat. There's this story about this guy--undercover guy. He put on 80 pounds,
working, when he was--you know, doing undercover. You know, I guess it's all
about restaurants and eating out. And, you know, that's the life.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joe Gannascoli and he plays
Vito Spatafore in "The Sopranos"...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Played.
GROSS: Played. Yes. That's right.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: We can use past tense now.
GROSS: He's been whacked. It's all over for Vito unless he comes back in
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Mmm.
GROSS: But as for Joe Gannascoli, this is probably really good for you. I
mean, you have so much attention now because...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...of this season that...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah.
GROSS: ...probably open up doors for you...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: I hope so.
GROSS: And also I want to ask you about your novel. You have a novel that
you co-wrote called "A Meal to Die For."
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yep.
GROSS: Subtitled "A Culinary Novel of Crime." And this is about a guy who
owns a restaurant that's, you know, connected with small-time crime. You've
worked in a lot of restaurants. You've owned one or more restaurants.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah.
GROSS: Do people want to think that you've been connected? Does that get you
like more `cred' as a "Sopranos" character?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Well, I think we all were at one point. We know guys that
are in this life, you know, being from Brooklyn and I know who is and who
isn't and what's their position and so on and so forth. But this book I wrote
was loosely based on my life as a chef. And I was a bad gambler, I used to
gamble a lot. That's what led me to acting. But I was--when I was gambling
and losing, I used to lose--you know, you win, you lose, you win, you lose,
but you never beat the bookie. You never beat the odds. And one summer I
lost $60,000 gambling on football games. Fifteen, 15 and then 30 was my
get-even game. And if I ever win...(unintelligible)...I've got to thank Cody
Carlson because he was the backup quarterback for the Houston Oilers back in
1990, and it was a Sunday, and they were resting in their place for the
playoffs. The Pittsburgh Steelers number one defense--were resting their
players and Cody Carlson, the backup quarterback...(unintelligible)...for like
500 yards, and I was just sitting there, watching the game stunned and
thinking like, `I just lost 60,000. I've got to get out. I've got to pay
everybody off. I've got to sell my interest in the restaurant and I'm moving
to LA to pursue acting.'
GROSS: What made you think you'd make money as an actor?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: (Unintelligible)...so when I was winning and losing, winning
and losing, you know, I was--to help pay my debts off, I was--became known as
a `food fence' and...
GROSS: What's a food fence?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: A food fence is like a jewelry fence but I knew how to move
hot food. And wine with phony labels. You know, homemade wine. We'd make
phony wine labels and sell them, you know, not what it was. Oil transfusions,
we called them. You know, canola oil cut with like some bootleg olive oil and
then we'd, you know, recan them or we'd rebottle them. So I know how to do
GROSS: So you basically put cheap food in fancy bottles?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah. It wasn't what it said it was, not that it was bad.
I mean, you know. I still had a little integrity. But it just wasn't what it
said it was.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: And so on. So...
GROSS: You felt OK about doing that?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Well, at the time--I mean, I was like hustling. You know,
I--you know--it just--you know, it was something I would use. It just wasn't
what it said it was, and you know, I was hustling. That's what we do in
GROSS: So you didn't mind that you were taking advantage of people?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Whew! Well, back then, I have more scruples now or some.
But I mean, that's what, you know, what the book's about. But you know, this
is, you know, this is how I had to--I hustled. You know, if someone said,
`Listen, I've got this shrimp,' you know. `Can you move it?' And I'd say,
`Yeah, I can move it.'
GROSS: OK. Now in movies and TV shows when that happens, what happens
is--the long run--in the long run is that this character who got in, you know,
who put his toe in the water in dealing with the mob ends up kind of getting
deeper and deeper and deeper until he drowns. You know, until he's like so
deep into crime that he's either, you know, put behind bars for life or he's
killed by one of the other mobsters. How were you able to be a food fence and
then get out?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Well, I mean, it didn't always, you know--I just--I lost
everything and I said I was getting out. You know what I mean? I mean, I
cashed out and...
GROSS: And no one said to you, `You can't leave now, Joey!'
Mr. GANNASCOLI: No, no, no. It wasn't like that. I said, `Listen, I'm
done, you guys. You know, I'm getting out of the restaurant business. I just
lost a ton of money, and I'm going to pursue acting.' I mean, in real life,
what I was doing, I was chef for a restaurant in Manhattan and someone asked
me to be in a play, a good friend of mine, who's actually was a Jesuit. So
this guy was going to be a priest, but he got out of it--Jesuit--and he was
working as a waiter and he asked me to be in this play. It was called "The
Jewish Man" about a loan shark on the docks, and I liked it. I got it, I
liked it, and I got out of the restaurant business and started selling ice
cream from a cart in Wall Street and just studied acting.
GROSS: Joe Gannascoli played Vito Spatafore on "The Sopranos." He's also
co-authored a crime novel called "A Meal to Die For." He'll be back in the
second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to our interview with Joseph Gannascoli, who played Vito
Spatafore on "The Sopranos." Vito was killed in the latest episode.
Gannascoli also co-wrote a crime novel called "A Meal to Die For" about a chef
connected to the mob. Gannascoli used to be in the restaurant business. When
we left off, he was telling us that he decided to get out of the business and
pursue acting after he lost $60,000 gambling.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: I called up my friend Tim Kelleher who's a working actor,
and I said, `Tim'--I told him what happened. I said, `I'm just going to go
out in LA and, you know, pursue it.' And I did that for three and a half
years, just getting bit parts, and I was hustling. But, you know, I was tired
of being broke again. I moved back to LA. My family wouldn't even talk to me
for the first year because of, you know, what I did. I lost everything. I
left this girl I was seeing and so on. And then I was, you know, working in
menial--cooking in jobs, cooking in restaurants and not making much money--I
was tired of that--but, you know, again, I--you know, because I'm from
Brooklyn what I used to do, is--you know what the breakdowns are? I don't
know if you know what the breakdowns are.
GROSS: Is that for betting?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: No.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Breakdowns are what casting directors...
GROSS: Oh, oh.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah, send out to what they--you know for episodes, movies,
episodic TVs, and if they're looking for a character, you know, say 40 years
old, six lines, balding, you know, it's a description of what they need for
the movie or the episode, you know.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: And the only ones that get these breakdowns are the agents.
So I started working with this agent out of his house, and--but he was a young
kid. He wasn't like--you know, I'd be up at 6:00 raring to go and drinking
coffee and waiting until 9:00 so I could go to his house and help him go
through it, just to see what's out there and wondering if they was submitting
me--he was submitting me for the--you know, sending my picture and hopefully
I'd get the call. And I'd say, `Did you call, did you call, did you call?' So
this lasted for about two weeks, and I was driving him nuts, you know. So I
said, `You know what. I don't really trust this guy. I don't think he's
doing the right job.' So I would go wake up at 5 in the morning, run to his
house, grab these breakdowns, ran--run to Kinko's, copy them, then bring them
back to his house, and then I would go through them myself. And I started
submitting my own picture. And then I would call up in a few days and say,
`Listen, my name is James Hoving. I'm Joe Gannascoli's manager. I'm in town
for a few days, and I want to make sure...'
GROSS: You would pretend you were James Hoving, Joe Gannascoli's manager.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Manager. Yes. And I would--they'd say, `Who are you?' I
said, `James Hoving. I'm Joe Gannascoli's manager. I want to make sure--I'm
in town for a few days--I want to make sure that he gets seen for this role.'
And they'd go, `What--where'd you say you were from?' and I'd say--I'd have to
say it--and I changed my answering machine at home to say `James Hoving
Talent.' I say, `You know, I have an East Coast and a West Coast office.' And
that's how I started getting my auditions. That's how I got my first role.
And I got my SAG card.
GROSS: Did anyone discover this like little--little con game you were
Mr. GANNASCOLI: No, no, no. And then I--my roommate, Tim, you know, the
Jesuit, he said, `Listen, I need a James Hoving call. Can you--can you, you
know, call for me?' I'd make the call for him. Funny roles--funny stories
that he wants to get seen for a Bobby Kennedy movie. And they said--and I
said, `Listen, you've got to see Tim Kelleher, he's great.' As a matter of
fact, I signed him when he was playing all three Kennedys in an off-Broadway
play 'cause his agent wasn't getting him in, and I got him into--he didn't get
the role but I got him in for the audition. So everyone was asking me to make
James Hoving calls because I started submitting, you know, I said, `Listen,
there's a thing that's being cast you're really right for, so submit yourself
and I'll call up.' I was doing people favors, so--and that's how I got--so my
first movie I got was called "Money for Nothing." And it's a who's who of like
actors. It's a true story about a guy who finds a million bucks in the
street, a guy from Philly called Joey Coyle. His name is Joey Coyle, and it's
called "Money for Nothing." And James Gandolfini was in it.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: John Cusack was the lead. Gandolfini played his brother.
Michael Madsen--I had a scene with Michael Madsen, I was like thrilled. They
flew into Pittsburgh. First movie I ever got. And Michael Madsen, Philip
Seymour Hoffman was in it, Michael Rapaport, Benicio Del Toro, who I became
Mr. GANNASCOLI: ...and he wound up directing me in a film, a short film he
wrote and directed called "Submission" with Matthew McConaughey. It's about a
drug dealer in a hotel. And so I, you know, stayed friends with him. After
three and a half years, I did a couple of other movies. Stayed friends with
Benicio. I said, `Benicio, that's it, I'm done. I don't know, man. I miss
my family. I haven't been home in three and a half years, and, you know, I'll
keep in touch, and if you can get me in any films'--so he got me in two movies
called "Basquiat" about the painter and "The Funeral," directed by Abel
Ferrara. And these were films that Georgianne Walken...(unintelligible)...and
Sheila Jaffe were casting directors for "The Sopranos," and they said, `Do you
have an agent?' I said no. They said, `Well, keep in touch with us, you know,
and if anything comes out that you're right for, we'll bring you in.' And so I
did that, and they started casting for "The Sopranos," and that's how I got
GROSS: So, did James Hoving...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yes.
GROSS: ...help you get your role on "The Sopranos"?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: No, no, no. By that time, you know, I was back in New York.
You know, I did maybe--did I do any? Yeah, I did those two movies. And
I--they said just call us up and see, you know, what's right--what you're
right for. So they said, `Listen, we're doing this show called "The
Sopranos," and we want to bring you in.' At the time, I didn't want to do it,
because I said, `Well, I don't want to do TV. I just want to do film.' And
they said, `No, you come in and do this. It's going to be big.' And you know,
GROSS: Well, you know, you became an actor because you lost a lot of money
gambling, and you decided to go to LA, you know, give up your restaurant...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Right.
GROSS: Sell your share in the restaurant and go to LA...
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Right.
GROSS: ...and try acting. Now that you actually have more money as a result
of "The Sopranos," are you in danger of gambling it away?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: No, since I got married--I mean, I don't gamble anymore. I
did lose a few dollars on the Super Bowl. I still owe my bookie.
GROSS: Tell me one of your favorite stories about life on the set at "The
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Let's see. Well, usually, when we kill someone, we take
them out to dinner. I haven't got my dinner yet.
GROSS: Oh, God! Really?
Mr. GANNASCOLI: Yeah, we--you know--we--and I take--like we took Jackie
Junior and we took the guy who hung himself, Bobby Funaro. I'm waiting for
my, you know--it's usually a fun night.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. GANNASCOLI: My pleasure.
GROSS: Joe Gannascoli played Vito Spatafore on "The Sopranos," and he
co-wrote a crime novel called "A Meal to Die For."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, our critic at large John Powers tells us about some of the
best and worst films he saw at the Cannes Film Festival.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Critic at large John Powers talks about the best and worst
films shown at the 59th Cannes Film Festival
TERRY GROSS, host:
The 59th Cannes Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday when the winners were
announced. Cannes is the most important international film festival. Many of
the movies that were shown there will be making their way to American
theaters. Our critic at large John Powers, who is also the film critic for
Vogue, was at Cannes. We asked him to tell us about some of the best and
worst films he saw there.
John, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Should we start with the grand prize winner?
Mr. JOHN POWERS: Yes, I think that would be a good idea.
GROSS: So who was it?
Mr. POWERS: The grand prize winner was a film by Ken Loach called "The Wind
That Shakes the Barley," not a particularly alluring title, I might add, which
is a film about the Irish troubles. And it's sort of a Warner Brothers style
of movie about two brothers who wind up on opposite sides of the Irish
independence struggle. It's a political film, very much anti-British
colonialism, and it's a very serious, sober, left-wing movie.
GROSS: Did you like it?
Mr. POWERS: I thought it was OK. It's actually a nicely made movie. I
mean, if you've seen the works of Ken Loach who's made a lot of films and he's
been at Cannes a lot of times, I think there's a limit to how good they can
ever be. He's a solid, studious left-wing filmmaker who presents you with
historical things in a way that aren't particularly exciting but they're
GROSS: Well, last year's grand prize winner "L'enfant" I don't think it did
that well here, and I've heard a lot of kind of disappointed responses to it.
Mr. POWERS: Well, I think what's peculiar about Cannes, in the award-giving
ceremonies, is that there's a weird kind of anhedonia that takes over among
jurors, you know, because this year, the film that everyone really, really
liked most was a Pedro Almodovar film called "Volver." I mean, if you looked
at the critics' ratings, if you talked to people, the one thing you felt
confident of was that was the one film that everyone at Cannes seemed to
really like. Now, Almodovar has had lots of films at Cannes and he never
wins, and you start realizing, `Oh, one reason he never wins is that his films
are considered to be too pleasurable.' There's in fact this strange...
GROSS: Yeah, that always bothers me when I see a movie, too.
Mr. POWERS: Yes, I know. I'm annoyed by people who can actually time their
jokes well and whose sentimental moments actually touch me rather than just
make me groan. I mean, in talking to people, you realize that in the festival
world, there's this strange sense that artistry doesn't include doing things
that please the crowd as much as they might. And so, you know, Almodovar at
Cannes is kind of like Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock, you know, who
famously never won Oscars. Almodovar goes all the time, often has the movie
that people like the best and then never wins. Because there's this strange
perception that to make a movie that's well-plotted, well-acted, funny,
touching and, in fact, a crowd pleaser is so easy to do that, in fact, he
shouldn't be honored for it. When, of course, you're always thinking to
yourself, `If it's so easy to make an Almodovar film, how come so much of the
stuff you see in the world is so inept?'
GROSS: Well, he did win a couple of awards though. He won Best Screenplay
and the actresses in the film shared the Best Actress award.
Mr. POWERS: Yes, well, one of the most interesting things about Almodovar is
he's one of the great directors of actresses in the world. In this particular
film, he had Penelope Cruz, who came back from Hollywood and reminded us again
that she's actually a really terrific actress when she's not acting in
English. I mean, she's really wonderful. And his old--Almodovar's old
actress Carmen Maura, who is in a lot of his earlier films, and who--they'd
had some sort of split, but she came back. And you actually had those two
plus two other actresses who are younger in-between them. In fact, it's a
wonderful cast and extremely well-performed. And at the time the film showed,
many people thought, `Oh, the actresses will get an award because it's just a
GROSS: Well, I love Almodovar's films so I can't wait to see it. What were
the big bombs of the Cannes Film Festival?
Mr. POWERS: Well, the biggest single bomb, I think, was an American film
called "Southland Tales" by a guy named Richard Kelly. It was his second
film. His first film was kind of a cult hit called "Donnie Darko," a film
which I liked but, you know, didn't adore. But everyone was really excited to
see his movie. The problem with Cannes for filmmakers is that the big film of
the day shows at 8:30 in the morning, and this in a city where people during
the festival are staying out really late at night. His film showed at 8:30 on
a Sunday morning. It was two hours and 40 minutes long and sort of an
apocalyptic comedy about Los Angeles set in the year 2008 after a nuclear
attack. And the movie is frankly a mess. People were walking out from about
20 minutes on. At the end, it got roundly booed. Various critics suggested
it was the worst film ever to play at Cannes. And so, it was like hugely
unpopular. I was actually less hostile toward it because I thought, here was
a guy who'd actually gone for it. The movie is so overstuffed with jokes,
many of them not funny, ideas, characters, but in a way, I thought, if you're
going to make a film and it's going to come to Cannes, it should be really
striving to be a big, amazing movie.
GROSS: Before "The Da Vinci Code" had a chance to be panned by critics in
daily newspapers, it opened at Cannes. What kind of reaction did it get
Mr. POWERS: Silence. You know, I didn't actually go to the official
screening because, you know, that's for big shots, and it's essentially for
people with jewels and black tie who would go to the official opening night
ceremony. But the people who were there who I did know all reported that
they'd never heard it so quiet. You could actually hear individual people
clapping at the end, which is a kind of--which is almost worse than boos
because people were just so stupefied by the dullness of the film that, you
know, they just couldn't wait to get out and get to the party. It was very
funny because that was the end of this huge process--at least in Europe, where
"The Da Vinci Code" was as inescapable as sales tax. You know, you would
be--every newspaper had "The Da Vinci Code" on the cover. You saw TV coverage
of Tom Hanks taking the train from London to Cannes. Everything was going for
the film. And then the film came in. Basically, no one liked it at Cannes
although it's obviously made a lot of money since then.
GROSS: What are some of the most controversial films that showed this year at
Mr. POWERS: Well, in controversy terms, the interesting film was something
that would seem that it wouldn't be controversial, which was Sofia Coppola's
film about Marie Antoinette called "Marie Antoinette," starring Kirsten Dunst
as the famous, slightly air-headed queen of France. What the film does is
treat Marie Antoinette not as a political figure but as a teenage girl in love
with boys and shopping and things, and it uses contemporary pop music, things
like the Gang of Four to tell the story of Marie Antoinette. It's the kind of
film that if you like it, you think, `What a terrifically interesting film'
even if you don't like everything in it. It's also the kind of film that if
you don't like it, you really hate it, and so the world divided profoundly on
Marie Antoinette. You actually--there were probably lots of boos, certainly
lots of boos, and there's lots of applause, and you could actually summarize
this difference in opinion if you looked at The New York Times where one of
the critics really liked it and one of the critics didn't like it. Or in the
rankings that they give at the festival where various critics give their
ratings of every film. The French critics, for instance, half of them gave it
four stars, the highest, and the other half were busy trashing it.
GROSS: Where do you fall on the scale?
Mr. POWERS: It's so embarrassing to say that I'm slightly in the middle.
I--actually, I did like it, but I saw that the second half isn't as good as
the first half. But I, like many critics, liked the fact that it was trying
to take a new approach to making a historical film. One very famous French
critic named Michele Simone, you know, came up to me and said, `It is not
perfect, but you know, if a Frenchman had made this film, it would be so dull
and so predictable,' and, in fact, I think that's what I felt about "Marie
Antoinette." It is so lively and youthful and American and pop that if you
want a serious film about Marie Antoinette--who after all didn't lead a
perfect life, given that her excesses helped people starve to death. If--but
if you don't like that pop idea of Marie Antoinette, then the film stretching
is not just foolish but almost morally reprehensible. In fact, at the press
conference, Sofia Coppola was asked about the politics of the film, and she
said, I think quite honestly, that she'd had no political thoughts about the
film at all. You know, for her, Marie Antoinette is no longer a political
figure. She's just some--she's a young girl whose life she wanted to talk
GROSS: Now there's a film I read a little bit about called "Summer Palace"
that's set in China, and what surprises me is that apparently there's actual
sex and nudity in it, which I think is unusual for a film out of China, you
know, China censors its films.
Mr. POWERS: It is. You know, the film is--takes an interesting idea. It's
about the generation of Tiananmen Square, the young people who were young at
the time of Tiananmen Square in 1989. But its approach to this is to tell you
the story of that era, not through the work of a political activist but
through the life of a young woman who's basically discovering herself through
her sexual encounters with men, so that during Tiananmen Square, she's at--you
know, she joins the students, but mainly because her boyfriend is there and
she wants to be close to him. And what the film does is it gives you a period
of about, you know, maybe 15 years of life in China through the eyes of this
young woman whose major obsessions are romantic and erotic.
In the process of doing that, you actually do have a very, very rare nude
scenes and quite explicit nude scenes in the film that I'd never seen before
in a Chinese film, certainly one with this level of acting and commitment. I
mean, it wasn't some sort of grubby little underground film where they're
showing somebody naked just to make a--to make a splash. And what was
interesting about it, to me, is the nudity in the film is that the Chinese
don't quite know how to do it yet. You know, that they have had so few of
these films that they slightly overdo it with the sex and the nudity. So even
though I'm a middle-aged man who should like nothing more than to see naked
Chinese women, I'm thinking, `Enough of this already. Can we get back to the
story?' You know. And I suspect by the time it comes out in the States, and I
think it will come out in the States, that will be pared back, because one of
the excesses is a guy who's trying to use eroticism as a subject but he
doesn't quite know the rules for how you do it without going too far. I would
say in passing that among the women I know, this might have been the favorite
film of the festival.
GROSS: What do you think accounts for that?
Mr. POWERS: I think it captures the kind of female character that movies
don't deal with very often, which is a woman who is driven, but she doesn't
quite know what she's driven for, and driven to seek, and what--the way her
life takes its form is in its relationships with individual men and through
her sexual relationships. You know, she's not crazy. She's intelligent.
She's able to hold down work. She's not some sad looking for Mr. Goodbar
type. She's actually a woman who's exploding with so much feeling, she's
trying to find some place to put it, which is all the harder in China of, say,
1988, where you were supposed to suppress all your individuality. In a sense,
the film is almost about the birth of individualism in China and uses this
woman as the exemplar of that.
GROSS: My guest is our critic at large, John Powers. We'll talk more about
the Cannes Film Festival after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of Music)
GROSS: My guest is our critic at large, John Powers, and he just came back
from the Cannes Film Festival.
John, the Cannes Film Festival is, of course, a place to premiere new films.
It's also a place to sell films. And tell us a little bit about what the
marketplace was like this time around.
Mr. POWERS: It's, well, you know, part of the fun of Cannes is that it
is--all of the world is there. It's kind of like going to India, where
there's just so much stuff, so at the upper levels of the Palais, where they
show the films, you have the high art films, by great international auteurs.
In the basement, they have the market. And in the market are all the films
that many Americans would never see unless they, you know, check the
made-for-video or street-to-video shelves at their DVD stores, and those are
the films that have, you know, the brothers of Sylvester Stallone and all
those actors who used to be part of the brat pack and you wonder what ever
happened to them. Well, you know, they're all making movies. And, you know,
so you have crazy sex movies and you have lots of action movies. A lot of the
movies that are aimed at the international audience. I had a particular
favorite this year. You know, every year you find something that seems
particularly delirious. My favorite this year was a thing called "Exte Hair
Extensions" and there was a promotional reel available but the synopsis of the
film which I will read to you because it's so insane is simply (reading) "Hair
extensions carry the grudge of the individual to which the hair originally
belonged and start attacking people wearing them at random."
GROSS: That's funny.
Mr. POWERS: Isn't that funny? I mean, that--it sounds like a joke film, you
know. It's something that you'd read in a novel about how absurd the world is
but, in fact, this film is directed by a respectable Japanese director. Its
lead actress is the woman who played Gogo Yuvari in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill
Bill." That, in fact, it's a real project. And the market is filled with
those things. You know, I mean, every time you go there, every day there are
market screenings and you're looking--there are stories that seem so insane
you can't believe it, and you realize that this is actually somehow the darker
libido of the film industry. And then you have the high aspiration, you know,
on the floors above.
GROSS: I know one of the movies that was premiered at Cannes was Al Gore's
film about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth." How was he received there?
Mr. POWERS: Well, Al Gore was received very, very well. You know, I mean,
normally what happens when I go to a film festival is, you know, I wind up
making jokes about Paris Hilton because she seems to be everywhere. This time
Al Gore took over the Paris Hilton role. You know, I think it's because you
so seldom get a politician at Cannes, especially such a famous one, and then
with a film there, you know. But he was at dinners and giving press
conferences and on yacht parties and on everything. You know, Al Gore is
everywhere. I sort of thought he may not be running for president of the
United States but he looked like he was running for the president of next
year's Cannes jury. I mean--and he was having such a good time. You know, I
think that's part of it, is that he's there promoting the film and getting
caught up in the events like everybody else. I mean, it's a very sleepless
place, Cannes. I mean, everyone talks about how they go to bed at 1:30 in the
morning and get up at 7:30 and the horror is when you go to bed at 1:30 in the
morning, you still can't sleep because you're still so wired. And you can
even feel that in him, which was actually kind of nice since so often when
he's officially running for things, he seems kind of stiff, to actually see
him in kind of a Lucy Goosy mode.
GROSS: Why do you go every year to the Cannes Film Festival?
Mr. POWERS: The reason I go to Cannes is that the whole world is there, that
it is exhilarating and exhausting, it's filled with refinement and vulgarity,
and when you go, you will see things and meet people you wouldn't meet any
place else. You actually see the film by the director from Mauritania. You
see the film from Paraguay when they haven't had a film in 30 years. And it
doesn't matter whether you like it. Plus you see what in the world is thought
to be the most exciting film being made. You see Hollywood movies, you see
French movies, you see Korean movies, and you talk to people. You know,
I--like you talk to critics from Mexico or from Greece, the kind of people you
don't normally meet. So you learn a lot about the world. In fact, one of the
funny things, you know, for people who live in the US now is that given that
we're constantly being told about how globalized our world is and how we have
to know the world because of September 11, it's amazing how little we actually
get to see in this country of what people think about movies or what movies
they make outside the United States. There are a handful of countries whose
movies show here, and then if you go to a film festival, you might be able to
see it. But in Cannes, it's all there, so I'm excited every time, because I
always see something I never have seen before. I meet someone I could never
meet any place else, and it's a thrilling place to be.
GROSS: Well, John, thanks for talking with us about the Cannes Film Festival.
Mr. POWERS: Sure, happy to do it.
GROSS: John Powers is our critic at large and film critic for Vogue.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with music from the soundtrack of Pedro Almodovar's 2004 film "Bad
(Soundbite of music from "Bad Education")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.