DATE June 6, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Lorraine Bracco discusses "The Sopranos," her book
"On the Couch", and suffering from depression
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Well, now we have to wait until next year to see the final episodes of "The
Sopranos." The final season of the HBO series is divided into two parts and
part one ended Sunday. But the good news is that now we get to talk about
"The Sopranos" with one of its stars Lorraine Bracco. She plays Dr. Melfi,
Tony's psychiatrist. Her second best known role is as the wife of wiseguy
Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas." Bracco has a new memoir called
"On the Couch," in which she not only describes treating Tony for his
depression and panic attacks, she describes her own bout with depression.
Let's start with a scene from a recent episode. Tony Soprano is in Dr.
Melfi's office. He's just told her he hates his son AJ.
(Soundbite of "The Sopranos")
Ms. LORRAINE BRACCO: (As Dr. Melfi) Tony, I think your anger towards AJ has
been building for some time. We have to deal with this.
Mr. JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) All I know is it's a good thing my
father's not alive because, let me tell you, he'd find this...(censored by
Ms. BRACCO: (As Dr. Melfi) Find what hilarious?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) The kind of son I produced.
Ms. BRACCO: (As Dr. Melfi) You mean because Anthony doesn't conform to your
father's idea of what a man should be?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) His, mine or anybody's. Let me tell you, if
Carmela let met kick AJ's ass like my father kicked my ass, he might have
grown up with some...(censored by station).
Ms. BRACCO: (As Dr. Melfi) Like you.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) Yeah. Like me.
Ms. BRACCO: (As Dr. Melfi) He might have also grown up taking out his anger
at his father's brutality towards him on others. He might have grown up with
a desperate need to dominate and control. Anthony, we've been dancing around
this for years, how you live. What is it you want from your life?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) I couldn't even hit him if I wanted to, he's
so...(censored by station)...little. It's Carmela's side of the family.
They're small people. Her father, you could knock him over with a...(censored
Ms. BRACCO: (As Dr. Melfi) OK. But I have to point out, what you resent
Carmela doing for AJ, protecting him from his father, is the very thing you
had often wished your mother had done for you.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Lorraine Bracco, welcome to FRESH AIR. What's the best advice you've
even given Tony Soprano?
Ms. BRACCO: Ooh. Over the years, ooh. Good question. You know, I do love
the fact that she continues to try to make him look at his relationship with
the mother. I think that's a very important aspect of his issues. And so
anything that surrounds Olivia, I think, is always very interesting. I don't
know if it's advice, and the advice since, but I like all the stuff with the
mother. I think it's all very, very interesting and, of course, pokes and
prods him in ways that he squirms, and I like that.
GROSS: I can't remember how many seasons ago this was when your character was
Ms. BRACCO: Yes.
GROSS: And how did you feel about that? I mean, it's such a violation of
your character. I don't mean a script-writing violation. I mean rape is an
incredible violation. And on the one hand...
Ms. BRACCO: Oh, I was stunned.
GROSS: Yeah. On the one hand when something major happens in the life of one
of the characters, it seems like good news for the actor because you get more
attention. But did you kind of feel the pain, you know, when the character
Ms. BRACCO: Oh, of course. Of course. I mean, David came to me and said,
OK, I don't remember what season or what episode, but he said, you know, `Come
into my office.' And we sat down, and he started to tell me the story. And I
was like, `What? Why would you hurt Dr. Melfi? Why would you do that to
her?' `Well, it's a random rape.' I said, `David, I'm the only decent person
here! Why would you do this to me?' And he said, `OK, all right. Let's not
get hysterical. Read the script and call me.' So he gave me the script, you
know, a couple weeks or a month before, you know, we were even going to go
into it. And I read the script, and I read it again. And it was the second
time that I read it, I said, `OK. I get it.' It wasn't about hurting Dr.
Melfi. It wasn't the violence against her. What it was was her morality.
And, yes, she could have told Tony, and, yes, she could have become a
GROSS: She could have asked him for revenge, and he would have gladly taken
Ms. BRACCO: Of course. Of course he would have. But it was the question of
her morality. Who was she? And to me that was so much bigger than anything.
And a lot of people I'm not sure 100 percent got that. I mean, my father was
standing up screaming at the television, screaming, `Tell him! Tell him!'
And, I mean, you know, it was like, well, then she would have just become one
GROSS: So did you like the way it was resolved in the script?
Ms. BRACCO: Yes, I do. But I read it twice. And David--and then when we
really got into it, we talked about the fact that if you're going to do this,
then you need to really do it. And don't do it like prime-time television
where they don't show the violence, and I think which has been a huge, for me,
a huge issue of why violence is so big in the states. Because if you're going
to watch it on television and you never see anybody really get violated, well,
what the hell?
GROSS: Describe how you handled the scene, the violent scene.
Ms. BRACCO: Oh, it was just despicable. Oh, it was despicable, and I hated
it, and I suffered. I even ripped open my bursa sac in my shoulder, and I
needed surgery. I fought back. I screamed, `I'm a mother. Don't do this.'
You know, it was awful.
GROSS: Now David Chase, the creator of "The Sopranos," wanted you to play
Carmela, Tony's wife, when the series was starting, but you turned that down.
It's such a big part and such a great part. You say in your book that you
didn't want to play another mob wife after you became so famous for that in
"Goodfellas." But I still think that must have been really hard to turn that
down. Did you ever have second thoughts about turning it down seeing what a
great role it was?
Ms. BRACCO: Well, you know, again, you know, with David, when we talked
about it, I did it. I didn't think I could do it any better. And Melfi
jumped off the page for me. I thought, she was an Italian-American educated
woman, someone we've never seen, a relationship with a mobster character that
you've never seen. That was exciting to play.
GROSS: Now, when the series started, you were going through a terrible
depression, which you write about in your new memoir. You were going through
a bad separation with Harvey Keitel, who you'd been with for years. You had a
daughter together, and you were having a custody battle over your daughter.
And you were very, very deep in debt, like $2 million, in part because of the
steep legal fees that you had to pay. And you finally went into therapy. Did
therapy help you through that depression?
Ms. BRACCO: Oh, yes it did. And medication helped me.
GROSS: What did the therapy, since you're playing a therapist now and have to
really think about the value and the limitations of therapy, what did the
therapy do for you? What are some of the insights that it gave you that you
could actually use to change your life?
Ms. BRACCO: All right, well, you know, when you ask that question, my mind
is going all over the place. A couple of things I want you to know. David
Chase has been through therapy, and when I met David and we talked about Dr.
Melfi, one of the things I said to him was, `Listen, I don't really know you
very well right now, and you don't know me, but I've been in therapy. And
I've been in crises mode, and therapy was very, very important to me.' And I
told him also that I'd been on medication. And he was very open, and I say we
had a very strong meeting. And I was very open with him because I didn't want
him to think that--besides, it was a great role that I loved, it was something
that I was working on. And I said to him the therapy had been very important
to me and I wasn't willing to make a mockery of therapy. I was not willing to
become the psycho killer, I wasn't willing to become the sex fiend
psychiatrist. And if he had those plans for this character, I was not his
girl because, in my own life, I always felt it saved me. And David was very
honest and open with me and said he'd been in therapy and been through a lot.
And, no, he wasn't going to make a mockery of the therapy. Would he take a
little artistic license? Yes. I said, `That I can live with. But I won't
live with, you know, the, you know, the sex fiend psychiatrist who, you know,
dances in the bada-bing.'
GROSS: You know, you were really in need of money at this point and in need
of work. And I guess it's kind of risky when someone's offering you a good
part to first turn down the part they offered you, second suggest the part
that you think would be better for you, and then third explain if you don't
like the way he's writing that part, you're not going to take that either.
Ms. BRACCO: Look, I'm a `love me or leave me' kind of girl. What can I tell
you? You know, I couldn't be more honest, more up front, more decent to
myself, and I think David saw that.
GROSS: My guest is Lorraine Bracco. She plays Dr. Melfi on "The Sopranos,"
and she has a new memoir called "On the Couch." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lorraine Bracco. And she plays
Dr. Melfi, Tony Soprano's therapist on "The Sopranos." Now she has a new
memoir, and it's called "On the Couch."
Now, you first became really well known for your role in "Goodfellas" as Karen
Hill, the, you know, the woman who becomes the wife of the wiseguy of the
film, a small time mobster, Henry Hill. It was directed by Martin Scorsese,
who you already knew through your long-time partner Harvey Keitel. So you say
in your book that, you know, you had auditioned for one of Scorsese's earlier
movies and he didn't give you that part, but he said he would give you a part
someday and "Goodfellas" was that someday. And you also say that you didn't
exactly audition for it. If it wasn't an audition exactly, what was it?
Ms. BRACCO: Well, Marty had met me. He knew me. I had already worked a
little bit, so he'd seen me on the screen. And what he did was he had me come
up to his apartment and meet him and Ray Liotta. And we sat and talked and
had a drink for a while and talked about the book. I read the book. He
hadn't given me a script yet, so I had read the book, so I had something to
talk about. And I think what he was doing was really matching me up with Ray.
GROSS: In the film, your character of Karen is Jewish and, of course, Henry
Hill is Italian. And...
Ms. BRACCO: Italian-Irish.
GROSS: Italian-Irish. Now you grew up in--you're a Catholic. You grew up in
Bay Ridge. And then when you were a little older, your family moved to a
neighborhood in Long Island that was primarily Jewish. And you said, you
know, all your friends were in B'Nai Brith so you wanted to join too, even
though you're Catholic.
Ms. BRACCO: Right.
GROSS: But that's what everybody was doing. So did spending part of your
growing up time in a Jewish neighborhood help you in playing Karen?
Ms. BRACCO: I think it's why Marty gave me the role. I mean, that's...
GROSS: How did it help you?
Ms. BRACCO: Because I knew both sides of the coin. I grew up in a Jewish
neighborhood. I was the only, you know, Catholic kid. And I was Catholic and
with an Italian father at home. So I understood both lives, and that
intrigued Marty. And Marty always felt I could play Jewish. Not just
Italian. I could do that. And the fact that I was from Long Island and
that's where Karen Hill was originally from, from Lawrence.
GROSS: I want to play a scene from "Goodfellas," and this is a scene, you and
Henry Hill have recently married, but you're both living in your parents'
house. And in this scene, Henry Hill has been out all night, and it's not the
first time. And your mother is really mad at him, and I think she's just kind
of mad at you for marrying him in the first place.
Ms. BRACCO: OK.
GROSS: So this is a scene with you and your mother.
Ms. BRACCO: And I know this has got nothing to do with nothing, but you
realize Suzanne Shepherd who plays my mother in "Goodfellas" plays...
Come on, Terry. Come on. It's a great trivia question.
GROSS: I don't know.
Ms. BRACCO: Plays Edie's mother in "Sopranos."
GROSS: No, really?
Ms. BRACCO: Same actress.
GROSS: I didn't realize that.
Ms. BRACCO: Ah. See?
GROSS: Oh, you got me. That's great.
Ms. BRACCO: All right. Just a little trivia.
GROSS: Well, that's great. Well, let's hear the scene, and we can think
about that as we listen.
(Soundbite of "Goodfellas")
Ms. SUZANNE SHEPHERD: (As Karen Hill's mother) He didn't call?
Ms. BRACCO: (As Karen Hill) He's with his friends.
Ms. SHEPHERD: (As mother) What kind of a person doesn't call?
Ms. BRACCO (As Karen) Ma. He's a grownup. He doesn't have to call every
Ms. SHEPHERD: (As mother) If he was such a grownup, why doesn't he get you
two an apartment?
Ms. BRACCO (As Karen) Oy, don't start, Mom. You're the one who wanted us
Ms. SHEPHERD: (As mother) Listen, you're here a month, and sometimes I know
he doesn't come home at all. What kind of people are these?
Ms. BRACCO (As Karen) Ma, what do you want me to do?
Ms. SHEPHERD: (As mother) Do? What can you do? He's not Jewish. Did you
know how these people live? Did you know what they were like? Your father
never stayed out all night without calling.
Ms. BRACCO (As Karen) Stayed out? Daddy never went out at all, Ma. Keep out
of it! You don't know how I feel!
Ms. SHEPHERD: (As mother) Feel? How do you feel now? You don't know where
he is. You don't know who he's with.
Ms. BRACCO (As Karen) He's with his friends! Dad!
Ms. SHEPHERD: (As mother) Will you leave him out of this? He's suffered
enough. The man hasn't been able to digest a decent meal in six weeks.
(Soundbite of door slamming)
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's my guest Lorraine Bracco with Suzanne Shepherd in a scene from
One of the things you write about in your memoirs that when you were young and
modeling, you moved to Paris and, while you were living in Europe, one of the
people you modeled for was Salvador Dali. What did he ask you to do?
Ms. BRACCO: He asked me to pose nude.
GROSS: And did you do it?
Ms. BRACCO: No.
GROSS: Why not?
Ms. BRACCO: I was insulted. I was young, and I felt he was a dirty old man.
GROSS: Do you think he was a dirty old man?
Ms. BRACCO: Yes. But now that I'm older and realize he was one of the
great, you know, surrealist painters of our times, I, you know, I was silly.
GROSS: Did you not realize how important he was at the time?
Ms. BRACCO: No. I didn't know.
GROSS: But you did finally pose for something. Would you describe that for
Ms. BRACCO: Well, he kept asking and asking and asking and asking. And I
was always annoyed. And we did do a photo shoot which is in the book.
GROSS: You write in your book that Dali's wife was very uncomfortable with
all the women who were modeling for him. Did you see this situation at all
from her point of view at the time? Or did you think, you know, that she
shouldn't have been, you know, getting in the way at all? Did you empathize
Ms. BRACCO: Did I emphasize with her? Her behavior was so appalling that it
was very difficult to emphasize with her.
GROSS: What was appalling about her behavior?
Ms. BRACCO: Oh, she was just awful. She would push you away, or, I mean, I
was there to work. I was not there to, you know, but I think she saw that he
liked me, and that annoyed her to death. And she was just verbally abusive in
Spanish and not very nice. So it was hard to emphasize with her.
GROSS: I have another question about Dr. Melfi. One of the things I
sometimes wonder about Dr. Melfi is this. When seeing Tony Soprano, would
she really be wearing skirts and stockings that reveal her very beautiful
legs? Or would she be trying to be like as nonsexual as possible in a therapy
relationship like that?
Ms. BRACCO: OK, so I have a couple of things on the subject. You ready?
Ms. BRACCO: One, Terry.
Ms. BRACCO: It is a TV show. And Mr. Gandolfini goes to our fantastic
costume designer, Juliet, and begs her to shorten my skirts. Just so you
know, a little artistic license there. You know, if you know me and if you
meet me, you will see I'm a much more alive woman than Dr. Melfi, and I have
a big sexuality about me. So Dr. Melfi is, for me, I work so hard to tone
her down and not be me. People just can't believe when they meet me in
person, they say, `Oh, my God. They make you so ugly on television.' But
because I don't bring in me, I don't bring in Lorraine Bracco. Yes, there's a
part of me I bring in. But I have to glue my ass down to the chair, I have to
get rid of me to make her.
GROSS: Lorraine Bracco, thanks so much for talking with us.
Ms. BRACCO: Oh, you're sweet, Terry. I hope you had fun.
GROSS: Lorraine Bracco plays Dr. Melfi, Tony's psychiatrist, in "The
Sopranos." Her new memoir is called "On the Couch."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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