“Hey, write this down,” Schirripa demands. “Contrary to what a lot of people believe, we are not gangsters. People come up to you and say, ‘Hey, my cousin Johnny is in the can. Don’t know if you know him—little Johnny from Avenue U?’ I’m like, How would I know him? I have a fucking college degree! I’m an actor!”
Throughout the meal I’m bombarded with such clarifications. Makes sense, I guess: No one’s eager to be mistaken for a murderer, and actors are notoriously sensitive about being taken seriously. I’m told a story from a few years ago, when Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher Moltisanti on the show, was approached by an overzealous fan while vacationing in Lake Tahoe. “This Italian guy, right?” recalls Schirripa. “He’s going, ‘Put me on the show! I’m the best!’ Michael says to him, ‘What the fuck? Have you been fucking acting? I’ve been doing this 23 years!’ ”
Life imitating art imitating life—it’s a vicious cycle. Mistaken identities aside, no one denies that a symbiotic connection has developed between the actors and the characters they play. “There’s a tremendous amount of camaraderie between these guys,” Chase says, “as well as a lot of competition and backbiting. They come to me and say, ‘Why did he get to do this? Why did he get to do that?’ A lot like they are on the show with Tony. And it’s true that when they’re together, a kind of groupthink takes over.”
On any given night you can find them together like this: wedged around a table, drinking chilled Patrón from martini glasses, fighting over who gets to pick up the tab, making maudlin pledges of loyalty. Maybe it’s an impromptu convergence at Pastis, maybe a mellow round of drinks at Dekk, a low-key Tribeca bar that has become their nocturnal headquarters. “Look, we’re seriously happy to see each other,” says Schirripa. “If you think those bitches on Desperate Housewives like each other, then you’re out of your fucking mind.” It helps that most everyone has roots in the tri-state area, with an especially healthy dose of Brooklyn pride among them. “We grew up in neighborhoods with Italian doctors, Italian lawyers, and Italian mafioso,” says Grimaldi, eliciting knowing nods from Max Casella (Benny Fazio) and Robert Funaro (Eugene Pontecorvo). “We knew these people. We’ve been associated with this kind of stuff all our lives.”
Gandolfini, too, brings up the “upper blue collar” bond with his cast mates: “We’re not out to hurt each other,” he says. “If one person steps out of line, we’re going to tell him he’s being stupid, get him back in line. You’re in a circle being stared at, you know? And we all kind of protect each other.” To outsiders, the group is almost impenetrable. “I remember one time, we had someone come in who wasn’t from the same background,” says Gandolfini. “I’m not going to say who. We all knew it wasn’t going to work, and it didn’t.” As for the rest of the guys: “They all just really get it. I don’t have to reach down and pull them up. Ever. If anything, they’re holding me up.”
Indeed. Coming from movies, Gandolfini has never quite been comfortable with the masochistic schedule of television production: shooting up to seven pages a day as opposed to two or three. “In the beginning, he quit every day,” recalls Van Zandt, who for a time was considered for the role of Tony. “He’d say, ‘I can’t do it, it’s too much. Are you out of your fucking mind?’ I’m like, ‘Jimmy, come on now, you can do this.’ ”
But for the most part, it’s Gandolfini who looks out for his cast mates much the way Tony looks after his soldiers. “He plays the boss and is treated like the boss when the cameras aren’t rolling,” says Van Zandt. “It sounds funny, but that’s how it is.” Before filming season five, Gandolfini clashed with HBO over his contract: He sued the network, the network sued back, eventually everyone settled. He ended up making something in the ballpark of $13 million a year. While the press portrayed him as a tyrant, he made a point of approaching all the regular cast members and inviting them to his trailer for a private meeting. Thanking them for their patience and hard work, he handed them each a sizable personal check. (“Enough to buy a nice car,” says Schirripa.) It was all very hush-hush, the sort of gentlemanly gesture Tony would’ve approved of.
With the meal coming to an end, and everyone in a food-stoked delirium, I ask how it feels to be on the verge of death. Fictional, metaphoric death, I clarify. But it’s too late. The festive mood has already turned funereal.