You might imagine that playing a character who is blackmailed by the Feds, strangled by her fiancé, addled by mild drug problems and severe intestinal ones, and finally shot execution-style—as Drea de Matteo did so vividly in her Emmy-nominated performance on The Sopranos—would be harder than playing a hairdresser on a network sitcom. Not so.
“This is ten times more difficult than anything I’ve ever done before,” says De Matteo of her new role as Matt LeBlanc’s older sister on the Friends spinoff Joey. “I know I can make people cry, but making them laugh? That’s another story. To do that and play the character as real as possible and not turn her into a caricature, that’s my goal. That’s my challenge.” De Matteo’s other big challenge is network-appropriate behavior modification. “I’m a smoker; I live life to the edge,” she says. “They always have to tell me, uh, this is not HBO, because I can’t fucking stop cursing.”
Then there’s the more familiar challenge of being a New Yorker set adrift in Los Angeles. De Matteo was born in Queens, raised on the Upper East Side, owns a vintage clothing store and an apartment in the East Village, and is used to shooting The Sopranos at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City. Suffice it to say she’s having adjustment issues in Hollywood. “I was always one of these people who would get pissed off when people would compare New York to Los Angeles because I actually like L.A. Now I’m like, Get me home! L.A. was always a vacation town for me, but now I’m doing the sitcom thing; I’m working like a dog. It’s funny: I’m longing for New York so I can relax.”
De Matteo says she has never watched sitcoms, not even Friends. “I’m just not a sitcom person,” she says. “And there was so much pressure on this whole thing, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to add to what Matt [LeBlanc] already had. But he just convinced me that I belonged. It’s kind of funny: His character moves to Los Angeles and his sister—that’s me—takes care of him. In reality, I moved to L.A. and Matt’s taking care of me.”
“People are saying sitcoms are dead, but I think people were just bored with all the crap out there.”
She is not particularly concerned with saving the sitcom format, as many have argued Joey will need to do if it’s going to stay afloat in the sea of Apprentices and Bachelors. “People are saying sitcoms are dead, but I think people were just bored with all the crap out there,” she says diplomatically. “And I have a feeling that half those reality shows are doomed, too: They’re just a new crock of shit. Networks are not opening up. They’re not becoming Europe overnight, and they’re not becoming HBO, because there’s a little place between L.A. and New York called America that they need to appeal to.” That said, De Matteo promises that her network show is as good as they come. “Coming from working with the best writers in drama, I wouldn’t have done this if these weren’t the best writers in comedy,” she says. “Not to be a fucking snob or anything.”
De Matteo may be working in a new genre, but Gina, the character she plays on Joey, has certain marked similarities to Adriana. “I was so sad about putting Adriana to sleep,” says De Matteo. “This made me less sad. Gina’s a lot tougher than Adriana—still good-hearted, but at least she’s got a layer of skin on her. Other than that, it’s the same deal: Gina’s uneducated. She’s really into her clothes. She’s got the big hair, the big boobs; in the show she’s got fake boobs. At least Adriana’s were real! But this one’s in California, so she has to have fake ones.” Initially, fears of typecasting made De Matteo reluctant to take the part. “But I’m over that,” she says. “I’m a girl who tawks like this real good. As a friend of mine said to me the other day, it’s better to be typecast than no-cast.”
De Matteo has no patience for the Italian-American groups that have complained that the accent, the hair, the boobs, the toughness, reinforce ethnic stereotypes. “That’s actually something that makes me fucking crazy,” she says. “The Italians who thought The Sopranos portrayed dumb Italians are themselves the Italians making us look stupid. If they just think ‘mob … violence … bad’ and can’t see the show as a literary piece, that shows how simplistic and narrow-minded they are. It’s the emotional violence on that show that’s really more significant. The people who complain about this, what they really should do is take a couple of literature classes, a couple of classic-film classes, and shut their mouths.”
A graduate of NYU, De Matteo was herself a film major, but her interests are wide-ranging. She is a spokeswoman for the ASPCA; she is developing two scripts written by her mother; and she’s working with her boyfriend, musician Shooter Jennings, on a tribute CD and concert covering his late father, Waylan. “If I were just an actor,” she says, “I think I would kill myself. My new project is my house in the hills: I’m trying to turn it into a Manhattan townhouse.” Even if she succeeds, De Matteo has no doubt she will return to New York as soon as she can to reintroduce audiences to her dark side.
“After this,” she says excitedly, “I’ll be ready to do something more upsetting.”
Joey, NBC; premieres September 9, 8 p.m.