- Film And TV
- 10 Jan 24
On January 10, 1999, the pilot episode of The Sopranos premiered on HBO. It ran on the network until June 2007 – and remains one of the finest, and most influential, TV series of all time. To celebrate the show's 25th anniversary, we're revisiting classic interviews with members of the iconic cast, taken from the Hot Press archives. First up is Joe Pantoliano, who played "Tony’s psychotic lieutenant", Ralph Cifaretto
Originally published in Hot Press in 2013:
No offence to the rest of the people enjoying elevenses in the Shelbourne hotel lounge, but none of them are a match in the sartorial department for Joey Pantoliano, the Italian-American actor whose résumé includes The Goonies, Risky Business, Midnight Run, The Fugitive, Memento, The Matrix and, perhaps most famously, the role of Ralphie Cifaretto in seasons three and four of The Sopranos.
Resplendent in a green suede waistcoat, orange checked shirt, beige jacket and psychedelic cravat, the 61-year-old is here for the Irish premiere of No Kidding, Me Too! – his documentary about mental health, which is screening as part of the First Fortnight festival. It’s a poignant, thought-provoking piece of work, which aims to “stomp on the stigma” of mental disease. It’s a subject Joey’s all too familiar with, having spent a goodly part of his adult life battling depression and the variety pack of addictions it’s triggered.
No Kidding… follows on from Joey’s Asylum – Hollywood Tales From My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease Recovery, And Being My Mother’s Son, an autobiography that’s as fascinating as its title is long.
“I was shooting a scene in a steam room with Peter Rigert and James Gandolfini,” he writes of a pivotal moment on the Sopranos set. “They used real steam. I walked by it in bare feet, and I got first-degree burns on my ankle. The pain was unbelievable. A doctor prescribed Percocet for the pain, and he gave me the whole sermon on the drug, which amounted to: ‘Be careful’. Alcohol wasn’t enough. Percocet felt good. It did the job. People can understand physical pain. It’s the emotional pain they have trouble with. But oh, the doctor knew when he warned me about Percocet. He knew I’d start loving it for the way it dealt with the emotional pain.”
It’s a memory that remains fresh in his mind.
“Yeah, by the time I did The Sopranos I was drinking heavily and abusing prescription drugs,” he reminisces none-too-fondly. “The core disease though was my eating habits – I ate to emotionally feel better. Then I discovered that starving myself created a euphoric feeling that was better than eating. I was stumbling from one addiction to another, not recognising depression as the root cause.”
Looking back now, Joey believes his mother – “a goddess in a really bad mood” – also suffered from undiagnosed depression.
“She would scream a lot and accuse my father of being a drunk and unfaithful. When she broke his collarbone with the prize-winning trophy he got for bowling, I thought that was how all Italian mothers behaved. I didn’t know that crazy meant crazy. I never realised I was an alcoholic until years after I became one.”
Despite all of the booze, pills and food he was, and then wasn’t, consuming, Joey won the 2003 Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his portrayal of Tony’s psychotic lieutenant.
“The power of that character and that show took me unawares,” he admits. “I had no idea joining The Sopranos that Ralphie would end up more or less defining me. That’s the power of TV and being in people’s living rooms every week. It can be a much more intimate and personal experience than film.”
Having been out of the series for five years, did he have prior knowledge of how David Chase was going to end The Sopranos?
“No, I was sat there going, ‘What the fuck?’ like everyone else,” he laughs. “It was a stroke of genius though. The Sopranos wasn’t a mafia show; it was the dissection of an American family who just happened to be caught up in that world. It’s a distinction made first, obviously, by David, who was generous enough to let you create your own outcome. Were they whacked, did they go into witness relocation? The important thing is that the family were together at the end, whatever the end was!”
Being from Hoboken, New Jersey, Pantoliano had plenty of people to base Ralphie’s character on.
“It’s a mile square and was a seaport community populated first by the Dutch, then the Irish, then the Italians, then the Puerto Ricans. Everybody hated the next wave of arrivals, so the Irish would look at the Italians and go, ‘Those Ginny bastards, they stink and smell!’ ‘Ginny’ being shorthand for ‘guinea negro’, which is what dark-skinned Italians were often called. My grandfather was as a matter of fact the first Italian in Hoboken to become a fireman. He was from a place in Naples called Avellino, where they’re famous for being thieves. We’ll steal a wallet right out of your pants! A lot of the people I grew up with, including my cousin Florie, got involved with the mob and did serious jail time.
“Hoboken also happens to be a very musical city – Sinatra’s from there, so was Jimmy Roselli, who we all wanted to be growing up. We’d have the teardrop silk pants up to here; Oleg Cassini knit shirts and see-through socks. I wanted to dress nice but we didn’t have the money, so I started stealing my clothes and that felt fucking great. Then The Beatles and The Rolling Stones came along and it turned into something else. It wasn’t cool to look and act like a thief anymore. I don’t know if you’ve seen David Chase’s new movie, Not Fade Away?”
No but I got the sales pitch last year from – namedropping clang alert! – Steve Van Zandt who’s the musical director.
“Well, Stevie did a great job,” his former colleague enthuses. “I got a real feeling watching it of, ‘Hey, this is my life!’ The music really did identify who I was.”
There’s also a pronounced rock ‘n’ roll flavour to Joey’s new film, The Identical, which follows a musical family from the be bop ‘50s to the glam ‘70s.
“I didn’t know about Elvis Presley having an identical twin brother who was stillborn. The film takes creative licence with an Elvis-type iconic figure whose twin brother is given up for adoption by his parents because the Depression is in full swing and they can barely afford to feed one baby, let alone two. They give the child to a preacher and his wife, who’s just miscarried, on the condition that after they die they tell him he has a brother. Ray Liotta plays the father and Blake Ryan the twins. It was shot in Nashville, has an amazing soundtrack and deals with some really complex issues.”
It was another independent movie, 2006’s Canvas that encouraged Pantoliano to make No Kidding, Me Too!
“Mob life is really a miniscule part of society, so after The Sopranos I wanted to play an Italian-American who was a hard-working guy,” he explains. “Canvas is about what happens when mental disease is introduced into a family and the community they live in. If you have cancer you’ll get coffee cake from the neighbours; that doesn’t happen with schizophrenia. Nobody knocks at your door offering help. It’s one of the more challenging brain diseases, but has upwards of a 70% complete cure rate. No Kidding, Me Too! features six individuals representing all different brain styles. The one thing everybody has in common is that we all thought it was a character defect; that we were bad people and it was a big secret we had to keep. Mental illness is not permanent. It doesn’t define who you are.”
No Kidding… highlights the scandal of mental healthcare being denied to uninsured Americans who can’t afford the $80,000 a month residential treatment costs.
“Eventually those souls are going to start taking our lives like we saw before Christmas in Newtown,” Joey proffers. “When that kid goes into an elementary school and kills 30 kindergarteners, it’s our responsibility. He shouldn’t be turned into a monster, just like the girl who hangs herself because she was bullied shouldn’t be turned into a monster. This is a civil rights issue; our brains all deserve the same parity. Ask yourself this: if the bigotry, discrimination and shame attached to mental disease didn’t exist, might we have got to Adam Lanza before he shot up that school?
“It’s vital that people in the public eye who’ve experienced mental disease talk as loudly as possible about it,” Pantoliano concludes. “It’s absolutely the answer. When Michael Jackson was 18 and diagnosed with schizophrenia, his parents went, ‘Say nothing or it’ll destroy your career'. If with the help of his family he’d come clean, imagine what it would have done for schizophrenic kids all over the world?”
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