“I've always felt it was the voyeur aspect, that wish to vicariously live in a parallel universe where you can act like an outlaw and get paid handsomely for it, and not have to work conventional jobs at conventional hours for conventional bosses,” says Joe Bonomo, pop culture writer and Associate Professor of English at Northern Illinois University, “The gangster's there in place of us, we want to see him struggle with the moral parameters of his criminal, sometimes murderous, behavior and be punished for it. Maybe that way we feel better about having to make our own conventional decisions in a mostly boring world.”
Many relatable themes inhabit these films outside of blood and gunshots. The search for respect runs throughout many gangster movies, narratives that could very easily be dropped into other genres of film or storytelling. The core story of “Donnie Brasco” is as much a drama of corporate ladder politics and business dynamics as it is a depiction of mob life in 1970’s Brooklyn.
“The violence in a mob movie is ultimately a kind of dressing or fabric, if maybe a kind of sacrament,” says Niles Schwartz, writer and film columnist for L’Etoile Magazine “For example, the violence in The Godfather films is memorable, but not as powerful as Don Vito wondering about the future with Michael, or Fredo's embittered yet heartfelt confession to Michael, or Kay explaining her abortion.”
You also find a recurrent theme of the desire for social acceptability throughout many of the very best films. Tony Soprano made no excuses for his lot in life, yet frequently yearned for a seat at the table in polite society.
INSTREAM recently spoke with actor Vincent Pastore, veteran of many films in the gangster genre, most notably his iconic portrayal of “Big Pussy” in The Sopranos, as well as the author for the upcoming NYC play “Wild Children,” running from December 6th to the 22nd at The Drilling Company Theater. Pastore discussed the acting process, the virtues of film vs. theatre and his personal favorite scenes from the gangster genre.
INSTREAM: Obviously, fans are attracted to the action in mob films, but it seems to be the little quirky moments, the funny lines that people remember most. What do you think, outside of the graphic action, makes certain gangster films memorable?
VINCENT PASTORE: The comedy within the violence is quite a draw. Take this scene in “Goodfellas,” for example. There’s so much happening here – we know it’s going somewhere dramatic, there’s tension, but Marty [Martin Scorsese, director of the film] takes a break and gives us a couple of uneasy laughs before the story goes to a very horrific place. How Marty handles and depicts the violence, in many scenes using humor and sarcasm, is what makes it brilliant. This might be the best film in the genre. I love this movie.
#5 : "GOODFELLAS":
INSTREAM: Are there any movies in the genre you like that perhaps aren't as popular, loved or overlooked by other filmgoers?
VINCENT PASTORE: The Brotherhood with Kirk Douglas comes to mind. What a wonderful movie of my generation that not too many people remember. When Douglas’ character takes his rival for what turns out to be a deadly ride, they drive up the West Side Highway to an empty warehouse. Back in 1968, there wasn’t a whole lot of on-location moviemaking at that time, even in New York City, so when you recognized a place on film in real life, it made an impression. To this day, I still think about Kirk Douglas whenever I drive down into Manhattan on the highway overlooking the Hudson River because of that movie.
INSTREAM: Growing up a movie fan and a fan of gangster films specifically, as you found yourself getting deeper into the art of acting, did you ever think you would find yourself appearing in so many iconic gangster films and television shows?
VINCENT PASTORE: I’m pretty lucky. I play a gangster in Bullets Over Broadway, which is coming out in January here in New York. I began my career in musical theater in Westchester before coming to Manhattan in search of film jobs. Soon enough, they just started throwing gangster roles at me. I only spent a half a day on Goodfellas at the beginning of my career - it wasn't a big role at all - so for me, being known for mob movies was not something that was on my radar starting out.
INSTREAM: When you heard there was a pilot being shot about a NJ crime boss and his family, what was your first thought? Did you have to audition for The Sopranos?
VINCENT PASTORE: My agent called and said there was an audition set up for me with David Chase. This was after the Gotti film appeared on HBO so many of them were familiar with my work. You go in for tons of pilots. You don’t know if it’s going to take off until it airs.
INSTREAM: Coming out of the audition, did you feel confident that the role would be yours?
VINCENT PASTORE: You never feel like you’re going to get the role as soon as you're done. It’s like anything, you go in, you do your thing with the sides they hand you, you shut the door and leave when you're done and you kind of forget it about until you get the call whether or not they’re offering you the role. You wait and hope you’re gonna get the job. That’s just what it is. Sometimes you don’t even get a call.
INSTREAM: What was your first thought about the future for your character when the producers of The Sopranos came to you after Season One had aired and said, "Big Pussy's an FBI informant?"
VINCENT PASTORE: Did it devastate me? No, you’re an actor, you’re in show business, nobody knows how long you’re gonna be working. You can get hired today and get written out tomorrow. Nothing’s locked in stone. No one knew the show was going to run for six seasons, that’s just what happened.
INSTREAM: As you mentioned earlier, you will soon be appearing in New York for Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. What are the differences in your mind between rehearsing for film, TV & the stage?
VINCENT PASTORE: In most cases, there is no rehearsal in film. The producers send you the script, you learn your lines at home, and that’s it. In a play, you rehearse for like six months to a year. It’s hard, you have to learn the whole show. When you’re doing a film, you mainly focus on your individual scenes. Obviously it helps when you’ve read the script and are aware of all the circumstances, but you really only have to memorize your scenes and most films are shot out of sequence. When you’re in a play, you have to know the whole story, know when you’re supposed to be on stage, then go out there and deliver. You can’t drop a line because you have other actors in front of you, assuming you know your dialogue, then using your lines as their cue. It’s not like a film where if you drop a line, you can ask for another take. If you drop a line in theater, it's like a domino effect. It disturbs everything that comes after that. There’s no editing rooms on Broadway. To me, it’s much, much harder than doing film or television.
INSTREAM: Lately, we’ve witnessed a slew of successful films that have been re-imagined for the theater. Historically, the opposite has been the case, “Grease” being one of the more successful examples. Let’s talk about another amazing work for the theater that ultimately became a motion picture, Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale.
#4: "A BRONX TALE":
VINCENT PASTORE: Chazz did a wonderful job capturing the era, the cars, the music. This was Arthur Ave, The Bronx, this was where I grew up - even though they shot much of the film in Queens, Chazz and Bobby [DeNiro, director of the film] completely re-created what it was like for me living during that time period.
INSTREAM: All things considered, do you like one medium over the other?
VINCENT PASTORE: I like stage the best. You really get a chance to not only act, but you can vary your performances. You perform your character with certain mannerisms and business one night; if you want to make certain adjustments to the performance the next night, you can do that, too. Plus, there’s that immediate reaction you get from the audience. For some actors, when you work on a film, sometimes they’re not even released. I’ve done a million films where I don’t even know where they ended up. Television, you may never see the show. With a showcase run, you have two or three weeks to stop by and watch it. You know, Jimmy (Gandolfini) would tell me how hard of an adjustment it can be going from television to theater, when he left The Sopranos to do God of Carnage, he said the process took some getting used to. It’s a hard job. It’s not at all about the money, but it’s rewarding as an artist. You’re talking about rehearsal six days a week, performing every day once the show opens, traveling around the country with the show if it’s successful, possibly to Europe. This could be a two-year commitment for me and I couldn’t be more excited. This is something an actor dreams about, being on Broadway with a steady job, or a featured role on a TV series. A whole lot better than waiting around for the phone to ring with film jobs. I mean you never know what performances the audience will respond to. We knocked all out 13 episodes of The Sopranos’ first season and waited a year before HBO ran it. We didn’t know it was going to become an iconic series. Least, I didn’t know.
INSTREAM: Yeah, but based upon the director, the actors attached to the project, sometimes you have to be like "This is gonna work," right?
VINCENT PASTORE: Obviously, if you’re working on The Hurricane with Denzel Washington, the movie about Reuben Carter’s life and imprisonment, you know it’s going to be well-received. Then there’s something like Mafia with Lloyd Bridges, you’re not sure if it’s going to be a hit, if the jokes are gonna work, but I got a chance to work with an legendary actor like Lloyd Bridges – that’s like playing baseball with a Hall of Famer. Then you have movies like Made, the picture with Jon Favreau & Vince Vaughn, that you don’t think have a chance of breaking through because the budget’s so small, and may not get on enough screens to become a huge hit, turns out to be a cult classic – I get stopped on the street all the time and someone says, “Hey, I loved you in Made” – so you don’t know. I will say after awhile, after working on so many movies, you get hunches about a film’s prospects. You fly out to L.A. for a big-budget picture, first day on the set of a period gangster film set in New York, you’re like, “Why didn’t we shoot this in Brooklyn?” Makes you really appreciate the job guys like Marty, David Chase, Bobby & Chazz have done making these practical locations all around New York and New Jersey come to life.
INSTREAM: Talk about the aspects of stage work that the average fan isn't aware of, some part of your working process in theater that never occurs to them.
VINCENT PASTORE: You get up every day, you have to work on your vocals, make sure your voice is OK. The physical blocking of your movements on stage, waiting for your cues while in the moment, waiting backstage for your next scene, the rehearsal process - now that's something a lot of film actors don't realize-
INSTREAM: -That even the most seasoned film actors still have a learning curve when they return to stage acting-
VINCENT PASTORE:- Exactly, and there's nothing wrong with that, it's just a different medium. They’re wonderful film actors, but if you put them on a stage, I mean, I still get nervous, I’m not used to having that audience in front of me. That’s the thing. Here, I did a bit in rehearsal once during a reading that I thought was very good and no one applauded. I asked the director what went wrong and she said they didn’t know that was the end of the scene. I do some stand-up and sometimes when you tell a joke and the room gets quiet, you don’t tell that joke again. When you do a scene on stage and you don’t get a reaction where you're expecting one, you’re wondering, “What did I do wrong?” When you’re shooting a film, you think you’re doing something funny, you go sit in the premiere or a screening, and nobody laughs, you’re saying to yourself, “Something’s wrong here. Is it the timing? Was it a bad editing cut that interferes with the flow or the context of the moment?" You just don’t know.
INSTREAM: Describe how it feels when the interplay between actors on stage really works.
VINCENT PASTORE: There’s a line I say to Zach Braff in Bullets, where his character asks mine, “What line of business are you in,” and I say “I’m in the ‘Don’t Stick Your Nose in Other People’s Business’ business.” Woody Allen wrote that line, but it’s up to me to deliver it the way I feel the dialogue should be delivered to get the best reaction from Zach’s character. Then Zach says ‘You ought check yourself into a sanitarium.’ He gets the laugh, I don’t get the laugh. I might get a chuckle, but he gets the laugh.
INSTREAM: It’s like you get the assist on the play and he gets the two points, he gets to make the basket-
VINCENT PASTORE: Right, and that’s ok, we’re not doing stand-up, I don’t need the audiences' affection on every line – you’re there to serve the piece. Beyond dramatic monologues, acting, the way I was taught, is reacting. I could say “jump” and you could react with the same word many different ways. I could say "jump," and you could say “how far,” with a serious inflection or be scared dramatically, or you could exaggerate it comedically like the Three Stooges – it’s all about your intention and how you deliver the lines you've been provided.
INSTREAM: Do you find theater much more difficult overall than film?
VINCENT PASTORE: Theater’s tough, you have bring yourself to a place where the audience isn’t there. When you’re doing a film, you’re not looking at the camera; the camera cannot be there, even if you’re doing a close-up. That camera cannot be there, and it doesn't matter whether you're in front of a 35mm lens or a packed house. That’s the training that actors have to possess if they’re going to deliver good work. If the story doesn't call for you to break the fourth wall and you’re playing to the camera, you’re doing a commercial.
INSTREAM: What about ad-libbing and structured improv in film? Don’t you find the good stuff coming when you take home the film script; you’re reviewing your lines and get these amazing inspirations that you’re excited to bring to the set the next day?
VINCENT PASTORE: Yeah, that’s great, when you’re working on a movie, especially with someone as open-minded as Marty, you can make up stuff and if he thinks it serves the story, they’ll let you use it. I was on the set of a comedy shot in the New York area this past July (“Staten Island Summer”), and I went to the director every day with ideas for dialogue, things I thought would work and she was great about it, she thought they were funny and added something to the film. But, really, it’s one thing to be saying my own words, and another if it’s a stage play, I am saying Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller or Woody Allen’s words, you have to say what they wrote and you have to learn it. In the theater, the script is the bible. When I worked on GOTTI with Armand Assante, one of the best actors around, the director Robert Harmon gave us a lot of room to color in our performances. Sometimes, he just set the camera on wide angle and let us go.
INSTREAM: While there are many gangster films that take place outside the New York metropolitan area (Tarantino’s "Pulp Fiction" & "Reservoir Dogs" or even Scorsese’s "Casino" & "The Departed" quickly come to mind), the mob genre is often very specific to New York City.
VINCENT PASTORE: Oh, sure, this is my hometown. Besides A Bronx Tale or Goodfellas, the Little Italy scenes in the Godfather series really mean a lot to me, and I know it’s not the most popular moment of the three films, but the San Gernnaro scene-
INSTREAM – “Joey Zaza-“
#2: "THE GODFATHER, PART 3":
VINCENT PASTORE: Yes, the Joey Zaza murder scene, but again, to your bigger point, the killing, as a moviegoer and a New Yorker, that’s not the element of the scene that strikes a chord with me. It’s the actual parade, it’s the pageantry, how Coppola got every detail perfect. You can smell the sausage & peppers in that scene, you feel like you’re at that festival, and when you actually visit that the San Gennaro every September, you understand, you see what it’s all about and you appreciate Coppola’s craftsmanship in re-creating that moment.
INSTREAM: Ok, last thing, you’ve been watching and enjoying these films all your life, going back to Jimmy Cagney in White Heat, Humphrey Bogart in The Roaring Twenties, through Kirk Douglas in The Brotherhood, Coppola, Scorsese, after being a filmgoer experiencing these moments from the audience, what’s been your most satisfying moment in front of the cameras?
VINCENT PASTORE: In all my career, I have to say, my final scene on The Sopranos, has not only been my most satisfying work, but I think it’s one of the most honest dramatic scenes in the history of television, and I’ll tell you why.
# 1: "THE SOPRANOS":
VINCENT PASTORE: You look at the circumstances of the scene. Big Pussy and Tony have known each other since childhood, the very best of friends. No one wants to be on that boat and having to kill basically a loved one. The moment was handled so delicately. It’s not over the top drama, there's no score in the background. It’s simple and it’s real. The final drink, the final laugh they share. And Jim Gandolfini, rest his soul, you can’t ask for any better acting than those ten minutes. You see the look on Tony’s face, he played it so beautifully, how much he didn’t want to do this to his friend. Wasn’t just Jimmy, either, it was (Tony) Sirico as Paulie Walnuts, it was Little Steven (Van Zandt, as Silvio), it took us a whole week to shoot this, both the exterior as well as the cabin scene at SilverCup. And this goes back to my point with Zach Braff– Jimmy’s expression gave me something to react to. That’s acting. The one thing that film has over the stage, performances in the theater aren't taped – but film, you think those Sopranos episodes could have been shot yesterday. So God bless, Jimmy, for his numerous credits, not just The Sopranos - "Enough Said," his last film, has been extremely well-received. We lost some amazing guys this year, God bless Dennis Farina, Ed Lauter, so many great actors, they gave us great work and time goes by, our kids and their kids can watch Dennis in Midnight run or Ed in The Longest Yard.
As much as the stage is my passion, that’s the beauty of film.
Those moments will be with us forever.
* * * * * * * * *
Dave Jordan wrote & directed the festival hit short film "The Paper Mache Chase" starring Jim Gaffigan & Cynthia Nixon.
*"Donnie Brasco" is courtesy of Sony Pictures.
*"The Sopranos" is courtesy of HBO Films.
*"Goodfellas" is courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
*"A Bronx Tale" is courtesy of StudioCanal.
*"Gotti" is courtesy of HBO Films.
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