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Actor Michael Imperioli steps back into the spotlight for 'The White Lotus'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you don't know the name Michael Imperioli, you might know the name Christopher Moltisanti, as in hotheaded protege of T, mob boss Tony Soprano.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) You're going to take his family into the 21st century.

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) We're already in the 21st century, though, T. Whatever you say, T. I'd follow you into the gates of hell.

CHANG: "The Sopranos" has been off the air for 15 years, but Rolling Stone just called it the best TV show of all time. And Christopher remains a beloved pop culture icon. Michael Imperioli is the actor behind that character. And now he is back in the spotlight with a new lead role in HBO's "The White Lotus." NPR's Erika Ryan has more.

ERIKA RYAN, BYLINE: "The Sopranos" creator David Chase has his theories about why Christopher Moltisanti has stayed a fan favorite.

DAVID CHASE: I think it has something to do with the fact that he knows that somebody is trying to sucker him, exploit him. He may have to do it, but he has a really good bull**** sensor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

TIM DALY: (As J.T. Dolan) Chris, you know me. What could you possibly do to me that I haven't already been through?

IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) I'm positive we'll think of something.

RYAN: And Michael Imperioli played a convincing mobster on screen, winning an Emmy for the role and being nominated four more times...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) You ever feel like nothing good was ever going to happen to you?

TONY SIRICO: (As Paulie Walnuts Gualtieri) Yeah. And nothing did. So what?

RYAN: ...Especially considering he's nothing like his character. He's 56 with gray hair now. He never stopped working after "The Sopranos" - theater, film network TV, pilots, some good, some bad. That's in his own words. But he keeps coming back to Christopher, a mobster with other aspirations for life.

IMPERIOLI: He's somebody who was always trying really hard, whether it was to be a mobster and to get sober or to be in a relationship, to climb the ladder of success, to write a screenplay. Like, he had a lot of aspirations, and he actually did the work. He wasn't slack about those things.

RYAN: That drive seems to be one of the few things Imperioli and his character have in common. Michael Imperioli is now appearing in a lead role in another hit HBO show, "The White Lotus."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WHITE LOTUS")

SABRINA IMPACCIATORE: (As Valentina) Welcome to The White Lotus in Sicily.

RYAN: Its second installment takes place in Italy. Imperioli is Dominic Di Grasso, an Italian American man traveling back to the motherland with his father and son to visit the village of their ancestors. This is his first major role in some time. Meanwhile, "The Sopranos" is enjoying somewhat of a revival at the moment. There is a prequel, "The Many Saints Of Newark," which came out last year, and COVID lockdowns presented the opportunity to revisit the show. HBO's parent company said "Sopranos" viewership went up 179% early in the pandemic. And that's in part because some of those viewers are finally old enough to enjoy it.

IMPERIOLI: A lot of shows don't get that kind of second wind. You know what I mean? So for young people in their late teens and early 20s to be discovering it - not just discovering it but they're really passionate about their love for it is kind of remarkable, and it makes me very happy.

RYAN: Along with the new fanbase came memes. On TikTok or in Twitter jokes, Christopher specifically has become a fan favorite with Gen Z, and Imperioli is laughing right along with you.

IMPERIOLI: I do. I get a kick out of it. I mean, I take it as a very high compliment to be the subject of people's memes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")

RAY LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

RYAN: "Goodfellas," Martin Scorsese's famous 1990 mobster film, was one of Imperioli's first movie roles. It's part of why "Sopranos" creator David Chase wanted to work with him.

CHASE: He had come from "Goodfellas." And so, you know, in my head, he was very cool.

RYAN: He plays Spider, a bartender that gets shot in the foot and later killed by Joe Pesci's character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")

JOE PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) Hey, Spider. On your way over here, bring me a Cutty and water.

MARTIN SCORSESE: We found that immediately that - it was Pesci, it was DeNiro and Ray Liotta. I mean, he was just somebody - we felt immediately that he understood intrinsically who Spider was, and he understood the situation and the atmosphere.

RYAN: Director Martin Scorsese he told me while filming Spider's death scene, Imperioli accidentally crushed a glass in his hand and was sent to the hospital. Scorsese didn't want to make him redo the scene, but the actor insisted.

SCORSESE: We were really taken by the fact that he was so dedicated, and he'd want to get it just right. And he improvised so well with Pesci in character, in context of that world. He was not acting. He was behaving in it. You know, I always considered him one of the finest we have worked with.

RYAN: Spider is only on screen in "Goodfellas" for about five minutes total, but fans still love and remember him decades later. Why?

SCORSESE: He was so truthful that, you know, you can't forget him. You just can't forget the kid.

RYAN: Now, over 30 years later, that kid - or at least the actor behind him - is also a published fiction writer. His coming-of-age novel "The Perfume Burned His Eyes" came out a few years ago. He's also a lead singer.

ELIJAH AMITIN: I feel like Michael sort of represents, like, a pure artist. He's genuinely into making art, sort of expressing statement.

RYAN: That was Imperioli's bandmate Elijah Amitin, who plays bass in their rock band Zopa. Recently, they've been touring since Imperioli moved back to New York from LA during the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS")

ZOPA: (Singing) For the last time, here to take his vows...

RYAN: Zopa's crowds are undeniably made up of a few "Sopranos" diehards, but that's fine by them. Amitin actually didn't know who Imperioli was when they first started playing together.

AMITIN: If you only know him from films or TV, you really have a very skewed idea of what he's like, actually.

RYAN: He described Imperioli as a quiet, humble guy, regularly lost in thought. Part of that might be that Imperioli and his wife are Tibetan Buddhist. Zopa, their band name, translates to patience in Tibetan.

IMPERIOLI: In my 20s, all I did was try to be, you know, successful at my work. You know, you kind of think these things are going to complete you as human being because you work so hard towards them. And then when they come and come to fruition, you think that that should be an end in itself, and it's not.

RYAN: He says he picked up martial arts as a way of kicking some bad habits - tobacco, alcohol and more. That also led him to meditation. During the pandemic, he started regularly streaming meditation classes for anyone to join for free simply to share his practices.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "MEDITATION 101 SESSION 2 WITH MICHAEL IMPERIOLI")

IMPERIOLI: Session two - meditation 101. Thank you for joining me today.

RYAN: And on YouTube, you can find "Meditation With Michael Imperioli."

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "MEDITATION 103 SESSION 9 WITH MICHAEL IMPERIOLI")

IMPERIOLI: Let us start with the nine purifying breaths.

I look at Buddhism much more like a science than anything else - than a religion or even a philosophy, kind of a science of mind, really. So in that way, it's been very helpful just to live.

RYAN: Michael Imperioli has over 100 acting credits on IMDB, many of them you probably haven't seen. The ones you have, most of them have one thing in common - Imperioli is playing an Italian American, and he says he doesn't feel typecast.

IMPERIOLI: Well, it doesn't get old if it's something that's good. Throughout my career, I've always done a lot of things that nobody really sees. So I never really felt stereotyped. When you're doing things that are less commercial, the people making them have more leeway in casting. They're a little bit more imaginative and take more risks and cast you not just based on the surface thing or the immediate, you know, perception of you.

RYAN: Imperioli knows he'll always be known as Christopher Moltisanti, and honestly, he's OK with that.

IMPERIOLI: Look. It's very hard to work as an actor, period, like, as a profession and have some kind of longevity in this business. And it's even harder to create a character that people remember you for.

RYAN: But David Chase, the man responsible for the character that supposedly defines Michael Imperioli - he disagrees.

CHASE: I'm glad it makes him happy, but it's also not exactly true. We don't know what he's going to be remembered for. I'm going to the premiere of "White Lotus." Who knows? That could change everything.

RYAN: Season 2 of "The White Lotus" premieres on HBO this Sunday. Erika Ryan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.