Michael Imperioli has made quite a career out of playing gangsters and police officers, but his list of credits shows that's he's actually an accomplished actor going back to his earliest work in films like GOODFELLAS (okay, fine, he played a gangster in that too), JUNGLE FEVER, MALCOLM X, HOUSEHOLD SAINTS, BAD BOYS, THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, CLOCKERS (okay, fine, he played a cop in this), DEAD PRESIDENTS, I SHOT ANDY WARHOL, TRESS LOUNGE, GIRL 6, SUMMER OF SAM, and many others, and those were all prior to the 1999 debut of "The Sopranos," in which Imperioli played Christopher Moltisanti, nephew to Ton Soprano.
Imperioli has appeared in several other series over the years, including "Law & Order," "Life on Mars," "Detroit 1-8-7," and he will soon be seen in the final season of "Californication," set to air next year. His latest film, OLDBOY, marks his sixth collaboration with director Spike Lee (their first in 14 years). In the film, Imperioli plays Chucky, the only acquaintance of star Josh Brolin's character who doesn't believe he killed his ex-wife before he disappeared for 20 years and re-appears unexpectedly at the front door to Chucky's bar. This may be one of the most ordinary, decent people Imperioli has played in his career, and he gets to work in some great scenes with Brolin and co-stars Elizabeth Olsen and Sharlto Copley.
I had a chance to chat with Imperioli recently via phone about what he loves so much about working with Lee and where things go from her for him (he's got several indie films in the can, including the new film from writer-director Henry Jaglom, THE M WORD). So please enjoy my talk with the terrific actor, Michael Imperioli…
Capone: By my count, this is the sixth film that you've done with Spike Lee.
MI: Yeah, exactly.
Capone: So when he wants you to be in something, is there even a conversation beyond “Are you free?” or is it just all assumed at this point?
MI: Well, this is funny because he called and said "Hey, I’m excited we’re doing my new movie together." And I’m like, “What movie?” and he’s like, “OLDBOY. Why, your agents didn’t tell you?” And I said, “No." I guess he had just assumed that it had already gone through the proper channels, which it hadn’t yet, but it didn’t really matter because it’s a pretty good assumption that I was going to do it anyways. S I said, “I’m really excited but I don't know what you’re talking about.” And he said, “Ok, I’ll send you the script right now.” And then I read it and was really excited, and then I took it from there.
Capone: This is the first time since like, if I saw it right, like 1999? Is that right?
MI: Well, we did some commercials between somewhere but yeah, it’s been a while. It actually didn’t feel like it when we went to work. It just felt like old times.
Capone: Was it easy to slip back into his rhythms?
MI: Very much so. And I know what he expects, and he does a two-week rehearsal period before shooting, which he’s always done from the first movie I did with him. He wants his actors to bring a lot of ideas and collaboration and input, and I know that’s what he wants so I know to bring that.
Capone: I’ve heard about these rehearsals. Was the script still fairly fluid at that point? Could you make changes and adjustments?
MI: It was pretty solid, but the way he works is he wants to also see what the actors are going to bring to it, to see if there is any tailoring that can be done. It's why it’s one of the interesting things to have him direct this movie, because it’s a genre film and Spike really is more of a character-driven movie director, so you think of these great performances and movie characterizations and actors that he’s worked with. But to take that and to take Spike's technique with that, which is to rehearse it and see what these actors are going to bring to it, that’s not on the page, and take that into this genre and then you add the visual style that Spike has always shown. It’s a good choice, and I think it really maybe elevates the genre.
Capone: Yeah, I am a fan of his work in general but I love it when he steps out of his comfort zone. Like you said, this is his genre film. Did you get the sense that he was excited about trying something new?
MI: I think he’s always been excited with trying stuff and that’s what I admired about him. He’ll do something like INSIDE MAN, which is something bigger budget, heightened movie with big movie stars and then do something like RED HOOK SUMMER for half-a-million dollars. I find that really admirable.
Capon: I love that 20 years passes and your character in OLDBOY looks almost exactly the same. Did they have to work harder to make you look younger or make you look older?
MI: [laughs] I don’t know. Probably to look younger. That’s the harder part at this point.
Capone: What was your first exposure to this material? Had you seen the original film or was it the new screenplay?
MI: It was the script. Yeah, I still haven’t seen the original. I wanted to wait until I saw the Spike Lee version, which I’m finally going to see tonight. I still haven't seen it.
Capone: So you haven't seen it?
MI: No, I had an opportunity at an L.A. screening but I was working, and I want to see it on the screen, not on a DVD. I want to see it on a screen with the audience and get the whole experience.
Capone: What was your first reaction to reading it that first past?
MI: It was kind of shocking, actually--the unexpectedness and twisted qualities. But I really liked it. It was a really good read, an entertaining read, and it made me want to jump in.
Capone: Your character is probably the most level-headed person in the film. You're usually playing someone…
Capone: That too. I was actually going to say either a criminal or a cop. That seems to be a lot of it.
MI: A lot of it, yeah.
Capone: But Chucky is a normal guy, he’s not like prone to violence necessarily, like everybody else in the movie. Was that an interesting switch up for you?
MI: Yeah, that was interesting. For me, it really was about being a friend, being a loyal friend and a devoted friend and creating that, and that was my way into this really.
Capone: You’re in a couple of scenes with Sharlto Copley, and even though you'd rehearsed with him I assume, were you prepared for like what he did with that character?
MI: No, I didn’t see that coming. I don’t know if he had that ready, but he didn't really show that in rehearsal, but it was pretty unexpected. But he really went for it I think, that vision that he had for him.
Capone: You and Josh are playing these guys that are supposed to have been friends since childhood. Did you two do anything before or during the shoot to make that seem a little more authentic?
MI: We did, yeah. That was one of the luxuries of the rehearsal, we got to be in New Orleans, so we were out of our normal element, and we went out and hung out and said, let’s get to know each other in order to create this, because we didn’t wanna have to show up on the day of and pretend that we’re buddies. So we went out in New Orleans, we went to the casino and played blackjack and had some laughs, knocked around a little bit. It was fun.
Capone: Did you win some money?
MI: We did. We both won, but we only played blackjack for a really short amount and won money and walked away.
Capone: That’s the best way to do it.
MI: And that was like magic. It just kind of happened that way, and that was really helpful to have that time, because we didn’t know each other, but we got along really well, which I thought was really good for the movie.
Capone: You said you hadn't seen the original film, but I’m sure at some point someone made it clear to you that this means a great deal to a lot of people. Were you ever hesitant about remaking something that was sill so fresh in the public memory?
MI: No, not at all. I think it’s more homage in a way than it is reworking it or making it better. I liken it to a cover of a really good song. Think about "All Along the Watchtower," the [Bob Dylan] original, and then Jimi [Hendrix] does something totally different but really amazing in it’s own right, and both of them stand the test of time and both of them are great and have their merits.
Capone: The story was originally a graphic novel, which clearly opens the way to some really striking visuals. Did you get a sense that Spike was embracing that aspect of the production, to get a little crazy with the visuals?
MI: By the way he was moving the camera at times and some of the framing, I could see that. Although a lot of that stuff happens in other scenes rather than the stuff that I was in, which was a little bit more straight forward than probably some of the other scenes that I can imagine, with the stuff in the prison cell corresponding to the madness that he’s descending into.
Capone: When you and Spike Lee first worked together in JUNGLE FEVER, was there something that passed between you in the making of that film that made you guys realize that you would keep working together?
MI: I think he really liked how much I was willing to contribute and participate and come up with ideas. Which at the time, I'd only done a few films. I did GOODFELLAS one year before, and in GOODFELLAS, pretty much all of my dialogue was improvised. Every time we did those scenes, they were different, so I felt like everybody did that. And Spike does that, so I was ready for that, and I think he really liked that. Then the more I worked in studio films, they’d be like, no most people don't do that; actually hardly anybody does that [laughs], and I just was very lucky that I started off with two people who were fantastic at doing that and fantastic at making movies, but I got a little spoiled. So to do it again is great.
Capone: Was he still encouraging a little bit of improv on this film?
MI: Yeah, especially in rehearsal. We really take it apart in rehearsal. On the set, we all really stick to what we created at that pointm but there’s always room for looseness.
Capone: Speaking of improv, did you just make a Henry Jaglom film, because that’s pretty much what his movies are, right?
MI: Oh my god, that’s much different actually. I did make a Jaglom film, and it was a really great experience. I had a lot of fun. It’s interesting because he had a script, but first we talked a lot and he said, “You don't have to memorize anything; the scripts are just a blueprint.” And then he sends me the script, and there are all these speeches, and I didn’t get the script until right before I went out to L.A. to do the movie. I’m like, “Do you want me to memorize this?” “Well, I want you to know some of it,” he said. And I was a little thrown and then I talked to Tanna [Frederick],who was the lead actress in a bunch of his recent movies, who said, "You just have to have a sense of it, and the first take maybe you’ll stick to the lines, but by the second take, you’ll just do whatever you want."
He shoots on film with two cameras, and we did do some takes that were using these gigantic mags, like 18- to 20-minute takes, where you’d start off doing the lines, and then the scene would be done but you just keep going. Unless he says cut, you just keep going, and we would just go. I don’t even know what I did in that movie, because so much of it was just improv. You’re just going with the moment and trying to dig further in the moment and find more there in the moment. For that kind of work, you have to be even more prepared because you have to really have ideas of where it can go, who this guy is, what he’s about. If you're doing something where they’re going to stick to the dialogue, you know you’re character, you get a sense, you learn your lines. For something like this--or with Spike to a lesser extent obviously--you have to really bring a lot to the table.
The Jaglom stuff was really incredible. And in some ways he's like Spike, because he's always doen what he wanted to do. Jaglom has only done only Henry Jaglom movies that he distributes himself. They all get a theatrical release and he does one every one or two years. I met Coppola recently, and he saw that I had just worked with Herny and he goes, “You know, I worked with Henry from my early days." And he just keeps doing his thing. It’s incredible. It’s old-school stuff. There’s not a lot of people still doing what he does, and I'd always wanted to do one of his movies. It was really fun.
Capone: I try to catch them all if they make it to Chicago. Is there any word when this might be getting to screen?
MI: It’s done and it’s ready. I think it will come out in 2014.
Capone: Is there anything else coming out that you wanted to talk about?
MI: "Californication," I did the last season of that, the final season. I start work tomorrow on a movie called THE WANNABE that Martin Scorsese is producing, and Nick Sandow, who actually starred in the movie that I directed [THE HUNGREY GHOSTS] is writing and directing this. Nick is this actor-writer-director, who started out more as an actor, but when my wife and I had a theater in Midtown, Nick directed a lot of our plays and acted in a lot of them. Now Marty’s producing his movie, and I start work on that tomorrow.It’s got Vincent Piazza, who’s on "Boardwalk Empire," Patricia Arquette, and it’s like MEAN STREETS meets BONNIE AND CLYDE.
Capone: Michael, thanks for talking and best of luck with this.