Doing it like a boss
Star of The Sopranos and Bruce Springsteen's right hand man, Steve Van Zandt is stepping out on his own. By Ed Power I thought it would be fun to be an outgoing character -- a boss type of guy
He was there and then one day he wasn't. That's what James Gandolfini's death felt like to his close friend Steve Van Zandt. Six months after The Sopranos actor suffered a fatal heart attack in Rome, Van Zandt is still clearly trying to process what happened. How could someone so full of life and talent be taken from the world so suddenly?
"He was a very big loss -- to the whole industry but to me too. We were close. He was one of the greatest, no question -- one of the best actors of his generation."
Co-stars through all six Sopranos seasons, on set Van Zandt and Gandolfini gravitated towards each other. Both were shy men who, sometimes by design, often by accident, brought a spotlight on themselves. Intensely uncomfortable in the public eye, they found consolation in their shared awkwardness.
"We bonded deeply. James and I are -- were -- natural born side-men," says Van Zandt (63). "We are character actors, 'band guys' if you will. It is not in our inclination to be in the public eye. Sure, we dealt with it. Ultimately, it wasn't where we would have chosen to be. That was a big reason we became close. I don't think James was ever comfortable with the attention. He was relieved to stop doing The Sopranos in a way. It will stand as his greatest artistic achievement. I think he was maybe glad it ended."
Van Zandt was already famous when he was cast as Tony Soprano's oily consigliere Silvio Dante. Before Soprano walked into his life, he'd been Bruce Springsteen's right hand dude in the E Street Band. Best friends since forever, to this day he's the guy Springsteen confides in, one of the few confident enough in their relationship with the singer to step up and tell him he's out of line or about to do something stupid. He's Bruce's BFF, his sounding board, above all his bro.
"Bruce is the opposite to James,' he says. "He has gone in a different direction and has got comfortable [with fame] as he has gotten older. The stage is his living room."
Van Zandt is speaking to Day & Night to promote his post-Sopranos TV project, Lilyhammer, which has just entered its second season. Screening on Netflix, the drama is a cheerfully ridiculous fish out of water tale. Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano (Van Zandt) is a New Jersey gangster relocated to small town Norway -- the setting is the actual city of Lillehammer -- under the witness protection programme. "A criminal in a country with no crime" is how Van Zandt pitches it.
"I thought it would be fun to be an outgoing character -- a boss type of guy. As opposed to Silvio who was the only guy in The Sopranos who DIDN'T want to be the boss. This guy is more out there -- not as uptight. He doesn't have the pressure Silvio had, the pressure of keeping Tony Soprano alive, making sure he was economically viable."
David Fincher's brooding remake of House of Cards is widely regarded as Netflix's initiation into original programming. In fact, Lilyhammer came first, though it didn't start out as a Netflix project.
"We were shooting for about a month and realised we didn't have the budget to make the show we wanted," says Van Zandt, Lilyhammer's producer as well as its star. "So we slapped together a trailer from what we had shot. My agent set up meetings in America, one of which was with Netflix. To our surprise they told us they loved it."
He spends several months in Norway every year and is struck by the cultural differences. "The hours are civilized. In America we do 14/16 hour days on set. In Norway, they try to stick to an eight-hour day. As an actor, it's wonderful. As a producer it leaves me wanting to tear my hair out -- I constantly worry we aren't getting enough done."
Juggling his responsibilities to Springsteen with his screen ambitions can be challenging. Indeed, with Bruce's tours seeming to stretch further and further lately, things have been getting harder rather than easier. Fortunately Van Zandt enjoys keeping lots of projects in the air, logistical migraines notwithstanding.
"It becomes a little difficult in terms of scheduling," he says. "We get lucky for the most part and stuff doesn't overlap. When it happens it happens. I try to get Bruce to give me his itinerary. He understands he is my first priority. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't."
Van Zandt was born in Massachusetts and grew up down the street from Springsteen on the Jersey shore. He thinks back fondly on their early days together. They would hustle for gigs, fast talk their way into meetings with record executives, whatever it took to draw attention to their music.
"You do remember it fondly," he says. "In the thick of it, we probably didn't appreciate it. We were always concerned, always wondering if we were going to make it. The odds of earning a living playing rock and roll -- it seemed impossible. Remember we got into the business fairly late. We were in our mid 20s, didn't have any real success until we were 30-years-old, which is quite far on. There was always the question, would you succeed or not? But it was wonderful -- no pressure, no responsibility. We were this cool local group and took it for granted."
Has his relationship with Springsteen evolved down the decades?
"We've been friends since 1965. It is my role to tell it like it is to Bruce. Not so much nowadays because we aren't together all the time. Back in the day, we were in one anothers' pockets. Bruce knows he can rely on me for the absolute truth. I am there to help him realise his vision and give him the comfort zone to perform as well as he can every night. He knows I always have his back."
Lilyhammer season two is on Netflix.