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Michael Imperioli is back (after never really going away)

Michael Imperioli returns to HBO as Dominic Di Grasso in <em>The White Lotus</em>.
Fabio Lovino
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HBO
Michael Imperioli returns to HBO as Dominic Di Grasso in The White Lotus.

When Michael Imperioli joins the Zoom call, he's sitting in a beautiful home surrounded by stacked bookshelves, artwork and marble statues. He's wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a mala necklace — the beads used during meditation. He's 56 with a full head of silver hair.

This is not the Imperioli I've grown used to seeing on television.

But I better get used to it. The man best known for his career-defining role as the hothead wiseguy Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos is back in the spotlight.

This time around, he's being propelled by a leading role in another HBO show and a fresh wave of cultural relevance for The Sopranos, which is finding a new — and younger — fandom.

Christopher

There was always a certain something about the character of Christopher Moltisanti that drew fans to him. A wildness and vulnerability, even while he was being ruthless.

Sopranos creator David Chase has his own theory about why Christopher has held up as a distinctive character.

Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti in <em>The Sopranos</em>.
/ HBO
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HBO
Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos.

"I think it has something to do with the fact that he knows what's going on," Chase told me. "He knows that somebody is trying to sucker him, use him, exploit him. And he may have to do it. But he has a really good bulls*** sensor. And he's not quiet about it."

Imperioli was in his early thirties when the show premiered on HBO in 1999 and ushered in a new era of television. It ran for six seasons and had set the standard for appointment TV when it ended in 2007.

A lot has changed in the years since, both for television and Imperioli. Come 2022, he's now Buddhist, part of a touring indie rock band, and a published author. He also landed a lead role in the second season of HBO's comedy-drama The White Lotus.

Imperioli in <em>The White Lotus</em>, alongside co-star F. Murray Abraham.
Fabio Lovino / HBO
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HBO
Imperioli in The White Lotus, alongside co-star F. Murray Abraham.

Imperioli got hooked on season one after getting word the show was interested in casting him. He liked creator Michael White's writing, so he decided to come on board.

"And the idea of shooting in Sicily for four months didn't hurt either," Imperioli added. He plays Dominic Di Grasso, an Italian-American man traveling back to the motherland with his father and son, who are visiting their ancestors' village.

While this is Imperioli's big return to the spotlight, the truth is he never really left it. This one just might be a bit brighter than it's been for a while.

"I'll be honest, I don't get offered a ton of stuff, you know, despite people knowing me in this business," he said. "That's why I'm always doing work. I don't wait for people just to cast me, you know what I mean? I'm always trying to generate my own work."

Imperioli alongside his <em>Sopranos</em> co-star, Drea de Matteo, who plays his girlfriend Adriana.
Anthony Neste / HBO
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HBO
Imperioli alongside his Sopranos co-star, Drea de Matteo, who plays his girlfriend Adriana.

Imperioli has worked nonstop since The Sopranos. He took on roles in theater, small independent films, and TV shows like Californication, This Fool, and Alex, Inc., and cameos elsewhere. And as The White Lotus ignites his on-screen renaissance, The Sopranos has been experiencing a revival of its own.

It started in the early days of the pandemic, when HBO made hundreds of hours of content available for viewers without a paywall. The Sopranos viewership shot up 179%. Then a prequel film for the show, The Many Saints of Newark, which Imperioli narrates, came out in 2021. And Rolling Stone Magazine recently named it the greatest show of all time.

Some of those watching it now are doing so for the first time, having been too young to tune in when it first aired. It's something Imperioli isn't taking for granted.

"A lot of shows don't get that kind of second wind, you know what I mean?" he said. "So for young people in their late teens and early twenties to be discovering it, and not just discovering it, but be really passionate about their love for it is kind of remarkable."

And Gen Z did what it does best: meme-ified it. Whether it's "Christopher Moltisanti explains cultural phenomena to Tony Soprano" jokes on Twitter or impressions of characters on TikTok, Christopher specifically became a fan favorite for younger crowds.

This TikTok contains vulgar language that some might find offensive.

@benjimanz IN THIS HOUSE REMY IS A HERO END OF STORY. #ratatouille #niche #impressions #sopranos #sopranostok ♬ Le Festin (From "Ratatouille") - Movie Sounds Unlimited

Yes, Imperioli has seen these memes. And yes, he's laughing, too.

"[They] are really funny," he said. "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."

Spider

Imperioli's wiseguy credentials were established long before The Sopranos, and much like he lives on as Christopher in the minds of many, other fans of his work also recall his small role as Spider in Martin Scorsese's 1990 mobster film Goodfellas.

Imperioli played the young bartender who gets shot in the foot and later killed by Joe Pesci's character. He's only in two scenes, and on screen for about five minutes. But according to Scorsese, part of the reason people remember it so well is that it marks a dark turning point in the film where things begin to go south for the characters.

And then there's Imperioli's performance.

This video contains language and violence that some might find offensive.

"You just can't forget the kid," Scorsese told me. "We found that immediately – it was Pesci, it was De Niro, and Ray Liotta and me ... we felt immediately that [Imperioli] understood intrinsically who Spider was, and he understood the situation in the atmosphere."

While filming Spider's death scene, Imperioli accidentally crushed a glass in his hand as he reacted to being shot. He was sent to the hospital to fix the cuts on his hand, but the staff didn't realize his foot cast, fake blood, and fake bullet holes on his chest were from a film set, and they panicked and rushed to help.

When he returned to the set with a bandaged hand, Scorsese said he didn't want Imperioli's cuts to get infected by removing his bandages for another take — but Imperioli insisted they give it another go.

"We were really taken by the fact that he was so dedicated, and he wanted to get it just right," Scorsese said. "And he improvised so well with Pesci, which is not easy to do. In character, in the 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."

Michael

After spending a minute listing all the projects he's been working on lately, Imperioli gets to the end and pauses: "Yeah, what else have I been doing?" he laughs.

It's a lot. Including plenty behind the camera, too.

He's currently developing a dark comedy pilot for HBO with Barry co-creator Alec Berg, where Imperioli will play himself. And he's writing a movie with Chase that he will star in alongside another Sopranos alum, Steve Schirripa — although he can't give any more details about that yet.

Schirripa and Imperioli co-hosted a podcast Talking Sopranos, and co-wrote a book about the show: Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of The Sopranos. Outside the film world, Imperioli wrote a coming-of-age novel The Perfume Burned His Eyes. And if all this isn't enough to appease his creative appetite, he also sings and plays guitar in his indie rock trio, ZOPA.

Imperioli on stage with his band, ZOPA.
/ Lauren Krohn
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Lauren Krohn
Imperioli on stage with his band, ZOPA.

"Michael sort of represents ... a pure artist to a lot of people in a time when there's a lot of ... people with different agendas, you know, trying to sell things," ZOPA bass player Elijah Amitin said. "He's genuinely into making art and sort of expressing a statement."

Amitin didn't know who Imperioli was when they first started playing together in 2006. Their band has been touring recently after Imperioli moved back to New York from L.A. during the pandemic. Rolling Stone Magazine named ZOPA's debut album La Dolce Vita on its list of the best music of 2021.

"We're in the middle of recording our second album and it's about to be mixed. And I feel like that's one of the, you know, best things I've ever been a part of," Imperioli said. "It's nice to feel that way about what you're doing in the present, you know?"

Imperioli with his ZOPA bandmates, Elijah Amitin and Olmo Tighe.
/ Lauren Krohn
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Lauren Krohn
Imperioli with his ZOPA bandmates, Elijah Amitin and Olmo Tighe.

Knowing him out of the context of his work on-screen, Amitin says Imperioli is nothing like the gangster persona so many know him for.

"If you only know him from films or TV, you really have a very skewed idea of what he's like actually," Amitin said. "He's just ... very kind of quiet and sort of like a humble guy, you know? And he's a very polite man. He's very introspective, I think."

Part of that may have something to do with the fact that Imperioli has been Tibetan Buddhist since 2007. And before that, he started doing martial arts.

"I had a lot of bad habits at that time, cigarettes and alcohol and worse, and those things needed to go if I was going to, you know, stay alive and be productive in any sort of way," Imperioli said. "Then I think it naturally kind of moved ... towards meditation as well."

Buddhism changed his life.

"In my twenties, all I did was try to be, you know, successful at my work," he said. "You kind of think these things are going to complete you as a 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."

Last year, he started leading free meditation groups over Zoom for anyone to join. All of his classes are posted to YouTube on his channel, Meditation with Michael Imperioli.

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

It seems to have given him a healthy perspective on life, too. He knows he'll probably always be the "Sopranos guy." Not only is he OK with that, he believes he was lucky to be a part of it.

"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. That's really not easy," he said. "The idea of creating a character that people really remember you for and really associate with is very rare."

But what of the mind behind the character that supposedly defines Imperioli's acting career, David Chase? He said there's plenty more to come for Imperioli.

"I'm glad it makes him happy. But it's also not exactly true," Chase said. "We don't know what he's going to be remembered for. I mean, I'm going to the premiere of White Lotus. I realize that could change everything."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.
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