Last but not least of 'Sopranos' star
To watch James Gandolfini in his final film is to appreciate anew his affinity for ruthless roles, writes James Mottram
There's an almost eerie quality in the air when an actor dies before their time. More than likely, in an editing suite somewhere, are rushes of an as-yet-unfinished film, containing a swansong performance. For Michaël Roskam, that was very much the case when he made The Drop. An adaptation of the short story Animal Rescue by Dennis Lehane, this crime drama co-starring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace contains the last film acting from James Gandolfini.
The actor best known for playing New Jersey gangster Tony Soprano in the HBO classic television show The Sopranos died almost 18 months ago, from a heart attack while on holiday with his family in Italy: he was 51. The tributes poured in for a performer who, according to his Sopranos co-star Steve Buscemi, achieved the impossible. "I couldn't imagine any other actor out there who could make us care so much about a man who inflicted so much of his own pain onto those around him," he says.
Winning three Emmys and a Golden Globe, it was a gargantuan turn - influential on the male protagonists of such touchstone TV shows as Deadwood, Breaking Bad and The Shield. Yet the real surprise came shortly after his death, when his softer side came to light with a wonderful performance in Nicole Holofcener's comedy Enough Said, in which he and Julia-Louis Dreyfus played two divorcees looking for love. His work as Albert, an oversized bear of a man with a good heart and a poor diet, will "likely be remembered as one of his warmest, most vulnerable and enjoyable performances", according to trade paper Variety.
Holofcener, who describes Gandolfini as "sweet, shy, flirtatious" and "a complex man", was shocked when she heard the news. "I was like, 'Oh, we're not going to release this movie, right?' That was my instinct." But it would've been a genuine shame, to hold back one of Gandolfini's finest performances. "It's good he's not in a horrible, s***ty film," the director admits. "I think that would've been bad. I think he would've been proud of this - and that's good."
Arguably, Gandolfini should also be proud of The Drop - even if his character, Cousin Marv, is less of a stretch and closer to how most fans will remember him. Set around a Brooklyn watering hole, as we're told in the opening voiceover by Hardy's soft-hearted bartender Bob, it's one of several venues in the borough called "drop bars" - a place to launder huge amounts of cash under the noses of the police. Cousin Marv used to own the bar until Chechen mobsters took it over, leaving him bitter but determined to loot the establishment on one of these "drop" nights.
Lehane's first adaptation of one of his own works is more dialled down than other films from his canon, such as Clint Eastwood's hysterical Mystic River or Martin Scorsese's overblown Shutter Island. And, naturally, there will be some who don't differentiate Cousin Marv from Tony Soprano, as Roskam discovered when he first considered casting Gandolfini.
"Some people would argue at some point, 'James - in a gangster role, really? Do we have to?'" he recalls. "I was like, 'Are you kidding me? It's James Gandolfini!' I like steak and French fries. I like cappuccino. I like football. I like cycling. I like my son and I like James Gandolfini. Period. Who else wants to argue with me? He's one of the greatest actors who has ever been."
The proof was in the performance, though, and Roskam found him "inspiring to everybody". "He's the great James Gandolfini, but he would never rely on his experience," Roskam says.
"It was like walking in, bringing Cousin Marv as if it were his first part ever. It was like from scratch. And not just a guy with tricks. He would question me about the character and himself. It was not the man who'd say, 'I'll show you how it goes!' He had a lot of doubts about what he was doing, but then of course, when you say 'action' - boom! - it just happens. Then you see amazing things."
While Holofcener says the New Jersey-born actor was "very cautious" on Enough Said, it's hard to imagine Gandolfini as a man with doubts - particularly when it came to playing in the crime genre that made his name. Even before Tony Soprano, Gandolfini was playing mobsters in films such as The Juror and Terminal Velocity.
But there was more to him than a one-dimensional killing machine. "He had this amazing ability to be both vulnerable and strong, and frightening and likable," says The Drop co-star Rapace. "[There are] very few that can do what he did."
Admittedly, Gandolfini isn't the only powerhouse performer in the film. British actor Hardy shows his more sensitive side, nursing an injured dog back to health which brings him together with Rapace's abused character Nadia. Then there's Matthias Schoenaerts, who gave a transformative turn in Roskam's Bullhead as a steroid-pumped cattle farmer and here plays the shady Eric Deeds, a figure from Nadia's troubled past.
"I think they're very intense in different ways," Rapace says of Hardy and Schoenaerts. "We always get stained and coloured by our characters, and in this one Matthias is more explosive and Tom is more interior, with just small hints of what he's thinking. It's a whirlwind, a storm inside, but what comes out is little puffs!"
Rapace, who has since made another thriller, Child 44, with Hardy, can sympathise with her male co-stars for being "stained" by characters, after playing Goth hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the two other film adaptations of late novelist Stieg Larsson's crime trilogy. "I've always been drawn to people with cracks inside. And Nadia's battle to free herself from the old demons and try to heal is inspiring and beautiful. Michaël described her as a broken angel - I think that's a very beautiful way of describing it," she says.
Given Gandolfini's death, it seems fitting that The Drop has an angel motif running through it. Despite this, Roskam is certain his star's passing hasn't overshadowed the film. "Fans would have gone and watched it anyway," he says.
"But in my experience, when you sit down and watch, you forget about it. And when we come back at the end and say, 'In Loving Memory', everybody is like 'Ah, yeah, it's Jimmy.'"
Thankfully, he's leaving us on a high - and with some wonderful memories, too.
The Drop opens on Thursday