Learning How to Act

Once in Gately’s class, Gandolfini reacted as he often would—with self-doubt. He wondered almost immediately if he was in over his head.

“When he came to me he wanted to play your average suburban nice guy, the leading-man type,” Gately says. “I don’t know how to say this—it was like he wanted to be Troy Donahue. And I of course could see that he could be much more than that.”

Learning you’re not Troy Donahue is not, perhaps, the worst news a serious young actor can hear. But learning that, for stage purposes, you are not you is an essential step toward becoming an actor. As Roger Bart had been trying to tell Gandolfini ever since Rutgers, it’s the strange synergy between an actor and a part that makes a career. What Bart saw in Gandolfini was an ability to play against his intimidating heavy stereotype. And to make that work, he’d need training.

Gately’s reputation was based on teaching the Meisner technique, a variant on method acting developed by Sanford Meisner after he had worked with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg at the Group Theatre in New York in the 1940s. It evolved, ultimately, from the Stanislavski system. Meisner became one of the first teachers at The Actors Studio in New York when it was founded, in 1947, by Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis. The technique was first developed for the stage, but like all method acting, its greatest impact has been on film acting.

Meisner technique begins with a series of exercises that are used to heighten observation and influence actor responses through repetition. Two actors will stand in front of the class and begin a dialogue by repeating each other’s comments—“You’re nervous,” for example, followed by “I’m nervous?” “Yes, you’re nervous,” and so on, in order to elicit spontaneity from the actors. The exercises build over time until they generate enough natural interaction to support a dramatic text.

One of the first exercises Gandolfini encountered was “threading the needle”—literally, threading a needle in front of the class. It looked a little nuts, but he also thought it was like a challenge, a dare: Could he do something like that? “I was immediately interested and scared to death,” Gandolfini told Beverly Reid of The Star-Ledger. “It really made me very nervous—and I was shocked by that, really. So I ended up staying two years.”

“He brought just the tiniest needle with the tiniest eye you can imagine,” Gately says, “and he couldn’t do it to save his life.” If you think that should be easy, try it in front of a group of observant strangers. The idea is for an actor to develop an ease on stage or before the camera that make it appear as if he or she is acting as naturally and confidently as they would in real life.

That sounds all nice and dry and practical, but actors—often the ones who quit the technique—describe the training as difficult and even psychologically invasive.

The best joke about method acting ever told came from Laurence Olivier, on the set of Marathon Man, as he waited to do a key confrontation scene with Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman had just been running around a track to recreate the situation of his character, who had been pursued through the city only to wind up, sweaty and disheveled, at the mercy of Olivier’s Nazi dentist. As Hoffman sat, huffing and puffing, waiting for cameras to roll, Olivier is reported to have said, “My dear boy, have you ever tried acting?”

Studying the Meisner system, its practitioners say, isn’t like that anymore, if it ever was; those stories about retrieving buried memories to evoke real emotions, or living like a blind man for a month to play King Lear, are all exaggerated. They are remnants of the 1950s fad for shamanlike authenticity in artistic expression. There are tricks any actor uses—as Gandolfini himself said, staying up all night the night before, or putting a sharp rock in your shoe, will help you simulate anger. What contemporary method actors do have in common is not so much a set of techniques but a conviction that acting has a serious purpose. To do it well you must prepare your mind to convey emotion clearly and immediately. And doing that requires a certain amount of individual psychological integrity, even fearlessness.

Teaching involved a series of exercises designed to make an actor function in the moment, with lightning-quick responses. Much of the work was deeply psychological—not in an analytical way, but in the sense of finding deep emotions that could, with discipline, be applied to a character on stage or camera. Students were supposed to come in with situations and props that would help them bring out such emotional authenticity. Sometimes a teacher or a student would do something to the actor or to his props to provoke a reaction, and that could, given the tensions in the classroom, unleash unpredictable emotion. That usually accounted for the “psychologically invasive” charge.

Gately remembers Gandolfini having particular trouble with crying. “His class was full of women, far outnumbering the men, and they of course could cry very convincingly,” she says. Their ease intimidated Jim. “He’d say, ‘I want to cry like Melanie,’ and I’d tell him he could cry, but it would be different.…

“There was another man, John Hall, in the class, he was big too, six-two or six-three, who had the same problem, and they came to me together to ask for a special class,” Gately says. “So I did it with them. I think it took three hours, and the only way it would work was when they regressed to childhood.”

Gately describes a hilarious scene with two hulking wannabe actors lying on cots in the studio, struggling to regress to a point where tears would flow, each quietly observing the other while Gately coached them in turn. She could feel the competitive tension, but a breakthrough seemed elusive.

Finally a way opened up. For Gandolfini, tears were a function of helplessness. He could make them come only when he imagined himself tied to a chair, with something relentlessly bearing down upon him—“Otherwise, I’d do something,” he told Gately.

While that kind of personal insight was not the main object of the classes, such unexpected truths were often a by-product of the technique. It was a two-way street. Gately told Jim a personal story about her father: When she was a girl in Boston, her dad would often have Jesuit priests over for disputation (Gately was raised Irish Catholic, but her father was a skeptic), and she was always allowed to sit in on the arguments. They were cheerful dinners, full of declarative summations and their ripostes.

When her father died, for some reason Gately couldn’t cry throughout the family services. When finally she went up to his casket, she saw the ring on her father’s hand, and somehow it reminded her of those Jesuit dinners, to which she had always been welcome, even as a girl. And suddenly the tears flowed. She was surprised that such a small token could provoke such a profound reaction in her. That was the sort of memory that could serve you on camera.

Gandolfini listened intently, Gately recalls, to that story.

Training at the Gately Poole Conservatory took two years, in two nine-month sessions. The first session was devoted to developing the various tools of the technique, the second to prepping an actual text. Many of the students actually had Broadway parts already, and were making their way toward careers. Gandolfini had no real acting credits but he threw himself into the process. “He was very competitive,” Gately says. “If he saw good work, he’d either be depressed, thinking he couldn’t match it, or he’d be inspired to work even harder, try to equal it.”

It was toward the end of the first session when Gandolfini had the breakthrough he described on Inside the Actors Studio, earning the advice he said meant so much to him: “This is what people pay for.… They don’t wanna see the guy next door.”

“The scene,” Gately explains, “was about a man learning his wife had been unfaithful, and how he reacts. And Jim came in with all these ideas about backstory, all these little props that made his character, in his imagination. But he was doing it as appearance—he was acting as he thought an actor should to present such a character. Not stiff-lipped, exactly, but very controlled in his actions, very, well, Troy Donahue.”

They did the scene four times, on the last night before the long weekend, and Gandolfini and his acting partner were both deeply frustrated. So was Gately. In fact, so was the whole class.

“I could tell he was very mad at me,” Gately said. “He couldn’t understand what I wanted. And we were so tired of the scene, we all were. But I said we’d come back to it the next week, and finally get it right, and you could hear groans.…”

And, just as his Park Ridge High School friends had jumped in to make sure Gandolfini memorized his lines for Kiss Me, Kate, the class took a hand.

“I believe they got together over the weekend and worked on it more,” Gately recalls. “And when they came in that [next] week, you could tell they’d put a great deal of work into it. I suggested the actor who was in the scene with Jim should interrupt him or talk over him in some way. And then, wow!”

“I think [the acting teacher] told a partner to do something to me,” is how Gandolfini remembered the moment. “And he did it, and I destroyed the place. Y’know, just all that crap they have on stage. And then she said, at the end of it—I remember my hands were bleeding a little bit and stuff, and the guy had left—and she said, ‘See? Everybody’s fine. Nobody’s hurt. This is what you have to do. This is what people pay for.… They don’t wanna see the guy next door. These are the things you need to be able to express, and control, work on the controlling part, and that’s what you need to show.’”

*   *   *

Susan Aston came to New York City just as James Gandolfini was leaving school to find real acting jobs anywhere he could. It was April 1987. She had a paying job in a play and an apartment waiting for her—she was already a member of the Screen Actors Guild, for her small part in Tender Mercies, Oscar-winner Robert Duvall’s picture about a country music singer’s come-from-behind comeback. Her father had worked for the air force when she was growing up, everywhere from Guam to back in the States, but to her, Abilene, Texas, where she lived the longest and went to high school, was home.

Aston has cornflower-blue eyes and a mop of strawberry-blond hair, and the Lone Star twang has never entirely left her voice. She was raised Church of Christ, a Christian sect that thinks the Southern Baptists trend toward sophistication and backsliding. But she loved acting, and being in a play in New York was something she’d always wanted to do.

But plays close, as hers did, and she found out that her apartment, which someone in the theater had arranged for her, was an illegal sublet and she had to leave. She spent a few months sleeping on friends’ floors; she slept on a futon behind a row of filing cabinets for a while. Then a friend asked her to help find an actor for a one-act play, Big El’s Best Friend, about a woman in love with Elvis Presley and an Elvis impersonator. She went around to a cattle-call audition for another play in search of an Elvis.

There on stage was a six-foot-tall skinny guy with slicked-back black hair and a booming nasal voice. The accent was New Jersey, but the honking sound penetrated. Everybody at the audition thought he was completely wrong for the part they were casting, so Aston introduced herself to James Gandolfini and asked if he’d like to impersonate Elvis.

Big El’s Best Friend became Gandolfini’s first appearance on a New York stage. Aston got cast, too, as a friend of the Elvis fan who was herself slightly smitten. Aston says his southern accent wasn’t key to the part, he just imitated the King’s slurred Memphis drawl and the way it could turn whole sentences into a single word. According to a memoir by actress Melissa Gilbert, who played the Elvis-loving lead, Big El’s Best Friend was part of a night of one-acts in which everybody got black eyes: an actor in one of the other plays walked into an open cupboard, Gilbert’s boyfriend elbowed her in the eye in his sleep just before opening night, and at some point Aston and Gandolfini got into a stage fight and accidentally gave each other shiners, one apiece.

The play got some notice on the Lower East Side, where it was performed on a basement stage—Elvis, really the cheesy Pop Elvis of painted plaster busts and sequined jumpsuits, was an iconic figure for hip downtowners in those days. Big El wasn’t a breakout hit by any means. But it did make an acting team out of Aston and Gandolfini, one that would endure, with gaps here and there, until his death.

Back then, Aston and Gandolfini were Gotham outsiders together. He didn’t have a place to stay, either, and bridge-and-tunnel people were tolerated by Manhattanites in ways similar to the forbearance shown Southerners. In 1988, T. J. Foderaro’s sister Lisa Foderaro, then an entertainment writer for The New York Times, wrote a feature about young people trying to move to the city as rent-stabilized apartment rules began to evaporate and prices soared. Illegal sublets were the norm, with all their unpredictability, but preferable to being on the hook for $1,500 a month for a legal space the size of your mother’s sewing room back home. The story cited a struggling actor’s unusual achievement of living in the city for four years without ever putting his name on a lease.

Then there is Jim Gandolfini, who seems to thrive on the apartment-hopping life. Since moving to New York City four years ago, Mr. Gandolfini, 26 years old, has never had his name on a lease, never paid more than $400 a month in rent and never lived in one place more than 10 months. His wanderer’s existence has given him sojourns, some as brief as two months, in Hoboken, N.J.; Astoria, Queens; Clinton and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Park Slope and Flatbush in Brooklyn.

“Moving, to me, is no big deal,” said Mr. Gandolfini, whose calling is the theater but whose living comes mostly from bartending and construction. “I have a system down. I throw everything in plastic garbage bags and can be situated in my new place in minutes. Without my name on a lease, I’m in and out. I have no responsibilities.”

That was Gandolfini’s first mention in The Times.

For the next two and a half years Gandolfini and Aston would develop a showcase titled Tarantulas Dancing, first as a one-act, then with a second act added. They performed at all sorts of stages around the city, from the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row to the basement stage at the West Bank Café on Forty-second Street, which was managed in those days by Yale theater grad Lewis Black (who later became famous for his splenetic rants on The Daily Show). Directed by Aston and written by a friend specifically for the two of them, Tarantulas Dancing takes place as Aston’s character, called “M’Darlin’,” has decided to break it off with Gandolfini, who’s named “Bucky.” The MacGuffin is an electric steam iron Bucky claims as his and wants back.

It’s a play about opposites attracting one another, and a kind of duel between their different accents—Gandolfini looming over the doll-like Aston, who hits back with a little steel-magnolia bite. “I’ve made Jell-O that’s been harder than your dick,” M’Darlin’ says. “Aww, c’mon, I was ill! I told you I was sick!” Her spunk elicits a kind of vulnerability out of Bucky. (The kidding about their accents went on into the next century; Aston played a recent phone message for me after James’s death in which he mocks her drawl—“Jaaa-iimes, Jaaa-imes, Jaaa-imes, O mah Lawd, today!” was all he said.)

Aston has kept a videotape, from 1988, of one of their Tarantula performances. Gandolfini, Aston says, weighed 185 pounds. Thin and slightly round-shouldered, looking a bit more like John Cleese than Tony Soprano, he nonetheless brings an implied forcefulness to his presence that jumps off the screen.

Gandolfini had just graduated from Kathryn Gately’s class when he met Aston, and he urged her to take a six-week study with his teacher, which she did. Then they started to work together to develop elaborate backstories for their showcase characters. As they worked out scenes they collected stage notes that shaped their performances.

In a way, it was a sketch of the ideal character James thought he could portray. He wrote out an outline in longhand, in blue marker on white lined paper, describing who Bucky’s father and mother were, what they did for a living, what Bucky hoped to become. It described the conflicts that shaped his personality. Aston still has it, and the one she made for M’Darlin’. They were alternate identities—he was using his self-christened college nickname, for pete’s sake—recreated for the stage. There was some shamanlike authenticity in that.

Gandolfini did other acting gigs wherever he could, often for no pay. His first film appearance in a speaking role was shot in 1989 as a student project at New York University. David Matalon, who was studying filmmaking, scraped together $10,000 to make Eddy, about a working guy who falls in love with a prostitute, Madge. Her pimp, Mike, played by Gandolfini, decides to put a stop to Eddy’s plans to take Madge out of the business and shoots him, inadvertently killing Madge, too.

After Gandolfini’s death, Matalon told CNN he interviewed fifteen actors for the part before Gandolfini. “None of them were very convincing and threatening,” Matalon recalled, “and then he just had it.… You could see there’s a slight dangerousness in him. It kept it exciting.”

That he could bring that kind of intensity to the stage made him stand out. But it was with Aston that Gandolfini kept honing the character he wanted to project, the working-class Everyman whose feelings were both tender and explosive. They did other plays, like The Danger of Strangers, in which Aston portrayed a woman who lures Gandolfini’s character back to her apartment and kills him. The plotlines tended to hover around the big guy with feet of clay, who knows he can scare people but wants to be loved at the same time.

Gandolfini and Aston’s acting dynamic fit one play in the American canon perfectly: Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Streetcar features its own linguistic duet between Polish tough guy Stanley Kowalski and the lilting Southern pretensions of Blanche DuBois. And it was to Streetcar that the path begun by Tarantulas led. While they were still working on the showcase, Gandolfini got his first real paying job in the theater, playing Mitch, Blanche’s aborted suitor, in a production of Streetcar set to tour Scandinavia. Sweet, stable Mitch was the Karl Malden part from the movie version of Streetcar (Gandolfini would alternate between Mitch and Stanley types in his character roles for years to come).

Gately remembers Jim coming back to her conservatory to tell her he’d just landed his first acting gig. He’d done all sorts of jobs after managing Private Eyes—construction, a little home carpentry, bartending, and bouncing. He once said he sold books on the street. He worked for a long time for a Jewish businessman whose company, Gimme Seltzer, delivered big bottles of the stuff to restaurants and shops around the city. Jim was supposed to start a job cutting down trees when Streetcar was offered. Touring Sweden was a lot better than sawing wood.

“I remember lots of old people falling asleep in dinner theaters,” is how Gandolfini recalled his tour later, but the trip was definitely an eye-opener. He visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the Louvre in Paris; when the tour was over, he rolled around Ireland for a week with a girl he’d met through a friend in New Jersey.

When he got back to New York City he did a small part in One Day Wonder at The Actors Studio, and in 1991 he took a big part in Summer Winds, by Frank Pugliese, performed with the Naked Angels. Marisa Tomei was the star of this “romantic drama in which love songs become love stories” (a premonition of 2005’s Romance & Cigarettes)—it was his first paying job that used his choir-trained singing voice. Summer Winds had two-week runs at a number of different venues, some of them college theaters.

Then, in 1992, he was called back for On the Waterfront with The Actors Studio. Gandolfini was cast as Charley, the Rod Steiger part, a major role. But he was abruptly fired after just a week. Some friends remember him scaring people on the set—something about putting his hand through a glass window in frustration, like breaking that security barrier at Rutgers (“He took out his anger on inanimate objects all the time”). Years later Jim remembered it as a “lovely discussion” with one of the producers. A few minutes later, “I got a call telling me I was fired for being too mouthy.”

Later that year he got his first real break, playing Steve, one of Stanley’s poker pals, in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire featuring the movie stars Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. Aida Turturro played Steve’s wife, Eunice. Jim would be understudying Mitch. Aston got one of the other poker wife parts. Gandolfini knew the casting director, who lived across the street from his apartment—but there was little question he knew the play. And being part of a Broadway production of Streetcar was where his study for the past five years had been leading, almost inevitably, all along.

Streetcar is the arc of inarticulate male longing that sails through American theater in the last half of the twentieth century. With On the Waterfront, it’s also the fountain from which Marlon Brando’s career, and by proxy all postwar working-class method actor careers, springs. And the play carries a deep insight for men who want to act.

Much later, after The Sopranos became a hit, Gandolfini put it this way, in an interview with Rolling Stone:

“I think Marlon Brando said, ‘The character that suffers is always the best character in the play’.… So people watch Tony, and they watch his mother giving him shit and his wife giving him shit. Even his girlfriend throws shit at him, you know. So here’s this powerful figure getting abused all the time, and I think people get a good laugh out of that.”

And I guess anguish is more fun to play than some chirpy.…

“I don’t know if it’s more fun to play, but it’s certainly more fun to watch.”

You think maybe it’s not more fun to play?

“I think it’s a hard character to play, especially over a period of time. Everyone’s yelling at you all day long.”

Like Streetcar, The Sopranos would be a production about the male beast caged, regulated and, at least partly, tamed by women in his family. And about the pathos of so much power so completely overmatched by emotions he can barely express. But all that was still to come. First he had to start going a little Hollywood.

“And after that,” Aston says, “he went off to Hollywood with the boys, and I didn’t work with him for four or five years.”

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