Drea De Matteo On Revisiting ‘The Sopranos’ & The Evolving Depiction Of Italian Women In Mob Dramas

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As evidence that there is still fertile terrain to explore in the HBO series The Sopranos more than two decades after the show’s premiere, Drea De Matteo teams with pal Chris Kushner on Made Women. The weekly podcast is the second one involving regulars from that David Chase-created drama, as Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa are also re-watching and breaking down episodes. De Matteo started her career playing Adriana La Cerva, a pretty restaurant hostess who becomes the fiancee of Christopher Moltisanti (Imperioli), the nephew of Tony Soprano. She was the innocent sucked into the insidious criminal underbelly, and De Matteo followed with a long career in series and movies. Podcasts seem a natural for the drama, because youths inhale them and they are discovering the series on streamer outlets. While Imperioli & especially Schirripa can’t seem to help giving away plot spoilers and show deaths, De Matteo’s vice is cursing a blue streak. She doesn’t do much press, but spoke to Deadline about Made Women and how it’s driven by a show that somehow has remained relevant. If we had a swear jar for this interview it would be overflowing, almost all of the dollar bills hers. A conversation with her would be only half as fun with cusses omitted or blunted with the use of asterisks. So if you have virgin ears, stop reading.

DEADLINE: I so appreciated your generosity last year when a lunch with David Chase to commemorate 20 years of The Sopranos turned into a massive four-part look back that had so many colorful anecdotes, it was hard to end.

DREA DE MATTEO: I loved it. It was awesome. I got nervous when I read it because I was like, holy shit…I remember the story I told you about that scene…that we shot it two ways, and Terry [Winter] was like, no, we didn’t shoot the ending two ways. But we shot the fucking ending two ways. There were no doubt about whether or not we shot the ending two ways, and then someone who’s been listening to my podcast who was on the show…

DEADLINE: Incredible how much behind the scenes detail continues to emerge, over two decades ago…

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DE MATTEO: All my friends that worked in production on the show are coming out of the woodwork, and they have all this information. Like, you know who this was who said that, and you know who the rat was on set at one time or another? I was like, holy shit, are you fucking kidding me? I had no idea. So there really were rats on set that were divulging information [to the media], and I didn’t know who they were at the time, but it seemed like everybody else knew.

DEADLINE: What I most remember about that endless Sopranos series of stories on Deadline was how I had resolved to end at three parts, and then I was in church and laughed out loud in a quiet moment, recalling how Terry Winter told me that Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) said he’d do anything but be depicted playing a rat, but he raged when he read the script and his character had to kill an old woman in a nursing home to steal her cash. He cursed like crazy at Winter, who promised him he would make sure to cast an actress that Sirico would really want to kill. There really is no end to the stories. What made you want to re-enter this world with a podcast?

DE MATTEO: Oh, the other thing Tony Sirico said he’d never do is don’t ever fucking let him get killed. So he got that wish. That wish came true. Don’t clip him. He’ll come clip you if you threaten to clip him…I’m the worst at doing an interview or even doing any press, which is why I never do any of it, but strangely enough, I find myself talking for two hours a week now doing this podcast. Well, I mean, the first thing is we are the only females in this space doing this, but the main thing is, you know, we approached Cavalry to do a totally different podcast. It went back and forth and they came back and said, give us a Sopranos rewatch and we’ll work on the ideas you guys have for a podcast.

DEADLINE: You fell for that?

DE MATTEO: We said all right. My podcast partner Chris Kushner asked how I felt and I said, I don’t want to do this. I didn’t know anything about podcasts, first of all. And to sit around and watch the 20-year old show and go scene by scene?

DEADLINE: It’s working for the podcast that Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa are doing…

DE MATTEO: They worked me on the whole idea and so I went back and watched the show. And Jesus Christ, it was good. The show that we were originally looking to do was a little more of a psychological thing, what broke you, and how did you rise from the ashes? That was our original premise for a podcast, because my friends call me the can opener. So I’ll just get into anything and pull everything out of your chest, you know? I didn’t know if I could do a re-watch, and what it feels like more is a re-late, where we could take this series, tear apart every theme, every character trait, every disorder, and apply it to many things that are still happening today, to every psychological thing that we all go through, to relationships, family, everything. So I felt like there was a way to still do the show that we were anticipating, under the umbrella of The Sopranos. It became a more beautiful way of being able to dive into what’s going on in society. We had been working on it before the quarantine but it felt there was relevance to what is happening now with that.

DEADLINE: What do you mean?

DE MATTEO: Just certain themes. We are all trapped in the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief, ranging from anger to acceptance. We are all stuck in it with this quarantine, all the existential crises, every phase has been an emotional roller coaster ride that we take in life. I watch that show and you’re like, fuck, this relates to me so much or to a friend of mine. I think that’s why the show was always so successful, and I’m sure I talked to you about this many times when we’ve done interviews before, the way it had something for every audience member. Everybody could extract something that they could identify with, whether it was just the simplicity of a mob genre, but we all know the show transcended the mob genre, and that’s what we’re really focusing on, those themes that were underlying that made it accessible to so many people.

And then, of course, we come up for air with our filthy mouths, our unfiltered personalities, and we act like a couple of fucking teenagers, and you know, we do that thing because that’s who we are, but it’s been really fun unpacking these episodes in a kind of emotional backed up…so it’s different than most Soprano re-watches. When I first started this thing, I had to go listen to a bunch of them. And Michael and Steve’s came out. So I watched one of those, because you can watch them, you don’t have to just listen to them. Ours started purely for the ears, but we have been filming them now. So I guess now we’re going to have a YouTube thing soon.

DEADLINE: That’s a different commitment.

DE MATTEO: I mean, you know, I thought this was a nice thing. I could do this from my bed. I thought I could do this from the toilet. Now we have to fucking be on YouTube? But I’m excited about it. It’s fun. We’re really silly, and it’s a really good fucking podcast. So I’m proud of it, you know, and I’m excited to brag about it. We break the episodes down one by one. We have a format to our podcast which is a little different than other people’s. It almost feels like a game show sometimes. We have two segments in the beginning. Then we have the meat of the show [the episodes], and then we go into fun Italian things. We have, like, the Stunad’s Guide to Mafia Lingo, and we do a whole food thing. Things evolved because of the quarantine; people wanted more episodes than just the rewatch. We’ve never done this before. We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, but we’re having a blast figuring it out. That’s for sure.

DEADLINE: The idea of women analyzing The Sopranos brings an opportunity to lean into gender issues. My wife is pure Italian…

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DE MATTEO: Oh, poor you, as Livia would say.

DEADLINE: I am not complaining. She is sensitive to how people of Italian descent talk and act. When you watch back these episodes, how does it sit with your own feeling about what it means to be Italian?

DE MATTEO: I mean, this even ties into the anti-defamation stuff that we all went through.

DEADLINE: When some critics called the show ‘ethnic defamation…’

DE MATTEO: It all sort of ties into that because it’s the stereotype that you’re referring to. I never felt slighted, and my character is the main character on the show who really gets pushed around, for the most part. But I loved portraying that because it was something to play. To just be stoic and walk around all day having your shit together is not an interesting path for me. It’s also not who I am in the world. But I never felt slighted about the Italian representation, especially on a show like this, because the women…I mean, Livia [Nancy Marchand] is the OG gangster. I mean, he says it to her. Tony Soprano says it to her. He says, you know, if you were born…I don’t remember it exactly, but he says she would have the OG gangster. Carmela Soprano. Everybody there is manipulating and working behind the curtains. [Tony’s psychiatrist Janice] Melfi’s making half of his decisions for him. He sticks with therapy in the beginning so he could gather advice, and then, so he can execute her orders, basically the way Junior’s executing Livia’s orders. So the females don’t have that stigma attached to them.

DEADLINE: How does it square with your own reality?

DE MATTEO: I grew up in a world where that was a thing. I grew up in a mafia household from my grandfather, who I never knew. When I was actually researching stuff for the show, I Googled my grandfather because, what the hell, and up comes a huge picture of him. It scared the shit out of me. I had a fucking nightmare. He would beat the shit out of my grandmother. And she would pull my mother out of bed and put my mother in front of her to protect her, and these are the stories my mother would later on write. My mom was a playwright. All her stories are about the mafia and the undertones and all of this. I always used to think she was telling stories until I dug up this article, and there he was. Joe Benzanelli.

DEADLINE: A mugshot of your own grandfather?

DE MATTEO: Yeah, and he looks fucking scary as all get out. He died at 50 at the race track with his face in a plate of spaghetti. And he’d just won, and they brought the money home to my grandmother. They said, he won, but he’s dead. And my mother was in the background, saying thank god this son of a bitch died. Because he was a big cheater, and a wise guy who never really got to the place he wanted to be. He was probably like a Christopher, to a certain degree. My mom, who comes from that world, went against the Italian stereotype and she never found a balance. Her mother cooked, cleaned, only knew how to do these things, and my mother refused to ever cook a thing. She didn’t know how to clean. She didn’t know how to wash our clothes. She didn’t know how to do anything. She barely raised her own children. She decided to become a playwright and never come home, and that was her life.

DEADLINE: Who raised you?

DE MATTEO: I was raised by my grandmother, the Italian housewife. So my father had…his mother-in-law was his wife, basically, and my mother was his mistress. You know what I mean? My mother convinced me to never be one of these kind of cooking, cleaning, stay-at-home women, and then I found a balance. I said, fuck this, I want to raise my own children. I want to be able to cook them a meal. I want to be able to be everything my grandmother was and be everything you are and do it with grace, and I did. So I don’t feel insecure about my position as an Italian women or an Italian American, and I think when the Anti-Defamation Society attacked us…and David spoke to it before they even had a chance in the episode we launched this Monday, The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti. It’s the whole episode with Richard Romanus, which I love because he was in Mean Streets. He played the voice of the Anti-Defamation Society on the show where Melfi’s family is convincing her not to treat a Mafioso. It’s great because it really defines the series, and that episode is so pivotal because you really understand that this show is not about the mob genre. It speaks to it, and it tells you how we’re about to transcend the entire history of the mob genre, where this is not glorified.

DEADLINE: This is where they complain about the mob stereotype…

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DE MATTEO: It’s not the regular-ness of life, and Christopher keeps talking about that in the episode and his existential crisis shows you the beginnings of his depression and all that stuff. It’s not just Tony Soprano. Everybody sort of has this malaise because they’re not living up to their own potential. You could take this out of a mob genre and a tiny little story…most people would associate a mob genre with The Godfather or Goodfellas. And [David Chase] lifts so much stuff from there, even in this episode where Michael’s character shoots the kid in the kid in the foot, in the bakery.

DEADLINE: As happened to Spider the barkeep character Michael Imperioli played in Goodfellas

DE MATTEO: Going through all this again has been magical, and then you have two bossy bitches, like me and Chris. Like, we don’t feel insecure about our Italian heritage or our female-ness and balance. I think it’s the really insecure Italians that have that angst around that whole stigma. You have to be able to make fun of yourself, and the political incorrect-ness of the show was also what was so refreshing for people.

DEADLINE: It feels like the bold women were helped by Goodfellas. The Godfather, they were behind the scenes, swallowing the shame of cheating husbands. In Sopranos, you mentioned Tony’s mother Livia, and his wife Carmela, but Janice might have been toughest. Clearly she was a female version of Tony, denied the chance to lead because of gender and so she manipulated all the made men in his gang. Even killed some. She was a smart, female Fredo Corleone, robbed of the throne.

DE MATTEO: I can’t wait to have her on the show because that’s my girl. We’ll be able to go back and forth on all this stuff. I spend time with her and we never talk about her performance, but Janice was 100% another gangster. Even the women who had affairs with Tony, they’re the embodiments of Livia. They’re all people that are pulling these strings and breaking his balls in ways…you know, Carmela’s the calm in all of this, strangely enough, even though she breaks his balls. But the other women have screws loose. So it’s like he’s dating Janice or Livia, because they’re always so pissed off and violent and have psychological issues from here to there.

DEADLINE: That was certainly the case with Annabella Sciorra’s tightly wound mistress character, who cooked him dinner and threw a steak at him. Next scene, Tony meets with his crew and someone says, “Why do I smell steak?” So many things, and actors, from The Sopranos sprouted from Goodfellas, which made the aggrieved women far bolder than they were in The Godfather and early mob movies, where women were the way you described your grandmother. She knew about the infidelity, but silently put up with it as they cooked, cleaned, raised kids, and hid bruises.

DE MATTEO: Yeah. I do think that it’s because we’re dealing with a subculture and a stereotype, and it’s how the artist executes it. It’s the story that’s being told. David Chase happened to tell a story about women that were much stronger than the men. Every person who handles that sort of subject matter is going to handle it from their own point of view and their own perspective.

Whether or not it’s their point of view or not, it’s the story they’re telling, and it has to remain true to the story, the same way, you know, oh, don’t have Tony Soprano kill this guy while he’s on tour with his daughter at a college because everybody will hate him, and the show. Well, no, because this is true to the show and the character. So if we’re not going to examine the reality of a woman’s place in an Italian-American society in certain households, then we’re doing it a disservice. This is reality. I want to see that. I want to see the family of the woman who’s been kept underground and who’s only allowed to stay in the kitchen. I used to joke around with my parents and say, you know, had you not put all those books in front of me, I’d still be home stirring the sauce with a black eye. And then, I was worried that I would be reprimanded by certain groups of Italians for saying something like that.

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So I stopped doing press early on when I was on The Sopranos because I was so outspoken about all of it, because I never disapproved of anyone’s point of view in wanting to tell a story a certain way, because it fucking exists, the way racism exists. I want to hear the truth. I don’t want to hear some fucking sugarcoated version of what you think it might be. I think that there were families just like The Sopranos.

I know that within my own family, my great grandmother was probably considered a mafia boss because she had so much dirt on the entire neighborhood of East Harlem because she was an abortionist in the 1950s. So everybody was coming to her with their secrets. She was this powerful fucking figure in Harlem, and everybody bowed down to her, and she was untouchable because of all the secrets she had. So, in a way, she was her own don, but within my family, we had strong women. We had women that were raised by strong women, like my grandmother, who kind of fell through the cracks. While her mother was becoming this powerful figure, her own daughter fell through the cracks. It’s interwoven, generational. Who survives? Who’s weak? Who becomes the manipulator?

My grandmother became a grand manipulator. The one who stayed home, cooked and cleaned and waxed the floors became a grand manipulator because she needed to find a way to survive because she didn’t have that sort of backbone that a woman like her mother had. I will never feel insecure about my position as an Italian-American woman. I’m so proud to be Italian, number one. I love that I can make my sauce, and then run off and go support my family and work somewhere. There’s balance, and everything’s about balance in life. That’s how I see it.

DEADLINE: What’s your most cherished memory from The Sopranos? Could’ve been interacting with Jim Gandolfini. Could’ve been your own demise and how that was done, and could be something with David Chase. What stands out?

DE MATTEO: I was so young when we did that. It’s hard to remember a lot of stuff. Even doing this re-watch, I find other actors will tell me what happened. When we have the kids on the show, they don’t remember because they never watched them, actually, and a lot of the older actors say, we’ll come and do a re-watch with you, but we haven’t watched the show. One year, David Chase gave me a really special gift, a beautiful vintage compact mirror. I was sort of taken by that because it wasn’t a generic gift he was giving everybody. He gave me this very specific thing, and I remember writing him and saying I’m going to cherish this…I can’t say it as eloquently as I probably said it to him at the time, but I remember…and it burned in my fire, which devastated me.

DEADLINE: Fire?

DE MATTEO: You know, my building on Second Avenue exploded and then burned down to the ground. A few years ago. That’s why I’m out here. I wouldn’t be out here, I would be back home in New York. You know, the first person I heard from when that happened, when the news broke all over the TV? Was David, actually. And I hadn’t heard from him since The Sopranos, and he must’ve seen it on the news, and he called and wanted to know if there was anything he could do. I couldn’t believe that he checked on me. I was really moved by that.

The thing with the compact was, I said to him, man, this business is so scary, and it’s a constant set of disappointments, but every time I go now for a meeting on a new project, I will check my lipstick in this mirror, look myself in the eye, and always remember that you thought I was worthy to be on your show and to deliver your dialogue and tell your stories, and I will never fucking be insecure about who I am again.

DEADLINE: How did the show help you feel that way?

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DE MATTEO: He gave me life, on that show, but it transcended just being an actor getting a great role. It changed my life just insofar as the girl that I was. I grew up with my own bullshit, like everybody does, my own set of insecurities from where I came from living with a mother who…growing up in a neighborhood of women that mainly made babies, cooked, and cleaned, and then my mother, who was never home, and looked completely different from all the other mothers. My friends would, say your mother’s a lesbian. I was like, why is she a lesbian? Because she looked fucking hot as fuck, but she didn’t look like the mothers in that neighborhood. She looked like a crazy hippie. So I grew up insecure just even in that because I was like, who am I supposed to be? I was having my own identity crisis in Queens because she was basically in Manhattan all day. I was stuck in queens with my grandmother stirring the sauce, you know?

This article was printed from https://deadline.com/2020/05/drea-de-matteo-the-sopranos-evolving-depiction-italian-women-mob-dramas-made-women-1202937107/