NEW YORK -- In the five years since The Sopranos ended, James Gandolfini has eschewed the spotlight, instead disappearing into a heap of character actor performances that, while they may lack the heft of Tony Soprano, have only further proved the actor's wide-ranging talent.
This season offers a gluttony of Gandolfini, albeit in bite-sized parts. In Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden hunt docudrama Zero Dark Thirty, he plays Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta. In David Chase's '60s period drama Not Fade Away, he plays the old-school dad of a wannabe rocker. And in Andrew Dominick's crime flick Killing Them Softly, he plays an aged, washed-up hit man.
None of the roles are showy lead men, and that's just fine with Gandolfini.
"I'm much more comfortable doing smaller things," Gandolfini said in a recent interview. "It's all about the scripts -- that's what it is -- and I'm getting some interesting little scripts."
The 51-year-old actor takes scant pleasure in interviews and rarely does them. This is partly because Gandolfin distrusts the ego-inflating effect of attention. Explaining his interest in a character, he breaks off: "I always wonder how interesting any of this is to people."
Though Gandolfini's achievement playing Tony Soprano for eight years is unquestioned (he won three Emmy awards), the sensation of the show -- and the long time spent playing a violent, sometimes loathsome gangster -- grated on Gandolfini. He says that he didn't quite regain himself as an actor until he starred in the Tony-winning play God of Carnage on Broadway in 2009.
"It really grounded me more as an actor again," says Gandolfini. "Then I could go off and try different things."
Gandolfini's recent work has vacillated from comedy, his genre of choice (as a Washington general in the political satire In the Loop), to heartwarming drama (as a businessman moved to rehabilitate an abandoned teenage girl in Welcome to the Rileys). He voiced a Wild Thing in Where the Wild Things Are, a performance that, by stripping him of his size, highlighted his tenderness.
But Gandolfini gravitated to acting as a release, a way to get rid of anger. "I don't know what exactly I was angry about," he says.
That inner rage helped Gandolfini land a role as a brutal mob enforcer in Tony Scott's True Romance, a part that led to Tony Soprano. His distaste for some of Tony's uglier nature is still present.
"I try to avoid certain things and certain kinds of violence at this point," he says. "I'm getting older, too. I don't want to be beating people up as much."
Killing Them Softly, though, is a rare return to the territory Gandolfini has avoided. This older, end-of-the-line gangster, Gandolfini says, completes an arc for him of Mafia men, a kind of epilogue of the "last, most pathetic one in the end."
"I was hesitant to play another quote-unquote Mob guy," he says. "You know, I've played a lot of these guys and so I'm getting to a place where I want to play different people. This is kind of a guy who's a culmination of everybody I've played at the end. This is like the last nail in the coffin."
-- The Associated Press