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Seasonal Star Turns

Her Adriana met an untimely end, but then she responded to a 'Friend' in need.

September 05, 2004|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

The calls from her agent kept coming, but Drea de Matteo would not hear of it. After five years of playing Adriana La Cerva, the sexy, ill-fated mob moll on "The Sopranos," De Matteo was ready for a break. Typically cast as a tough-talking Italian American with a honking accent and gaudy wardrobe, De Matteo longed to rid herself of the types of characters she says can easily become caricatures.

But NBC was looking for a sister for Joey Tribbiani, the endearing and boneheaded "Friends" character (Matt LeBlanc) who begins a new life in "Joey" on Thursday, and De Matteo's agent insisted that she audition. Gina Tribbiani, Joey's older sister, styles hair for a living and had a son when she was 16. But she looks (add fake breasts) and sounds (take the Jersey out of the honk) a lot like Adriana, the heart and soul of "The Sopranos," who crawled to her violent death this season.

"I had never imagined doing a sitcom. I mean, what were they thinking?" says De Matteo, 31, who admits she has residual doubts. "But I guess when people are used to seeing you playing someone that's so big that way, it automatically lends itself to comedy. Gina and Adriana are not so different. But Gina is not as vulnerable or as slow. She's not a victim, and she will not be doing heroin or get black eyes or be crawling on her hands and knees unless she's looking for an earring. The biggest difference is the ratings: Adriana is rated R, Gina is a G."

Perhaps NBC and the show's producers were drawn to the actress' earthiness and refreshingly direct approach. In conversation, De Matteo curses occasionally and never holds back. On this afternoon, she is exhausted from a bout with strep throat, taping a show and going furniture shopping for her new Hollywood home. Still, she makes time to talk about the new job she's growing fond of -- she tried to quit during the taping of the pilot -- because she has learned to look at the character in a new way: "Better to be typecast than not cast," she says.

A native New Yorker, De Matteo had to move to Los Angeles for her new gig, then get used to working every day in a sound stage, as opposed working mostly nights on location.

"This is a big sacrifice for me because I have a lot of other interests," she says. "When you're on show like this, it has to be your No. 1 priority for eight months. Having worked with the best drama writers in the business and now to work with the best comedy writers and to have a co-star like Matt is what made me stick it out."

The pressure to be funny in front of an audience every week is nerve-racking, says De Matteo. But one small coincidence helps her stay grounded and optimistic: "Matt's become like a brother to me, and my little brother's name is Joey. That's pretty cool, huh?"

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