James Gandolfini plays the father in "Not Fade Away." (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Daytime at the Roxy nightclub on Sunset Boulevard is like being on a Disneyland ride when the lights go on and the carefully constructed illusion is exposed. It's the slightly surreal setting for James Gandolfini to talk about his recent collaboration with "Sopranos" creator David Chase — the coming-of-age film "Not Fade Away" about a rebellious rock 'n' roll-minded teenager growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s.
The husky actor saunters over to open the side door to the club to let in a roadie from the evening's musical act. "Do you know why we did this here?" asks Gandolfini, finishing up a sandwich his assistant brought him from a nearby restaurant.
No matter what the circumstance, it's hard to separate the soft-spoken actor from his iconic mobster role, one of the most memorable in TV history. So when he opens the heavy black door you can't help but flash to Tony Soprano letting Pauly into the back of the Bada Bing nightclub.
VIDEO: 'Not Fade Away' trailer
Yet that is a time long ago, and though Gandolfini is back with Chase, he is here to talk about a character that is as different from Tony as the Roxy is from Disneyland. In "Not Fade Away," a movie about the pursuit and abandonment of childhood dreams which opens Friday, Gandolfini plays Pat, a father, husband and WWII vet who provides a secure home life to an ungrateful wife, son and daughter. It's a character he knows well.
"This was an hommage to my old man," said Gandolfini, wearing a black button-down shirt that once belonged to the fictional Jersey mob boss. The actor retains his breathy Jersey accent so familiar to "Sopranos" fans.
"My father wasn't as antagonistic [as his character] but he was old school — Brooklyn, cement mason, bricklayer. He didn't understand me or my generation. He took care of his family, took care of his children," he said. "What we as children didn't realize is our father was a man who had dreams, aspirations and maybe there were things he wanted to do and places he wanted to go and he couldn't because he had a family. When I realized that as a kid, I wished I was a better son."
Gandolfini understood the role as soon as Chase presented it to him, during a lunch a few years ago. But the 51-year-old actor was still reticent about collaborating with the writer-director for fear that the film would suffer from unfair comparisons to the HBO series that has defined both men's careers.
"I said maybe you should get somebody else to make your life easier," recalled Gandolfini.
But Chase was adamant that Gandolfini play the part. In fact, Chase was close to abandoning his first draft of the screenplay when he pictured his previous leading man in the role of the father.
REVIEW: 'Not Fade Away'
"You would think it would have occurred to me sooner but it didn't," said Chase, who based the music-infused drama on his own childhood in suburban New Jersey. "Once I did, it all made sense and I could see the film very clearly."
In "Not Fade Away," Gandolfini's character wrestles with his son's rebellious '60s demeanor — from his long hair and heeled boots to his pursuit of a career as a musician. It serves as a stark contrast to the regret he feels over his own duty-bound life, poignantly expressed in a scene when he's watching Juanita Hall sing in "South Pacific."
"When he's watching 'Bali Hai,' you knew that this man had romance in him. He had dreams and they may have been forfeited," said the film's producer Mark Johnson. "It was one of his very first scenes and it's so emotional. He had 75 people staring at him, all these emotions played out so subtly on his face. When I saw that, I thought, 'Boy, did we get the right guy.'"
For Gandolfini, the part was one in a long list of many smaller, character-driven roles he's played in the last few years that have helped define his post-"Sopranos" film career. From his hedonistic hit man in the current "Killing Them Softly" to his turn as former CIA chief Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," the New Jersey native has remained interested in exploring flawed characters.
Following the show's conclusion in 2007, Gandolfini returned to his roots as a stage and character actor, taking supporting roles in such films as Armando Iannucci's "In the Loop," Tony Scott's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," even the voice of a Wild Thing in Spike Jonze's whimsical adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are." But it was probably his role in the stage play "God of Carnage" that gave him the most pleasure.
"I was an actor before ['Sopranos'] in movies but somehow I felt like an actor again [with 'Carnage']," he said. "Being on stage fulfills you in a different way. I loved watching some 80-year-old woman in the front laughing so hard she can't catch her breath."
AWARDS: Oscars 2013