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Best known for his role in The Sopranos, Michael Imperioli is a dedicated Buddhist. From gangsters to gurus, film to family—this is his spiritual journey. By ANDREA MILLER.
Christopher Moltisanti walks into a bakery to buy pastries for his Mafia boss. He takes a number—thirty-four—and waits for what feels like half of New Jersey to get served. Then Christopher’s number comes up and he’s about to order when Gino, yet another customer, walks through the door. The clerk, talking past Christopher, asks Gino what he can get for him.
“Whoa,” says Christopher, slamming the counter. “Number thirty-four right here.”
“He was in line,” says the blond clerk. “He just went out to get gas in his car.”
“Oh, so I can go out, fuck your sister, come back Saturday—I go to the front of the line?”
“I said he could.” The clerk’s tone is harder than week-old bread.
“Hey, poppin’ fresh,” says Christopher. “I’m in no fucking mood today. I’m next. Now get a fucking pastry box.”
But still the clerk turns to Gino and insists on serving him, even when Gino says it’s okay, that Christopher can go ahead of him. So Christopher opens the bakery door for Gino. “Take a walk,” he says. Then Christopher flips the open sign to closed and whips out his gun. “What is it? Do I look like a pussy to you? … I’m serious—be honest. I won’t get mad.”
“No,” stutters the clerk. “I’m sorry.”
“Get a pastry box,” says Christopher. Then, when the clerk doesn’t hop to it fast enough, he shoots the floor close to the clerk’s feet. The clerk quickly fumbles for the box and fills it with cannoli, sfogliatelle, and napoleans. He closes the lid and hands the box to Christopher.
“Next time you see my face,” Chris says, now so softly, so calmly, “show some respect.”
“I will,” the clerk says.
Then, just when both the clerk and viewers are breathing a sigh of relief, Christopher shoots the clerk.
“You motherfucker,” he shrieks. “You shot my foot.”
“It happens,” says Christopher, already on his way out the bakery door.
But that’s television, a scene from the first season of The Sopranos. In real life, Michael Imperioli, the actor who played mobster Chris is a thoughtful Tibetan Buddhist.
In an interview, I ask Imperioli how he reconciles his Buddhist beliefs about compassion with the violence in The Sopranos and other shows he’s been in. Hopefully, he tells me, “you’ll be revolted by it and you’ll realize it’s deluded to think that’s a justifiable way of living your life.” If you’re going to show a mob character, he continues, “it’s important to show him in a graphic way because otherwise, when you’re laughing with him and you see him with his wife, you’ll relate to him and maybe start to think something like ‘oh, he’s just another father.’ So you have to see that flip side—the cruelty and the dehumanizing of the victims—to realize who these people are and to realize that it’s a very destructive and unkind way of life. It’s more truthful to present both sides than to clean it up.”
Buddhism can help an actor understand characters— to understand their point of view and motivations— and to develop compassion for them. Imperioli says it’s important that he not judge the characters he plays as bad or evil because, once he does, he’s looking at them from an outside point of view. Bad and evil are labels, he says, “and have nothing to do with the internal mechanisms of what drives a character, which is what I’m going to need to get in touch with in order to play him. And, you know, even the worst people probably think they’re good in some ways. There’s something motivating them.”
Both real-life Michael Imperioli and fictional Christopher Moltisanti are screenwriters—Imperioli having written, among other things, several episodes of The Sopranos and having co-written Spike Lee’s The Summer of Sam. But Imperioli laughs when I ask in what other ways he’s similar to Christopher. “Not many, I hope,” he tells me. “I mean, Chris tried really hard. He tried hard to be good at what he did, both as a mobster and as a screenwriter. Not everybody who has an idea for a movie actually sits down and writes the script. He actually did it. He was diligent and I think I share that, but he had a lot of rough qualities. He was a very selfish person. I have been that at times, hopefully, though, less and less as I get older.”