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Fitch shoots him a hard look. “It was true when I said it.”
And that’s how it is with Michael Imperioli. On screen, when he says anything, it’s true. When he says it.
I ask Imperioli how he does it—how he manages to make his lines sound so real—even when he’s been repeating them take after take.
“You have to keep focusing on the elements of the scene and the objective of the character,” Imperioli says. “Every time you do the scene, you have to take in the reality of what you’re doing and be in the moment. The most important thing for an actor is to be in the moment.”
After finishing high school, Imperioli studied method acting in Manhattan at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. “The first thing they teach you is relaxation,” Imperioli tells me. “Basically, you sit in a chair and don’t really do anything. Then you might start adding sound or a physical movement.” You might work to recreate the physical sensations of holding an object, such as a pencil or a cup of tea. The idea is to focus on reliving the actual sensation, rather than simply miming what it looks like to hold the object. When Imperioli thinks back on his studies at Lee Strasberg, he sees a lot of similarities between the techniques he learned and Vajrayana Buddhist practice, with its visualizations and mantras.
“When I went to acting school,” says Imperioli, “I thought that in a couple of months I’d start working on TV and be making all kinds of money—I was that stupid. It was four years before I got a part in a play, which didn’t pay any money, and then another four years after that before I started making a living. If I had known how long it would take, I don’t know if I would have done it.”
While Imperioli waited for his break, he worked in restaurants; he was a waiter, busboy, bartender, and cook. Yeah, he believed he was going to make it. “But sometimes no,” he admits. “There are times when you feel like it just might never happen. The reality is that there are a lot of good actors and you don’t necessarily stand out that much. To succeed it takes a combination of
being good and just persevering. Some luck doesn’t hurt either.” That
said, according to Imperioli, it’s not luck that someone gives you a part. It’s luck that you don’t get hit by a bus or get cancer, and that luck enables you to stick it out—if you have the perseverance in you. Eventually, he says, after you’ve done twenty plays and you’ve done a good job, someone knows you and gives you a small part in a film.
Michael Imperioli’s first film credit is for John G. Avildsen’s Lean on Me. After that, he landed other small parts in a variety of flicks, including Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and Malcolm X, Scott Kalvert’s The Basketball Diaries, and Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol. Then, in 1999, he got the part of Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos, the role he continues to be most well known for and for which, in 2004, he won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
For years, here and there, people on the street had recognized Imperioli and come up to talk to him, but The Sopranos took it up a notch—a big notch. “To be honest,” he says, “it was a bit of an adjustment. When your privacy is invaded to a much bigger degree, it’s a little strange trying to navigate that.”
Suddenly finding himself in the limelight was one of the reasons that Imperioli ended up delving into Buddhism. “In my twenties, pretty much all I cared about was acting,” he explains. “I was driven to succeed, which you have to be to make it in the business.” But what happened to Imperioli is what happens to a lot of people. “Finally, on some level,” he says, “you achieve what’s considered success. Then you realize it doesn’t necessarily make you happy. So, if what you thought was going to be the ultimate thing to fulfill you doesn’t actually make you happy, you better figure out what does.”
“How can a path all about improving the self be about selflessness?”
Gus asks Lisette this question over a drink, his tone taking a sharp turn away from flirtation. They’d just met earlier in the evening, while she was outside having a smoke and he was ranting his poems into his cellphone. Now Gus presses on: “If I’m concerned with my life, my karma, my rebirth… where’s the sacredness in that?”
His anger jars against the bar’s mellow music, the plaintive strains of guitar.
“What are you crying for?” he sneers. “You’re crying ’cause you fear suffering. It’s all about you. It’s all about nothing.”
“It’s not,” says Lisette. “The soul is not nothing.”
“The truth is, sweetheart, there is no soul… It’s all up here.” Gus strokes her head.
“Then what? We’re all just... bodies?”
Gus smiles. “It’s the body, which is immortal. Now we’re human and it’s rotted into worms, which are eaten by birds, which are eaten by cats, which are eaten by dogs, who shit us out and we become grass, which is then eaten by cows who are milked and churned into cheese and swallowed in a cheeseburger by some teenager down at McDonald’s and, hey, we’re human once more, and on and on… We’re immortal.” Lisette weeps and Gus kisses her cheeks, cups her face in his hands. “Do you see the beauty in that?” he murmurs.
She nods weakly.
“Yes?” he persists, and she nods again. Then he traces her mouth with his thumb and slips the whole thing inside.
“Do you see the beauty in that?”
She sucks on one of his fingers. Then a second. A third. A fourth—her whole mouth stuffed. And still hungry.
Gus isn’t played by Imperioli, rather Gus is his creation—a character from the 2009 film Hungry Ghosts, which was written and directed by Imperioli and produced by his wife. The title, which borrows from Buddhist cosmology, refers to beings with tiny mouths and huge, hungry stomachs; they try to consume but swallowing is excruciating and they can’t get enough down their throats to satisfy. The film uses the term as a metaphor to describe people with a deep feeling of emptiness who try to fill themselves up by chasing their endless, illusory appetites— drugs, alcohol, sex, validation, sensation.
Imperioli wrote the script shortly after he started going to Buddhist teachings, yet the film is not Buddhist and neither are the characters in it, not even the guru character. Her spirituality is what Imperioli describes as a “hodgepodge,” mostly a mix of Buddhism and Hinduism. “There are a lot of spiritual ideas that come into Hungry Ghosts,” he says, “but it’s really about spiritual confusion. It’s about searching and not knowing what to search for, knowing you want something but not knowing what it is. I was inspired to write about those things from pursuing a spiritual path.
“I spent several years knowing that I had to start meditating but not doing it,” says Imperioli. “I was convinced I couldn’t.”
Like many people, he believed that in order to meditate he had to stop thinking and he knew he wouldn’t be able to do that. Eventually, however, he came to realize his misconception. What meditation actually involves is sitting down and acknowledging your thoughts.
Hungry Ghosts wraps up with meditation. That is, in the final scene, many of the principal characters meditate together, and right after Imperioli finished making the film, he started meditating himself. “So it’s not a movie about Buddhism,” he explains, “but in some ways it led to it.”
Imperioli and his wife are working on a new film with a spiritual bent; they are executive producers of a documentary about the Tenzin Gyatso Scholars Program. This program, which sponsors Tibetan monastics to study neuroscience, biology, physics, and the social sciences in the United States, is a project of the Tenzin Gyatso Institute. Founded in 2007 by Sogyal Rinpoche, the institute strives to advance the Dalai Lama’s vision and values, and the Scholars Program goes right to the heart of this mission. The Dalai Lama has frequently stated that science has enriched his views and that Tibetan religious education would benefit from a thorough understanding of how Western thought and inquiry has developed.
At the same time, says Imperioli, “masters meditating in caves thousands of years ago had insights that scientists are only now coming to terms with. The interrelation between physical science and Buddhism could help our view of the world.”
When Imperioli tells me this, I think again of the characters in Hungry Ghosts and their search for meaning and happiness. In particular, I think of Gus and his raging question: “How can a path that is all about improving the self be about selflessness?” I ask Imperioli how he’d answer that.
“Gus is seeing that it’s all about the self,” says Imperioli. “He failed to make the leap toward making it really be about compassion and that’s where he was limited.”
Compassion and the importance of it is what Imperioli wants to leave his viewers with. “Compassion and the possibility of transformation,” he says. “You can wake up.”
I smile into the phone. Michael Imperioli’s voice sounds just like Christopher Moltisanti’s, but his words don’t. Not at all.
From the November 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.
Photo: Imperioli with Garchen Rinpoche on the day Imperioli took Buddhist refuge vows with him in July 2011. By Isabella Berneis.