- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2001

LOS ANGELES

James Gandolfini is no leading man. Don't go by the doughy features or generous paunch, though.

Just ask him.

Some female fans of "The Sopranos," the HBO drama that threatens to make him a household name, might disagree. They like his brooding, bad-boy charisma.

But in person, Mr. Gandolfini will tell you that's just the power of that "little box" talking. Or, tawkin, as the New Jersey native says. He would be content to be a steadily working actor with a string of juicy parts to call his own.

The 39-year-old actor gives an adrenalin shot to his plans with the just-released "The Mexican," a heist romance starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. "The Sopranos" star plays Leroy, a hit man assigned to watch over Miss Roberts while her boyfriend, Mr. Pitt, retrieves an antique pistol from which the movie derives its moniker.

His role provided an easy transition from his day job.

"I didn't have a ton of time, so I didn't want to do something where I had to … do a lot of research or change a lot of rhythms," says Mr. Gandolfini, who answers by bending his head down and looking as if you has just failed to pay off a bet.

"The Mexican" marks a small step toward helping the performer break out of the Mafioso stereotype that could engulf him.

"It wasn't like a career decision," he says, deflecting the importance of his first project since his HBO series struck pop-culture gold.

The chance to work with Mr. Pitt and Miss Roberts, plus the delectation of a quirky script, proved irresistible.

"There were a lot of twists and turns [in the script]. I didn't know exactly what was gonna happen [next]," he says. "A lot of the scripts you read you can see a lot of the stuff coming."

Solid writing is one of "The Sopranos' " selling points, which the actor is quick to acknowledge.

Tomorrow night, viewers can return to the New Jersey suburbs where Tony Soprano plies his dubious trade as the third season of the mob drama bows with back-to-back episodes at 9 p.m. on HBO.

As the Mafia patriarch, Mr. Gandolfini's character can make a mountain of a man whimper like an infant. In "The Mexican," the actor inspires a range of emotions, some of which could not be any further away from fear.

His hit man cares, possibly too much, about some of the people who cross his path. He also prefers the company of men when the lights are low. One of the film's subplots involves his relationship with a man he meets in a bar.

"It cracked me up that this gorilla is sitting there thinking why he can't have a relationship, banging his head against the wall," he says of dialogue-rich scenes with Miss Roberts when the two debate matters of the heart.

As Mr. Gandolfini's career unfolds, he looks to established actors such as Ed Harris and Jeff Bridges for inspiration.

"You don't see these guys embarrassed by their roles," he says.

Mr. Gandolfini then mentions Gene Hackman, with his expression mirroring his level of admiration.

"If I could be lucky enough to do half the quality stuff he does, the way he does it, that would be a dream," he says.

A Westwood, N.J., native, Mr. Gandolfini made his Broadway debut in the 1982 revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Through his career, the actor says he wasn't bent on success, the kind that has snuggled up to him with the critically hailed HBO drama.

"It was OK if it never came," he says of fame. "I thought what I was doing was fun."

But attention gained from the show seems unlikely to ebb soon — both critics and fans trip over their remotes to praise it.

Thanks to "The Sopranos," more movie scripts are falling on his agent's desk these days. Not all of them call for thuglike performances, either.

"I'm getting a lot more parts where I'm not yelling, raping and pillaging. [The roles have] a lot more colors, thank God," he says.

That doesn't mean he'll be swiping any of Mr. Pitt's paychecks soon.

"You're still a certain kind of type," he says, but the offers appear more rounded, more promising of late.

As it stands, Mr. Gandolfini isn't sure why audiences buy him as a killer, whether it's as Tony or Leroy.

"I honestly have no idea… . I don't look like Peter Pan," he offers.

Miss Roberts, he says, made his transition from philandering mobster to love-challenged hit man an easy one.

"She put me at ease," Mr. Gandolfini says. "She hugs you right away. She's very nurturing in a lot of ways."

Miss Roberts sounds like a blushing schoolgirl when dishing about her co-star.

"Brad and I joke that he's our king and we're going to start a church, the church of Gandolfini," says Miss Roberts, her $20 million smile at full blast. "It's a joke, but it's not that far from the truth.

"He's very thoughtful in the way that he acts," she continues. While working alongside him, "all I have to do is listen, which is so fun to be that close to someone who's that good at what they do."

Casting the part of Leroy proved crucial to the film, she says.

"Leroy was so vital to me … who would play Leroy," says Miss Roberts, who watched tapes of "The Sopranos" while creating her Oscar-nominated role in last year's "Erin Brockovich." Her boyfriend, "Law & Order" alum Benjamin Bratt, suggested Mr. Gandolfini, and she took the idea to director Gore Verbinski.

Mr. Verbinski says he originally envisioned French actor Jean Reno playing the part.

"When Julia mentioned James, I knew we needed somebody [like him who could] embody this role without any question, and also surprise us with his heart," he says.

With the promise of an expanded film career, and with stars such as Miss Roberts singing his praise, will Mr. Gandolfini stick with the show that made it possible?

He considers the question with a wise-guy squint.

"I'm gonna wait and see how the fourth year goes," he says. "As long as the show has something to say. If it becomes this week, Tony's couch is missing, then …" he says he's not interested.

"It's a lot of work. It's worth it, but it's a lot of work," he says.

Mr. Gandolfini doesn't strike one as the kind to skimp on elbow grease.

The price of fame, he has learned, is that the public demands more out of him than other people.

"You have to expend a little more energy in life, doing things and going places," he says.

But life has a way of bringing any actor, even one with as many supporters in high places as Mr. Gandolfini, down to Earth.

At the end of the day, "you still gotta take out the garbage," he says.



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