- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

NEW YORK

Jamie-Lynn Sigler was a high school girl with a knack for musicals who figured anything called “The Sopranos” would be just her speed. She learned better when she got to the audition.

Robert Iler can’t recall being there.

“I was so young, I don’t even remember doing most of the pilot,” he says. “I do remember having a great time, but I was wishing I was in camp. It was going to be the first summer I could go to camp, and all my friends were there.

“And then everybody on the set was like, ‘Oh, the pilot probably won’t even be picked up.’ For this, I’d missed camp.”

It was summer 1997. A few months later, “The Sopranos” did get a series pickup from HBO. Premiering in January 1999, it became an instant sensation. (Maybe you heard.)

Then, during its spectacular run, the actors who had won the roles of Meadow and A.J. — progeny of mob boss Tony Soprano — grew into adulthood, good friends all the way.

At first, their friendship was from sheer necessity.

“We had to be a team,” Miss Sigler explains. “We were the only young cast members.”

Now in their early 20s, Miss Sigler and Mr. Iler need little prodding to wax nostalgic about their “Sopranos” stint as the series nears the end. (New episodes premiere Sundays at 9 p.m.)

Breaking in was easy for Miss Sigler.

“When it started,” she says, “I was playing a teenage girl who wasn’t getting along with her mom and was frustrated by her dad and annoyed by her brother. It wasn’t something very far-fetched for me to play.”

Meanwhile, in the pilot, Miss Sigler’s looming real-life eating disorder was foreshadowed unknowingly when Carmela (played by Edie Falco) chided her weight-conscious daughter for skipping breakfast: “You gotta have more than just cranberry juice.”

Mr. Iler, then a moon-faced butterball, instantly established A.J. as a spoiled brat. Marking his 13th birthday on the pilot, he memorably pitched a fit, F-word and all, that his party would be missing his grandmother’s ziti.

“You’ve gotten quite a bit more handsome since then,” Miss Sigler teases.

“I was always handsome,” Mr. Iler cracks ” — under all the fat.”

These days, Mr. Iler is trim and fit, presenting himself for a recent breakfast interview clad in T-shirt and jeans with a diamond stud plugged into his earlobe.

Having arrived earlier, Miss Sigler sports leggings, a sweater and bright-colored tennies. A lovely young woman with luminous brown eyes, she seems a softer version of the often defiant, outspoken Meadow.

“After playing this character for so long and having grown up with her in so many ways, I love her,” Miss Sigler makes clear, “but there are many times when I don’t like her.”

That goes double for Mr. Iler, whose character remains devoutly selfish and lazy.

“There’s a lot of times I just wanted to step outside of the role and shake him: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ”

Miss Sigler says for years she approached her portrayal of Meadow more like a game than serious work.

“I wouldn’t even know the scene I was doing until I got there; I would learn my lines when I got there,” she says.

However, she found new inspiration while shooting last year’s hospital scenes with Meadow’s gravely injured father, played by series star James Gandolfini.

“He was an amazing presence, even lying there in a coma,” Miss Sigler marvels. “He affected me so much.”

“He’s a cool guy,” Mr. Iler says. “I never feel more privileged than when I get to do scenes with him. He brings something out of me I couldn’t do by myself.”

Through the seasons, the “Sopranos” siblings have faced obstacles and made mistakes. Likewise, the actors who played them have dealt with real-life growing pains.

Miss Sigler fought, and overcame, her eating disorder (and wrote a book about it).

In 2001, Mr. Iler was arrested and, amid much publicity, charged with robbery and possession of marijuana. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of petty larceny and got three years’ probation.

“You get in trouble, you have to evaluate: Is it worth getting into trouble again?” Mr. Iler says, explaining his hard-learned lesson. “It’s a lot easier to make that decision when you have a career at stake. I didn’t want to mess up what I had. This show has been a great and amazing experience.”

“I’ll never be on another show like this,” Miss Sigler chimes in. “And now, it’s like graduating from high school. We’re getting ready to enter into the unknown.”

“But though people worry about typecasting,” Mr. Iler says, “thanks to our roles on this show, I don’t think it’s gonna be a problem. I think for our next job, both of us will be looked at as adults from the start.

“When we go to the set now,” he says, “it’s still, ‘The kids are coming.’ That’s what we are on this show. Even though I’m 22. And Jamie’s 25; she’s been married; she’s been divorced.”

Their respective personal challenges, plus a glorious shared history as the “Sopranos” kids, have cemented their bond. They say they talk every day. They text back and forth all the time.

“I truly love him,” Miss Sigler says, “and we’ve always looked out for each other.”

“It’s so boring,” Mr. Iler says, “that we like each other so much.”

Which begs the question: Have they, umm, ever been romantic?

Mr. Iler shakes his head emphatically. Miss Sigler giggles at the thought. Implicit is a “not with my sibling” gag reflex.

“That’s why we can be best friends,” Miss Sigler reasons.

Meadow and A.J. should be so close.

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