While he attended Rutgers University, he worked as a bouncer at an off-campus bar. His first noteworthy acting gig was playing rebellious longshoreman Terry Malloy in a 1992 Broadway production of On the Waterfront—a role made famous by Marlon Brando, who of course has his own mob connections. Then, Gandolfini’s film career began with a series of brutish, enforcer-type roles—most notably that of Virgil, a mob hitman who delivers the mother of all beatdowns on Patricia Arquette’s Alabama Worley, in True Romance. Of course, he is best known for his iconic portrayal of Jersey Mafia boss-cum-family man Tony Soprano in the HBO series, The Sopranos.
Post-Sopranos, Gandolfini has been showing off his sensitive side—as the callow Mayor of New York City in The Taking of Pelham 123, and providing the voice of the impulsive, thin-skinned Wild Thing Carol in Where the Wild Things Are.
Kristen Stewart has become a Hollywood star thanks to the role of Bella Swan—a paragon of chastity and virtue, and the virgin love of vampire Edward Cullen in the film adaptations of author Stephenie Meyer’s abstinence-promoting Twilight series. Her other notable performances include a seizure-suffering diabetic in Panic Room, a captivating teenage musician in Into the Wild, and an alienated adolescent in Adventureland. And recently, she starred as venom-spitting guitarist Joan Jett in The Runaways.
Welcome to the Rileys is a departure for both Gandolfini and Stewart. The film concerns a downtrodden New Orleans couple, Doug (James Gandolfini) and Lois Riley (Melissa Leo), who take in a 16-year-old stripper, Mallory (Kristen Stewart), in an effort to alter the destructive path she’s on. The film is the sophomore feature of director Jake Scott, the son of Ridley Scott (Alien) and nephew of Tony Scott (True Romance).
MMM attended the New York City press conference for Welcome to the Rileys where Gandolfini and Stewart chatted about playing against type.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: James, how did you figure out the back-story? Your Southern accent from Indianapolis was a little surprising.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Yeah, to me too.
MMM: Is this guy going through a classic midlife crisis?
GANDOLFINI: Actually, I’ve reached an age where you look back and you question how did I get here and with me it’s mostly good, with him it’s not what I expected, it’s not what the man expected. He has to go back in his mind and go somewhere and try to figure out what to do now. I think a lot of people do that; they just can’t really go anywhere or just disappear and I think he just takes the opportunity to try to figure things out.
MMM: What surprised you the most about making this film?
GANDOLFINI: How kind and smart and special to the actors [Jake Scott] was. How different his set was from his uncle and his father. I never worked for his father. How smart [Kristen] was. I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean for a young girl. Really, for a young woman how together and how smart and how she’s doing this all for the right reasons and how well we got along and how wonderful it was. I had a great time with her and I don’t necessarily think acting is fun, but I had a really good experience on this.
MMM: Kristen, those bruises were makeup, right?
KRISTEN STEWART: Yeah, they were. I got the bruises initially in rehearsal. I learned how to pole dance, you never really see it in the movie – you do for a second, it’s like in silhouette in the background – but it really hurts and you don’t realize that, of course, it’s going to show. There were so many that I wasn’t sure do you keep all of them or is that too much? I think what surprised me most was the fact that I was so unaware of the fact that I was walking down the street with my robe open and wearing fishnets and not caring at all. I had no inhibitions. I wasn’t scared and I’d known about this for a while before it got up and running and I’m really glad that it took a while to do so because I think that I was old enough to play the part as opposed to not ready. I think I would have shied away from too much. So it was shocking to find myself in situations like that and being completely fine with them.
MMM: How old were you?
MMM: Kristin, how’d you prepare for the role?
STEWART: I went to my first strip club with Jake and upon entering the guy was like, “You’ll have to come back later if you want a job.” [Laughs] They must have thought that Jake was my pimp. Jake was also really on me about that as well, you’ve got to do some work before you’re going to be able to do this. He gave me a couple books that really helped. “Raised by Wolves” was the one that really got me like where you have really candid stories. This guy endeared himself to this group of runaway kids in Hollywood and they really just let it all out. Then just pole dancing and stuff like that, but basically we didn’t have that much time and it was really comforting to know that it validated me, it made me feel like I’ve done enough to do the part, but at the same time everything was in the script so once we started shooting luckily I felt like I didn’t have to add a thing. It was just doing it justice. It wasn’t like I had to add real elements; it was already there.
MMM: You all have very different ways of preparing for roles and didn’t do a lot of rehearsal, so how did you establish that you were a married couple?
GANDOLFINI: I like [Melissa Leo]. We just did it very professional and also she’s pretty good looking, which helps. It’s in the work. [Leo is from New York] Honestly that stuff helps; it just gives you shorthand. I enjoyed it. I just want to say something about the places [Jake] picked in New Orleans. It’s an incredible city for its lack of rules, it’s lack of regulation and lack of everything being on top of you and I think that’s why [Kristen] can walk down the street dressed as [she was] and it seemed easy. I remember the strip club that you picked and you’re walking up the steps of the strip club and there’s a circular step and there was hairs hanging off the bottom of the stairs.
STEWART: Like a lot!
GANDOLFINI: Like people’s hairs have fallen off and they stepped on it and you could see it these steps hadn’t been cleaned for hundreds of years and just the whole feel of it really, really helped. He didn’t pick places and dirty them up; we just went to the places so that helped a lot.
MMM: When you’re working on a film this small with just three of you, there’s a sense of being a surrogate family on the set. So what kind of family did develop during the making of this film?
GANDOLFINI: I think that’s any small film you do and we’re all trying to do the same thing. I think you’re not out hanging out every night, you’re working 14 hours, 15 hours. I guess there’s a sense of family; you’re doing all this stuff together and we had a few evenings together, which were fun.
MMM: Kristen, do you have a process for coming out of a role, especially going from playing Bella in “Twilight” to Mallory and back to shooting “New Moon?”
STEWART: No, the few things I’ve done in between the “Twilight” movies have just coincidently been very different, but I haven’t been like, “I’m going to shock everybody right now and just do this because it’s totally different.” It’s always been totally informed. Something speaks to you and you need to do it and that’s what it is. Also, I’m really lucky to have my cast on the series. You always think that it’s going to be hard to get back there, but it’s not because we’ve all wanted to tell the story for so long and it’s finally going to come to fruition and it always just sort of falls out luckily.
MMM: Kristen, how hard was it to really let go of Mallory? Do you still have her in you in a way?
STEWART: You probably have that with everything. It’s not just parts you play, it’s sort of every experience you have in life shapes you and makes you who you are and when some of the biggest, most monumental experiences have been working on films and playing parts, and this one more so than, I don’t want to compare them, but really more than normal, I think it’s had an effect on me.
MMM: Kristen, your character is in many ways a mystery. What did you imagine was her backstory and why is she such an angry person?
STEWART: Obviously this was something that was really important to us and Jake had a few ideas about what those details were and they weren’t so defined to be honest, but it was just enough. It’s weird to talk about. One of the first things that he told me when we met on the movie was that some of the stories, and I don’t know if this will sound bad, but a lot of these girls’ stories are really typical. A few things add up to being able to do something like that as a job and we sort of inserted those little bits, a few little details. I know where she’s from; I know that she’s not lying when she says to Doug where she’s from and I know that would never come across in the movie, but little things like that. But to go into it would be really weird.
MMM: How much does your character’s wardrobe effect how you portray her?
STEWART: It helps. I guess it seems like the most obvious thing, if I was wearing …
GANDOLFINI: If you were naked.
STEWART: [Laughs] Anyway, I think what was cool about the costume was that you think stripper – I don’t really think a whole lot when I think stripper, to be honest. A lot of people have certain ideas about how they must be and I really didn’t have any, but I always sort of imagined that they’d be kind of sexy at least or something because that’s sort of their job. On the contrary, you’re exposed so often that you’re entrenched the entire time. Literally, imagine never wanting to take off a trench coat, but living in New Orleans and it’s hot and so that was interesting. And also the stuff was really dirty and everything helps like makeup, sets obviously, anything to make you feel more like you’re there.
MMM: Can you talk a little about filming in New Orleans and what you missed the most about your respective hometowns?
STEWART: I’m not being deadly serious about this, but I tend to really offend people that are in my life when I go and especially on this one because it was the first time I’d ever been alone on a movie and I loved stomping around the city like it was mine and that’s totally what Mallory was supposed to do, so I didn’t really miss too much. I was having a great time.
GANDOLFINI: I missed my son and my wife as we say and New York food because I had heartburn for six weeks. It’s great food, but, man, you know?
WELCOME TO THE RILEYS is now playing in select theaters.