That’s how James Gandolfini introduced himself to me and a friend when we approached— okay pounced— on him at a intimate party in October.
We were at a private screening in a Hollywood Hills residence for “Not Fade Away,” David Chase’s valentine to rock and roll about a group of suburban New Jersey kids in the 1960s, who form a rock band and then fall into every trap possible.
It was one of those crazy times where you’re not even sure how you scored an invitation, but you’re just glad you did. There were about 60 of us, including Chase, music supervisor Steven Van Zandt, assorted actors in the movie, and other celebrities like Joe Perry and former “The Sopranos” writer/ “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner.
After we watched the movie in the screening room, there was a buffet and that’s when I saw him. He was standing alone in the kitchen, eating.
I have had a lot of crushes in my life, but James Gandolfini was a big one for me. I hated that I found a character as reprehensible as Tony Soprano attractive, but credit solely went to the way Gandolfini found his soul, an inner sadness and all his broken places, and gave this inhumane character humanity (Clearly, I wasn’t alone: TV Guide placed him 28 on its “50 Sexiest Stars of All Time” list).
As the gruff father in “Not Fade Away,” Gandolfini brought the same hurt. He took a man, so shattered by his own disappointments that he poured them all over his son. He was unwilling to let his boy fly because he was so bitter that he had remained tethered to the ground and given up his dreams. In a movie that had more than its share of cliches, Gandolfini’s portrayal stood out as authentic and heartfelt (He brought that same tough exterior/marshmallow interior to Carol, whom he voiced in “Where The Wild Things Are”).
I stared at him for a bit, trying to summon up my courage, and then I decided that I may never have a chance to talk to him again. So my friend and I walked up to him, apologized for interrupting while he was eating, and introduced ourselves. He said his name was Jim and he was happy to meet us.
We talked about the movie and his portrayal and even specific scenes, including one where he says nothing but telegraphs every bit of desperation and fleeting hope he feels simply with a look. If you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
He told us the character came easily to him because he was playing his dad: all the frustration, hurt, anger, and disillusionment came from his father. It’s one of those times when someone reveals something private to you and you don’t know whether to delve deeper or let it go. He made it clear that, as an adult, he'd made peace with his dad and understood him in a way that he didn't when he was growing up. He even asked us when we realized that our parents had to let go of some of their dreams, as if he really wanted to hear the answer. We switched to talking about his relationship with David Chase. He said it was a wonderful working one. “David puts it all there on the page,” he said. He just had to bring it to life....as if that were the easy part.
He then asked us what we did and what brought us to the party. I told him I was a reporter, but not to worry, anything he said was off the record (well, until this point). I remember he laughed a kind of big bear laugh, and said, “I don’t give a shit,” in the sweetest possible way, like a man completely comfortable with himself. He might have said “I don’t give a f**k.” He used that word very liberally throughout our chat.
We talked about music and his upcoming roles and were in the middle of a very nice, easygoing conversation, the kind you rarely have at these types of events, when a publicist came up and stopped us so he could introduce Gandolfini to Dyan Cannon. What a true Hollywood moment.
We ceded our spot and while I was disappointed at first, I later realized it ended perfectly. There was no way I could have extricated myself because I didn’t want to, and I was probably only one moment away from breathlessly gushing a la Chris Farley’s “Saturday Night Live” character who asks if his guest remembers a certain performance and then can only muster up “That was so cool” instead of a question.
He was so nice and relaxed, generously speaking to anyone who approached, and, otherwise, hanging with his buddies. He eventually left and I was shocked to see that his wife had given birth to a baby girl the next day. He would have surely rather been home with his expectant wife that night, but instead he hung out with all of us, eager to do whatever he could to glad hand and talk about Chase’s labor of love.
I’ve met some of my musical heroes and been sorely disappointed and left wishing I’d let their music speak for them. My experience with Gandolfini couldn’t have been more the opposite. I’m so glad that I got the chance to tell him how much I appreciated his work.