The throbbing behind Alessandro Nivola’s head was rising extra intense.
It was fall 2018 when he’d auditioned for the position of Dickie Moltisanti in “The Many Saints of Newark,” the “Sopranos” prequel, and “I felt fairly certain I used to be onto one thing,” he mentioned. Although he wasn’t certain what that one thing was.
Then after a lunch with David Chase, creator of the sequence, and Alan Taylor, the movie’s director, the total script arrived and the stakes shot via the roof. Dickie, it turned out, was the movie’s protagonist, and Chase had been advised he might forged anybody he needed. And the phrase was that Chase needed Nivola, who hadn’t carried a film of this magnitude in his almost 25-year movie profession.
That’s when the throbbing kicked in. “I’d been down that highway so many occasions,” Nivola mentioned, “and the variety of disappointments I can’t depend on 10 arms.”
So when a month handed with out a proposal — the noise in his head by now unattainable to disregard — he determined to place an finish to his distress. “Name them,” he instructed his brokers, “and inform them that in the event that they don’t inform me in the present day I’m out.”
4 hours later, in a downstairs toilet on the Chateau Marmont throughout a layover in Los Angeles, he discovered that Dickie was his. He locked himself in a stall and cried, muffled sobs of reduction and launch, for 10 minutes.
“You see, sooner or later you simply should put your foot down,” he advised his folks.
Solely, they hadn’t made the decision. It was merely his fortunate day.
To listen to Nivola, 49, inform it, success has been elusive. However on a balmy September afternoon on the Mulberry Avenue Bar in Little Italy, he gave off the scent of a person swimming in it. Glossy in an unseasonably heat swimsuit he’d worn to a photograph shoot (his stylist had pushed away together with his garments), he radiated Dickie’s debonair charisma, minus most of his menacing edge. James Gandolfini, the unique Tony Soprano, glowered in a poster overhead, however Nivola seemed like a boss.
“The Many Saints of Newark” has been positioned as Tony’s origin story, with Michael Gandolfini forged because the teenage model of his father’s iconic character. However the film belongs to Dickie, an explosive, tomcatting mobster — lengthy lifeless when Tony mythologized him in “The Sopranos” — who in some way managed, regardless of his finest efforts, to twist a principally first rate child right into a tormented mafia kingpin.
Chase had needed to make a good gangster movie. “So, there’s no extra Jimmy Gandolfini,” he mentioned in an interview, “however we needed somebody who might, in his personal manner, be as criminally clever and charismatic.”
Dickie is extra elegant, extra good-looking, extra trendy than Tony. “However he’s carrying precisely the identical set of tones,” mentioned Taylor, the director, “which is this mix of introspection and full blindness and rage and remorse.”
Nivola’s induction into the “Sopranos” household really started together with his sleazy prosecutor in “American Hustle,” which galvanized Chase and made him marvel: “Who is that this man and the place has he been? I’ve to maintain him in thoughts.”
“So I saved him in thoughts,” Chase mentioned, “and when this position got here up, he appeared to me to be the proper man for it.”
Nivola ticked off the bins: Italian American with an immigrant again story — his grandfather a Sardinian sculptor who resettled in Manhattan’s downtown bohemia throughout the warfare, his father a Harvard graduate and Brookings Establishment fellow — and an innate grasp of the language.
“When it got here to Italian, curse phrases or in any other case,” Chase mentioned, “he acquired the phrases and the tune.”
And Nivola — a Boston-born Yale man who spent his grade-school years largely in rural Vermont and highschool at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire — was an eyeful. “On ‘The Sopranos,’ I by no means went that route however I felt, effectively, we will’t blame the man for being good-looking,” Chase mentioned. “He’s actually good, and I knew he might ship the fitting degree of sinister.”
Taking these “Sopranos” colours, Nivola painted a Jekyll and Hyde, longing to be remembered for doing one thing noble however dragged down by impulsive violence that horrifies even him.
His interpretation was “pitch good, each beat of it,” beginning together with his audition scenes, mentioned Taylor, who had to withstand making an attempt to get Nivola to recreate their perfection after they really began capturing.
Nivola has been bringing it since his movie breakthrough in 1997 as Pollux Troy, the weirdo brother of Nicolas Cage’s terrorist in “Face/Off.” After which he basically went undercover.
“I at all times was drawn to roles that allowed me to cover myself and to burrow into another sort of character or habits that felt like a disguise,” he mentioned. “That’s been the blessing and the curse of my entire profession up till now.”
Nivola adroitly shapeshifted from one character to the following, with out an apparent via line — the British frontman who beds a a lot older document producer in “Laurel Canyon,” the Orthodox Jew drawn right into a love triangle in “Disobedience,” the lunatic sensei in “The Art of Self-Defense.”
However alongside the best way, disappointment over movies that flopped or weren’t even launched, and a way of entitlement at being requested to repeatedly show himself — hadn’t he already? — gave rise to crippling nerves and melancholy. Ultimately he felt so uncomfortable auditioning in individual that he stopped altogether.
“My most profitable mates are type of relentlessly optimistic,” mentioned Nivola, citing his spouse, the actor and director Emily Mortimer, and his pal Ethan Hawke. “I’m making an attempt to be extra that manner however it’s not my nature.”
Then got here David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” And after a humbling seven-year break when he stopped auditioning but in addition stopped getting much-wanted roles, he confirmed as much as compete for the job.
Nivola had begun to reassess how he needed to work, selecting nice administrators over nice elements. However Russell’s idiosyncratic type — writing a script after which yelling out alternate strains for the actor to say within the midst of capturing — left Nivola feeling totally uncontrolled. Thrillingly so.
“It was a giant turning level for me, the place I simply utterly gave over to him,” he mentioned. “And from that second on, I actually favored that feeling. I needed to offer each director that I labored with that energy.”
No matter induced Nivola to hesitate or overthink earlier than, Russell has seen that drop away in favor of “enthusiastic inventiveness,” he wrote in an electronic mail. “I feel he can do virtually something — he’s fearless. He takes what I’ve written and makes it his personal. We belief one another, which permits threat and a hell of plenty of enjoyable.”
“American Hustle” was additionally Nivola’s first movie with Robert De Niro, whom he considers a mentor. “I imply, he may not describe himself that manner,” he mentioned, laughing, “however I insist.”
However it was watching him in movement on “The Wizard of Lies” — De Niro as Bernie Madoff and Nivola as his son Mark — that affected the best way Nivola labored greater than some other expertise. He started studying his dialogue early in order that he might untie himself from the phrases. He began repeating phrases in the midst of scenes, like a reset, till he’d forgotten he was performing.
“It’s virtually like he’s enjoying music somewhat than saying textual content,” Taylor mentioned — even when it does ship the dolly crew dashing when he abruptly takes a scene again to the start. The director added, “Continuously what comes out of his third model is the one he was aiming for, and it actually, actually works.”
In September, the day after “The Many Saints of Newark” premiered on the Beacon Theater, Nivola, true to type, was elated if cautious. Critics for IndieWire, CNN and others singled his efficiency out with phrases like “absolutely brilliant” and “riveting.”
“To date, these have been the perfect critiques I’ve ever had for a efficiency,” he wrote in an electronic mail, including, “I’m making an attempt to not put an excessive amount of or too little inventory in them.”
However again on Mulberry Avenue, Nivola had intimated that his shining second hadn’t dropped from out of the blue — probably not. “I felt, to be trustworthy, main as much as when this chance got here, some intangible feeling that one thing like this was brewing,” he mentioned haltingly.
Nonetheless, not like Dickie, he wasn’t keen to wager on his future. “I’ll by no means take into consideration this film as a hit,” he added, “till I’m confirmed in any other case.”