In ‘The White Lotus,’ Michael Imperioli Takes a Vacation

Michael Imperioli, best known for playing crooks and cops, appears this month in the comedies “This Fool” and “The White Lotus.”Credit…Daniel Arnold for The New York Times

On a recent Sunday evening, the Emmy-winning actor Michael Imperioli stood in the dark, in a booth, in a recording studio tucked into a residential corner of Northeast New Jersey, and swallowed the shards of a throat lozenge. Imperioli, 56, who last year returned to New York City after many years in the not-quite-wilderness of Santa Barbara, had reunited with his band, Zopa, a jangly trio with accents of ’70s art punk and ’90s indie rock. He was here to record the band’s second album.

Zopa is a Tibetan word that means patience, and Imperioli, a Tibetan Buddhist, had made a corner of the booth into a kind of shrine — prayer beads, statuary, devotional texts.

“All right,” he said, approaching the mic for another take. “Let’s see what happens.”

If you know Imperioli — and you probably do; he attracted many surreptitious glances later that night at Chez Josephine, the theater district restaurant where he used to wait tables — you likely know him from “The Sopranos,” the HBO mob drama that recently topped a Rolling Stone poll as the best series in history. Imperioli played Christopher Moltisanti, a heroin-addicted hothead who was a creature of impulsivity and id. Impatient, you could say.

“The Sopranos” wrapped in 2007 (Christopher had exited a few weeks before the infamous finale). But Imperioli, with his aquiline nose, his big, busy dark eyes, his spilling waves of hair, now gray, remains recognizable from the series.

“Your gray hair does not disguise you,” a man in a sequin shirt at the next table teased him.

“It’s not a disguise,” Imperioli told him.

These days, onscreen, Imperioli looks a little different. After years in police procedurals and gritty indies, he is currently appearing in two comedies: “This Fool,” a freshman series now available on Hulu, and the second season of “The White Lotus,” which begins on HBO on Oct. 30. “The Sopranos” had its funny moments. (See: “Pine Barrens,” a Christopher classic.) But Imperioli has rarely done comedy.

In “The White Lotus,” Imperioli stars as a Hollywood player with impulse control issues. F. Murray Abraham, left, portrays his father.Credit…Fabio Lovino/HBO

“I don’t really know how to be funny,” he said.

Yet he is funny. And in both “This Fool,” in which he plays Minister Payne, a scruffy activist, and “The White Lotus,” in which he stars as Dom Di Grasso, a Hollywood smoothie, the comedy comes from straddling the distance between who these men would like to be and who they really are. As in “The Sopranos,” the laughs originate in a place of pain. Imperioli specified that if these shows are comedies, they are dark ones.

“I like dark comedy,” he said. “Because that’s like life, right? Because life is really funny. Then it’s really tragic.”

Imperioli grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., a working class suburb about a dozen miles north of Times Square. At 17, he skipped out on college in favor of classes at the Actors Studio. At 19, he went to a class led by the acting guru Stella Adler, whom he knew as Marlon Brando’s teacher. He remembers how Adler looked around the room and told the young people assembled that they were all so boring.

“I just couldn’t buy that I was boring,” he said. He remembers thinking to himself: “No, I’m not boring. What’s going to be interesting is whoever I am and if I can bring that and express that through something completely imaginary.” He never took another class with her.

It took him five years to land his first role, in a play that didn’t pay and barely ran. He was in his mid-20s when Spike Lee began to cast him in small roles in films like “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X” and “Clockers.” I asked Lee, over the phone, what he had seen in Imperioli back then.

“He’s a New York Italian American, simple as that,” Lee said. “That’s one of my guys. Imperioli! Love him!” Lee later directed “Summer of Sam” (1999), a spiky New York drama set in 1977, from a screenplay that Imperioli had co-written.

Imperoli’s most crucial early role came in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990), in which he plays Spider, a gofer shot point-blank by Joe Pesci’s Tommy. It was a small part, but it was memorable enough to convince the casting directors of “The Sopranos” to bring him in for Christopher, a nephew and protégé of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. David Chase, the series’s creator, remembers how immediately Imperioli elevated the character.

“There’s a lot of wild emotion within; he’ll go anywhere,” Chase said. “Christopher was so special, and he wouldn’t have been that special if it hadn’t been Michael. He would just have been a punk.”

Although Imperioli is currently starring in comedies, “I don’t really know how to be funny,” he insisted.Credit…Daniel Arnold for The New York Times

What makes Imperioli’s performances fascinating, in “The Sopranos” and beyond, is a careful calibration of volatility and technique. His characters shift wildly from scene to scene, but that instability emerges from an actor in absolute command of his instrument.

Or maybe not so absolute, not always. Back when he was working on “The Sopranos,” Christopher’s impulsivity began to bleed into his own behavior. There are stories from that time — some funny, some not — of drunken shenanigans. Christopher was an addict and Imperioli was wrestling with addiction, too, though he doesn’t love to discuss it.

“I can’t stand hearing famous people talk about their things, their struggles,” he said. “It’s important, and it probably does help and inspire people, but I bristle at it.”

Addiction, he said, is often “a low-level search for God or spirituality or wholeness.” As “The Sopranos” ended, he found Tibetan Buddhism instead, which he and his wife, Victoria Imperioli, continue to practice.

He has worked steadily in the years since, often in boilerplate detective shows — “I had kids, and I wanted to put them through school” — or in indies that nobody saw. (The man at the next table, listening assiduously, sympathized: “It is so hard to be typecast.”)

But his youngest child is out of the house now, and Imperioli seems to have begun a new chapter in his career. In the early days of the pandemic, he and his former “Sopranos” co-star Steve Schirripa premiered a rewatch podcast, “Talking Sopranos,” that eventually worked through all seven seasons. The podcast wasn’t really about laying ghosts to rest — the ghosts are resting fine — but it gave Imperioli a new appreciation for the series and its influence.(It gave Chase, a guest on the final episode, appreciation, too: He is writing a new project for Imperioli and Schirripa.)He marveled at how teenagers and 20-somethings, toddlers at most in the ’00s, had become some of the show’s biggest fans.

The podcast and his social media presence — his Instagram feed is a joyful and often egoless celebration of the art and artists that he loves — lent him a new prominence among relative youngsters, such as Chris Estrada, 39, a star and creator of “This Fool.” Asked to find a name actor for Minister Payne, a Unitarian cleric with a messianic streak and a debilitatingly large penis, Estrada thought of Imperioli. The character had to feel just as flawed and human as everyone else, without veering into white savior mode. He knew that Imperioli could deliver that. And more, as it happened.

Imperioli stars as an activist minister in the Hulu comedy “This Fool.”Credit…Gilles Mingasson/Hulu

“He brought not only a conviction but also a sense of lightness to the character,” Estrada said. “And he made it so funny.”

Around this time, Imperioli was invited to audition for “The White Lotus.” He hadn’t seen the first season, but at his manager’s urging, he watched it. “The depth of it and the humanity and the compassion that Mike has for the human condition really got through to me,” he said, referring to the show’s creator, Mike White.

Dom’s questionable choices required an actor who wouldn’t repulse viewers, who would continue to fascinate even in ethically suspect waters. (Just wait for the hot tub scene.)Which is why White wanted Imperioli.

“There’s something very accessible and likable about him,” White said. “He never repels you — he brings you in, and he’s so real.”

Dom, on vacation with his father (F. Murray Abraham) and son (Adam DiMarco), is estranged from his wife and in the throes of sexual compulsion, a condition that Imperioli spoke about with precision, displaying a thorough knowledge of neurochemistry.

He has been studying addiction his whole career, he said. Ethics, too. “I think I have a little bit of understanding and compassion for people who fall short of their moral aspirations,” he said.

Dom has poor impulse control, but Imperioli’s control is perfect. There’s a scene in the first episode in which Dom’s wife yells at him over the phone. Imperioli’s face barely moves as he listens, and yet he conveys as much, silently, mouth tight, as another actor might with a whole monologue.

“What Michael does, he trusts the audience, he relies on them,” Abraham told me.

“I like dark comedy,” Imperioli said. “Because that’s like life, right? Because life is really funny. Then it’s really tragic.”Credit…Daniel Arnold for The New York Times

The shoot — on location, mostly in Sicily — was long and often intense, with six-day work weeks and frustrating Covid-19 delays. According to everyone I spoke to, Imperioli remained calm throughout — warm, welcoming, serving as a kind of on-set sage (though he would never describe himself this way), leading the occasional meditation session with his wife.

“He puts the ‘wise’ in ‘wiseguy,’” DiMarco, his co-star, said.

White echoed this. “He’s very, very mellow,” he said. “I know it sounds cliché since he’s a Buddhist, but he has this sort of Zen vibe.” (For what it’s worth, Imperioli does not practice Zen Buddhism.)

At one point, over dinner, I asked Imperioli if he thought that his adoption of Buddhism had improved his craft. He resisted this, gracefully. “What that’s about is so much more precious,” he said. Buddhism may have made him a better person, he acknowledged, which might have made him a better actor. But that wasn’t the point. The point was learning to accept impermanence, unpredictability, interdependence.

Imperioli appreciates this professional renaissance, this break, finally, from the kinds of roles he played before, even as there are obvious continuities. He also appreciates that Rolling Stone named Zopa’s debut one of the best albums of 2021. But if the break hadn’t come, if the album had tanked, he would have been OK with that, too.

In his 20s, he said, work was all he cared about. “Now I still love it, and of course I care about it,” he said. “But before you know it, I’m going to be on to the next life.”

Back in the booth, in the dark, I sat on a stool and listened to Imperioli record the last line of a song, an 11-minute mini-opera with gestures toward “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” the Who and seemingly, in some oh-oh-ohs, “Uptown Girl.” “Somehow I am going to fight my way,” he sang. He sang it over and over.

It was only later, looking at a lyrics sheet, that I saw he hadn’t been singing “fight” at all. The word was “find.” Imperioli was going to find his way, walking the path to the next life, one show, one song at a time.

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