Michael Rispoli in Magic Hands Freddy(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Michael Rispoli in Magic Hands Freddy
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Like most if not all of the actors who have appeared on TV's The Sopranos, Michael Rispoli has extensive training and experience as a stage performer. But even those who know and love Rispoli for his performance as Jackie Aprile during the first season of that enormously popular HBO series may be surprised by the enormous range of talent he displays in Magic Hands Freddy, which opened last Thursday at the Soho Playhouse.

In Arje Shaw's play, Rispoli appears as the title character, a lovable masseur who has some serious family issues. In his TheaterMania review of the show, David Finkle wrote that the actor "makes himself seem absolutely inseparable from the role. It's the best sort of performing imaginable, not acting but ineffable being. A chunky, medium-height man with a round, mobile face and big arms, Rispoli...lets emotions flicker on his face like images on a screen. He hides nothing, he forces nothing -- everything he does is strikingly believable."

I had the pleasure of speaking with Rispoli via phone just a few days before the opening and learned that his theater background is even more impressive than I'd imagined.


THEATERMANIA: Hey, how's it going?

MICHAEL RISPOLI: It's going really well. We're in previews now, we're getting good audiences, and people are enjoying the show. What's great about it is that it's kind of a packed evening of theater -- it starts out and then, boom! You jump on for the ride and it's over two hours later as opposed to hanging around for close to three hours or something. There's a lot of laughs and a lot of rumination, and I guess some lessons learned.

TM: Your character is a masseur?

MR: Yes, I'm Freddy. Ralph Macchio plays my younger brother, who I've raised and put through school. We're very close and there's all the joy and tension that goes along with that. Then there's my wife, who's played by Antoinette LaVecchia; she doesn't like my brother and my brother doesn't like her, so I'm kind of in the middle.

TM: How does Freddy's profession enter into the plot?

MR: Well, the way I see it, he's a healer. He tells his story to the audience, what he has gone through and how he's okay now; he shows how a person can go through all these ups and downs and actually be healthy. As I said, he's a healer; he's got great hands and he loves what he does. He can see what things are paining people in their lives.

TM: Does he work in a health club?

MR: Yeah, exactly. Part of the set is inside his massage room, you know, which would be at a health club. But it's not a big, fancy, frou-frou health club; it's more like one of those steaming, "have a schwitz"-type places. You never actually see me massage anybody. The way the play is set up is that I speak to the audience, I break the fourth wall; then I step back and do a scene with my brother or my wife or my friend, and so on. Basically, from the moment it starts, I'm narrating the action. I'm talking to you and you're just coming along -- you don't have a choice! The immediacy of that puts the audience in the place of Freddy as he goes through the trials and tribulations of his life.

TM: It sounds like the play is more of a drama than a comedy.

MR: I would say it's definitely a drama, but there are lots of laughs. Whereas a comedy sets out to be kind of light and funny with maybe a few poignant moments, this is definitely a drama that's got laughs in it. You end up laughing at the characters and at yourself -- you know, "Oh, God! I do that, too!" That kind of stuff.

TM: Talk to me about your theater background.

MR: I went to college for theater. I went to the State University of New York at Plattsburg, which is not known for theater -- but, 25 years ago, there was a very active theater department. You were encouraged to write things and direct things. There were always student-produced one-act plays and then there was the mainstage, so it was a very active place. But I realized that college sets you up to get your MFA or to become a teacher, and that's not what I wanted. I wanted to be an actor. So I stayed up at school over the summers to graduate early, which I did. I graduated in '81 and then came down to the city and tried out for the Circle-in-the-Square professional workshop. It was an immersion program. I was there from 9 in the morning till we finished about 6, then you rehearsed whatever scenes you had to work on. I'd get home at 11. It was a two-year program and it was tough to get into. They cut the class in half after the first year, which was a big awakening for me. Rejection is what this business is all about!

TM: I've heard of classes being cut down like that. It sounds awful.

MR: It's hard. Some people never recovered from it, some good actors in the first year that were not asked back just never came back to the craft. Anyway, when I got out after the second year, Jacqueline Brooks -- who was my technique teacher -- recommended me and a few other students to Circle Rep. She was a member of the company and she recommended me for Balm in Gilead, which was a half-Steppenwolf/half-Circle Rep production. Malkovich directed it. I auditioned for him and I ended up getting my first professional job, as an understudy. That was in '84. I understudied seven roles and I ended up going on for six of them! Then someone left the show: Paul Butler, who's a really good guy and a good actor. He left to go do a film or something and I took his part. That's how I got my Equity card.

TM: Then what?

Rispoli with Ralph Macchio at the opening night partyfor Magic Hands Freddy(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Rispoli with Ralph Macchio at the opening night party
for Magic Hands Freddy
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
MR: The show moved from the Circle Rep theater to the Minetta Lane, which had just opened. We were the first show in it. After we closed in January of '85, I was an out-of-work actor for a while, doing the bartending and bouncing and all of that just to make a living. It was tough. Balm in Gilead was a big hit but I didn't take the time to get an agent while I was in it, which I guess I should have. For the next couple of years, I just did some readings here and there and a couple of basement theater shows. Finally, I said, "I gotta go back to acting class!" So I took a class with a former teacher from Circle-in-the Square and he had a few people in the class from different years at Circle. After a while, we started the Willow Cabin Theatre Company.

TM: Oh yes, of course.

MR: There were seven of us as a core membership. We started with Twelfth Night and then we continued to do shows after that -- you know, painting the sets, sleeping in the theater. We were able to rehearse at Circle-in-the-Square for the most part. That's one of the toughest things for a theater company: If you don't have a permanent home, which is costly, you need a place to rehearse. So we'd rehearse at Circle and then we'd rent a space on Theatre Row and put the show up. We put up two or three shows a year. All of us were in debt because we had to take time off from your waiting tables or whatever, but it was great. You know, we bitched about it then, but I look back now and it's like, "God, I loved that time!"

TM: That's always the way it is.

MR: We all did it for the love of acting. We weren't getting hired by anybody else, so we had to hire ourselves and put ourselves on stage. After a few years, an agent came to one of the shows and asked me, "Do you want representation?" I said, "Yeah!" They sent me out on an audition for a film called Household Saints and I got the part. Nancy Savoca directed it and I played Tracey Ullman's brother; Vince D'Onofrio was in it, and Lili Taylor and Michael Imperioli. We shot it in North Carolina. It was great. We all got along, we all hung out together, everybody becomes best friends -- but I later found out that the experience was unique.

TM: How so?

MR: When you go into a movie, you're basically punching a clock. I mean, you have respect for the other actors and they have respect for you, but everybody goes home to their family and their friends, you know? Anyway, after Household Saints, I did more theater. Willow Cabin did Wilder, Wilder, Wilder, three early Thorton Wilder one-acts. We got great reviews and the show eventually went to Broadway. We got a Tony nomination for Best Revival. That was kind of the pinnacle for the company. Then I started doing more films. I did a movie called Angie and that's how I met [Sopranos star] Jimmy Gandolfini; we became tight and we worked together a few times after that. And Mike Imperioli [another Sopranos cast member] has been a good friend of mine since Household Saints. We were all New York actors and we all knew each other from our days in the trenches.

TM: Well, you certainly bring a lot to the table. I'm really looking forward to seeing Magic Hands Freddy.

MR: It's a good show. We've been ironing things out in the preview period but there are only little wrinkles here and there. The show's in great shape and people really seem to enjoy it.