Dominic Chianese has been a working actor for over 30 years: performing on Broadway and Off-Broadway as well as in soaps, commercials, and movies, through good and lean times, he raised a family even as he stuck with his career. Now he has, as they say, "really made it." In the monster hit HBO television series The Sopranos, he plays Uncle Junior, a role that earned him an Emmy nomination.
But The Sopranos isn't the only thing keeping him busy these days. Right now, Chianese is rehearsing a workshop production of Oedipus Rex with Al Pacino and Dianne Wiest. He has recorded a CD of Italian songs. and another one of country and western songs. And he still finds time to sing twice a month at the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home in Manhattan. For our TheaterMania interview, I spoke with him about his early years, his training, and the effect of The Sopranos on his life.
TM: When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
DC: It was never a conscious decision, but it was always a part of my learning. When I was five-and-a-half years old, I remember putting on a costume for a school play. I remember the buttons on my shoes. I played one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. There was something mystical about it.
TM: Did your parents encourage you?
DC: My mother did. My father wanted me to earn a living. "Get a real job," he said. I came from working class people who had trades: masons, bricklayers, and craftsmen. I felt guilty about pursuing a career, so I sneaked into it. I became a teacher. I did it stealthily, quietly. By the time I was 30, I knew, this is what I had to do.
TM: Did you study acting?
DC: I studied in college and with Walt Witcover at HB Studios. I did a scene where I was supposed to murder a woman; I scared the hell out of her, and she knocked the set down. I thought I was terrific, but Walt said, "I didn't believe a word you said." For three days, I didn't talk to anyone. He was right. One time, we did an exercise: "What about your grandfather?" Walt asked me. I said, "I remember he used to play cards." My grandfather came from Italy and spoke very little English. He was a stone mason, he had very large hands. Walt said, "Tell me about those hands." I focused on my grandfather's hands and started to cry. Walt said, "You have a lot there."
TM: What is the connection between "having a lot there" and learning how to use it?
DC: That is the craft, the technique. It's about learning how to leave yourself open to the moment.
TM: When you auditioned for The Sopranos, did you have any idea that it would become so successful?
DC: I knew it was a good script and a real character.
TM: How has the show changed your life?
DC: It's given me great closure. I can use all of my experience in this wonderful character.
TM: Have you become Uncle Junior?
DC: An actor must hide behind the text. You can't play him offstage.
TM: How have you sustained a career over these many years? How did you keep going when it was difficult from a monetary standpoint?
DC: Financially, I was a complete bust. I failed two marriages because I needed to act. We had children, and I used to think my father was right.
TM: What about sustaining yourself emotionally and spiritually?
DC: I'm a dreamer. And the guitar helped. Singing songs helped. Also, good friends encouraged me. My mother is 93 years old, with this natural joi de vivre. She's tough and strong-willed. So I never let defeat get to me.
TM: How does it feel to be in a hit television series?
DC: It's wonderful--like I'm being rewarded for my perseverance. It's the old fable about the tortoise and the hare: the hare was racing, but the tortoise just kept going. Success is a blessing. I feel like Job in a sense. I've been restored.
TM: Do you like being an actor?
DC: Does a taxi cab change lanes?