Theater News

Singing Soprano

Dominic Chianese, aka Uncle Junior on The Sopranos, talks to Lynda Sturner about his family, his training, and the joys of music.

Dominic Chianese
Dominic Chianese

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?