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One On 1: Michael Imperioli Acts On Instinct

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Most admirers of a particular show or movie are savvy enough to separate the actors from their on screen personas. But when it comes to Michael Imperioli, the juxtaposition can be striking. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Much of Michael Imperioli's acting work is not for the squeamish -- something even he himself admits to being.

Michael Imperioli: I'm very squeamish about violence in movies. Playing it and doing it is different and easy. And very silly cause you see all the smoke and mirrors and blood packs and all that stuff.

Budd Mishkin: So, hypothetically if you were not involved in "The Sopranos," would it disturb you to watch it?

Michael Imperioli: It probably would have.

He's known primarily for his film and television roles, but Michael Imperioli has an eclectic resume. He and his wife Victoria created a small off-Broadway theater company, Studio Dante, for which he directed and produced several plays.

He performs his own music in his rock band La Dolce Vita. And he's now a movie director.

Imperioli both wrote and directed "The Hungry Ghosts," an independent film which tells the story of several intersecting lives in New York.

"I was able to make exactly what I wanted to, and it was the first time I had that much creative freedom, and it was very exciting," says Imperioli.

As a director, Imperioli has learned from some of the best. He worked under Spike Lee in "Summer of Sam," which Imperioli co-wrote. And his first well-known role came in Martin Scorcese's "Goodfellas," as Spider.

Imperioli says Scorcese asked him to treat the other actors, like Robert De Niro, like the characters, on screen and off.

"It doesn't become like, 'Oh, Bob I loved you in "Raging Bull,"' Cause he doesn't want to do that, he's on the set of Goodfellas, he doesn't want to talk about 'Raging Bull,' he wants to keep kind of in the frame of mind that he is working on," recalls Imperioli. "It took some pressure off, rather than being this young actor who is impressed by these amazing actors. I'll keep things very simple."

A decade later, Imperioli found himself in a show that became a national phenomenon, "The Sopranos."

"During that first season, Saturday Night Live did a spoof, not of 'The Sopranos,' but of the reviews of 'The Sopranos,'" says Imperioli. "If I had a choice of watching 'The Sopranos' and learning the secrets of the universe I would of course watch 'The Sopranos' because the reviews had gotten so crazy. That was, it woke us up."

"The Sopranos" opened doors for Imperioli. He wrote several episodes for the series. He and his wife Victoria created Studio Dante, and if theater goers felt like they were basking in the reflected glow of "The Sopranos" by seeing Imperioli and some of his colleagues on stage, so be it.

"My goal was always to fill the house every night," says Imperioli. "So if I had to make people believe that, I wouldn't be opposed to having them believe that, as long as they came to the theater!"

The theater closed in 2008. But Imperioli hasn't stopped working, with roles in the critically acclaimed ABC series "Life on Mars"
and the new film "The Lovely Bones." And the glow from "The Sopranos" still lingers.

Imperioli says the responsibility to avoid typecasting after a memorable role like Christopher Moltisante lies with the actor.

"If you say to yourself 'I'm not going to accept anything unless it's better than "The Sopranos"' or more money than 'The Sopranos' or has the chance of being more popular, if you look to surpass things, then you are going to be in trouble," says Imperioli. "I've always done a lot of independent movies and theater. Those situations offer a lot more leeway and willing to take more chances with you."

A stroll down memory lane with Michael Imperioli produces some happy memories, like hanging out with the Rolling Stones.

"It was amazing. Every so often I'd be like 'I'm actually sitting here with Keith Richards and Ronny Woods having conversations,'" recalls Imperioli.

There's also some not so happy memories.

"My girlfriend and I were walking back. We both worked at Chez Josephine, we were walking here and these two guys came and one of them had a gun, and gave them some money," says Imperioli.

That was in Hell's Kitchen, the neighborhood Imperioli lived in after moving to New York in the mid 1980s.

He grew up first in Mount Vernon and then upstate in Brewster. There was an early love of films, in particular, "Midnight Cowboy," leading to an unusual family tradition.

"In my 20s, my dad and my brother and I started watching that movie every Christmas Eve for some very weird reason," recalls Imperioli. "I worked with Jon Voight and I told him that. He said 'That's very touching, it's very sick, but very touching.'"

Imperioli wasn't one of those kids who was in every play in school.
In fact, his early passion for theater came not from the stage, but rather the library.

"I started reading plays the last year of high school," says Imperioli. "I started taking plays out of the library out of my high school. Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, people like that and kinda got hooked on it."

Still, he was ready to go to the State University of New York at Albany.

"The night before I was going to leave for college I said 'This doesn't feel right. I don't want to go.' And they said 'Alright, it's your life. Wish you would have told us a little sooner. But if you don't want to do it, you don't want to do it,'" says Imperioli.

He started taking acting classes, getting occasional roles and struggling to be a good waiter at Chez Josephine on 42nd Street for his then boss and now friend Jean Claude Baker.

"I think I was the worst boss he ever had in his life," says Baker.

Except for the one night when Baker needed some young people in the restaurant to impress a guest.

"I thought why is he inviting me to dinner, he can't stand me always yelling me," says Imperioli. "I invited three friends. He put us at a VIP table, free champagne, meal and dinner. That was it. Next day, it was back to work."

There were some rough moments in those first years in New York.

"I'd hear people screaming every night and getting killed and knifed whatever the hell was happening. It was very rough," recalls Imperioli.

But Imperioli was pursuing his passion -- acting, writing, and producing small plays. That passion eventually landed him in movies, and then on one of the most critically acclaimed television shows of all time.

"You have a character who is criminal and kills people. And yet people somehow get to see aspects of his life in which they can relate, which is if you can pull that off you are doing something well," says Imperioli.

When Imperioli is not acting in movies like "The Lovely Bones," or writing and directing movies like his film "The Hungry Ghosts," he is spending time with his wife Victoria and three children.

He's learned lessons from some of the best in the business, but perhaps Imperioli's most important lesson came from his father.

Michael Imperioli: He was a bus driver in the Bronx and he started doing community theater which I always thought was a courageous thing to do.

Budd Mishkin: Why's that?

Michael Imperioli: Cause he was a bus driver, he wasn't an actor. He'd never acted and all of a sudden he decides he wants to do this."

Perhaps it was that example that led Imperioli, just out of high school and ready to go to college, to forego the accepted routine and forge his own path.

"I said to myself this is a crossroads in your life. If you could do anything in your life, it probably would be something with theater or movies or something," recalls Imperioli. "So I decided to take a leap."

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