How Michael Imperioli Became Podcaster and Instagram Spiritual Guide
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How ‘Sopranos’ Star Michael Imperioli Became a Podcast Host and Instagram Spiritual Guide
“The show has this second life now, with people on the internet and social media,” Imperioli says of “The Sopranos”
Thirteen years after “The Sopranos” notoriously cut to black, Michael Imperioli decided enough time had passed: It was time to re-watch the trailblazing HBO mob series that made New Jersey, against all odds, look cool and made Imperioli, who starred as cocksure young wise guy Christopher Moltisanti, into a household name.
The reason? Imperioli, alongside former co-star Steve Schirripa, was launching “Talking Sopranos,” a new podcast dedicated to meticulously recapping each episode of the series. Now, nine months and 44 episodes later, “Talking Sopranos” is a hit, racking up 9 million listeners to date and regularly appearing on Apple’s list top 10 TV/film podcasts. The podcast’s popularity helped the duo recently score a book deal from HarperCollins book imprint William Morrow to write a behind-the-scenes oral history of “The Sopranos,” due out later this year.
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Imperioli, during a recent conversation with TheWrap, admitted the podcast’s success has been a pleasant surprise. “I wanted it to be (successful) but I wasn’t sure, you know? It’s a podcast, and I’ve never done it; Steve’s never done it,” he said. “It just kind of took off right away and it’s been growing ever since.”
The New Yorker-turned-Santa Barbara local admitted there was another reason he’d hesitated to revisit the show — the 2013 death of James Gandolfini, who had starred as mafia crime boss Tony Soprano. The emotional toll that came with losing a beloved friend made watching the series, Imperioli said, too difficult for many years.
“It’s one of the reasons I stayed away, in particular in the last eight years, missing him,” Imperioli said.
Now, as “Talking Sopranos” crosses the midway point of the show’s run, Imperioli said he’s able to enjoy the series and Gandolfini’s virtuoso performance, while also picking up on small details he never noticed while filming. And despite going off the air more than a decade ago, Imperioli and Schirripa have picked a great time to recap the show. “The Sopranos” has found a second life online, thanks to an active subreddit and popular Instagram and Twitter meme accounts dedicated to the show. A new generation of fans discovering the show on HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video hasn’t hurt, either. Imperioli said he’s been delighted, but not shocked, by the show’s staying power.
“Talking Sopranos” has also coincided with a bit of a digital renaissance for Imperioli. He’s one of the most engaged actors you’ll find on Instagram, where he has 109,000 followers. His eclectic tastes shine through on the app, where he posts tributes to fallen music heroes like David Bowie and Eddie Van Halen, as well as Buddhist teachers. Imperioli, after receiving many questions in his direct message inbox on meditation, even recently started hosting his own 40-minute guided meditations on Instagram Live, helping bring him even closer to fans. On Instagram, it’s clear that beyond his sense of humor and East Coast roots, there isn’t much else that resembles the loud and flamboyant mobster he famously portrayed.
At the same time, he isn’t afraid to mix it up with his followers in the comment section, even when it comes to politics. Imperioli hasn’t been shy in showing his support for President Joe Biden, as well as his distaste for Donald Trump. This has caught some fans off guard, he said, who expected his personal politics to reflect the more conservative tastes of the characters on “The Sopranos.” But Imperioli said he’s now used to going back and forth with fans from both the left and the right politically on Instagram — it’s something he actually enjoys. “I kind of like that because I learn stuff. I don’t have all the f—ing answers politically,” he said.
With that as a backdrop, it seemed like a great time to catch up with Imperioli and talk to him about “Talking Sopranos” and his life on Instagram. The conversation touched on a number of topics, including who inspires him as a podcast host and the “crazy stipulation” Gandolfini would’ve probably had before agreeing to come on the show.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
“The Sopranos” (HBO)
Has it been a challenge or an adjustment going from being a professional actor to being a podcast host?
It was a challenge when we started because I’d never done it. There was no manual, you know? There was a bit of a learning curve. I felt it took six episodes before we really found our groove. During the sixth one, I thought, “OK, now I get it.” It was really about relaxing, having a lot of fun, and being ourselves and letting our personalities come through. It’s a really different format than anything I’d done before. It’s different than a (TV) interview; it’s not acting, but it is a show, in a way.
There’s a bit of an odd couple dynamic between you and Schirripa. Is that’s part of the show’s appeal?
You know, I come from a more of an art-scene background. I went to acting school and was involved in the music scene and art scene in the East Village back in the ’80s. And I’ve been involved in acting, playing music, producing and directing theater — all those kind of artistic things. And Steve worked in Vegas and nightclubs and the casino business. He was the entertainment director at the Riviera Hotel.
But what we bring is the spirit of the show, in a way, because “The Sopranos” has a really broad audience and it appeals to both people who are into more intellectual, artistic material and it also appeals to people who come from a more working class, blue collar background that they see in Tony and the other guys. I think if you had two of me or two of Steve doing the podcast, it wouldn’t work.
Is there a podcast host you’re inspired by?
I’m not trying to emulate anybody. But I did Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast twice, and I think I enjoyed those more than any other podcasts that I’ve done. A lot of it’s because Marc has a lot of sincere interests in cinema and literature and music — a lot of things that I like — and he knows how to have a conversation. And that’s what it felt like whenever I did his podcast, it felt like a long conversation with someone who is really cool, really smart and really interested in what you’re doing. I would say that was the biggest influence.
Very often, when you’re doing an interview — not this one — but especially TV, they’re always moving you along. They don’t want the audience to get bored. “Moving onto the next topic” and “remember this…” there’s often pre-interviews, so you know what you’re going to say. What I loved about Maron is it’s a long-form, in-depth conversation with someone who really knows a lot about a lot of things and who has probably done some research into what you want to talk about. I’d say he’s influenced me more than anybody.
Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa in “The Sopranos” (HBO)
Now that you’re going back and watching “The Sopranos” again for the first time, has that changed your view of the show?
I think I have a little more objectivity just about the quality of the show as a whole. And really understanding why it’s so beloved and just really appreciating how good it is on many, many levels. How well acted, well written and how well-thought out a lot of the details of the filmmaking was. You know, I think my pride from being a part of it has grown over the years. I look at stuff and I see moments I really like and I see stuff I really don’t like, and I wish I could do over things I don’t really like — I’m talking about my own acting. Usually the stuff I like most are really simple moments. Not the big, dramatic, screaming and crying s—.
The episode I watched last night, Tony, after he wakes up from his coma, he’s reading a book on dinosaurs. And this Christian preacher is talking about how the earth was created 5,000 years ago and Tony said something like, “Compared to time, humans have only been in existence for a speck in comparison.” He goes, “You know how insignificant that makes us?” And I just say, “No, I don’t feel that way.” (Laughs) That line just says so much about the character.
Those little moments make me miss Jim a lot, that’s for sure. It’s one of the reasons I stayed away, in particular in the last eight years, missing him. [Now,] Being blown away by what he did. He worked more than anybody on the show, and scene after scene he’s just always delivering. So many colors, so deep, it’s tremendous, his work on the show, it really is.
Mr. Gandolfini seemed to be hesitant to do press and other appearances, even during the height of the show’s success. But you’ve had seemingly everyone from the show come on your podcast. Do you think he would’ve been open to coming on “Talking Sopranos” and yucking it up?
(Laughs) I have no idea. Maybe. He probably would have. He would’ve made some crazy stipulation that he would’ve had to come on with his uncle or something.
He was offered a commercial once, I forget what it was for, and he said I’ll do it only if you hire my Teamster driver as well, Joey Fay. They had to hire (and) had to write some kind of commercial that included Jim’s Teamster driver. So he might’ve put some crazy parameters on us — we all have to do shots every five minutes or some kind of crazy thing — who knows?
James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos” (HBO)
Why do you think “The Sopranos” has had such a lingering impact?
When we announced we were doing the podcast, David Chase called me and said he’s very happy we’re doing it and gave us his blessing, which was very nice. And I explained it wasn’t our idea. We were approached, almost at the same time, by three different producers, because they knew we’d done some Inside The Actor’s Studio-type live shows based on “The Sopranos,” behind-the-scenes s—. He said, “Why do you think it’s so popular still?” And I said, one of the reasons we want to do it is the show has this second life now, with people on the internet and social media. I said, I don’t mean to be flippant, but I think it’s because it’s just really, really good. That sounds arrogant and simplistic, but I think it’s true. I think it’s just better than anything that’s been made on TV, I’ll be honest.
What’s your relationship with the Instagram?
Well, it’s been very interesting. I joined a little over a year ago, basically because I was on a show for NBC and they wanted the actors, if they were into it, to promote. I had the social media person set me up, and I really wasn’t interested in social media at all. But I’m involved in a lot of indie stuff. Before COVID, I was doing a lot of live readings from the book that I wrote with Lidia Lunch. I do a lot of stuff with different charities, music stuff with my band and a lot of indie stuff — and I thought, maybe this is good for getting the word out for stuff that’s harder to get eyes on. Then I just started posting people who inspire me and also political opinions and stuff like that. I was kind of dumb — I thought all my fans knew everything about me. And I realized very quickly that they didn’t, And I also very quickly realized that a lot of Sopranos fans are very opposite politically to me, and worse, if I may say. There was stuff that shocked me coming from fans. Most of them are very cool, but there was also some disturbing stuff that came to light.
Anything in particular that stands out?
Racist stuff. Literally, people who confused “The Sopranos” with some kind of approval of the characters’ small mindedness or prejudices. That’s the minority, but I wasn’t even aware of it. And just like the country is polarized, so are fans of “The Sopranos.” A lot of them are to the left and Democrat and liberal, and a lot of them are Trump supporters and right-wingers. And I had to realize that, and I had to let people know that, if they’re going to follow me, it’s my personal page. I kind of felt like I wanted to have my opinions known. I still do. I’m just like, don’t follow me if you don’t want to hear what I have to say.
You also discuss meditation and spiritual topics on Instagram.
I started a meditation class because I post a lot on Buddhism. I’m a Buddhist and enjoy posting stuff from great teachers. And I started getting people saying, “How do I meditate?” I started DM-ing people with meditation instructions. It started happening a lot, so I figured maybe I should just make a video. And it’s turned into now this live class we do every week, and it’s several hundred people all over the week, with different religions and races and background meditating together and discussing Buddhism, dharma and reincarnation and karma, which I never could have imagined would happen. That all came out of Instagram.
Is it something you spend a lot of time on beforehand, prepping?
Oh yeah, it takes a bit of preparation because I try to be very precise and talk about stuff that I’ve been taught. It’s not my own spin or my own technique, I try to be really precise and just pass on stuff that I’ve been taught as accurately as I possibly can. I think that’s important because I think a lot of spirituality gets watered down into this vague blob of what’s considered spiritual: It’s meditation and yoga and mindfulness and natural foods and stuff like that. But the actual Buddhist teachings that I’ve been taught are very very precise, and it’s not this big, interpretive, do as you like, take a little bit of this, little bit of that [approach] That’s really not how it works. So I have to try and be pretty precise, and I read stuff from texts and then we discuss things and people ask questions.