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Interview: Michael Imperioli on The Nicotine Chronicles

by Charles Trapunski

Michael Imperioli is a well-known industry figure, especially to me, and when given the opportunity to speak with the actor-author-writer-producer-director about a story that he wrote for the Lee Child-edited novel The Nicotine Chronicles, we were quick to say yes. It was also kind of nice to speak about his guided Zoom meditation classes, his podcast ‘Talking Sopranos’ alongside Steve Schirripa, and his role in the Regina King directed movie One Night in Miami… as Angelo Dundee. In particular, we chatted on the phone with Imperioli to discuss his story ‘Yasiri’, although he also talked at great length about his 2018 novel ‘The Perfume Burned His Eyes’ and he was a tremendous pleasure to speak with as well.

The following is a condensed and edited version of a wonderful conversation with the legendary Michael Imperioli.

Brief Take: How did you go about building a story like this one?

Michael Imperioli: The theme was nicotine, and Johnny, the publisher, before he ever asked me what it was, he approached me and asked me: “Do you smoke, or did you ever smoke?”. And I said: “Well, I used to be a smoker” and he said: “We’re doing The Nicotine Chronicles“. I’m thinking to myself: “What’s the angle here?”. And I’m thinking about smoking and nothing really was hitting me, which was interesting to me. And then I had the idea of, OK, I’ll take it a little further back, like what is it? Cigarettes? Tobacco? The origins of it in the New World and then I connected it to Colonialism, really. I love magical realism, this story was definitely inspired by one of my favourite writers, Mohammed Mrabet, most of his stuff was translated by Paul Bowles, and he was a Moroccan from Tangier who wrote in Moghrebi, which I think was an oral dialect. And he would tell these tales and I think that people would record them and Paul would write them out in English, and I would start reading them when I was young and they always stuck with me, it was bridging the kind of mundane world and the magical world and I just always had an affinity for that style and that was my way in.

BT: There are a lot of graphic things that happen but you leave a lot of it to the reader’s imagination of what is happening. Do you feel like leaving out the specifics of it make it even more graphic?

MI: I think that’s giving a lot of respect to the reader and the audience. I forget who it was that said this, that the reader has to do a lot of work. Having someone read your story or your book, they have to take on a lot of work to do it. They have to use their imagination, it’s not like something more passive like music or something like that. It’s very active, they have to, they’ve almost creating in themselves, you’re letting them insert their own horror. There’s a famous movie, one of the greatest Greek filmmakers, Theo Angelopoulos, and he made a movie called Landscape in the Mist and there’s these two young kids and they get picked up by a truck driver, and at one point, the truck driver takes the girl into the back of the truck. I think that the boy is outside of it and I think that at some point, the boy exits and the girl exits. And there’s blood, the girl has blood I think on her hand or on her leg or something like that. And that scene is more violent and more disturbing than if you had to watch whatever the hell he did to her inside that thing, because there’s something about that effect that always stuck with me, and I think that I am very conscious of times to get graphic and times to not and how powerful each one feels. And sometimes it is powerful to actually show the horror and sometimes it works to let the audience fill that in.

BT: Your work often involves responses to violence. Do you actively seek these projects out in this way?

MI: I have a vivid imagination, I guess. Sometimes when I am told things that are disturbing that have to do with random attempts of violence it overwhelms me. The horror of it and trying to relate to that and make sense of it and understand the experiences of the victims of that and what they’ve gone through and what their loved ones go through, and it’s overwhelming, and that’s a part of the world in which we live. And how do we go on, knowing that these things…I’ve lived the last few years in Santa Barbara, California. I went to see this doctor who is a Chinese acupuncturist herbalist, for whatever problem, and he was a nice guy and gave me some medicine and stuff like that. A couple of weeks later, I read that some business partner of his flipped out, tied him and his wife up, tortured him and his four year old daughter in front of both of them and then killed them all. [pauses] So, we live side-by-side all of this all the time, sometimes it’s abstract like there’s a war in another part of the world, but sometimes I’m imagining this happening to this guy, I saw pictures of his family. I met with this guy and then two weeks later, these heinous actions were happening to his child. We try to reckon with these things and go on, despite these things existing so close to us all the time.

BT: When you’re rewatching The Sopranos, how much of it feels like you are watching it with fresh eyes?

MI: I am looking at it with fresh eyes because it’s been so long since I’ve watched it. I admire the storytelling so much and I admire the filmmaking. Just going back to what we were talking about, when I watched the last Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I liked a lot, that final scene with that huge orgy of graphic violence, especially when Brad Pitt is smashing the woman’s face with a telephone or something, that, to me, that almost took me out of the movie, that did nothing for me…and I guess I know the point that he is making, because the reality of where that story comes from is one of the most horrifically violent moments in our history. But there was something in that which…I know what he was trying to do and I admire his filmmaking a lot, but I don’t know. It kind of took the audience out of the experience, rather than further into it and further empathizing or connecting to it, I don’t know.

BT: Do you think that a lot of what is most fascinating is what you’re not revealing?

MI: I think that it comes from the story itself and what needs to be communicated through the story, but there’s a section in my novel where the kid is drugged, he takes drugs willingly and he has sort of a psychedelic experience, but one with a lot of anxiety. Because he’s having sex for the first time with this girl that he likes but there’s this guy there who’s given him the drugs, an older guy, and he shows him porn, hardcore porn, and he’s projecting and this kid has paranoid visions about young girls being raped and mutilated, but it gets really graphic, because we’re from the point of view of that kid, we’re not from an objective point of view at that point. I had to get graphic to let the audience know at that point what the kid is going through. Whereas in the story, I didn’t feel the same demand from the point of view.

BT: How much does your content respond to the time in which we are living right now?

MI: Well the story was written a year ago, before all of this, and I lived in Puerto Rico for almost a year. For me, I’m envisioning the places in which I am living and in which I am spending time. I don’t say that it’s Puerto Rico, but it could easily be because of the shared history that those islands have and that country has, but there were a lot of rich Americans who would live there and establish residency for six months and a day so they wouldn’t have to pay any federal tax, yet a lot of these people were not contributing at all to the well-being, to the culture, to the betterment of the island itself. It was just their little haven where they would go with their yacht and they would live in their palace and whatever and it just felt [chuckles] very similar to the history of colonialism and all of hose things and I guess that I was making a connection to that as well.

BT: You said that you did not want to act in the movie that you directed. Do you think directing reveals different parts of yourself? 

MI: Yeah. In some ways, it does, and in some ways it doesn’t. In some ways, everything you do is kind of the same thing. At the time, I didn’t feel technically skilled enough to do both (act and direct), whereas the next…I’m developing my novel into a movie and I want to direct and star in that, but I feel like I’m in a different position. I also didn’t feel the need to put myself in that movie, like I knew who the characters were and I knew pretty much who I wanted them to play, I just didn’t feel like there was a need for me to be in it. Whereas with the novel becoming a film, I do feel that. But the art of mine that’s personal, like with the novel, the short story, like The Hungry Ghosts, the movie of mine that I directed, or Summer of Sam, which I co-wrote or some of the episodes of The Sopranos, those things, yeah, are very personal and they’re about how I saw the world at those different times and those periods. When you’re acting, it’s sometimes much more of a job, right? And there’s only so much personal stuff that you are expressing and putting in, it’s different types of work. It’s best when it all comes together and it is personal and you are engaged and it’s exciting, but they don’t always come together. Sometimes you take a job because you’ve been unemployed too long, [laughs] and that’s what’s offered to you.

BT: What was your experience like working with Regina King, long-time performer and first-time director?

MI: I’ve had a lot of good luck working with directors who are actors, just because a lot of directors don’t know anything about acting. Which is OK, if you’re a director and you know that and admit that to yourself and kind of let the actors take care of their own business. The problem is when they don’t know anything about acting and start messing with it, which happens and I don’t like. But then when you have a director who really knows about acting, which some directors do and definitely when someone’s a good actor, they do. Then it helps you elevate your performance and you kind of reveal other aspects of the character. Steve Buscemi is one of the best directors with whom I have ever worked for that reason. And he did the ‘Pine Barrens’ episode of The Sopranos, I was in his movie, Trees Lounge, before ‘Pine Barrens’, actually. But ‘Pine Barrens’, in which my character was in a lot, I remember him just giving me direction that stimulated me approaching things from a slightly different angle. This is a character that I had been playing for years by this point. So to have a different angle from which to approach things was really exciting. And that, you have to really know about the craft of acting to be able to give direction like that. And Regina has the same thing, she’s very very very smart and she really knows about acting, she knows how to communicate to actors. That’s the whole thing with communication, you have to be able to know what to say to give the direction that’s going to be productive and she certainly does. So I’m excited to see the movie, (One Night in Miami…) I haven’t seen it yet, but I am sure that it is going to be great.

BT: How much do you feel as though your quarantine pursuits are integrated for you as a content creator?

MI: I feel like it’s all integrated and under one umbrella. I really do. This has been an interesting year for me, particularly because of Instagram and because of podcasts because…I kind of always assumed people knew who I was, but I really realized that nobody knew, most of my fans really didn’t know who I was. [chuckles] And most of them thought of me as the guy on The Sopranos and that character and stuff like that and through Instagram and the podcasts of me talking about other things of interest and art forms and things that I have done and that kind of getting known on a bigger scale has been really productive for me and really positive and has led to opportunities like teaching meditation or like writing articles about music and putting together playlists on different music sites and all kinds of things, which has never really before happened. And now people are discovering the novel that they would not have if it wasn’t for the Instagram or the podcast and doing press for the podcast and so, in some ways it’s been a really positive year for me, because of those things.

BT: How has this recent time affected you? Do you feel like it is a pause or are you as productive as you have been?

ML: Well, it’s two things, it’s like I said, with the podcast and with Instagram, knowing that there’s this kind of audience for the more left of centre stuff in which I am interested, not the mainstream, which is exciting. And there’s being in quarantine and having a lot of time to focus on certain things. It’s actually been a creative time for me, developing with another writer, the approach to making a movie and making my book into a movie, that has all happened during quarantine. There’s two other TV series since then that I have been developing, the podcast, the meditation class, I mean, all these things take a lot of work, the podcast is two guys talking, but there’s actually quite a bit of prep that goes into it, that attention that goes into it. And it’s all been, to me, very positive because it’s very personal stuff. I think that I have a good job, I’ve done a lot of guest spots on shows and it’s fun and it’s interesting and it’s engaging and stuff, but I can’t say that it’s personal, but all this stuff is and those things have the most meaning to me.

BT: What do you consider to be the most personal things that you have done?

ML: The novel. [pauses] I do put the novel above everything because I’m very proud of The Hungry Ghosts, but I feel like with my novel, it’s a much better place of communicating…I just feel like communicating through the novel, it has much more meaning to me than I did in the movie now. In ten years from now, what I’m doing then might feel like the most personal thing and I might think that the novel, I was happy with it when I did it, but now it’s [chuckles] I think that it’s gone to a different place. But yeah, I’m most proud of that, I’ll be honest with you. My greatest teacher, my acting teacher was Elaine Aiken who was an Actors Studio veteran, and Brando and James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, come from that world. She passed away, but she was a very big influence on me and some other people that you would know like (John) Ventimiglia and Alec Baldwin, a lot of good actors. But she used to say that, when you would do the scene in class for her, the first thing that she would say is: “Did you do what you set out to do?”, which basically I’ve taken as the most important criterion. Did you do what you set out to do, and with the novel, I did that. With the movies? I did to a point. I can’t say that I did it one hundred per cent, but with the novel, I did what I set out to do.

The Nicotine Chronicles is now available 

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Brief Take