‘Sopranos’ actor Michael Imperioli grapples with guilt and addiction in ‘White Lotus’ : NPR
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Michael Imperioli is starring in the second season of the HBO series “The White Lotus,” which was created by Mike White. Imperioli spoke with our producer, Sam Briger. Here’s Sam.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Michael Imperioli is a very busy person. This year so far, he’s appearing on the HBO series “The White Lotus,” his first novel is being reprinted, and he’s releasing new music with his band Zopa. Imperioli made his name as an actor in the influential TV series “The Sopranos,” playing Christopher Moltisanti, the violent gangster with impulse control issues who’s got a father figure in Tony Soprano – not a great role model. Imperioli has been thinking a lot about “The Sopranos” in the last few years. In 2021, he published a book called “Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History Of The Sopranos,” co-written with Steve Schirripa, who plays gangster Bobby Bacala on the show. The book came out of the podcast they started during COVID called “Talking Sopranos,” where they went back and watched the whole series all over again. Michael Imperioli published his first novel, “The Perfume Burned His Eyes,” in 2017, and it’s being rereleased this December. It’s a coming-of-age novel set in 1976 New York, and one of the characters is another perhaps flawed father figure, Lou Reed.
But let’s start with “The White Lotus,” the Emmy-winning HBO series created by Mike White. In the second season, Michael Imperioli plays Dominic Di Grasso, a successful Hollywood producer with a sex addiction who’s destroyed his marriage by cheating on his wife a lot. He’s reluctantly gone on vacation to Sicily with his father and son to find their family roots while staying at the luxurious White Lotus hotel chain. And he secretly contracted a local sex worker to stay the week with him, which is causing him a lot of shame and guilt as he hopes to change and save his marriage. His father Bert, played by F. Murray Abraham, flirts with any woman he comes across and his son Albie, played by Adam DiMarco, thinks they’re both sexist dinosaurs. Let’s hear a scene between Albie and Dominic where Dominic tries to defend himself. Imperioli speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE WHITE LOTUS”)
MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Hey, Albie.
ADAM DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) Yeah.
IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Hey. I feel like you have this wrong, distorted impression of me. I have always supported women. I’ve always promoted women. I’m a feminist. I mean, I didn’t marry some subservient wife. Your mother is a brilliant, amazing woman. Did you talk to her?
DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) We didn’t talk about you, Dad.
IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) OK. No, I don’t want to put you in the middle. You don’t have to say anything to her. But if you did say something, I’m hoping you tell her that I’m really, really, really missing her and Kara, and that I feel really awful. She listens to you.
DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) Nothing is going to fix this.
IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) No?
DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) You have to change, Dad. You have to stop doing what you’re doing and actually change.
IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) I know that. And I have changed, and I am changing. I can change.
DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) Oh, yeah?
IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Yes, I can be the man she wants me to be again.
BRIGER: That’s our guest, Michael Imperioli, in the second season of “The White Lotus.” Michael Imperioli, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
IMPERIOLI: Thank you for having me.
BRIGER: So your character Dom is on this trip with his father and son, which he’s very reluctant about, and he’s kind of stuck between them, both generationally, but also, like, in terms of his relationship to women. As I said, his father Bert is really lecherous. He cheated on his wife. But he says, you know, those were peccadillos. I never loved them. I loved my wife. But your character also is cheating on his wife, but he feels a lot of shame. He has sex addiction and compulsion issues. His son doesn’t really see a distinction between them. Can you talk about how you decided to play Dom?
IMPERIOLI: Dominic is wrestling with doing things he doesn’t really want to do and feeling kind of propelled to do them once he gets kind of that bug in his head. And as soon as he’s done with it, this, you know, wave of guilt and remorse and regret come over him all the time. And he realizes he doesn’t want to be doing these things. Probably at some point in his life earlier on, he did them without being conscious of these aftereffects, justifying them, you know, felt entitled to them, compartmentalizing them. But that kind of faded away, you know, and he’s really seeing the effects of his actions both on himself and on his psyche and on his family.
BRIGER: This is an issue that I’ve thought about a lot, like, how men’s behavior changes over generations and how much amount of change is available to you based on, like, the era you’re living in and your – based on your generation. That seems to be playing out as well in your character.
IMPERIOLI: It does. It definitely does. You know, Bert, who’s 80 years old in the show, right? Who were his role models? You’re talking about going back to early part of the 20th century, probably, and maybe earlier. So he – his role models are rooted in, you know, traditions of patriarchy. And he didn’t really see any – probably much diversion from that and felt that what he was doing was OK. Whether or not Bert was a sex addict, I don’t know. You know, addiction really is something that a person has to define for themselves, at least in my opinion. But Dominic’s – you know, that conversation you played with him and Albie, I mean, Dominic really believes that. And there’s probably evidence that he has supported women and promoted women and feels like a feminist. There’s probably evidence that he can point to to prove that point. Yet at the same time, there’s this other side to him that’s, you know, participating in exploitation possibly of women, cheating, being unfaithful and all those other things.
BRIGER: Did you do much research into sex addiction and compulsion for the role?
IMPERIOLI: Yeah, I did. The tricky thing with sex addiction – it’s very similar to food addiction, whereas other things that are very clear cut – like if you’re addicted to cocaine or heroin or even alcohol, you can’t do those things, right? Those things are going to destroy you. You can easily live your – you know, hopefully live your life without them, right? Food and sex are – food, obviously, you need to eat. But if you have a food addiction, you have to find healthy ways to eat, obviously, that are not going to put you in danger or your health in danger. And with sex, you want to integrate that into your life as a healthy element. And sex addiction can come in many, many, many forms. But the common thread is you do stuff that you don’t want to do and then feel regret over it. You feel powerless over a compulsion to do certain behavior that has an allure to you.
BRIGER: Right. You’ve said that you’ve studied addiction your whole life. What did you mean by that?
IMPERIOLI: I’ve played so many addicts, you know, and I’ve seen from very early on in my life how damaging addiction is. And I’ve lost a lot of people to it, people who have died from it. And a lot of my heroes, you know, artistic heroes, because most of my heroes from when I was young were artists, died of it as well. And, you know, I had a lot of curiosity about it always.
BRIGER: You know, I said, like, this – your role, you’re kind of sandwiched between your father and your son and thinking about the ways in which you’re different than your father, the ways in which your son is different than you. I think it’s pretty common for people to imagine themselves as being, like, different from their parents, but they end up oftentimes being a lot like them. Have you had that experience yourself?
IMPERIOLI: Well, raising kids, yeah, I mean, which I’m kind of – my wife and I are empty nesters now, which is really fabulous, by the way, no offense to my kids.
IMPERIOLI: But raising kids, I can – I really learned a lot about my parents and particularly my father and how difficult it is to do that. And I was like, oh, that’s why this went on, and that’s why he did this. And most kids, as they grow up and especially when they’re adolescents and young adults, they resent their parents. They rebel against them. They harbor these things and whatever – harbor things against them. And as I started raising kids, I think I really forgave a lot of things that I might have been holding on to.
BRIGER: You know, you have a lot of screen time in “The White Lotus” where you don’t actually have lines. But you’re really good at showing just how stricken with shame your character is. Can you talk about the sort of nonverbal moments on camera?
IMPERIOLI: Well, those are really fun to play as an actor. And working with Mike White, who allows you to have those moments, is really – I’m very grateful for because there are moments when you’re dealing with just raw expression of emotion rather than verbally telling the story or verbally expressing how you’re feeling, I mean, which can also be very moving and effective. But when there’s no words, you really have to rely on connecting to the emotion as real as you can.
And you don’t have to be literal. You can use anything. I always say nothing is sacred to me in my imagination. If I have to use something really horrific or really inappropriate or something that I would never share with anyone, tell them this is what I’m thinking about – but if it’s going to create the right thing, the right emotion for that scene, I’ll use it, and then I’ll just put it away. You know, once I use it, it’s done. I don’t even think about it ever again.
BRIGER: You’re able to remove that from your mind?
IMPERIOLI: Yeah. And I’ll never – you know, I don’t go back over it, and it’s not something that I carry after. You know what I mean?
BRIGER: Michael, let’s take a short break here. If you’re just joining us, our guest is Michael Imperioli, who stars in the second season of the HBO show “The White Lotus.” More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA’S “UNACCOMPANIED CELLO SUITE NO. 2 IN D MINOR, BWV 1008: III. COURANTE”)
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We’re speaking with Michael Imperioli, who stars in the second season of “The White Lotus” on HBO.
You know, last year, you published a book called “Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History Of The Sopranos” that you co-wrote with Steve Schirripa, and he played Bobby Bacala in “The Sopranos.” You said in the book that you based Christopher Moltisanti on someone you actually knew. They – you don’t say who it is, and the person doesn’t know, and you’ll never say who that is. I was just wondering, what was it about this person that influenced the character?
IMPERIOLI: Well, there were some very literal things that – the parallels like being from kind of – not New Jersey, but a similar kind of New York-adjacent, you know, kind of place, addictive things, and brushes with the mob. He wasn’t a mobster, but there were – he had some brushes with them. But particularly, what it was, was this person, who I knew when I was a lot younger, was very hyperbolic in his expression of emotions to the point where sometimes I wasn’t sure if he was acting or not. He was very big that way. You know what I mean? Like, when he – especially when he felt he was being slighted or, you know, expressing injustice, feeling that kind of thing, which Christopher always felt like…
IMPERIOLI: …He was unappreciated and being slighted…
IMPERIOLI: …And being kind of looked and – but he would express it so – in such a huge way, totally uncensored, that I would always be, like – it almost looked like a performance and – which is a little bit risky to do as an actor because you don’t want it to seem like a performance, right? You want it to seem real, but…
BRIGER: Right. Someone might say you’re being over-the-top or something, right?
IMPERIOLI: Of course, which he was.
IMPERIOLI: But that was who he – that’s who the character was.
BRIGER: So when you got the role, you didn’t tell the producers that you didn’t know how to drive. Or did you actually tell them you did know how to drive?
IMPERIOLI: Oh, I don’t even know if it came up. You know what I mean?
BRIGER: But you found yourself behind the wheel, right?
IMPERIOLI: Yeah. I mean, I was – when I got cast on “The Sopranos,” I think I was 31. So people assume you know how to drive. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know how to drive. I just didn’t have experience, you know? I mean, like, I think I did it once in a blue moon and one day when I was a kid, but…
BRIGER: Did you have a license or…
IMPERIOLI: No. No, but I thought, well, what am I going to do? I’m going to drive down the street. I’m not going to – you know, it’s not like I’m taking a four-hour trip to Washington, D.C., or something. It’s movies. How hard could it be? You know, I’m not going to do stunts. They have stuntmen for that. But actually, what I had to do that first day was kind of complicated even if you had a license, which was back down the sidewalk with trees on both sides and extras running away and looking at a mark straight ahead doing dialogue. It was kind of complicated. And I eventually wound up hitting the tree and…
IMPERIOLI: …Crashing. But – and then, I got my license after that. I took lessons.
BRIGER: And James Gandolfini was in the car with you? Is that right?
IMPERIOLI: He was in the car. And it was – you know, the car – it was – I hit it pretty hard. And he just – I thought he was going to be offended and upset, but he laughed his ass off. He thought it was hilarious.
BRIGER: And how was the car after that?
IMPERIOLI: Oh, the rear end was pretty messed up. I don’t know if it was totaled. It might have been. But they had another car, and they just brought it over. They had two of them, so we did it again after that.
BRIGER: Well, you know, it’s – we probably don’t have to worry about spoilers for “The Sopranos” since it’s been out for so long. But your character dies after getting in a car accident with Tony. Do you think that your death was written that way as a reference to this early car accident?
IMPERIOLI: Oh, you know, I never connected that before until just now. That’s very interesting. I don’t…
BRIGER: There are a lot of inside jokes on the show – right? – like that.
IMPERIOLI: There is. I don’t think so. I don’t think it was that. But that – boy, is that interesting. I never thought of that.
BRIGER: Well, you know, let’s listen to a scene between you and James Gandolfini, who, of course, plays Tony Soprano. He’s your boss. But you also have this father-son relationship with him, although, a very messed up version of that. And this is from the show’s pilot. You guys are at Tony’s house for a barbecue. You’ve stormed off because, like you said here, always feeling disrespected? And he comes over and asks you what’s going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE SOPRANOS”)
JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) Enough of this [expletive]. What’s wrong with you?
IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher) You know, a simple way to go, Chris, on the Triborough Towers contract would have been nice. That’s…
GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) You’re right. You’re right. I have no defense. That’s how I was parented – never supported, never complimented.
IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher) You know, my cousin Gregory’s girlfriend is what they call development girl out in Hollywood, right? She said I could sell my life’s story, make millions. I didn’t do that. I stuck it out with you.
GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) I’ll [expletive] kill you. What are you going to do, go Henry Hill on me now? Know how many mobsters are selling screenplays and screwing everything up?
IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher) She said I can maybe even play myself.
GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) Oh, yeah?
IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher) Yeah.
GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) Forget Hollywood screenplays. Forget those distractions, huh? What, you think I haven’t had offers? We got work to do. New avenues. Everything’s going to be all right from here on in.
BRIGER: So that’s my guest, Michael Imperioli, with James Gandolfini in the pilot from “The Sopranos.” Was that, like, your first big scene with him? Do you remember doing that?
IMPERIOLI: I do remember doing that because that was the barbecue. So a lot of the characters were together. Yeah, it was always really fun when the scenes had a lot of us because we just loved each other so much and loved being together. And a lot of us knew each other from before “The Sopranos,” even. Yeah, that’s – it’s really interesting hearing that scene in hindsight because how he’s saying, everything’s going to be…
BRIGER: Yeah, yeah.
IMPERIOLI: You know what I mean? Like, it was anything but that.
BRIGER: Yeah, nothing ends up…
BRIGER: You know, there’s kind of a pattern in the Tony-Christopher scenes, where, like, Christopher is grousing about something. Tony takes it for a little bit. And then he, like, blows up. He often, like, grabs you, starts pushing you around. They’re really intense scenes. What was it like to do those?
IMPERIOLI: They were great. Working with James was – you know, he was always so committed and gave 110% all the time. I think we had a lot of respect for each other and trusted each other to try things and to go as far as we could go. And when – we were very good friends, you know? We became really good friends, spent a lot of time together, not only on the show, but in private life. Hearing that makes me miss him a lot, you know? And part of that bond among the cast is the magic of the show, too. That’s part of the magic and why it’s resonating, you know, still.
BRIGER: You know, when you were working on the show, did you ever hear from someone who said they were part of the mafia and either criticized or praised, like, how the show was portraying the mob?
IMPERIOLI: You know, I met a couple of people who said they did what I did but for real, which means that they probably didn’t, because anybody who really was in that life is not going to say it. I was introduced to someone by Tony Sirico, who played Paulie Walnuts on the show, with the knowledge that he was a captain in, I think, the Genovese family, someone Tony knew for a long time. And he said he could give me the real – he could show me the real way to strangle somebody with a – whatever – piano wire…
IMPERIOLI: …Or however they did it back then. He was kind of joking, but probably kind of not. He’s gone, too, so – the mob guy who told me that. I wouldn’t say his name anyway. But he had passed away. But, you know, Jim got a call in the middle of the night, maybe after Season 3 or something like that, an anonymous call, unknown number. And Jim answers like, hello. And the guy’s like, hello. And Jim’s like, yeah? The guy says, look; we like what you’re doing. You’re doing a good job. But you got to know one thing. A don never wears shorts.
IMPERIOLI: Click – and then the guy hung up. And Jim never found out who he was or how he got his number or anything like that.
BRIGER: I mean, that’s funny. But it’s also kind of scary.
IMPERIOLI: Yeah. You know, from what we’ve heard, you know, through the grapevine is that, for the most part, they enjoyed the show. You know, they probably can see the places where it’s – you know, it’s a piece of entertainment. So you’re going to lean into things that are interesting and fun and exciting and stuff. But – and I think most of the real guys know that.
BRIGER: All right. Well, let’s take another short break here. I’m speaking with Michael Imperioli, who stars in the second season of the HBO show “The White Lotus.” We’ll be back after a short break. I’m Sam Briger, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “WOKE UP THIS MORNING”)
ALABAMA 3: (Singing) You woke up this morning, got yourself a gun. Your mama always said you’d be the chosen one. She said, you’re one in a million. You got to burn to shine. But you were born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eyes. When you woke up this morning, all that love had gone. Your papa never told you about…
(SOUNDBITE OF CRISTOBAL TAPIA DE VEER’S “PINEAPPLE SUITE”)
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we’re talking with actor, writer and musician Michael Imperioli. He stars in the HBO series “The White Lotus” as a sex-addicted Hollywood producer on vacation in Sicily with his father and son. He also published an oral history of “The Sopranos” last year. And his first novel, “The Perfume Burned His Eyes” is being reprinted next month. And he’s got a band called Zopa that’s releasing new music.
You started writing episodes of “The Sopranos” while you were on the show, and I wanted to first just start with the scene – this is a very funny scene from an episode you wrote called “From Where To Eternity.” And this is when you’re recovering from being shot. You were actually considered dead for a moment. And you go to hell, or you think you go to hell. Something happens. And I guess hell takes place in an Irish pub where it’s St. Patrick’s Day every day. And you see your father there, and you – when you come back, you tell Tony and Paulie Walnuts about this, which totally spooks Paulie Walnuts because he’s worried he’s going to go to hell.
And so I wanted to play the scene where Paulie – well, you’re in the hospital. You’re actually sleeping. But he wakes you up because he wants to assuage his fears about hell. And Paulie is played by Tony Sirico. So let’s hear that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE SOPRANOS”)
TONY SIRICO: (As Paulie Walnuts Gualtieri) Did anybody there have horns or buds for horns, those goat bumps?
IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) Paulie, it was [expletive] hell, OK? My father said he loses every hand the cards he plays. And every night at midnight, they whack him the same way he was whacked in life. And it’s painful night after night. Does that sound like heaven to you?
SIRICO: (As Paulie Walnuts Gualtieri) Was it hot?
IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) Yeah, I don’t know.
SIRICO: (As Paulie Walnuts Gualtieri) The heat would have been the first thing you noticed. Hell is hot. That’s never been disputed by anybody. You didn’t go to hell. You went to purgatory, my friend.
IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) I forgot all about purgatory.
SIRICO: (As Paulie Walnuts Gualtieri) Purgatory, a little detour on our way to paradise.
IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) How long you think we got to stay there?
SIRICO: (As Paulie Walnuts Gualtieri) Now, that’s different for everybody. You add up all your mortal sins. You multiply that number by 50. Then, you add up all your venial sins. You multiply that by 25. You add them together, and that’s your sentence. I figure I’m going to have to do about 6,000 years before I get accepted into heaven. And 6,000 years is nothing in eternity times. I could do that standing on my head. It’s like a couple of days here.
BRIGER: That’s a really funny scene that my guest, Michael Imperioli, wrote. I love how Paulie is sort of, like, comparing doing time at purgatory, is like doing time in prison. You know, you’ve said that you don’t know how to act in a funny way, but you certainly know how to write a funny scene.
IMPERIOLI: Yeah, well, Paulie Walnuts was such a funny character, as was Tony Sirico – very superstitious, paranoid, hypochondriac, narcissistic…
BRIGER: This is the person, not the role, right? This is…
IMPERIOLI: Kind of both.
BRIGER: Yeah, OK. Yeah.
IMPERIOLI: Kind of both.
IMPERIOLI: Kind of both. They were – yeah, Tony had a lot of those traits as well. God bless him. I miss him a lot. He was…
BRIGER: He died last year, right?
IMPERIOLI: He died a few months ago, yeah, in July. Yeah. He was a wonderful guy. Yeah. You know, that was – I was just thinking about – ’cause all these guys are Catholic, right? I mean, they literally burn a picture of a saint when they’re doing their, you know…
BRIGER: Right, when they’re being made.
IMPERIOLI: …Induction ceremony, yeah, being made. And I was just thinking, well, what are these – you know, do they think at all about what they’re doing? You know, how do they justify or compartmentalize it? What’s that all about? What’s the relationship? Is there a relationship? And, you know, I – when “The Sopranos” first came – it took a while for “The Sopranos” to get any traction in Italy.
It was very popular in a lot of countries, a lot of European countries, before it got popular in Italy. And it is popular now. And the reason was the idea of a mobster going to therapy to Italians just didn’t make any sense at all ’cause they’re just like, he – well, he’s a Mafioso. Why is he – you know, why in the world would he go to therapy? There’s no – it’s just a very different way of looking at it. But eventually, I think they started watching and, you know – and a lot of people in Italy really like it.
BRIGER: You know, in your book, you said that Tony Sirico, he used to identify very closely with the character Paulie and that he was, like, protective of how Paulie was written. How did that work out?
IMPERIOLI: (Laughter) He was really protective. There was a line written. It was an episode early on. Actress Karen Sillas played a madam who was friends with Makazian, the crooked cop played by John Heard. And John Heard’s character kills himself. Makazian kills himself. And then, Tony goes to see his – you know, this madam, who was a friend of, you know, Makazian, and they’re talking about Paulie Walnuts. And she said, you know, Makazian always liked you, Tony. He didn’t like Paulie. He thought Paulie was a bully.
Well, Tony read this in the script and was infuriated and went to the writers and said this is wrong. Paulie is not a bully. And I’m not saying this line ’cause Paulie, he’s not a bully, and you got to change that line. And they never changed anything on “The Sopranos.” You couldn’t improv. You couldn’t change a comma. And the writers, for some reason, they took this into consideration and went back to them and said, well, what if we change it to, he thought Paulie was a psycho. And Tony went, I’m fine with that.
BRIGER: (Laughter) And he would do his own hair, right? He would swoop up his – the gray part of his hair and do those wings and come…
IMPERIOLI: Well, he would – you know, when you do a TV show, you come to work in the morning. You go to the hair-and-makeup trailer. And the team does your hair and cuts it if it’s needed and styles it and stuff. And he came to work – he didn’t even go in the makeup trailer ’cause his hair was already done. He did it at home. He had some kind of mysterious process that he woke up very early in the morning for and air-dried it with tons of hairspray and, I guess, styling product and had it dyed by this – you know, his barber – those wings, the white wings in his hair, were – that was, you know – he would get that done before the season started, you know, and maintain it himself. It was his thing.
BRIGER: It was an iconic look, yeah. Paulie has a different last name, but he’s called Paulie Walnuts. Do you know why that’s his nickname?
IMPERIOLI: There were a couple of theories. One was that he’s a hard nut to crack, which I never put much into that theory. And then, one was he was supposed to hijack a truck full of television sets, and it turned out to be a truck full of walnuts…
IMPERIOLI: …Which was not as lucrative and…
IMPERIOLI: …Turned him, you know – and earned him the nickname Paulie Walnuts forever.
BRIGER: That’s great. Well, why don’t we take another short break here? If you’re just joining us, our guest is Michael Imperioli, who stars in the second season of the HBO show “The White Lotus.” We’ll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND SONG, “RIDE INTO THE SUN”)
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We’re back with Michael Imperioli, who stars in the second season of “The White Lotus” on HBO. So, you know, you wrote your first novel. It came out in 2017. It’s called “The Perfume Burned His Eyes.” There’s a new edition of it coming out this month. And it’s a coming-of-age story that takes place in 1976 Manhattan. A 16-year-old boy named Matt moves from Queens with his mom to an apartment building in Manhattan. And upstairs from him lives Lou Reed and his lover Rachel Humphreys, a trans woman who was like Reed’s muse through the mid-’70s. If you’ve heard “Coney Island Baby,” you’d know that he shouts out to her at the end of that. So how did you come up with the idea of writing Lou Reed? It seems like he was a big influence on you.
IMPERIOLI: Yeah. I had attempts at writing fiction before, both short stories and longer-form, I guess, novels, many times for many years and never got anywhere with it. But I wanted to write a coming-of-age story because in 2013 my middle child was 16 and was going through, you know, usual difficult 16-year-old problems. And I wanted to find a way to relate to that. So I started writing this coming-of-age story about this kid who moves – his mother inherits some money, and they move from a blue-collar, working-class neighborhood in Queens to a rather posh east midtown, you know, doorman building, you know, a distance that’s, you know – I don’t know – two miles maybe as the crow flies, but very, very different lifestyles, you know, different types of – it’s a totally different kind of world for this kid.
And about three months into writing it, Lou died. Lou Reed died, which hit me on a bunch of levels as a fan, which I was for many years, as an artist, because he was someone who really – I looked up to and influenced me a lot, as a New Yorker because he was such an iconic one and as a friend because we had gotten to know each other in the last dozen years of his life. And somehow I got this – you know, it was out of kind of grieving his death, which was hard, to be honest, I got this idea of putting him in the story. And particularly that time – the story was already set in the ’70s, ’77. And you know, at that time he was living with Rachel Humphreys in this building on the east side. And somehow those things came together and gave life to the story.
BRIGER: Yeah. You have Lou Reed working on two songs in your novel. One is “Street Hassle,” which is, like, one of my favorite songs from anyone. It’s a beautiful and dark song…
IMPERIOLI: Me too.
BRIGER: …about love and death and loss. And I think people think that that’s inspired by his breakup with Rachel.
IMPERIOLI: Oh, it definitely is. Yeah.
BRIGER: Yeah. But then the other song that you have him working on is “The Blue Mask,” which is a really different song. Like, it’s full of this violent imagery and sadomasochism. I’ve never really gotten an understanding of what that song is about, but it’s definitely about suffering. Like, why did you choose to write about that song?
IMPERIOLI: Well, I love that song. It’s a song that I really love. One of my favorite guitar players of all time is on that song, Robert Quine, who played with Lou for a number of years. And the night – well, I had met Lou before he knew – we had encounters before he knew who I was. Like, but we finally kind of got introduced at a concert in around 2001, and he invited me backstage and and we became friends. But that night he played “The Blue Mask,” which he didn’t always play at that time, I think, in the repertoire. And it just blew my mind and made me love that song even more. And, you know, I just thought lyrically it just worked for where the kid was, you know, because he’s experiencing a certain amount of darkness in his world and violence and trying to make sense of it and, you know, just trying to survive it. And that song, I think, both terrifies him and inspires him in a way.
BRIGER: In the last section of the book, it seems like it could be written from your character’s point of view or from – just from you. It’s contemplating Lou Reed after he’s died, and you say something like, I mourn for the loss of you. I also mourn for the loss of my younger self. I mourn for the way the city was where I lived. Is that you coming across on the page?
IMPERIOLI: Sure. Absolutely. I mean, the book is not factual…
IMPERIOLI: …Or biographical. You know, some people who knew Lou thought that I knew him then and that was my story, you know, which I took as a compliment if they knew him and kind of felt that there was some, you know, accuracy to the storytelling there, which is cool, but…
BRIGER: Well, you’re not old enough to be…
IMPERIOLI: Yeah, emotionally…
BRIGER: …Sixteen in ’76, right?
IMPERIOLI: No, I was 11 in ’77. No, but emotionally, I was very young when I kind of got to the city, and, you know, started experiencing a very different world, you know? And some of that was very dark. I’ll be honest with you. And some of it was fantastic. And much of it was strange and new, you know? So I understand that aspect of the story and what the kid’s going through.
BRIGER: So, you know, you have your own band called Zopa. It’s a trio – bass, drums and you’re playing guitar and singing. Well, let’s hear some of Zopa. This is a song you released this year called “Red Sky.” And you repeat these lines in different parts of the song, like, you’re not like anybody else. You’re just like everybody else. It felt to me like that song is dealing a little bit with the themes of your book, “The Perfume Burned His Eyes.” Do you feel that’s true?
IMPERIOLI: That song’s about my wife, you know, who I think is just extraordinary and one of the most unique people I’ve ever met and probably the smartest person I know. And that’s a love song, really, written for her. Obviously, that theme – you’re not like – are you just like everybody else; you’re not like anybody else, can be also about a broader thing about individuality and keeping your individuality and uniqueness in the face of a lot of obstacles and difficulties, which is an important theme for me as an artist and the book, too. Yeah, it’s in there.
IMPERIOLI: Well, let’s hear “Red Sky.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “RED SKY”)
ZOPA: (Singing) Oh, my Vita, holy madness made you mine. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ho. Hold me closer, until the seven knots unwind. Tell me that you will in the Bardo when I’m frightened and when I’m blind. You’ll call out my name and guide me to the next life, where I’ll find, oh, my love, ooh, la, la, oh, my darling, oh, my stars to protect, to defend where this begins and never ends. You’re not like anybody else. You’re not like anyone else.
BRIGER: That’s “Red Sky” by the band ZOPA. The lead singer and guitarist is my guest, Michael Imperioli. Michael, one of the things I really like about that song is the ha, ha, ha, ho and the ooh, la, la and when you’re taking syllables of, like, you’re not like, and you’re just stretching them out so they sound like just sounds. They’re not words.
IMPERIOLI: Well, ha, ha, ha, ha, ho is actually from a Tibetan Buddhist prayer, believe it or not. And it’s kind of about dispelling obstacles. That’s where that comes from. But, yeah, you know…
BRIGER: Ooh, la, la, is not part of a Tibetan Buddhism…
IMPERIOLI: Ooh, la, la, no, is just – you know, sometimes you’re just working on a song, and these things just come – you know? – from who knows where. But that ooh, la, la came in. And it just was like, oh, yeah. That’s good. I don’t – then I have to think of, like, real words.
IMPERIOLI: I mean, I sing, you know, with all the limitations I’m well aware of that I have as a singer, you know? But I just try to express as much as I can – you know? – emotionally through the lyrics.
BRIGER: Finally, I just have to ask you about what sounds like a slightly odd Imperioli family tradition. On Christmas Eve every year, you would watch “Midnight Cowboy” with your father and your brother.
BRIGER: For anyone who doesn’t know that movie, it’s a very gritty and bleak depiction of New York ’60s hustlers. It’s not a movie that screams Christmas Eve.
IMPERIOLI: No. And, you know, I did a movie with Jon Voight once, who – I mean, who I think is just one of the best that’s ever done movies. He’s just awesome. And I told him that. And he said, wow, that’s very sweet. It’s a little sick, but it’s very sweet.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, I guess that’s what family traditions are like sometimes.
IMPERIOLI: Yeah. Yeah, that says a lot about our family, doesn’t it? I mean, so it’s like, as bad as Christmas can be – you know, so you might have a really bad Christmas that year. But it’s not going to be as bad as, you know, what these characters are going through in “Midnight Cowboy.” So in that way, it’s very positive and uplifting, you know?
BRIGER: It sets the bar low for your expectations of Christmas.
IMPERIOLI: Sets this bar low…
IMPERIOLI: …For Christmas.
IMPERIOLI: There you go.
BRIGER: Well, Michael Imperioli, thanks so much for being here.
IMPERIOLI: Thanks for having me. It was a fun conversation.
GROSS: Michael Imperioli spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Imperioli stars in the new season of the HBO series “The White Lotus.” After we take a short break, podcast critic Nick Quah will review podcasts that are intended to help you get to sleep. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DJANGO REINHARDT’S “I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS”)
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