Michael Gandolfini opens up about playing Tony Soprano in 'The Many Saints of Newark': 'It's the toughest decision I've had to make'

David Chase didn't have to look very far for the actor who would play the young Tony Soprano in The Many Saints of Newark — a feature-length prequel to the iconic HBO series. The Sopranos creator cast Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini, in the highly-anticipated film, which premieres Oct. 1 in theaters and on HBO Max. But for the younger Gandolfini, inheriting the family legacy was a huge responsibility.

"It's probably the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make," the 22-year-old actor confessed to Empire magazine in a new interview. “You know, I didn’t want to put pressure on myself to walk out of this feeling like I’d grown in terms of my feelings towards my dad. I just wanted to be the best actor I could be, portraying Tony in the way David wanted, scene by scene. I didn’t think about my grief because… well, I would have sh** the bed."

Michael Gandolfini plays the young Tony Soprano in David Chase's prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark (Photo: Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Michael Gandolfini plays the young Tony Soprano in David Chase's prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark. (Photo: Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Gandolfini was with his father in Rome, Italy when the 51-year-old Emmy-winning actor died of a heart attack in 2013. His passing led the then-14-year-old to settle on acting as a career, scoring his first major role in the first season of David Simon's 2018 HBO series, The Deuce. Chase cast him in The Many Saints of Newark the following year, at which point the younger Gandolfini sat down to watch The Sopranos for the first time.

Speaking to Empire, Gandolfini indicates he was a close student of his father's performance, yet still able to create his own take on Tony as well. "My dad’s character had all this beautiful sensitivity underneath this aggression," he observed. "This version of him is the reverse. His curiosity and sensitivity comes first. He’s not a gun-wielding gangster. He’s a kid who gets whittled down and pulled in."

If the rest of the Newark cast and crew — which includes Vera Farmiga as Tony's mother, Livia, and Jon Bernthal as his dad, "Johnny Boy" — had any doubts about Chase's decision, they were quickly dispelled when Gandolfini arrived on set. "We all had dinner one night," director Alan Taylor shared with Empire, "At one point, [Michael] stood up and said, ‘I want to thank everyone for doing this because it was a chance to say hello to my father… and goodbye again.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house."

The Many Saints of Newark premieres Oct. 1 in theaters and on HBO Max.