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Lions Roar : November 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2011 30 it’s okay, that Christopher can go ahead of him. So Christopher opens the bakery door for Gino. “Take a walk,” he says. Then Christopher flips the open sign to closed and whips out his gun. “What is it? Do I look like a pussy to you? ... I’m serious—be honest. I won’t get mad.” “No,” stutters the clerk. “I’m sorry.” “Get a pastry box,” says Christopher. Then, when the clerk doesn’t hop to it fast enough, he shoots the floor close to the clerk’s feet. The clerk quickly fumbles for the box and fills it with cannoli, sfogliatelle, and napoleans. He closes the lid and hands the box to Christopher. “Next time you see my face,” Chris says, now so softly, so calmly, “show some respect.” “I will,” the clerk says. Then, just when both the clerk and viewers are breathing a sigh of relief, Christopher shoots the clerk. “You motherfucker,” he shrieks. “You shot my foot.” “It happens,” says Christopher, already on his way out the bakery door. But that’s television, a scene from the first season of The Sopranos. In real life, Michael Imperioli, the actor who played mobster Chris is a thoughtful Ti- betan Buddhist. In an interview, I ask Imperioli how he recon- ciles his Buddhist beliefs about compassion with the violence in The Sopranos and other shows he’s been in. Hopefully, he tells me, when you watch something like the bakery scene, “you’ll be re- volted by it and you’ll realize it’s deluded to think that’s a justifiable way of living your life.” If you’re going to show a mob character, he continues, “it’s important to show him in a graphic way because otherwise, when you’re laughing with him and you see him with his wife, you’ll relate to him and maybe start to think something like ‘oh, he’s just another father.’ So you have to see that flip side—the cruelty and the dehumanizing of the victims—to realize who these people are and to realize that it’s a very destructive and unkind way of life. It’s more truthful to present both sides than to clean it up.” Buddhism can help an actor understand char- acters—to understand their point of view and mo- tivations—and to develop compassion for them. Imperioli says it’s important that he not judge the characters he plays as bad or evil because, once he does, he’s looking at them from an outside point of view. Bad and evil are labels, he says, “and have nothing to do with the internal mechanisms of what drives a character, which is what I’m going to need to get in touch with in order to play him. And, you know, even the worst people probably think they’re good in some ways. There’s something mo- tivating them.” Both real-life Michael Imperioli and fictional Christopher Moltisanti are screenwriters—Imperi- oli having written, among other things, several epi- sodes of The Sopranos and having co-written Spike Lee’s The Summer of Sam. But Imperioli laughs when I ask in what other ways he’s similar to Chris- topher. “Not many, I hope,” he tells me. “I mean, Chris tried really hard. He tried hard to be good at what he did, both as a mobster and as a screen- writer. Not everybody who has an idea for a movie actually sits down and writes the script. He actu- ally did it. He was diligent and I think I share that, but he had a lot of rough qualities. He was a very selfish person. I have been that at times, hopefully, though, less and less as I get older.” Michael Imperioli, born in 1966, grew up in a working-class, Italian American neighborhood in Mount Vernon, New York. His father was a bus driver and amateur actor; his mother a secretary. The family was Catholic. “I felt a connection to the teachings of Christ and the life of Christ,” Imperioli says, “but I really didn’t like going to church. Like most kids, I just felt bored.” More to his childhood tastes were biblical movies—The Ten Commandments, King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told. The message was compassion and love, Imperioli says, and he liked seeing these values promoted. It inspired him to see characters on the screen face obstacles and overcome them. In his teens, Imperioli stopped going to church, “Buddhism is direct methods of working on yourself, meditation being the first method. It made sense to me that the only way to transform your world was to transform yourself.”