The throbbing at the back of Alessandro Nivola’s head was growing more intense.
It was fall 2018 when he’d auditioned for the position of Dickie Moltisanti in “The Many Saints of Newark,” the “Sopranos” prequel, and “I felt pretty sure I was onto something,” he said. Though he wasn’t certain what that something was.
Then after a lunch with David Chase, creator of the series, and Alan Taylor, the film’s director, the complete script arrived and the stakes shot by the roof. Dickie, it turned out, was the film’s protagonist, and Chase had been told he may cast anybody he wished. And the phrase was that Chase wished Nivola, who hadn’t carried a movie of this magnitude in his nearly 25-year film profession.
That’s when the throbbing kicked in. “I’d been down that road so many times,” Nivola said, “and the number of disappointments I can’t count on 10 hands.”
So when a month handed with out an offer — the noise in his head by now inconceivable to disregard — he determined to place an finish to his distress. “Call them,” he instructed his brokers, “and tell them that if they don’t tell me today I’m out.”
Four hours later, in a downstairs toilet on the Chateau Marmont during a layover in Los Angeles, he realized that Dickie was his. He locked himself in a stall and cried, muffled sobs of reduction and launch, for 10 minutes.
“You see, at some point you just have to put your foot down,” he told his people.
Only, they hadn’t made the call. It was merely his fortunate day.
To hear Nivola, 49, inform it, success has been elusive. But on a balmy September afternoon on the Mulberry Street Bar in Little Italy, he gave off the scent of a person swimming in it. Sleek in an unseasonably heat swimsuit he’d worn to a photograph shoot (his stylist had pushed away along with his garments), he radiated Dickie’s debonair charisma, minus most of his menacing edge. James Gandolfini, the original Tony Soprano, glowered in a poster overhead, but Nivola appeared like a boss.
“The Many Saints of Newark” has been positioned as Tony’s origin story, with Michael Gandolfini cast because the teenage model of his father’s iconic character. But the movie belongs to Dickie, an explosive, tomcatting mobster — long lifeless when Tony mythologized him in “The Sopranos” — who by some means managed, regardless of his best efforts, to twist a principally respectable child right into a tormented mafia kingpin.
Chase had wished to make a decent gangster film. “So, there’s no more Jimmy Gandolfini,” he said in an interview, “but we wanted someone who could, in his own way, be as criminally intelligent and charismatic.”
Dickie is more elegant, more good-looking, more trendy than Tony. “But he is carrying exactly the same set of tones,” said Taylor, the director, “which is this combination of introspection and complete blindness and rage and regret.”
Nivola’s induction into the “Sopranos” family really started along with his sleazy prosecutor in “American Hustle,” which inspired Chase and made him wonder: “Who is this guy and where has he been? I have to keep him in mind.”
“So I kept him in mind,” Chase said, “and when this role came up, he seemed to me to be the perfect guy for it.”
Nivola ticked off the containers: Italian American with an immigrant again story — his grandfather a Sardinian sculptor who resettled in Manhattan’s downtown bohemia during the battle, his father a Harvard graduate and Brookings Institution fellow — and an innate grasp of the language.
“When it came to Italian, curse words or otherwise,” Chase said, “he got the words and the tune.”
And Nivola — a Boston-born Yale man who spent his grade-school years principally in rural Vermont and high faculty at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire — was an eyeful. “On ‘The Sopranos,’ I never went that direction but I felt, well, we can’t blame the guy for being handsome,” Chase said. “He’s really good, and I knew he could deliver the right level of sinister.”
Taking these “Sopranos” colours, Nivola painted a Jekyll and Hyde, longing to be remembered for doing something noble but dragged down by impulsive violence that horrifies even him.
His interpretation was “pitch perfect, every beat of it,” beginning along with his audition scenes, said Taylor, who had to withstand trying to get Nivola to recreate their perfection after they really began taking pictures.
Nivola has been bringing it since his film breakthrough in 1997 as Pollux Troy, the weirdo brother of Nicolas Cage’s terrorist in “Face/Off.” After which he basically went undercover.
“I always was drawn to roles that allowed me to hide myself and to burrow into some other kind of personality or behavior that felt like a disguise,” he said. “That’s been the blessing and the curse of my whole career up until now.”
Nivola adroitly shapeshifted from one character to the subsequent, with out an apparent by line — the British frontman who beds a much older document producer in “Laurel Canyon,” the Orthodox Jew drawn right into a love triangle in “Disobedience,” the lunatic sensei in “The Art of Self-Defense.”
But alongside the way, disappointment over movies that flopped or weren’t even launched, and a way of entitlement at being requested to repeatedly show himself — hadn’t he already? — gave rise to crippling nerves and melancholy. Eventually he felt so uncomfortable auditioning in person that he stopped altogether.
“My most successful friends are sort of relentlessly positive,” said Nivola, citing his wife, the actor and director Emily Mortimer, and his pal Ethan Hawke. “I’m trying to be more that way but it’s not my nature.”
Then got here David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” And after a humbling seven-year break when he stopped auditioning but also stopped getting much-wanted roles, he confirmed up to compete for the job.
Nivola had begun to reassess how he wished to work, selecting nice administrators over nice elements. But Russell’s idiosyncratic model — writing a script after which yelling out alternate strains for the actor to say within the midst of taking pictures — left Nivola feeling totally uncontrolled. Thrillingly so.
“It was a big turning point for me, where I just completely gave over to him,” he said. “And from that moment on, I really liked that feeling. I wanted to give every director that I worked with that power.”
Whatever precipitated Nivola to hesitate or overthink before, Russell has seen that drop away in favor of “enthusiastic inventiveness,” he wrote in an e mail. “I think he can do almost anything — he’s fearless. He takes what I’ve written and makes it his own. We trust each other, which allows risk and a hell of a lot of fun.”
“American Hustle” was also Nivola’s first film with Robert De Niro, whom he considers a mentor. “I mean, he might not describe himself that way,” he said, laughing, “but I insist.”
But it was watching him in movement on “The Wizard of Lies” — De Niro as Bernie Madoff and Nivola as his son Mark — that affected the way Nivola labored more than another experience. He started studying his dialogue early in order that he may untie himself from the phrases. He began repeating phrases in the course of scenes, like a reset, till he’d forgotten he was performing.
“It’s almost like he’s playing music rather than saying text,” Taylor said — even when it does ship the dolly crew dashing when he out of the blue takes a scene again to the start. The director added, “Frequently what comes out of his third version is the one he was aiming for, and it really, really works.”
In September, the day after “The Many Saints of Newark” premiered on the Beacon Theater, Nivola, true to type, was elated if cautious. Critics for IndieWire, CNN and others singled his performance out with phrases like “absolutely brilliant” and “riveting.”
“So far, these have been the best reviews I’ve ever had for a performance,” he wrote in an e mail, including, “I’m trying not to put too much or too little stock in them.”
But again on Mulberry Street, Nivola had intimated that his shining second hadn’t dropped from out of the blue — not likely. “I felt, to be honest, leading up to when this opportunity came, some intangible feeling that something like this was brewing,” he said haltingly.
Still, in contrast to Dickie, he wasn’t prepared to wager on his future. “I will never think about this movie as a success,” he added, “until I’m proven otherwise.”