Michael Imperioli learns from life after ‘The Sopranos’

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Every actor dreams of extreme success, but there is also a downside: That you will forever be known as the character you played.

FILE PHOTO: Actor Michael Imperioli, who plays Detective Louis Fitch in the new television series Detroit 1-8-7, poses as he attends the show’s premier in Detroit, Michigan September 7, 2010. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

That is the challenge facing Michael Imperioli, who to every fan of famed HBO series “The Sopranos,” is Christopher Moltisanti – a loyal member of Tony Soprano’s mob crew.

But Imperioli is a complex guy, and more than just that one character. He currently stars in a new ABC show “Alex Inc.,” has just released his first novel, “The Perfume Burned His Eyes.”

For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, Imperioli talked about the wild ride that took him to “Sopranos” superstardom.

Q: What were your early jobs like?

A: I did a lot of odd jobs, like moving furniture, hanging lights, being a messenger, doing market research on the phone. Mostly I worked in the restaurant business, everything from busboy to waiter to cook to bartender.

At one point, I got to work as an assistant for Martin Scorsese: He wanted to know about all the films coming out, so I would make clippings and put it all in a big scrapbook for him. I was also in charge of his video library – it was like a little video store, and his friends and colleagues would come and borrow films.

Q: What is the money situation like for budding actors?

A: It is very complicated, because you have little bits of income from a lot of different sources, like residuals. It’s hard to track. One of my early money mistakes was getting fired from the first acting job I ever had. I was cast in a play as the lead, and I got fired three nights after the open. They were probably right, though.

Q: What was it like when success hit?

A: It happened very gradually. I didn’t start making a real living until eight or nine years in. Even after “Goodfellas” came out, I was still working as a waiter, and people would recognize me – that was an odd experience. But when “The Sopranos” hit, that was like an exponential leap.

Q: You eventually started a theater with your wife, so what lessons did you take away from that experience?

A: We built Studio Dante in NYC in 2003, and we were artistic directors together. It was dedicated to new plays, and she actually built and designed the sets and costumes. When the recession hit, though, that really destroyed us. We lost half our funding overnight. When that fell out, it became impossible to continue.

Q: Where do you devote your philanthropic dollars?

A: Charities that are close to our hearts, like the Jazz Foundation, which supports older blues musicians who can’t pay their rent. Also, since my wife and I are Buddhist, causes like the Tibet Fund and the Pureland Project – funding and building schools in remote areas of Tibet, often where kids have never even been to school before.

Q: Did your “Sopranos” co-star James Gandolfini pass along life lessons to you, before he passed away?

A: He was our leader on the show, and he was the perfect guy to be in that position. He was very generous, always looked out for his co-workers, and put cast and crew first. He was always deeply concerned about everybody’s welfare. He was a good dude.

Q: You have three kids, so what do you try to teach them?

A: I’m just trying to get them to be good human beings, and to have compassion and kindness and respect for people. In this world there really is a law of cause and effect: You reap what you sow. Then energy you put out really does come back to you.

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own)

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Bernadette Baum