I recently caught up with Robert Iler who plays A.J.Soprano, Tony's bratty domestic foil, on The Sopranos. Since its debut in 1999, The landmark HBO series has zipped past hit status, bypassed cult phenomenon and has attained the right to claim a culture all its own. There's no doubt that A.J. Soprano is in need of a good spanking. Though in his defense, learning that your father is the top organized crime boss in New Jersey in your formative teenage years can't be easy. Iler agrees. His character, Anthony Jr. (Tony Soprano's troubled son), has struggled in processing this information. A.J. Soprano seems to revel in his family's notoriety one minute, and vehemently resent it the next. Adding to his character's plight is the constant comparison between him and his overachieving sister, played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler. Sigler plays Meadow Soprano, the child in The Sopranos household who is certain not to follow the family legacy.
Last season, Robert Iler demonstrated his acting chops as his character grew disturbingly darker and more rebellious, with an underlying hint of little boy lost. While he is careful not to divulge any of Creator David Chase's well guarded plot secrets, he does share that his character develops a great deal in this final season of The Sopranos, which promises to tie up loose ends, and reveal the fate of the Soprano family.
Robert Iler describes his character as both frustrating and fascinating at the same time; a paradox that he loves playing. Entering Soprano-land at the age of twelve, he wasn't privy to the fine points of acting, or show business for that matter. He literally grew up on The Sopranos, taking his lumps in the press, when some personal issues were unwillingly put into the spotlight. It left the media-shy actor apprehensive and fiercely protective of his privacy. During our interview, he also expressed his desire to be known mainly for the characters he plays, while allowing Robert Iler, the actor, to remain under the radar.
Robert Iler is now a seasoned young artist who is excited
about the future and very passionate about his craft. At twenty-two, he
credits James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and David Chase with instilling in
him, a strong work ethic, and a desire to "make everyone proud."
He speaks warmly of his hometown of New York City, and the joys of living
near family and old childhood friends.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): Are you guys still filming the last season of The Sopranos?
Robert Iler: Some people are done and some people are still filming. I'm still filming. I haven't had my last day yet.
PR.com: When you shoot a season of The Sopranos, do you film it all in one shot like a continuous movie, and they cut it up into episodes in editing, or is it shot by episode?
Robert Iler: They go by episode. We'll have a table read-through where the cast gets together and we read the script. Then the next day we start filming, and it goes anywhere from two weeks, to even as long as a month. Then we just do it all over again and start [a new episode]. Sometimes at the end of the season they'll bring back something that they need to re-shoot from the beginning. Usually the objective is to complete [each episode], but sometimes if there's one or two shots they can't get to, they'll leave it for a later time.
PR.com: Last season started on such a high dramatic note with Tony getting shot, and there was a lot of drama with your character as well. When the season ended, it was anticlimactic, and there were a lot of loose ends that hadn't been tied up. What gets addressed in the last season that people would be waiting for? I mean... whatever you can tell me (laughs)...
Robert Iler: Yeah, that's the tough part about this show, that you can't really talk about anything. People always ask me how it's going to be and what's gonna happen. I always have the feeling that it's gonna be great. You sit there and you take eight months to work on this. Finally when it comes out, and we see the hard work that goes into it, I always think it's amazing. There's not really much I can talk about in what happens, but I think that it's a really great year. We just had our premiere last week and everybody showed up. They air the first two episodes at Radio City Music Hall. Everybody said that it started out great, and that they couldn't wait for the next episode.
PR.com: Is this definitely the last season, without a doubt?
Robert Iler: Uh... yeah (laughs). I would say 100% because... again, it's rough because you can't talk about what goes on, you know? I think, and they said it a million times, this is definitely the last season.
PR.com: What about the rumors that there is going to be a Sopranos feature film at some point, to wrap everything up?
Robert Iler: That's all I've ever heard, are rumors. I think the first time I ever heard about it, I think my grandfather came up to me and he's like, "You're filming a Sopranos movie?!" You know, you hear a lot of things, and I think it would be great. Now that we're saying goodbye to everybody and people are having their last days, you realize that not working with these people is going to be really sad. If we got any kind of chance where they would bring us back to work together, I know I would be there. But that's all I've heard, are rumors.
PR.com: So you know as much as the rest of us then...
Robert Iler: Exactly (laughs).
PR.com: Your character has become increasingly more rebellious and dark as the seasons have gone on. Does he continue down that path, or do we see some redemption in him?
Robert Iler: I really can't say.
PR.com: You're killing me!
Robert Iler: I would definitely say that I worked more this year then I ever have before. David [Chase] gave me a lot of great work and a lot of opportunity to go out there and show if I could do it or not. You work with these people for so long that what I want to get out of this is making other people proud, people like Jim [Gandolfini] and Edie [Falco] and people like David Chase who I have worked with all these years. Jim and Edie have taught me a lot just from working next to them for so long, and hopefully I can just make everybody proud.
PR.com: You've also mentioned in the past that it's kind of cool that you play Tony Soprano's son, because no one else's character really gets to talk back to his character, but because you're his son you can. So you guys get to play a lot of scenes where there's conflict. Is that fun to play?
Robert Iler: Yeah, it's great. Ever since I was fifteen years old, all of the scenes you see with Tony and another male figure, people usually aren't talking back to him or answering him the way that I would get to. It would be really great to do those scenes, and it's always great working with Jim. He's so great at what he does, so any scenes that we get to do together, I have a great time. Even just making faces at him, you know, when he leaves a room and stuff like that. You don't see a lot of people on the show talk back to Tony Soprano! So when it would be a fifteen or sixteen year old doing it, I always found it very amusing (laughs).
PR.com: Do you have a favorite scene from all of the past seasons of the show?
Robert Iler: The scenes that stand out a lot are always any time we ever got together for dinner. Scenes with me, Jamie [Lynn Sigler], Edie and Jim were always fun, but it was really great when we would have the big Sopranos dinners and there would be ten people at the dinner table. Those scenes take so long to film because there are so many set ups and everything. Not just the scene itself, but the fun that we would have just bullshitting around all day and hanging around set and just having fun. Those are the ones that stand out.
PR.com: When you were cast on The Sopranos at the age of twelve, and when you were filming the pilot episode, what were your expectations?
Robert Iler: I didn't really expect anything. I was twelve years old and I had done a lot of commercials, and this was my first series. You get a job and you go do it, and I really had no idea. I know I was thinking, "Oh wow! I'm on a TV show!" You think with a TV show that you're going to be doing it for a while. But then when I went to film the pilot there were a lot of people saying that it was just a one episode thing, and we shoot the one episode and then if they pick it up and like it, then you keep working. A lot of people worked for so many years and they've done so many of these pilots. They kind of have that feeling of, "It's never gonna get picked up." There were a lot of people saying, "This is probably a one-time thing. I'll see you around." None of us had that feeling, whatsoever, that we would all be together for the next ten years.
PR.com: Do you get advice from James Gandolfini about acting or about the business?
Robert Iler: Really just watching him... when I was sixteen and seventeen people would always ask me, "You've worked with these actors for five years, and what have they taught you?" They don't really teach me anything. They don't preach to me and they don't tell me things. Now as I've gotten older, I realize everything I've learned has been from them, just from watching them and being around them.
PR.com: Do you want to stay on this career path? Is acting going to be it for you? And what are your plans after The Sopranos?
Robert Iler: When I started this, this was not what I wanted to do. Now after the past ten years, I really could never imagine myself doing anything else. I've developed a passion for it, and it's something I really love now. Hopefully I'll be able to do it for the rest of my life, not just in front of the camera, but also behind the camera. I really like the idea of directing, and my friends and I work on writing sometimes. The business itself, I've become very interested in.
PR.com: I know that David Chase is the writer and creator of The Sopranos. Does he direct some episodes as well?
Robert Iler: He directed the pilot and he is now directing the final episode.
PR.com: Are you interested in taking David Chase's career path?
Robert Iler: I think I'm good at writing, but I'm not good at sitting behind a computer by myself for hours, and actually doing the writing. I'm good at sitting there with someone who really is good at writing, and working with them on something. I need to be up and walking around and shooting a lot of ideas out. I really admire someone who can sit there at a computer and type out a thirty page script. I'm better at giving my input.
PR.com: You're an idea man...
Robert Iler: (Laughs) Right...
PR.com: A think tank (laughs)!
Robert Iler: (Laughs).
PR.com: You haven't done much press over the years. Are you media shy for the most part?
Robert Iler: In the past few years, I've had the attitude that I would really like to not go out there and sell myself. I don't want to get jobs as "Robert Iler." I'd like to get jobs playing characters. It wasn't really a huge interest for me. When I was young, I guess I kind of started off bad with press, and had some bad experiences. When people write bad things about me in magazines, it's kind of hard to sit there and go, "I can't wait to talk to the next person about my life!" You know?
PR.com: What do you like most about your character, A.J. Soprano, and what do you dislike about him?
Robert Iler: There's a lot of times that you just want to toughen him up and you want to smack him and say, "Come on, just go for it!" That kind of thing. I think what I like about him is what we talked about before. It's the fact that he can be an eighteen year old punk who talks back to somebody, who even the toughest characters on the show, would never dream of talking back to. There's a lot of things I would change about him, but then I think he's a great character to play because of those things. He's a punk at school and scared at school, but then he can come home to Tony Soprano and talk shit to him. That's what makes the character great to play.
PR.com: Had you ever done research on real-life mafia families or read anything about people's experiences, like John Gotti's children, for instance?
Robert Iler: Not so much research, but just seeing how their lifestyles are. When I started on the show I was only twelve years old, so I was the only person who didn't know about it. It's not so much that other people went and did research, it's just that when you're older you hear about these things and you know about it. I remember I was something like thirteen years old, and somebody on set had heard that I'd never seen The Godfather or Goodfellas or anything like that. I just remember people were flipping out and they were like, "You go home this weekend and you sit down and watch these movies!!" and "This is what we're doing!" (Laughs).
PR.com: (Laughs) Did you go home and watch them?
Robert Iler: Oh yeah! Now those are my favorite movies. But like most twelve or thirteen year olds now, I hadn't seen Goodfellas. My mom and dad did a good job at keeping that kind of stuff away from me. There's a lot of stuff in Goodfellas that I wouldn't want my twelve year old brothers or sisters to see. Now I love them and I watch them all the time.
PR.com: Do you think that people in the United States have an obsession with mob culture and the glamour of it?
Robert Iler: Yeah, but it's like how people are obsessed with watching Hollywood. There's all these shows on VH1, just about people who are rich. I think people watch them because they want to see how the lifestyle is, and when people could live like that without ever doing an honest day's work in their life, it's even more interesting. Up until just a few years ago when I looked at acting... I was making, for a sixteen year old, an amazing amount of money and usually I would just walk into the kitchen and curse and get smacked in the back of the head. Then I'd go home and hang out with my friends and be like, "Wow, I'm getting paid for this? This is awesome!" And then in the past few years I started to work more, and especially this year I worked a lot. With Jim [Gandolfini], he'll work a sixteen hour day and then he'll have to come back to work the next day. He has a couple hours off, but when he's off, he's learning the five pages that he has to come in and do tomorrow.
PR.com: And the famous Sopranos house... where is that house located? And when you shoot interiors like the bedrooms, living room, kitchen... where is that stuff shot?
Robert Iler: We shoot all of [the interiors] at Silver Cup Studios in Queens.
PR.com: Have you actually been to that house where they shoot the exteriors?
Robert Iler: Well that's where we shot the original pilot. We did all the shooting for the pilot episode in that house. They had no stage. When the show got picked up and they realized they were going to need this house all the time, and people had been living there for years, they needed to build a stage. The stage in Queens, it has our whole house, and then it has a lot of other sets like Dr. Melfi's office and Artie Bucco's restaurant. It has a lot of cool stuff. The actual house is in Jersey, and we still go out there during the year to shoot the backyard scenes or anything that's in the front.
PR.com: Were you born and raised in Manhattan?
Robert Iler: Yeah, all my life.
PR.com: Is that where you plan to stay?
Robert Iler: Yeah. I couldn't imagine living somewhere without having a place in New York. This is where I feel like home is. I love the people here. All of my family lives in the city. I actually only live a block away from my mom, and my grandfather lives a block away from me, and all of my friends who I grew up with... I love Manhattan.
PR.com: You're a lovely young man.
Robert Iler: Thank you.
PR.com: Wow, I feel so old! I can't believe that just came out of my mouth (laughs)!
Robert Iler: (Laughs) Thank you Ma'am!
PR.com: Ma'am! Oh god!
'The Sopranos' airs its final episodes at 9pm on Sundays,
beginning April 8th on HBO. For local listings and schedule go to www.hbo.com/sopranos.