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Director Alan Taylor brings Tony Soprano to life again in 'The Many Saints Of Newark'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Fourteen years after the last episode of HBO's "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano is back, but this time as a moon-faced little boy growing up in Newark in 1967, at the time of social ferment. Alan Taylor's new film, "The Many Saints Of Newark," mostly centers around Tony's beloved uncle, Dickie Moltisanti, who's asked to talk to Tony when he's been suspended from school for various acts of still-adolescent misbehavior and his father, Giovanni Soprano, is in prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK")

ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: (As Dickie Moltisanti) It's not just the gambling. It's everything - the cherry bombs at the YMCA, letting the air out of Mrs. Russo's (ph) tires.

WILLIAM LUDWIG: (As Young Tony Soprano) I apologized to her.

NIVOLA: (As Dickie Moltisanti) You talk big about wanting to be on the football team in high school, and you're smoking already? Oh. You got to have a better attitude. With your father gone, your mother's got a lot on her plate. You got to be good. I don't want to have to go through this again.

LUDWIG: (As Young Tony Soprano) I try to be good.

NIVOLA: (As Dickie Moltisanti) I don't think so. Try harder - pinky swear.

SIMON: That's William Ludwig as the grade school Tony Soprano and Alessandro Nivola as Uncle Dickie. Leslie Odom Jr. and Ray Liotta also star. "The Many Saints Of Newark" is directed by Alan Taylor, who joins us from Brooklyn. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALAN TAYLOR: Thank you for having me. I'm so glad you picked that scene. It's probably my favorite scene in the movie. It's got so many things going on in it, and I think they both do such a great job.

SIMON: Well, my favorite scene, too. Tony's father, Giovanni - Johnny Boy - is going to prison just at the time fathers and sons might turn to each other the most. And I found myself thinking, maybe this is little Tony's chance to break free from a life in organized crime, isn't it?

TAYLOR: The driving question in the movie, as in the series - it's something that we - is our destiny locked? Or can we change who we are? Can we rewrite who we are? And certainly, with - very much so for Tony, we see a number of missed opportunities or lost opportunities along the way to have gone a different path. It's true that his father got taken away to prison at a critical time, but I think prior to that, Johnny Boy had a tendency of absenting himself anyway from the family and was either going down to the dog track or down to the islands or down to somewhere. Tony's bond to his uncle, you know, developed in that setting and then became intensified when his dad goes off to prison.

SIMON: Tell us about Uncle Dickie.

TAYLOR: Uncle Dickie, played by Alessandro Nivola, is a character who is talked about a lot in the series. I think the main reason why we built a movie around this character is because he never appears in the show, and he has his beginning and middle and end in our movie. And so it was our - a way of having a kind of standalone story that, you know, is integrated in "The Sopranos" world but is also its own story. You know, one of the reasons we're sort of pulled to Tony in the series and pulled to Dickie, I think, in the movie is that he's wrestling with this stuff, and he's one of the only ones in his world that's sort of trying to make sense of it (laughter) trying to rise above it in some way. And it's maybe a doomed enterprise, but he's trying.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK")

NIVOLA: (As Dickie Moltisanti) Oh. That was a gift.

MICHAEL GANDOLFINI: (As Teenage Tony Soprano) You take them. I don't want any part of this - none of it. I don't want any part of this.

SIMON: Michael Gandolfini, the son of James Gandolfini - who, of course, was, as you note, Tony Soprano - he plays the high-school age Tony in this film. What's it like to direct the son after the father at different stages in the life of the same character?

TAYLOR: Yeah, at different stages in their own lives, obviously, different stages in their own craft. But they're - I mean, they have some things in common. They both work ridiculously hard. They both do a tremendous amount of homework before they turn up. Probably the biggest challenge people thought of for casting Michael in the part was to see, well, can he do his dad? Can he step into that? And he does do it a few times in the movie. You sort of see - get glimpses of that. The funny thing was when we were doing it, more often, I had to sort of talk to him about not being that guy yet. So there's a lot of Michael in this Tony.

SIMON: The story is set in 1967 Newark, a time of unrest after a cab driver was arrested, beaten. And rumors fly that he'd been killed in the station house. I do not, for a moment, want to compare the criminal played by Leslie Odom Jr. to brave civil rights activists of any time, but Black criminal figures in this story seem to feel a call to action, too, didn't they?

TAYLOR: Very much so. I mean, the cabbie was John Weerd Smith. He was pulled over and beaten. Word went around that he'd been killed. What I love about Harold's arc, Leslie's character, is that he lives with that, and he is radicalized by that. And he does - you know, if the theme of the story is, can you change who you are? Can you change your destiny? Can you change the story you've been - that's been thrust upon you? - he's the only character that manages to do it. And he's radicalized in the sense of saying, I'm not going to put up with this anymore. But he - his path is just as materialistic and driven as any of the gangsters. And so that's where the rivalry, you know, comes to a head.

SIMON: Some of the women in this film are sympathetic characters. Virtually all of the men have their flaws. And that is that they're murderers (laughter). And they would murder somebody - not to give too much away - just for laughing at them. So why are they so compelling to watch?

TAYLOR: Gee. Maybe I oversimplify it, but I - you know, I do think that the core dilemma of these characters seems like it just echoes our own - maybe with less killing, but certainly with, you know, regrets and justifications and self-deceptions and stuff. So I think it really is where a lot of us live, but just maybe with a lower body count. And I think the women, you know, are as layered and conflicted in our movie. Dickie is responsible for some deaths, and Giuseppina isn't directly, but there's a level of manipulation going on in her where, arguably, she's responsible for a couple of deaths. And certainly Livia is no sweetheart. She's got the same conflict. I wouldn't think I lump them...

SIMON: I think I did say some of the women (laughter).

TAYLOR: Yeah, yeah, true. Fair enough. Fair enough. What I love about Vera Farmiga's performance as Livia in this is that, in the show, she's the worst mother in the world. And this one, you kind of see the flickering opportunity for her to be something other than that, and you see that she could have gone a different direction.

SIMON: Yeah. Is there more to tell of this family?

TAYLOR: Good question. I mean, when we did this, I thought, certainly, this was a single. And then I was surprised to hear David talking in ways that suggested maybe he had more that he wanted to do.

SIMON: David Chase, the original writer and creator of "The Sopranos."

TAYLOR: Yeah. And I was also surprised, I guess, to see the show having such a life so long afterwards. Some of my kids' friends have been watching it and stuff. Almost any of the characters in our movie, you can sort of pluck up and sort of find and tell their story. So sure. I mean, for one thing, a lot of people think this is a movie about Tony the young gangster, and he's not - it's not. He's not a gangster yet. So you could always go and make that movie.

SIMON: Alan Taylor directs "The Many Saints Of Newark," in theaters and on HBO Max right now. Thanks so much for being with us.

TAYLOR: Well, thank you for having me. It's been a delight talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKIN' ALL OVER")

JOHNNY KIDD AND THE PIRATES: (Singing) When you move in right up close to me, that's when I get the shakes all over me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.