As an actor publishing his debut work of fiction, Michael Imperioli knows better than to quit his day job. “People think it’s a vanity thing or an ego thing,” says the Sopranos star of his novel, The Perfume Burned His Eyes. “If I can get them to read it, maybe they’ll judge it on its own terms.”
Thus far, critics have been kinder to him than to many of his acting peers, whose recent prose efforts have garnered faint praise (Wesley Snipes’ urban fantasy, Talon of God), weary dismissal (Tom Hanks’ short-story collection, Uncommon Type) and bewildered hostility (Sean Penn’s Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff). Having co-written Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and penned five episodes of The Sopranos, Imperioli does have a writer’s pedigree, and The Perfume Burned His Eyes is genuinely compelling, in part because of another famous name. Lou Reed appears as a major character; he’s an unlikely father figure to the teenage protagonist, Matthew, who’s trying to find himself in 1976 Manhattan. The iconoclastic—and at the time, troubled—rocker inspires Matthew artistically, even as he coaxes him to walk on the wild side.
In real life, Imperioli and Reed were friends; they did charity work together, and Reed could apparently do a killer impersonation of Imperioli’s Sopranos character, young mobster Christopher Moltisanti (whose own long-standing artistic ambition culminated in his Mafia slasher film, Cleaver). But Imperioli doesn’t shy away from portraying Reed’s legendary prickliness and volatility, which fuels an unflinching depiction of a sometimes dangerous punk-era New York.
Of late, Imperioli has been in Vancouver shooting the A&E History series Blue Book, based on UFO investigations in the 1950s; he plays an American sergeant who’s also a Soviet spy. On the phone with Maclean’s, he discussed violence and compassion, life and art.
Q: I understand you first met Lou Reed in the mid-’90s, when you were shooting Mary Harron’s film I Shot Andy Warhol. What was he like?
A: I approached him at a basketball game at Madison Square Garden. I was a big fan, although I knew he was not happy they were making a movie about the woman who shot one of his dear friends, and I wasn’t really known as an actor. He said [about the movie], “I think it’s despicable.” And I said, “Well, I’m playing [Warhol associate] Ondine,” and he just went, “Good luck,” and walked away. And then he turned back and said, “Listen, do your thing, have fun, and do a good job, and remember: he was very, very funny.” And that was it. But then I got to know him around 2000 after The Sopranos had been on, and I was invited backstage at a concert. He was very kind and generous. I tried to bring those qualities into the book despite the madness that he was in at the time— was the height of a certain level of drug use for him. He later slayed those demons and got clean, but I think that period of time was pretty difficult. And yet, it was very creative and artistically fertile.
Q: In his new biography, Anthony DeCurtis quotes Lou Reed as saying, “God forbid I should ever be nice to people. It would ruin everything.” It seems you encountered both his dark and his light sides from the start.
A: That shows how much that initial contact I had with him stayed with me [laughs]. That very, very brief meeting on the escalator at Madison Square Garden basically 25 years later inspired a book. Right just in that couple of seconds were those two things—that bite, that viciousness, and yet the compassion—and that made an impression on me.
Q: So many coming-of-age novels are about the process of social integration, but if anything, as Matthew develops into an artist, he’s learning how to live on the fringes of society. He’s also pushed to the edges of his sanity.
A: I think that time in somebody’s life, where you’re trying to figure out what it means to be an adult, is hard. A lot of people don’t make it. Teen suicide is a very big problem in our society and has been for a long time. I was inspired to write this because my middle child was 16; he was going through teenage stuff, and I wanted to get into that frame of mind so I could understand it again more. The fact that you can get through it and become a functioning member of society is in some ways a miracle, and whoever these guides are who usher us through, we have a debt to them.
Q: Back in December 2016, your son Vadim was in the news for having been arrested for criminal mischief—it was reported that he had allegedly painted a swastika in his dorm at SUNY Purchase. Was this incident in any way connected with this troubled time you’re mentioning?
A: Well, no, because I started writing this book three years before that. My wife is Jewish, so my kids are half-Jewish/half-Italian, and my son relates a lot to his grandfather, who was a survivor of Auschwitz. When [Vadim] went off to college, it was right around the [Trump] election, and he saw swastikas drawn on the campus somewhere. He identifies as a Jew and was horrified that people were swept up in this mood of bigotry because of the shit that Trump was saying, kind of validating it. On the Antifa [militant anti-fascist] website, he saw a swastika made of penises, which was a mockery, a response to this. He drew that, and someone ratted him out for it. When they arrested him, I got letters from the Jewish community that he grew up with, and they explained why he would do something like this, which is why [the government] didn’t prosecute it as a hate crime. Of course, everyone was saying, “Oh, he’s getting off because his father’s famous.” Believe me, just because you’re famous, the police don’t go easy on you. The press jumped at the fact that I’m the guy on The Sopranos—they want to think that I’m some thug who raises my kids with hatred. People try to spin things however they can instead of trying to find out the truth.
Q: For a while, Vadim had aspirations as a stand-up comedian. Is he still going down that route?
A: Right now [Vadim’s] just studying. He’s not sure what he’s going to do, but he shouldn’t have been writing on the wall!
Q: Back to the book, the course of Matthew’s life is altered by his friendship with Reed, who in real life was not only artistically adventurous but also broke ground as a public figure. At the time when the book is set, Reed was open about having a transgender girlfriend, Rachel, who appears as a character too—and his public image was androgynous. So, he’s not exactly a traditionally “masculine” father figure, is he?
A: I look at it in terms of how fearless he was as an artist and a human being—way ahead of his time. [Reed and Rachel] were both involved in a certain level of craziness, but it was important to me to show that relationship as normal, with two people who loved each other. Seeing these people who were very tender with each other and supportive affected [Matthew], and that was important. Kids today are growing up a lot more hip about these things and a lot smarter than we were. For instance, a couple years ago, the prom queen at my son’s high school was a transgendered girl. It’s a very big high school—a couple of thousand kids, and it was something they were very cool with. And I thought, “There’s a lot of hope for these kids.” Nothing gives me more hope than what just happened in this country, with the movement of these teens in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
Q: Speaking of that issue, some NRA supporters—Donald Trump among them—have linked violent video games and movies with gun violence itself. Having acted in Goodfellas and The Sopranos, how do you feel about that accusation?
A: I think showing violence, and maybe violent stories like The Sopranos, may be a good release. That’s where fairy tales come from—the “shadow side,” and finding a way to relate to the horror of life through a narrative. I think the argument to say we should worry about TV, movies and video games is stupid. Why don’t we just make it really hard to get guns, and then see what happens [laughs]? Most people who watch movies and video games don’t go out and shoot 20 people in a high school. You have to be a damaged person to do that. Having a weapon adds a whole energy to the unstable mind. Now you know you have the power to do these things.
Q: And if Christopher on The Sopranos had stuck with making violent movies, rather than actually shooting guns …
A: Yeah…[laughs] he’d be a lot better off.