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Lorraine Bracco: Ready, Set, Go!

Tue, 07/09/2019 - 12:50
Lorraine Bracco lounged in her Bridgehampton living room with a piano she doesn’t play (“It was a gift”) and a fireplace in the background.
Doug Kuntz

If humans were assigned verbs at birth to define their lives, Lorraine Bracco’s would be Go! It was the word that her parents used to propel her to Paris to model for Jean Paul Gaultier when she was 19. It was her first direction from the groundbreaking Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller as a reluctant actress in “Camorra,” which inspired her to seek formal training.

It also set her on the path of career-defining roles in “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos,” her activism and current passion projects, and serves as a directive to her children and grandchildren.

Looking up from a long dining table in Ms. Bracco’s Bridgehampton great room, there are two framed photographs of her and the full “Sopranos” cast and two drawings by her grandchildren.

“Yes, that sums up my life a bit. It really does,” she said with a laugh last week.

One of the photos is modeled after Leonardo’s “Last Supper.” As Dr. Jennifer Melfi, the therapist of the HBO show’s protagonist, Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, she stands to his left. Edie Falco, who played his wife on the show, stands to his right.

It’s been 20 years since the show first aired, on Jan. 10, 1999 (it ended in 2007), and all proper respect was given at several events, including a festival screening of episodes, a panel discussion, and several interviews. Before an interview for the “Today” show, Ms. Bracco asked to pause for Mr. Gandolfini, who died unexpectedly in 2013.

“We need a moment, because our big boy is not here, and I loved him so much. I think we should say a little prayer for our Jimmy.” And they did.

She said she loved reuniting with the cast for those appearances, but it was bittersweet to be without their anchor. For most of the show’s run, the bulk of her scenes were with him. David Chase, the show’s creator, wanted her to play Tony’s wife, Carmela. Ms. Bracco, who had played Karen Friedman Hill, a real-life mob wife, opposite Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in the 1990 film “Goodfellas,” wanted something different.

“I sat down with David and I said, ‘I kind of did it and don’t think I could do it better.’ ” He was surprised by her interest in Dr. Melfi. “I thought there was a fantastic intimacy between Tony and Dr. Melfi, and I loved that he was vulnerable with her.”

She also liked the way the therapy was portrayed, not as “this scary Houdini place. It’s serious and compassionate, and beautiful.” It showed his struggle to find out who he really was.

She and the writers and Mr. Chase had experienced therapy, but Mr. Gandolfini had not. “Week to week, we worked on what we knew and our own experiences.” Although she loved the pilot and knew right away it would be a hit, she thought the therapy scenes might be the weak link. “He was fascinating to watch . . . but it was two people talking in a room, not moving, not doing anything. It’s not very television or movie interesting. But people got it.”

Even better, she said, they were told by a professional organization that those scenes inspired men to go into therapy. “A lot of them referred to ‘The Sopranos’ and said if Tony can do it, they could too.” She added that schools have used those scenes as lessons in psychology classes. “We really did something that was intelligent and had foresight, but was interesting and entertaining.”

Mr. Chase had a very specific idea of how the sessions would go. “He had them make a round room, like a womb, for those sessions.” Even if the audience didn’t notice it, it created a specific atmosphere for the scenes. “A lot of complex thought went into it by David.”

Her read on the dynamic between doctor and patient was that she was “forbidden fruit; he was never going to be able to cross the line with her. . . . She was never going to give up her dignity or her license to be with him. He always took whatever he wanted. The fact she was Italian and not like any other woman he had ever met who was Italian, I think that was also a big thing.”

She loved the show for its complexity, “the way it blows up stereotypes. [Tony] is killing people and doing all these kinds of things, and he’s going to therapy.”

Acknowledging that Dr. Melfi and Karen Hill were the roles she is remembered for most over a pretty broad career, she said, “I have only happiness when I think of making the movie and that series. They were two very different women, and I got to work with some of the greatest actors of my generation.”

Playing a real mobster’s wife is different from fictionalized versions of the mafia. Mr. Hill, who died in 2012, became an informant, and the other actors were playing real gangsters he put away for many years and even life. If they didn’t like their portrayal, there could have been real consequences.

“I did not meet Henry,” she recalled. “I did not meet anybody, but I believe the boys [including Mr. Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci] had phone calls and some kind of relationships, but I was not privy to that, thank God.”

They could not find a mob wife to speak to her, so she relied on Nick Pileggi, who wrote “Wiseguys,” which Martin Scorsese’s film is based on, and Ed McDonald, who put the Hills in witness protection. “I learned a lot from him about where her head was at.”

According to Ms. Bracco, Ms. Hill didn’t want to go into witness protection, but they had recordings of her involvement in Mr. Hill’s drug trafficking. “He said, ‘I know exactly what you were doing. You were no babe in the woods; you were selling.’ ”

Given the choice between jail and protection, she reluctantly went, but believed her safety wasn’t guaranteed. “She said they would just grab her and the kids and kill them. The mob would get back at them,” Ms. Bracco said. “It was scary.”

Ms. Bracco has two daughters and two grandchildren. Her daughter Margaux Guerard from her first marriage attended New York University and the Wharton Business School. Her daughter Stella Keitel, from her relationship with the actor Harvey Keitel, is finishing up her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She thought her children would be artists.

“When my daughter said, ‘I think I might want to go to business school,’ I said, ‘Why?’ ” She said it could have been their act of rebellion.

Her family fills her house often, and she comes east all year, particularly because her dog, Elsie, insists on it. “After a couple of days in the city, she refuses to go back into the apartment.” At her table, she serves great feasts that have roots in her own vegetable garden and mushrooms she picks herself at Open Minded Organics nearby.

In addition to a talk with Angela LaGreca at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons next Thursday, she has two projects in the works. One involves a house she bought in Sicily sight unseen for one euro. She now must renovate it, as per the agreement with the town that sold several buildings similarly to rejuvenate the area. She had just returned from visiting Europe to see the house. Its renovation will be followed in a series for HGTV.

The other project is a series investigating unsolved murders of women for CNN. It will explore one case over six to eight episodes. “I’m a forensic science person. I love when they figure it all out.” That begins shooting later this summer.

“So, it’s an adventure. I think life is an adventure, and I’m on it.”

The talk is at 7 p.m. and costs $15, but is free for members.