Updated: Jun 24
The snap decision made at seventeen years old that changed his life forever.
Interview By Candace Harding Medel
As many fans of the long-running HBO series, The Sopranos, learned via his Instagram page, Michael Imperioli is not Christopher Moltisanti. Yet, he's often addressed as “Chrissy” by those who still love and associate him with that character. Some fans are also there to tell him that Tony Soprano would be outraged by his outspoken, anti-Trump, kindhearted ways.
So who is this guy really and what is all the buzz about lately? Well, his hit podcast Talking Sopranos for one where he brings back a little bit of what we all fell in love with, the characters of The Sopranos. Nostalgia during trying times is often our best friend.
That’s not the only avenue he is speeding down. There is a debut novel, a short story in an anthology filled with writers of the highest caliber, his band Zopa, and the weekly meditation instruction that is attended by thousands from all over the world. If his list of endeavors were roadways it would resemble “spaghetti” junction in Atlanta where the highway looks like a never-ending entanglement of speed and lights yet somehow it all makes sense in the end and you end up exactly where you need to be.
Just like that, Michael is now, right where he needs to be. Comfortably returning home to HBO to star in a scripted series loosely based on his experiences as a Buddhist. This time he will be tapping into another side of the “real” Michael Imperioli as this show is rumored to have a comedic flair which of course makes sense when one teams up with ex-Seinfeld writer Alec Berg.
"Trump stiffed the whole staff, even Peppino the bathroom attendant. Unforgivable. VOTE BIDEN.”
You didn’t know Imperioli was funny? It’s a shame his pre-election pro-Biden Instagram posts had a shelf life of 24 hours. The one where he superimposed a Biden sign on the front lawn of the Soprano’s house was gold. Then, there was the one with a picture of the Soprano’s strip club Bada Bing which was captioned, “[Donald] Trump stopped by the Bing one night. We gave him VIP treatment, everything on the house and he didn’t tip anyone! Zero! Stiffed the whole staff…even Peppino the bathroom attendant. Unforgivable. VOTE BIDEN.” Those types of posts were a daily thing for a while and kept the “left” and “middle” in stitches.
Now let’s back up a little. He didn’t just wake up an actor, director, writer, musician, and meditation coach. His parents weren’t famous, and he didn’t know anyone who was. He was always a New Yorker but not always a city kid. He grew up north of The Bronx in Mount Vernon and moved about an hour north of the city to a little town called Brewster where he attended high school in a building that only housed around 1,100 students.
It was during his time in school that the initial seed was planted which would forge the path to the life that he leads today. A school trip brought him to Manhattan and on the way home, he felt pangs of sadness. Those feelings were his first encounter with the magnetic pull of the city. A soulful love that most only reserve for another human, a rare few can feel for the bright lights and magic of New York. He knew even at that young age the city was where he belonged, but like most, those feelings get swallowed and pushed down where dreams are kept to make room for practicality.
For the rest of his school career, he slid by under the radar. He received good grades, played soccer, and read books. He wasn’t really into music other than what was mainstream and he stayed out of trouble.
The plan was to go to Columbia with his best friend. But that all fell apart when he wasn’t accepted. Plan B was pre-med at Suny Albany the coming fall. He was feeling depressed about Columbia, so in an attempt to bolster his spirits he decided to get involved in some theater at Albany. Over the summer he had been reading a lot of plays and decided to give it a shot.
Until then the only acting he had ever done was in a 4th-grade play in which he had the lead role. He loved the acting, but at that age being the center of attention was just too much for him and he never did it again. Other than that experience, when he was 12 his dad took him to see Apocalypse Now, it blew his mind, and was instantly one of the movies that fueled his love of film.
That year the summer sped by like most summers do when you are a teen, and the day had come. The bags were packed, and they were leaving for the confines of Albany in the morning to start work on that pre-med degree. It was then that Michael decided to be honest with himself and his parents. “I don’t want to go,’’ he said, “I want to go to acting school.”
He must have been a pretty level-headed kid because his parents took it damn well. They said, “It’s your life, Michael.” I can’t begin to do the math, but I am certain that the percentage of parents that would have thrown him into the car would be high.
From there he moved in with his grandparents who lived closer to the city and began looking for an acting class. The class he chose was the beginning of his career and a place where he made some lifelong friends. It was 1983 and he was 17 years old.
As he aged and made his way through life it began to be a winding string of serendipitous events and gut feelings that drove him down the road to stardom.
“I wasn’t into music much, not good music, just very mainstream stuff. Never into much trouble until I finished high school and got to Manhattan, then I went way off the rails.”
I loved The Sopranos so when a friend of mine told me that Michael Imperioli had a band I was interested. I checked it out and was impressed and pleasantly surprised. I mean, people let Paris Hilton sing because she was Paris Hilton so I was skeptical going in. I was lucky enough to get an interview with a member of the group, Elijah Amitin, and my respect for the band continued to grow. These guys are a talented trio.
Next, I was told Imperioli had a debut novel and it was fantastic. As it turned out, that book was one of the best debut novels I had ever read. The title alone, The Perfume Burned His Eyes was poetic genius. After that, I felt compelled to speak with him to pick his brain and he was gracious enough to share some time with me.
Here is more of what I learned:
Imperioli began writing around the same time as the acting, straight out of high school. He never studied writing formally but over the years managed to collect a stack of notebooks filled with his attempts at various projects.
He moved nearly every year. He would break up with a girlfriend, pack up his stack of notebooks and move on. As the years went by the stack grew taller, then at the age of thirty, he threw them all away. Years’ worth of his thoughts and stories in the trash.
“I held onto that shit like it was worth something, and then one day I realized I had nothing to say! I just loved the idea of being a writer, so I threw them all away in a rage of impotence.”
He then started working on a project that became Summer of Sam with another writer whose initial idea it was, and when they started discussing it he realized, “Oh, now, I understand what it means to have something to say!” He felt that moment unlocked something in him as a writer.
Although he was a self-proclaimed bookworm who admits he had poor taste in music as a kid, good music infiltrated its way into his life by way of a fellow acting student. The two of them formed a no-wave band in 1985 which was solely instrumental. Then when he was 22 he sang with a band and they wrote some material. It was at that time that he was offered a role in a movie that required him to go on location. Not wanting to hold the band back he gracefully bowed out. At that time he had to choose between acting or music because he didn’t have a foot fully in one door or the other.
By the time the idea of Zopa came about he was in a position to branch out and do multiple projects. The story behind how the band was formed is right in line with how Michael Imperioli handles most things in his life - he follows his gut.
The band has three members, Imperioli is lead guitar and vocals, Elijah Amitin is on bass and Olmo Tighe plays the drums.
Back when Michael was 25 he did a movie with Olmo’s brother, Michael Tighe. Olmo was also in the movie playing his brother's character as a boy, he was eight at the time.
Fast-forward 15 years. Imperioli ran into Olmo's brother at a party, hadn't seen him in a long time, and asked, “Hey, how’s your brother?” The guy says, “He’s good, plays the drums, works at The Strand.” That was it.
Months later Michael is thinking about putting a band together and he can't get this kid that he hadn’t seen since he was eight out of his head. He knew drummers, he went to their shows, but he couldn't stop thinking about Olmo.
So he goes to The Strand and wanders around looking for this kid about three times a week for a month. He finally ends up leaving a note for him, they hook up, it goes great and Olmo says “My friend Elijah plays the bass.”
"So, one rehearsal in, and it felt good and it just went from there.”
“Sometimes you just have to trust your gut.”
The band was formed when The Sopranos was ending and the perception of Michael Imperioli or “Christopher” being in a band was complicating the issue and it affected him and left him with some insecurities.
Today the insecurities are gone and he feels there is a reason the three of them make music together and feels proud of what they have accomplished. He knows they weren’t great right out of the gates and he didn’t expect they would be. He knew it would take practice and dedication and he knew he was working with two guys that had the heart to put the work in.
After that work, they did become what they were all hoping for, a collective musical unit.
He explains their music-making process as a complete collaboration. He’s true to these guys. “I would not play these songs with anyone else. They are our songs,” he said smiling, “Zopa comes from the energy that happens between us.”
Currently, the band's album La Dolce Vita is getting good feedback. They have plans to get it on more music platforms and pressing vinyl is in the works along with talks of merchandise. Due to the restraints of COVID and social distancing, the band had a rough time getting together to play, so hitting the practice studio and eventually the stage tops the priority list.
“I can't speak for Jim, but I also can't imagine that he would ever in any universe like Donald Trump.”
With the podcast and Instagram, it has been a very different few months for Michael in relating to his fans. They became a very big part of his life, especially during the quarantine. Getting feedback and communicating with them is something that he never did in the past. He explained that soon after joining Instagram he realized half of his audience didn’t believe in his political views, and a lot of his audience in fact hated his politics. He points out that with beloved guys like Jim Gandolfini it's much easier to confuse the character, Tony Soprano, with the real person because Jim is gone and we don't hear his voice, we don't hear him speaking about his views. “But Jim was a Democrat,” he said, “I mean he visited the troops he went to Iraq, he was into that but he was not a Republican.”
“I know a lot of The Sopranos fans think of him as Tony Soprano,” he continued, “and assume he'd have certain views. I can't speak for him but I also can't imagine that he would ever in any universe like Donald Trump.”
He pointed out that when he speaks about Trump he gets jumped on by fans and they say “horrendously vile things'' about him. He feels it’s important to be upfront about those things though. If someone is going to be a fan, they should know a little bit about him and he feels his political views are important. He’s aware he has alienated a lot of fans but to that he affirms, “ I don’t give a shit. That’s their problem.”
While about 120,000 people on Instagram are talking about Michael’s political leanings they are also discussing his religious views and the fact that he is a Buddhist.
Like many, he was searching for something that fit. He went to church with his parents and (hang on to your rosaries Catholics), Catholicism just wasn’t for him. The stories were great but he didn’t feel a connection. After searching for what felt right, down a path filled with oddities like Durga, The Church of Scientology, and the occult, they found what they were looking for and he and his wife became Buddhists in 2007.
Buddhism is not a theistic religion, Buddha wasn’t a God, and there is no creation story. What the Imperiolis were drawn to was that Buddhism offers a path and a practice that continues to unfold through finding a teacher, which is key, especially in the Tibetan tradition. “What I like about Buddhism is it's as much an approach to life as it is a religion,” Michael remarked.
One of the most attractive aspects of Buddhism he said is that, “It's about dealing with your mind, not about adopting a set of beliefs, that’s what appeals to me, that and the key component of Buddhism, meditation.”
I’ve been attending his weekly meditation classes on and off for months now. He always wears his brown wooden prayer beads and a simple shirt. He is there to meditate not for a fashion show.
As he begins he often backtracks for the newbies. He explains that we experience the world in a dualistic fashion, dealing with reactions between ourselves and others, interacting with the world, being lost in thought, projections about the future, regrets about the past, and with meditation, we’re turning within and looking at the mind. “When you clear away those thoughts what is there? What’s in between the thoughts,” he often asks.
It was never his plan to host these classes. He would post about Buddhism and people would DM him asking questions about meditating so he would answer. Then it started happening a lot which led to him putting up a post asking if people would be interested in an online class.
“You know, I’m not a teacher,” he mentioned, “I practice like everyone else. I was actually nervous the first time I did the live instruction. There’s a lot of questions I can’t answer, there’s some I can, I just relay what I have learned to the people but only because they have asked for it.”
Michael practices what is known as calm abiding meditation which is about focusing on the breath and being peaceful while working through thoughts and letting them go. Like I mentioned, he practices right along with the rest of us. He still has trouble working through feelings and letting some of them go also.
“There’s that place between being in the moment and understanding the profundity of the moment and also taking it with a sense of humor, which comes from having a warm heart.”
The element of humor in his new HBO project seems to make sense as he points out that the greatest Buddhist lamas have amazing senses of humor in addition to their immense compassion. “I don’t mean clever humor, I mean not taking it all seriously, although they take it very seriously,” he noted, “There is a lightness to it. Look at the Dalai Lama, he’s laughing all the time, not because he’s zoned out in some blissful realm, he’s very rooted in the moment and reality, he’s ridiculously informed and intelligent, and yet watch him talk, he laughs all the time.”
He paused for a moment and added, “There’s that place between being in the moment and understanding the profundity of the moment and also taking it with a sense of humor, which comes from having a warm heart.”
“The Real Michael Imperioli”
I wonder if when he picked his Instagram handle, The Real Michael Imperioli, he did so to follow suit with other celebrities or because he knew he would have to eventually out himself as to who he truly was.
Yes, he was Spider, the kid Joe Pesci shot in Scorsese’s flick Goodfellas, but back then, as he was getting recognized, he was still waiting tables. He started at the bottom and crawled his way up, hand over fist just like most of us have to. He’s a husband and father. He understands what it is to dedicate decades of your life to caring for other people. Like any parent, he’s proud of his kids and insists that his youngest is a way better guitar player than he ever could be. He prefers a well-made book to a Kindle and his favorite places to eat in the city are The Tribeca Grill or Il Cortile on Mulberry St.
He’s made friends with Sharon Leaf, a sweet woman who regularly attends the meditation sessions. When she has questions he takes the time to message her and often randomly suggests reading material he thinks she may enjoy. When she became very sick with COVID he reached out to all of his followers to include her in their prayers and continues to check in on her.
During one of her latest hospital stays, one where it wasn’t certain if she would be going home, her closest friend posted a video of her from her hospital bed asking if anyone could please make out what she was saying. It was Michael who deciphered what she was trying to say and relayed it to her friend.
So, the real Michael Imperioli is straightforward. What you see is what you get. His actions speak louder than his words. He doesn’t teach anyone “how to breathe” or “guide them towards inner peace”, he was successful however in finding that space and warmth as a human being and he does extend it to others. If this past year has taught us anything it’s, life is fleeting - have a warm heart, be compassionate and generous, and find the courage to follow your instincts.
He may have nailed the role, but he is not Christopher Moltisanti.
Keep your eyes on HBO for his latest and if you haven’t yet, head to Bandcamp and listen to Zopa.
His book The Perfume Burned His Eyes can be purchased through many online stores via Goodreads.
His short story "Yasiri" can be found in The Nicotine Chronicles by Lee Child and can also be found by way of Goodreads.