Meeting Lorraine Bracco is not unlike the scene in Goodfellas where she’s playing Karen Hill and being introduced to the army of Peters, Pauls, Maries and the Maries who name their daughters Marie. Except instead of a wedding, I’m at the first MobMovieCon in Atlantic City, being ushered around by one of the organizers, Premium Pete. He’s introducing me to, well, everybody.
First there’s a parade of Sopranos guys: Federico Castelluccio, who played Furio; then Vincent Curatola, aka Johnny Sack. Curatola mentions what kind of shoes he’s wearing—perhaps a nod to Sack’s classic, GQ-inspired patent leather outburst— but I don’t hear because I’m thinking about how Johnny seemed like a decent guy despite, you know, being a murderer. A minute later, I’m talking with Jerry Adler, telling him how, as a fellow member of the Tribe, I always love the Jewish guys in mob stories. (I also try to tell him A Most Violent Year is one of the best movies of the decade, but I don’t think he heard). Next, I’m standing next to Frank Sivero. I could tell him I loved him in The Godfather II or that he looks great hanging from a meathook in Goodfellas, but instead I whisper, “Loved you in The Wedding Singer.” He smiles. I hope he didn’t hear me.
All this is the leadup to Bracco, who is making her first appearance at the weekend-long “ComicCon for mob movies” that features exhibits, galleries, meet-and-greets, cosplay, food and a full-on Mob Movie Awards ceremony. There’s a line about a hundred people long waiting to sit with her inside a full replica of the office that Dr. Melfi listened to Tony Soprano in. In a little bit she’ll tell me she told David Chase that she didn’t think anybody would care about the scene where she talks to her mob boss client about his emotional agita — a shocking claim, given that’s really the meat and potatoes of the show. “I always believed it was going to be the weak link, I did. I said to David [Chase] and Jimmy [Gandolfini],” she says.
But I’m jumping ahead. We were going to talk on the office set that was rebuilt specifically for the convention, but Bracco needs a break, so they lead me to the green room, where I can hear her voice even before we enter. You can’t mistake it, even at a convention filled with people from the tri-state area. Nicholas Heller aka New York Nico did a list of the “100 Thickest New York Accents” and I thought to myself that besides maybe Rosie Perez, Jay Z and Mel Brooks, Bracco is the only person on the list who’d only need to utter a syllable and I’d know who it was. It’s a husky voice, but it’s sweet and measured. New Yorkers tend to talk fast, but Bracco’s is a different rhythm.
While I’m waiting to talk to Bracco, both Luis and Daniel Moncada—“The Cousins” from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul—separately ask me where the bathroom is.
Finally, I’m brought in to sit right next to Bracco, who looks incredible. At 66, she has a silver head of flowing hair that really suits her royal presence at the event. I find myself a little nervous—Bracco is a master at playing characters who can hide feelings and fears while ignoring the danger that surrounds them.
Karen Hill and Dr. Melfi are the obvious examples, but I mention her portrayal of Jim Carroll’s mother in The Basketball Diaries, a movie that was a little too ahead of its time in its portrayal of a certain sort of gritty downtown 1970s New York City people can’t get enough of these days.Bracco doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but when she does show up playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s single mother, just trying to hold it together and raise her kids right, she’s impossible to forget, not so much broken as reaching her breaking point. She excels at playing characters who watch as others sell their soul to the devil. She only has a few scenes in the film, but, like anything she’s in, you can’t imagine it without her.
“It was about three lines in the script. And I looked at it and I’m like, ‘Just be like my mother. Say and do whatever you want.’ So we really improvised 95 percent of the script,” she says.
While the experience with DiCaprio might not be as famous as her work with Gandolfini or Ray Liotta, Bracco does say that Leo is one of the two people she’s acted with that she’d pick to share a meal with. “I’ve maintained a nice rapport with Leo over the years, very respectful and loving and his mom likes me. It’s cute.”
The other, of course, is Gandolfini. “I love Jimmy,” she says wistfully. That’s really the story you always hear about her late co-star. To know him was to love him, and the connection he and Bracco had was delivered with the intensity you usually only get watching two people alone on a Broadway stage. They weren’t a couple on the show, but Tony and his doctor’s relationship is one of the greatest in television history. She tells the story of how she first saw him in a small part in a 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire and was blown away by the then-unknown actor. “I remember going through the playbook and going ‘who is that guy?’ And I remember saying ‘James Gan-dol-fini.’ I picked him out a long time ago.” When they finally met she told him that story, “and he was like…”—she makes a face of shock, imitating Gandolfini.
Bracco has to get back to the fans. Before I get up, I ask about not one of her famous roles, but her appearance as a celebrity judge on Top Chef from 2011. In the episode, she’s seated at a table along with Padma Lakshmi, Anthony Bourdain and a few other folks at the famous East Harlem Italian spot you’ll never get a table at, Rao’s. She tells a story about the first time she ever went to the restaurant, when Joe Pesci brought her and Ray Liotta there before filming started on Goodfellas. Somebody asked what that dining experience taught her and she answered, “All Italians are alike.”
I ask what she meant by that, because I felt like that also explained why all these people would spend money to go to a convention dedicated to the kinds of stories she’s most famous for. Why do we love Italian mob stories?
“We all eat the same. We talk the same. There’s like a shorthand, especially New York Italians, and it’s a special language that we share,” she answers. And that’s especially true for Goodfellas and The Sopranos. With Liotta set for a role in the upcoming The Many Saints of Newark, the two universes share a total of 28 actors. The reason for that, Bracco surmises, is that “they’re both very unique, inimitable slices of America.”
I’m about to say goodbye, and then one of her former co-stars, Dominic Chianese, aka Uncle Junior on The Sopranos, sits down next to her and they hug. They seem genuinely happy to see each other. I leave them to catch up, knowing they’re part of that crew that I’m not part of, that unique and impossible to imitate slice of America that we continue to be obsessed with.