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When you watch New York independent films of the early ’90s, you often find clusters of actors who later ended up on The Sopranos. The Search for One-Eyed Jimmy (1994), which featured Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), Steve Buscemi (Tony Blundetto), and Aida Turturro (Jancie Soprano) offers a perfect example.
In that picture, Buscemi plays a wisecracking Brooklyn kid while Sirico plays a local mobster with a curious sense of humor. That same year, in another corner of the city, Whitney Ransick directed a picture he wrote called Hand Gun.
In Hand Gun, Paul Schulze (Father Phil Intintola) played one of the leads while Frank Vincent (Phil Leotardo) and Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) checked in with supporting roles. And as you scroll down the list of cast members you’ll find John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco) in there, too.
Looking back, Ventimiglia recalled Hand Gun as the film that got him his Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card. And Imperioli was the one who suggested he come along for the audition in the first place.
John Ventimiglia and Michael Imperioli go back to acting school in 1983
By the time they landed their roles on The Sopranos, Ventimiglia and Imperioli had known each other for nearly 15 years. The two met in 1983, when both enrolled at the Lee Strasberg acting school in Manhattan. And they were even roommates in the East Village for a stretch in the ’80s.
Along the way, they experienced many of the early rejections actors face together. But they also began to share success stories as the years went on. On his visit to the Aug. 31 edition of the Talking Sopranos podcast, Ventimiglia and Imperioli reminisced about those days.
“I gotta just say: I got my SAG card because of Michael,” Ventimiglia began. “He was going to an audition for a movie called Hand Gun. And he said to me, ‘I gotta go to an audition. Wanna come?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ but I didn’t have any representation.”
Imperioli urged him to go anyway. When they arrived, someone asked for Ventimiglia’s name and appointment time. He bluffed, saying it was within a few minutes. When the casting people said they didn’t have his appointment, Ventimiglia said he’d call his agent and get back to them. But they told him to just go in and do the audition.
Ventimiglia improvised at the audition with another future ‘Sopranos’ actor
Once Ventimiglia got inside the studio, they asked him to do a scene with John Costelloe. Sopranos fans might know him better as Jim “Johnny Cakes” Witowski, the strapping cook/volunteer firefighter who falls for Vito (Joe Gannascoli) in New Hampshire in The Sopranos Season 6.
Ventimiglia improvised his way into the role of Angel in Hand Gun. During the shoot, he worked with Treat Williams, who starred in the film along with Schulze and Seymour Cassel. In the end, Costelloe didn’t actually work on the film. But it represented a milestone for Ventimiglia.
“That’s how I got my SAG card — because of Michael,” he said, bringing the story full circle. From there, the pair of young actors kept scrapping. And they both worked in a cool indie film of the era, Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). By season 3 of The Sopranos, Ventimiglia joined Imperioli as a series regular. At that point, they’d officially made it.
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