"The Many Saints of Newark," David Chase’s feature-film prequel to his iconic HBO series "The Sopranos," features an ensemble cast playing members of a New Jersey crime family. Michael Gandolfini steps in to play a teenage version of Tony Soprano — the role made famous by his father, James Gandolfini — but there are also familiar faces such as Alessandro Nivola, Vera Farmiga, Corey Stoll and Jon Bernthal.
Also in the cast are two Long Islanders, both relative newcomers, who are hoping that this Warner Bros. production will help launch their careers. They spoke to Newsday shortly before the film’s release.
Gabriella Piazza, an actor making her major-studio film debut in "The Many Saints of Newark," may look familiar to Long Islanders, perhaps from her brief role as resident Elise Gasecki in NBC’s medical drama "New Amsterdam. Or maybe you’re noticing a certain family resemblance.
"I’m a Suozzi," Piazza said at the start of a recent interview to promote her new film. Her mother, she says, is the cousin of Rep. Tom Suozzi. "So we have a lot of ties to the Long Island world," the actress added.
Piazza plays Joanne Moltisanti, wife of the notorious mobster Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Working under the show’s critically acclaimed filmmakers — writer-creator Chase and his longtime director Alan Taylor — and alongside such top-notch talent as Nivola, Farmiga and Stoll would be a dream come true for any relatively new actor. For Piazza, who got into showbiz a few years later than most, the movie is proof that her hard work playing catch-up is starting to pay off.
Acting wasn’t Piazza’s first choice of careers. Born in Glen Cove and raised in Hicksville, Piazza attended Long Island Lutheran High School in Brookville and went to college upstate at SUNY Cortland, where she majored in communications with a minor in management and public relations. Her goal was getting a good job, not getting discovered.
"I didn’t have anybody around me doing the acting thing," Piazza said. "I entered the corporate world. I worked in Manhattan after college — I became a vice president of sales for a tech company."
Then she met Blake Rice, an aspiring director who was holding down a day job at her company. A romance began. ("I was actually his boss," Piazza said, "which is hilarious.") Rice encouraged her to explore acting, she said, so Piazza began taking classes at New York Film Academy at night. After graduating, she left her sales career and pursued acting full time. "It was horrifying, but pretty incredible," she said. "I’ve never been happier."
She quickly discovered a classic Catch-22 of the industry: "Some people will tell you, you need an agent to get a job, other people will tell you, you need a job to get an agent," Piazza said. "So I figured, ‘Let me just make myself the lead in a movie.’" To that end, Piazza started her own production company and cast herself in the 2016 short film, "To Whom It May Concern," about a woman whose photograph mysteriously appears as part of an art showing. After the film played at the Big Apple Film Festival, she said, "I was able to get a manager, and my career was able to take off because people could see me in a lead role."
Piazza landed her part in "Many Saints" the old-fashioned way — by auditioning. "When it’s a big audition, they code everything so you don’t know who the writer is and you don’t know the characters," Piazza said. "But I’m reading this script, and I’m thinking, ‘This sounds an awful lot like ‘The Sopranos.’ "
She watched old episodes to brush up and also roped her mother into rehearsals. "I actually called her up and made her read some of the lines so I could hear her Long Island accent," Piazza said. "Because I worked very hard to fix mine."
With "Many Saints" behind her, Piazza is back to producing her next short film. During this interview, she spoke by phone from her car while scouting locations in New Jersey. "I like to be an advocate to those who are starting later in life," she said. "If this is your true passion, it’s never too late to go after your dreams."
Near the end of "The Many Saints of Newark," a young Jackie Aprile, played by Long Islander Chase Vacnin, stands around on a street corner with his buddy Tony Soprano, played by Michael Gandolfini. There’s some good-natured razzing between the characters, but all it takes is one wrong comment to set Tony off — and wham! Suddenly, Tony is shoving a massive sandwich right into Jackie’s face.
It’s a memorable scene, and according to Vacnin, the outtakes are pretty good, too.
For starters, Vacnin kept eating the prop. "It was just this great sub," he said. "I must have eaten about eight of them." Then, in one botched take, Gandolfini hurled the sandwich and accidentally put a finger in Vacnin’s eye. "And me, as the fiery individual that I am — I was no longer acting," said Vacnin. "I whacked him with that sandwich."
Director Alan Taylor called cut, the two stars hugged it out and eventually they nailed the scene.
"I was at the premiere," said Vacnin. "That experience, seeing myself in front of all these people, it was so surreal. And the movie is sooo good."
The role of Aprile, the future mob boss on "The Sopranos," could be a breakout one for Vacnin, a 19-year-old who was raised nearly from birth in Merrick. He started out as a baby model; one of his first gigs was posing in a stroller for "Babies R Us." As a preteen, he landed the role of Butch in "The Little Rascals Save the Day," a direct-to-video adaptation of the classic "Little Rascals" film series. After that, Vacnin said, calls from agents and managers began to come in.
"But when I went to high school, being an actor wasn’t quote-unquote cool," Vacnin said. At John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, Vacnin played basketball, football and lacrosse while keeping one foot in the acting pool. He landed a role in "This Is the Night," a limited release starring Naomi Watts and Frank Grillo that began production in 2018 but arrived in theaters just this month. His credits also include the game show "Unfiltered" and the mockumentary series "Drama Club," both for Nickelodeon.
Vacnin recently struck out on his own and moved to downtown Los Angeles. "I have literally lived in Long Island my entire life except for the last three weeks, when I moved to L.A.," Vacnin said in an interview last month. "I mean, this is the dream. I just feel like I have to work hard, and when luck meets opportunity, I’ll be able to kick that door down."
THE MANY LI FILMING LOCATIONS OF 'NEWARK'
“The Many Saints of Newark” takes place in New Jersey, of course, but many scenes were filmed on Long Island.
One is a funeral that was shot at Fairchild Sons Funeral Home in Garden City. That scene includes many of the main cast members, including Michael Gandolfini and Corey Stoll — though to say which character is in the casket would be a spoiler. Filming took place over two days in April of 2019, with catering provided by the nearby barbecue restaurant smōk-hau̇s, which proudly posted about it on Facebook.
Another filming location was Gold Coast Studios in Bethpage, though Long Islanders won’t notice any local landmarks in these scenes since they were filmed on sets. Nevertheless, if you spot an interior within the Soprano household, such as a bedroom, there’s a good chance it was filmed at Gold Coast. According to Warner Bros, the home of Ray Liotta’s character, “Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti, was also a set at Gold Goast.
Perhaps the most memorable scene shot at the studio takes place in a car, with Jon Bernthal as Johnny Soprano and Vera Farmiga as his wife, Livia Soprano. The filmmakers used a green screen to simulate driving. It’s a shocker of a moment — you’ll know it when you see it.
— Rafer Guzmán