“We’re living in the middle of we don’t know what”, Drea de Matteo sighs, “but I’m here now, I’m here with you”. It’s a feeling of solace, to know we’re all making it through this together, and it makes moments of connection like these evermore special and comforting. Especially when it’s connecting with the actress behind one of the most formative female characters in the history of television, Adriana La Cerva of The Sopranos.
Of course, Drea de Matteo is much more than one character, but it was as shaping a role for her to play as it was for us to watch: “I mean, it was my first big job. It changed my life: it gave me a level of confidence that I didn’t grow up with, I was always extremely shy and very insecure. I’ve worked my life towards being less insecure, less shy and all these things but sometimes it just happens like that overnight. It wouldn’t have happened simply because I got the job, but it happened because I had done all this work on myself before I’ve gotten the job then getting it meant I suddenly really knew what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t even know if I was gonna be an actor, at the time I was in a film school for directing. But when David Chase chose me to stick along for the entire ride it gave me a sense of self-worth that I would never find on a different show because that show was so special. He was so particular about who he let into his world, so the fact that he chose me made me really feel like I was one of the chosen ones, to change TV history with him and with the rest for the cast, writers. It was a magical time.”
And who wouldn’t want a talent like Drea de Matteo in their universe? Starting out as a side character on the critically acclaimed show, soon we all fell deeply in love with Adriana, as she evolved into the only pure part of a world far too cruel for her to exist in. “Later in life, I realised how my life imitated my art. Back then when people would say ‘are you anything like Adriana’ and I would say ‘hell, no!’ and I wasn’t. Then later on in life, I’ve realised that I started to live my life for a lot of men, for my boyfriend, for musicians who had a lot of self-importance and I revolved my world around them. Then I started to give up big chunks of who I was, my own career and my own path. I thought about what their needs were, their careers, their lives and I was like ‘holy shit you’re just becoming Adriana’. I was like what would happen if you pour all that focus and love and attention into yourself Drea? I used to say that about Adriana when I would do press on her, and I realised that I had kind of fallen into her trap to a certain degree.”
But Drea de Matteo makes her own rules, and found herself again in her own way. After leaving the show, she went on to star in Friends spin-off Joey, she took on an arc in Desperate Housewives, not to mention her time spent in a diversity of starring roles on the silver screen. Now though, she’s back to the small screen in Paradise City, Ash Avildsen’s rock and roll oriented drama also starring the likes of Andy Biersack, Bella Thorne, Olivia Culpo and the late Cameron Boyce. Drea herself takes on the role of Maya, a big shot music exec: “Adriana always wanted to become a music manager,” Drea laughs “now she’s finally got to become a music manager on Paradise City”.
It wasn’t just Adriana’s fulfilled dreams that drew Drea to the role though, “Ash was a huge fan of The Sopranos which I knew when he approached me, and he already knew – as everybody knows – that I love music, that I date musicians, you know the self-proclaimed rock chick even though that so sounds so cheesy… I can’t even believe those words just come out of my fucking mouth. But yeah, I love music, I really do. David Chase touched on that in The Sopranos and I thought Ash probably saw the humour in that as well, aside from thinking that I would be a good fit for his show. But the main thing that drew me to Paradise City was seeing what this guy who never made a TV show could do: he had no studio behind him; he had no network behind him; he had no producers behind him; he just tried and decided ‘I’m gonna do this’. Anybody that thinks like that would catch my attention. My agents were like ‘we think it’s a pass. There’s nothing guaranteed here. You’re just gonna work your ass off for nothing’ and I was like ‘I know. I’m so interested in this guy. I wanna know this person. I wanna watch him.’ Coming from film school myself, I wanted to watch this guy try to do this. I wanna meet anyone who has the balls to think that they can actually do this, whether it gets seen by anybody or not. It was only couple of weeks of my back I was like ‘I’m doing it’ and I had the best time of my life. I would actually go as far as to say that working on Paradise City was my second most fun experience since The Sopranos.”
It’s true that the invisible string tied to and leading Drea de Matteo through her life on and off the screen so far is music: “Music is the common denominator that can bring anyone together. Two people who disagree on everything can be right there. It’s like a mass meditation for me. You can have 50,000 people in a stadium who all have different backgrounds, different ideals, different ways of seeing the world and all of a sudden you hear those chords in a song and everyone is on the same page just for the time of that song. All of a sudden everyone has one thing in common and it brings them together and they all have that same feeling that music makes you feel. It’s magic. Mass meditation magic.”
Undoubtedly, magic is something we all need a bit more of in our lives right now, with us all missing the unity music and all art can bring, especially when experienced IRL. “I’ll never forget, one particular concert that blew me away one time was seeing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at Madison Square Garden… It took me to another place that I really don’t think was in this realm. I think that everybody was transported from Madison Square Garden to another place. I mean it’s the voices of the angels, the gods like the Gregorian chants. It’s beautiful. Instruments are beautiful to hear and they can move me and make me cry – my daughter plays piano all day and I love it, it crushes me – but when you hear someone’s voice hit a certain note or people harmonise it’s something, I don’t know, it’s ineffable. I don’t really even have the words for it.”
“But The Sopranos, you know, it never dies which is really exciting because I’m so proud that I was a part of it, it’s the role that I cherish the most.”
Alike to many of us, Drea de Matteo’s past 15 months have been a struggle, and it’s during these trials and tribulations we reach for the ineffable connections of art, music and love. For many, that’s been reaching out to nostalgic stories that feel familiar and safe, and for others it’s about losing yourself something new: The Sopranos, it turns out can be both of those things. “In quarantine the viewership was up to 176%”, Drea says in disbelief, “the younger generation are watching the show right now, it really excites me because the show has a whole new life… My daughter and I just joke that we hope it won’t get ‘cancelled’!” she laughs. “But the show, you know, it never dies which is really exciting because I’m so proud that I was a part of it, it’s the role that I cherish the most.”
“I would say that a lot of people had issues with the show because it was not politically correct. Italians did not like the show based on their own insecurities in life and in who they are. The question when I did press at that time was always ‘how do you feel about The Italian Anti-Defamation Society’, which would make me so mad not because of the question perse but because of the refusal to see the big picture. I think having an open mind is what I would want for people just in society, period, these days. Every culture has its subculture: the subcultures in the underbelly of every society are more interesting than watching some slick, clean, put-together sort of world. For me, anything that’s flawed to that degree is always going to be more interesting. The thing about The Sopranos, it has something for everyone: it has something for the intellectuals that understood it, for its literal meaning and for how beautifully written it was; it has something for people that just like ‘shoot them up’ shows; it has something for people who like a family show. It appealed to so many different people, on so many different levels, different age ranges too. And now, it’s called classic.”
“I feel like it’s so important to keep an open mind, to really try to appreciate stuff through an artistic point of view and from a soulful point of view. People are just so quick to categorise everything instead of really seeing the bigger picture. Most of those who criticised it sort of exemplify a type of person, not just Italians who are insecure, but just people a large and the society. Just anybody that feels insecure in their place, needs to just keep an open mind and also they have to start to laugh at shit because The Sopranos was funny, man! As deep as it is, it’s got a great sense of humour.”
Alike to most good things in life, The Sopranos had a wonderful balance: between comedy and drama, loss and love, suffering and hope. Balance, it seems, is the other vital consistency in Drea de Matteo’s life, “[It] is the most important word in my life. I’ve just told my kids, when you’re ready to get your first tattoo, I will take you but it has to symbolise balance. Every time you’ll look at your body, you’ll remember your mom saying, ‘find your balance’. Because so many of us, especially anybody who’s career-oriented (which I’m not) struggle to find balance. I’m watching my daughter become obsessed with art but I see how little balance they have. There’s just this drive to have to be creating all the time which gives them their sense of self and their worlds. It’s everything.”
Over lockdown, Drea’s need for balance has never wavered, as she handled a juggling act of motherhood, relationships, work, whilst also caring for the mother figure in her life – “My monkey, I call her” – who recently passed away. “It’s been a tough year, but you know in a lot of ways I’ve felt grateful”, Drea confides, “I took care of her so the fact that I was sequestered and confined with her for whole year meant kept her really save from COVID, but also spend time with her. We wouldn’t let anybody in our world at all which was difficult but I’m glad that we actually had that time. We made the best of the quarantine.”
“Once you lose a life that’s so close to you and you keep seeing your family members passing as we get older, you really recognise how important it is to stay connected to the people around you. To not worry so much about who you are in this world as opposed to who you touch in this world, who you affect and who you can help. When the woman like my mom died, my boyfriend said, ‘you know in the words of Ram Dass: we’re just all walking each other home’. I think that’s the main purpose for me in life is to make sure that I have relationships where we’re walking each other home. To the endgame. Always. All the stuff that happens in between is just the stuff in between. You know, those little thing seem like they define us, but I really think that the way we treat each other is how we are defined at the end. So I’m always searching for the balance in myself.”
Paradise City is out now on Prime Video.