Michael Imperioli Knows Art Can’t Save Us

Michael Imperioli was onstage last week when a performance of “An Enemy of the People,” in which he stars, was interrupted by protesters. “I wasn’t sure if the director kind of planted them there,” he told me not long afterward. The play was written by Henrik Ibsen nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, but it has echoes of the current climate crisis. In the new revival, Jeremy Strong plays a physician, Thomas Stockmann, who learns that lucrative mineral springs in his small Norwegian town are contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria. Imperioli plays the doctor’s brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann—a man who, fearing the town’s economic ruin, plots to turn its residents against the facts.

The production is designed to involve, and to implicate, the audience. Last Thursday, at the start of a contentious town-hall scene for which the house lights remain on, Imperioli, as the mayor, asked the assembly if there were any objections. “I object to the silencing of scientists!” a man called out from the top of the theatre. Two companions soon stood up and began shouting about the perils of a warming planet.

The audience looked stunned, and a little confused. The ushers were evidently caught off guard. Then something fascinating happened. Imperioli and Strong started to improvise, incorporating the disruption into the world of the show. “I’m sorry, you need to leave!” Imperioli, whose character is a stickler for parliamentary procedure, barked. “They do not have the floor. We do not recognize this person!” He pushed the first demonstrator up the stairs toward the exit.

I spoke with Imperioli the following morning. He joined me on Zoom from his Manhattan apartment, which was decorated by his wife, Victoria, and packed with Renaissance oil paintings and statues. Imperioli is best known for playing Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano’s sensitive and hot-headed protégé, on “The Sopranos.” Recently, though, he’s had a second creative flourishing. He starred in the latest season of “The White Lotus,” and will appear in the Paul Schrader film “Oh, Canada.” His band, Zopa, is releasing a new album. He’s working to adapt his novel, “The Perfume Burned His Eyes,” into a film. And, with “An Enemy of the People,” he makes his Broadway début. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, touched on topics including Imperioli’s many creative endeavors and how Martin Scorsese launched his acting career. But he was particularly eager to talk about the protest, which had left him surprisingly exhilarated.

You’ve got so much going on, I’m wondering if we’re going to go through a whole interview without any Sopranos questions.

We can talk about whatever you like!

Let’s see. I saw “An Enemy of the People” a week and a half ago and thought it was great. Your character, the mayor, is an operator. He’s a politician. He’s very canny. One of the things I got from watching you play a climate denier, as frustrating as their argument is, once you say, “I don’t care whether what I’m saying is true,” once you’re playing a different game, it looks—fun, almost?

Yeah, because you’re acting! A lot of these politicians, they don’t believe what they’re saying. You have to be an idiot if you don’t believe that polluting the environment has an effect on the environment. It’s just cause and effect. But they’re not going to admit that because, politically, it doesn’t suit them. Do you know what happened last night? Did you hear about this?

I did. Can you explain what went down?

During the town-hall meeting, we turn the house lights on. The audience becomes part of the town hall. Some nights, people shout. Well, someone started shouting about climate change. They were climate-change activists. I wasn’t sure if the director kind of planted them there, so I just stayed in character and started calling them liars, using lines from the play, saying, “This is all just speculation! You don’t belong here! Get out!” Nobody was taking control of the situation, so as the mayor, in that room, at that point, I took it upon myself to remove him from the meeting. That was not Michael. Michael would not have done that. And if I was playing another character, I would not have done that. Jeremy stayed in character and was agreeing with them and just saying, “I understand you, but let me make my points.” And then, eventually, they got these three protesters out. I mean, I kind of agree with the protesters! I think we’re headed for disaster, climate-wise. And it’s a lot more pressing than I think a lot of us want to admit. When we continued the actual lines of the play, I made a lot of different discoveries in the next scene, just because everything got heightened. It was very interesting.

Did you worry you were gonna get soup thrown on you? Because that was my first thought.

You never know! I hope not. I don’t want anything thrown on me or any of my castmates, or any of the audience members. I think the protester probably understood I was in character. I think he was kind of going along with me. I’m not really sure. I was not going to hurt anybody, that’s for sure. I was trying to do it very safely.

How do you make the choice in the moment to say, I’m going to react like Michael or I’m going react like Mayor Stockmann?

All night long I’m Mayor Stockmann. All the choices I make for those hours are Mayor Stockmann’s. It wasn’t, like, a decision. I was the mayor in that moment. I don’t know if you call that method acting. I guess. But that’s how I work. I’m in it. I’m that guy. I’m not Michael on that stage. When I started producing theatre, we did an Arthur Miller play called “Incident at Vichy.” My friend Tom Gilroy, who’s a filmmaker now, directed it. He wrote a letter to Miller, because Miller doesn’t give those rights very easily. He was alive back then. This was 1988. Reagan was President. And Tom said, “It’s important to do this play now because of AIDS”—he was talking about power and lies and how Reagan was ignoring this. He was making a comparison to Fascist regimes. Miller gave us the rights. We tried doing this thing where, when the audience came in, there were Secret Service guys dressed in suits with the earpieces who were surveilling people and asking them questions and asking them for I.D. and all these things. We were inspired by the Living Theatre and by Steppenwolf, who were doing things like that at the time. So I’m no stranger to that breaking the fourth wall. I was trained by a woman who was a [Lee] Strasberg disciple. I remember doing exercises that went on for four or five hours where we stayed in character. So that was right up my alley, I have to say.

What is the rest of that performance like? What were those discoveries that you made?

My emotions got to a little bit of a higher place. The discovery is of how deep these feelings go—to me, it was fascinating.

How deep did they go?

They’re life and death. This town’s gonna be destroyed. I’m gonna lose my job, my reputation. Maybe they’ll run me out of town.

This is kind of a weird fluid state, but does the mayor feel the same way about the production? That the show is being interrupted, that this is going to ruin it?

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