There's a lot to Michael Imperioli, so much so that it's hard to decide which of his eclectic interests stand out the most. The former Sopranos star has become a popular cult figure on Instagram, not just waxing on about behind-the-scenes details from his time on the critically acclaimed and culturally beloved HBO series, but also about politics, Buddhism (his chosen religion), COVID-19, his new online meditation practice, Hollywood, his favorite post-punk bands, and all manner of other topics. You could probably throw a dart into a box of Trivial Pursuit: Cool Punk Shit Edition™ and he could go off about whatever subject it lands on. So naturally, we talk about everything over a few hours on Zoom.
He answered my call sitting in front of a red velvet curtain in the office of his Santa Barbara home, where he's lived for the past eight years with his wife, Victoria, and their three kids. As a soon-to-be empty nester, the 54-year-old actor/writer/musician/multi-hyphenate is preparing to leave the sunny beaches of California and return to his hometown of New York City. "This is a beautiful place," he said. "But New York is kind of the creative source of a lot of my work. So I need to be there… Seems like a time when a lot of people are leaving New York, but that's okay."
Imperioli has plenty of personal projects that he could promote: There's Talking Sopranos, his Sopranos podcast with co-star Steve "Bobby Baccalà" Schirripa; the aforementioned meditation practice he holds online for hundreds of people worldwide; or his eclectic taste in music, but he's talked plenty about that recently. He released his story "Yasiri" this week as part of The Nicotine Chronicles, a collection of short stories centered around cigarette smoking. (We do talk about that, which I'll get to later.) But mostly, there was one big thing I wanted to know about the man who gifted pop culture with the deeply conflicted and thick-browed character Christopher Moltisanti: What radicalized you?
"Part of it was living in Greenwich Village in the 80s and early 90s," he answered, alluding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the era. "Just seeing people die and basically the government not giving a shit."
Imperioli grew up in Mount Vernon, a blue collar Italian-American neighborhood outside of New York City. "I didn't know much about the world till I got to Manhattan, and then I really wasn't sure what my politics were until I started going to acting school and meeting other people who had read good stuff and had different perspectives on the world. Being in New York at that time period was very formative toward my opinions."
"If you're going to be a fan of mine, watch my stuff, I'd rather you know who I am than not. And if you don't like it, I don't really give a fuck."
He recalled visiting his friend Ron at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, which was "ground zero of the AIDS epidemic in New York City," as he put it. "Visiting him during his last few months, and seeing not just him, but people just [dying]…" he said. "It wasn't just the government and the religious right not giving a shit, but demonizing people who are getting sick, and thinking that it was just punishment for their lifestyle… There was just such vehement prejudice and bias against people who were dying. It was horrifying."
Witnessing that level of death and discrimination—then, and now with COVID and the ongoing treatment of marginalized communities—has given Imperioli zero patience for hateful bullshit. Since he joined Instagram late last year, Imperioli has been extremely vocal about his politics, calling out systemic racism, transphobia, and homophobia, and sharing his progressive views to his more than 72,000 followers. They don't always take it well; after sharing a Pride Day post, he was bombarded with homophobic comments from people who didn't seem to understand that he, Michael Imperioli, is not actually Christopher Moltisanti.
"[They were like], ‘How could you Chrissy! Tony would be spinning in his [grave].’ Weird shit like that," he said. "If you're going to be a fan of mine, watch my stuff, I'd rather you know who I am than not. And if you don't like it, I don't really give a fuck."
This is why he removes political posts from his feed after a day or so, as a means to cleanse his timeline of the negativity that often infiltrates the zen garden he's created on the platform. He likens the deletions to a ritualistic burning.
"You can't really engage in those debates," he said. "Someone said something very eloquent to me. They said, 'A lot of the Trump people, they're like fans of a football team. No matter what you say about their team, no matter how bad they suck that season, they're gonna love their team.'"
Imperioli's Buddhist leanings prove useful in the face of considerable backlash from his more conservative fans, as well as during his moments of reflection about why he chooses to share political content on his social media. He recently posted a joke ridiculing Trump's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize with the zinger that Mitch McConnell was also nominated for Sexiest Man Alive. Then, he thought about his intentions with that post.
"Yeah, to humiliate Mitch McConnell, or am I really trying to make a political point while the United States is falling apart and burning, and there's violence all the time and unrest?" he said. "My ridiculing Mitch McConnell's looks, yeah, it's easy, but do I really want to do that? It makes the argument a little less serious. To someone who loves Trump and maybe loves Mitch McConnell—which I don't know how that's possible—they [would] think I'm a dick rather than just a liberal freak, which I prefer to be called by those people."
So he took the post down.
He uses social media to share not just his political musings, but also the artists, music, cultural figures, books, and Buddhist teachings that have influenced him—all of which he addresses without pretense; wild to see, really, in a space where even newborns have a hashtag and regular schmoes obsess over the vibe of their page. Imperioli just likes to honor and discuss what he thinks is good and interesting—be it an indie film, a shoegaze band, or a poet—without too much concern for aesthetics. "If I could turn people on to a cool movie or cool band that they wouldn't have heard of, that makes me really happy," he said. "I'm kind of surprised that people are that interested [in my life] really."
From the quick growth of his following, it's clear that they are, and he's curated a place to share his radical world while removing himself from the pitfalls that come with life online—a feat for a normal person, but an astonishing achievement for a celebrity.
Imperioli has seemingly mastered a tranquil perspective on life, one in which he examines the intentions and purpose of each decision and statement he makes. His voice is soothing, even when he's punctuating a carefully considered thought with a "fuck" or "shit" in his New York accent, with the energy of our conversations conjuring the mood of a combination yoga studio and dollar slice spot. Even over Zoom, Imperioli carries himself with a gentle and calming confidence that makes holding a conversation natural and easy. His careful choice of words doesn't feel rooted in the typical celebrity "I don't wanna get canceled" way, but more as the result of a lot of work on his spiritual self.
Imperioli came to Buddhism in 2007, the same year The Sopranos ended. Despite having found success in his career—as well as opened a theater with his wife, had children, and achieved many other typical markings of fulfillment—Imperioli was "still engaging in a lot of self destructive behaviors and mental attitudes" rooted in what he calls "dissatisfaction," as he realized he was "facing things about myself that I felt lacking."
"I think it was kind of a perfect storm of reaching a degree of success in my business that I had worked for for [20 or 30] years and realizing that there was a spiritual component to being human that I hadn't quite addressed," he said.
Buddhism called to him "as a method of dealing with your own mind." Through Buddhism, he was able to gain a "perspective on the nature of reality," ask existential questions, and have "methods to explore those questions." It's this intentional thinking that he brings to his mediation webinars, which he began in August and have become just another thing that has made Imperioli such a fascinating figure among not only fans of The Sopranos, but a wider array of pop culture spectators. Any time he's come up in my conversations with friends and colleagues, someone mentions—without fail—an aspect of his life that they found surprising: "Did you know he does meditation classes now?" "I only recently discovered that Michael Imperioli has fantastic music taste." "He actually plays in a really rad post-punk band!" "Oh! His book was pretty good. Did you know he writes?"
Imperioli is a seasoned writer; he co-wrote the screenplay for the 1999 film Summer of Sam, as well as a few episodes of The Sopranos and the indie film The Hungry Ghosts. In 2018, he released his debut novel The Perfume Burned His Eyes, which he's currently trying to adapt for the screen. And now, he brings his social justice sensibilities to "Yasiri," an allegory on the evils of colonization that follows a young Puerto Rican seer who uses tobacco leaves to perform santeria. When a greedy white man asks her to perform a ritual that will rid him of his supposedly lazy and greedy investment partner, she sees right through his lies using her intuitive power. He based the story on historical readings from Christopher Columbus' journal, as well as texts on indigenous spirituality and santeria and his own observations while living in Puerto Rico, where wealthy Americans would establish residency in order to avoid taxes. It was a loophole that benefited the wealthy while doing little for the people of Puerto Rico, who even as residents of an American territory are too often denied the resources afforded stateside.
"I'm not trying to write a story about the subtleties of humanity," he said. "It's meant to be like black and white, good and evil."
"If I could turn people on to a cool movie or cool band that they wouldn't have heard of, that makes me really happy. I'm kind of surprised that people are that interested [in my life] really."
This fixation on justice and self-awareness creates the compelling aura that now surrounds Imperioli, a paradoxical persona for someone who was pigeonholed as the mafioso he famously played on television. "Perception-wise, I think It's been a constant in my life," he said. "I was kind of dumb enough to think I've already gotten [all those things about me] across to people, but I definitely had not."
Through Instagram and his podcast, Imperioli has been able to reestablish control over his public image, share his passions, and introduce the many sides of himself—the radical thinker, the punk connoisseur, the spiritual seeker, the author, the artist—to a wider audience that may have once only thought of him as 'Christophaaa,' Tony Soprano's bratty, drug-addicted sidekick and Adriana's abusive, ambitious boyfriend. For Imperioli, this generosity with his time and transparency of self is intrinsic to his core beliefs. "When people ask for things like [meditation guidance,] if you're in a position to give it to them, I think you have an obligation to," he said.
That deliberate openness has made his re-emergence into the pop culture landscape a pleasant surprise in these weird times.
Speaking of Imperioli's impeccable taste in music, he was kind enough to curate a playlist for VICE. The playlist, which he titled "Love, Death and Divas," features some of his favorite songs dealing with, well, love, death, and divas.
Tracklist (in very particular order):
Death, "Keep on Knocking'"
Michael Imperioli: A band so far ahead of their time it is insane….and sinfully overlooked. This song always makes me happy.
Violent Femmes, "Add it Up"
Dinosaur Jr., "Pick Me Up"
Three-and-a-half minutes into this song begins the greatest guitar solo in rock history, barring none. J. Mascis channelling the spirits through his Jazzmaster; three minutes of sonic bliss, infinity and ecstasy.
Annette Peacock, "The Succubus"
My favorite song by this incredible visionary, innovator, and mystic. It was used to great effect in Cabaret Maxime, a film I starred in and produced that was released in early 2020.
L.A. Witch, "Kill My Baby Tonite"
Saw them live a few years ago at Jesse Malin's BERLIN club in NYC and was knocked out.
The Raincoats, "In Love"
The fact that I can listen to this song 20 times in an afternoon makes no sense, and it makes perfect sense.
Hennessey, "Sleeping Beauty"
Caught them live at BERLIN last year. Pay close attention. I expect much greatness to come.
Belanova, "Rosa Pastel"
Fifteen years ago, I heard this song in a restaurant and had to ask what it was. For reasons unbeknownst to me, I became obsessed with the tune, and still have no idea why. It's as sugary sweet as the title ("pink cake" in English), as poppy as pop gets; nothing I usually gravitate towards, and yet here it is, and I still think it's fantastic.
The pinnacle of Japanese shoegaze for me.
Fanny, "You're the One"
Another criminally overlooked band from the early 70s. I love their sound, their passion and their whole vibe. Would have loved to have caught them live. Check out their videos, their spirit is so pure and beautiful.
Gil Scott-Heron, "The Bottle"
Cesaría Evora, "Sodade"
"Cize" was without a doubt one of the most soulful singers in history.
This diva was the most popular Persian singer of her time. The song and the way she sings it I have always found incredibly haunting.
Maria Callas, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from La Wally by Alfredo Catalani
Diva of all divas….now and forever.
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE.