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Billy Magnussen Discusses The Thrill Of Playing Paulie Walnuts In The Many Saints Of Newark - Exclusive Interview

Prolific actor Billy Magnussen has been working nonstop since his debut in a guest role on "Law & Order" in 2008, amassing more than 60 credits in film and television while refusing to allow himself be typecast as he's ventured into a variety of genres. From comedies ("Game Night" and "Made for Love") and dramas ("Bridge of Spies") to fact-based crime tales ("American Crime Story") and musicals ("Into the Woods" and "Aladdin"), Magnussen has basically done it all.

Magnussen has also taken big steps into the world of mob dramas, including a guest turn on "Boardwalk Empire." However, his latest mob-related project, "The Many Saints of Newark," comes with an added layer — and a big one at that. That's because he's starring as the younger version of Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri in the film, the wise-cracking member of Tony Soprano's (James Gandolfini) crew made so memorable by actor Tony Sirico in the classic HBO series "The Sopranos."

Opening in theaters and streaming exclusively on HBO Max on Friday, October 1, "The Many Saints of Newark" takes place in New Jersey in the late 1960s and early 1970s, examining, among other things, the formative years of Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini). Set amid such historical events as the Newark race riots and the shift in the power dynamic in the criminal underworld, the film chronicles the tainted ascendancy of Richard "Dickie" Moltisanti (Allesandro Nivola) as he rises in the ranks in the DiMeo crime family, as well as his mentorship of Tony. The film also features many other "Sopranos" characters in their earlier years, including Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga), Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll), Silvio Dante (John Magaro), and it introduces Tony's father Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), Dickie's father, "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), and Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) — a numbers runner for Dickie.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Magnussen reveals his thoughts about entering "The Sopranos" franchise with "The Many Saints of Newark," beginning with the scene in which Paulie Walnuts shows more concern for his new threads than the torturous act he and his fellow crew members are about to commit.

The clothes make the man

Hey, Billy! I'm wondering, where's that jacket of yours ... is it at the dry cleaners to get the blood stains out?

I like that yellow suit. Yeah, it was smooth. That was a smooth, smooth outfit. Classic. I didn't mind walking around in that thing. It was good.

Well, congratulations on "The Many Saints of Newark," and I would imagine, like everybody involved with this project, you have to have an affinity for "The Sopranos" coming in, otherwise, why do it?

To tell you the truth, I had never watched "The Sopranos" before hearing about the audition. I knew of the series, what it was, and it definitely changed the format of television when it came out, but sadly I was in high school and then in college and I couldn't afford HBO. [Laughs] So I was unable to watch it, but once I dove into that sea of creativity that David Chase made with the movie, I loved it. I absolutely fell in love with it and all the characters in "The Sopranos." What's crazy is you could probably make a spinoff of every character on that show.

I have to go back to this whole zoot suit scene, this bloody scene. It's frightening, yet it's funny in a twisted sort of way. You're more concerned about the coat than the gruesome crime that you're about to commit. That is the definitive "Sopranos"-type scene, isn't it?

One hundred percent. Yeah. I mean, that's what the beauty of what "The Sopranos" was, that these dark people that are living humanity in a Wild, Wild West kind of way. Sometimes, the grossest things could be the funniest, because it's just so authentic and real.

Getting into the Paulie Walnuts vibe

At what point did you feel like you were becoming Paulie Walnuts? Was there a point either before or during the production where you felt, "You know what, I'm really comfortable being this guy now"?

No. Like through any other project that I've been in, every day is one of discovery, and you go deeper and deeper into the character. I think that is the fun part about being an actor. Like, when you have your last line in a scene, you're still thinking, "What would happen next and where are you? Where's the story going?" So, each day it was more of getting deeper and deeper into it ... I don't think there's an end in sight.

But you definitely do your research and all the stuff to prep. You fully learn [Tony's] mannerisms, the cadence of the speech. You learn that this well is just so profound, that you can keep going down further and further into it. I think there's still so much more to discover, but I felt comfortable in having David Chase there to give the thumbs up or thumbs down while I was doing it. That is a good indication. We never really went forward unless we got the thumbs up, you know?

Following in Tony Sirico's footsteps

Paulie Walnuts begins with Tony Sirico. He's such a fascinating character. Given what Tony did with the role, did you approach it with fear? Fear is a great motivating factor, I think, in this case, because people love this character.

I definitely did not operate from a place of fear. I think this is what I got into acting for — the challenges and the hurdles — and just profoundly going deeper into yourself weirdly by finding this character from within. Fear is not the driving force for me. I didn't go into the film worrying about the fans or anything like that. I looked at it as any job I would approach with any characters.

I want to find the authentic voice, and the spirit and essence of this individual, and bring it to life. It's funny. Trying to play an actual living person is a different thing, because there's set rules, but I was playing a character that Tony created, and I also had to make the backstory up a little more while doing it. So that was a fun, fun challenge. I don't like the word fear, to tell you the truth ... It's more about accepting what it is at the time. It's funny, throughout my career, roles have come into my orbit at the time I needed and I didn't realize it, and I think Paulie Walnuts was one of them.

Meeting Tony Sirico was a hairy situation

Did you consult with Tony Sirico at all before or during the film? Maybe in a way just getting a blessing from him to play the character?

Luckily, I had the fortunate opportunity to talk with David Chase and asked him, "Hey, we got Tony around still, can he record the lines, so I can just have the cadence and hear how he would do it?" [David's] approach to it was to make everyone feel comfortable and safe. I didn't get him to do that [record dialogue], but Tony did finally come to the set one day, which was cool. I had prosthetics, fake eyes, fake hair, and all that stuff. And it took him longer to do his hair than me putting on all that stuff. [Laughs] That kind of tells you the type of guy Tony is, you know, just for him to do his hair. [Laughs]

I saw an interview with Michael Gandolfini where he mentioned how Alan Taylor and David Chase told him, "Pull it back. You're not the Tony that we know from 'The Sopranos,'" since Michael was the early iteration of Tony that we're meeting. Did you approach your role in the same way?

Yeah, of course. But we had a script that was a roadmap that David Chase created, and honestly, I just wanted to follow that. He's a genius for a reason. "Sopranos" was a success for a reason. I just kind of more leaned into the script and the way he orchestrated the whole piece more than anything.

Magnussen has tremendous respect for Michael Gandolfini

I would imagine there was a lot of pressure on Michael Gandolfini to deliver. I think he's a natural and is perfect playing the younger version of a character that his father made legendary. What are your feelings on his performance?

I feel absolutely honored to watch that unfold in front of me — to see a young man step into his father's shoes in the role that he created, which impacted so many people around this world. The bravery and courage that takes alone is a beautiful thing, but also his performance and work is a beautiful metaphor for the unfolding of life and the steps that follow. I feel truly blessed that I got to observe it. I can only say with absolute love that Michael is a beautiful person. The position that he was in and the courage it took to do the role is unbelievable.

It really is an emotional sort of thing to watch, and I'm glad that you feel that way.

Could you do that, say something your father did?

No, and especially, like you say, in front of the world.

I have nothing but love and respect for what transpired, and I'm blessed to have observed it firsthand.

Magnussen feels like he became part of a family during filming

Michael is one of many great actors in this piece, along with Corey Stoll, Alessandro Nivola, Jon Bernthal —

Leslie Odom Jr., John Magaro, you know? Yeah. Vera Farmiga. It was unbelievable. A lot of them were theater actors, and so every day on set was just ... we were creating that family. Those are the moments you crave as a performer; the community that you build while making a story, and these guys are pros.

I can't think of a more empowering thing as an actor than when you do realize there's that family cohesiveness there.

Yeah. It really is. It's amazing. And like the story I shared and the moments we do scenes together, it's a blessing. I've been so lucky in my life and career to have come upon these moments that you're just like, "Wow, I'm the one that gets to observe this. This is beautiful." I really got lucky.

Where does Paulie Walnuts go from here?

Now that we've seen Tony Soprano's formative years, there's certainly more room for more prequel stories before Tony Soprano meets those ducks in the pool in his backyard in the "Sopranos" pilot episode. Where would you like to see Paulie Walnuts go between then and the series, presuming there's going to be more tales to tell?

Man. That's a good question. Actually, it's a great question. It's not my job to do that. [Laughs] It's David Chase's, but again, I think like any character you want to see, what are the scars that makes a man? What are the moments that are defining when you turn left or right? That's always the exciting thing. I think, as a performer or when I watch something, what are the choices made and what are the choices not made by a character and the relationships built or broken for a character. So it's, I know it's a little vague and stuff like that, but we have every option in the world. I don't know. I want to see him go on vacation. [Laughs] I don't know.

Maybe we could see Paulie Walnuts get a hazmat suit, so he doesn't get his clothes bloody or something like that?

I mean, don't ruin those suits! Those were beautiful!

Well, again, it's up to David, but there's nothing wrong with seriously dropping hints here and there to say, "I'd kind of like to see this go in this direction."

You should give him a call!

Magnussen feels fortunate to get involved to get involved in major franchises

You've gotten involved in "The Sopranos" franchise with "The Many Saints of Newark." I don't know how much you can tell me, but you're also part of the James Bond world with "No Time to Die." What a great stroke of luck to be involved with two big franchises this year.

I cannot believe again and again how these opportunities show up in my life, and I am grateful for them. It's so funny. While working, you don't realize what you're doing, you're just doing your job. You're showing up and doing the best you can in that moment, and more with doing these interviews today. I feel the pressure or the weight of it all on myself, but I'll let it go. So again, I think they're going to be great, but it's a real honor to be a part of it all.

I'm sure people are going to try to get you to drop some hints. I'm not going to do that. I'm not a spoiler guy, but is there anything you can tell me about your character in "No Time to Die"?

He's a CIA operative that works with Felix. Yeah, and he talks to Bond.

"The Many Saints of Newark" opens in theaters and begins streaming exclusively on HBO Max Friday, October 1.