The throbbing in the back of Alessandro Nivola’s head was growing more intense.
It was fall 2018 when he’d auditioned for the role of Dickie Moltisanti in “The Many Saints of Newark,” the “Sopranos” prequel, and “I felt pretty sure I was onto something,” he said. Though he wasn’t sure what that something was.
Then after a lunch with David Chase, creator of the series, and Alan Taylor, the film’s director, the full script arrived and the stakes shot through the roof. Dickie, it turned out, was the film’s protagonist, and Chase had been told he could cast anyone he wanted. And the word was that Chase wanted Nivola, who hadn’t carried a movie of this magnitude in his nearly 25-year film career.
That’s when the throbbing kicked in. “I’d been down that road so many times,” Nivola said, “and the number of disappointments I can’t count on 10 hands.”
So when a month passed without an offer — the noise in his head by now impossible to ignore — he decided to put an end to his misery. “Call them,” he instructed his agents, “and tell them that if they don’t tell me today I’m out.”
Four hours later, in a downstairs bathroom at the Chateau Marmont during a layover in Los Angeles, he learned that Dickie was his. He locked himself in a stall and cried, muffled sobs of relief and release, for 10 minutes.
“You see, at some point you just have to put your foot down,” he told his people.
Only, they hadn’t made the call. It was simply his lucky day.
To hear Nivola, 49, tell it, good fortune has been elusive. But on a balmy September afternoon at the Mulberry Street Bar in Little Italy, he gave off the scent of a man swimming in it. Sleek in an unseasonably warm suit he’d worn to a photo shoot (his stylist had driven away with his clothes), he radiated Dickie’s debonair charisma, minus most of his menacing edge. James Gandolfini, the original Tony Soprano, glowered in a poster overhead, but Nivola looked like a boss.
“The Many Saints of Newark” has been positioned as Tony’s origin story, with Michael Gandolfini cast as the teenage version of his father’s iconic character. But the movie belongs to Dickie, an explosive, tomcatting mobster — long dead when Tony mythologized him in “The Sopranos” — who somehow managed, despite his best efforts, to twist a basically decent kid into a tormented mafia kingpin.
Chase had wanted to make a respectable gangster film. “So, there’s no more Jimmy Gandolfini,” he said in an interview, “but we wanted someone who could, in his own way, be as criminally intelligent and charismatic.”
Dickie is more elegant, more handsome, more stylish than Tony. “But he is carrying exactly the same set of tones,” said Taylor, the director, “which is this combination of introspection and complete blindness and rage and regret.”
Nivola’s induction into the “Sopranos” family actually began with his sleazy prosecutor in “American Hustle,” which impressed Chase and made him wonder: “Who is this guy and where has he been? I have to keep him in mind.”
“So I kept him in mind,” Chase said, “and when this role came up, he seemed to me to be the perfect guy for it.”
Nivola ticked off the boxes: Italian American with an immigrant back story — his grandfather a Sardinian sculptor who resettled in Manhattan’s downtown bohemia during the war, his father a Harvard graduate and Brookings Institution fellow — and an innate grasp of the language.
“When it came to Italian, curse words or otherwise,” Chase said, “he got the words and the tune.”
And Nivola — a Boston-born Yale man who spent his grade-school years mostly in rural Vermont and high school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire — was an eyeful. “On ‘The Sopranos,’ I never went that direction but I felt, well, we can’t blame the guy for being handsome,” Chase said. “He’s really good, and I knew he could deliver the right level of sinister.”
Taking those “Sopranos” colors, Nivola painted a Jekyll and Hyde, longing to be remembered for doing something noble but dragged down by impulsive violence that horrifies even him.
His interpretation was “pitch perfect, every beat of it,” starting with his audition scenes, said Taylor, who had to resist trying to get Nivola to recreate their perfection when they actually started shooting.
Nivola has been bringing it since his film breakthrough in 1997 as Pollux Troy, the weirdo brother of Nicolas Cage’s terrorist in “Face/Off.” After which he essentially went undercover.
“I always was drawn to roles that allowed me to hide myself and to burrow into some other kind of personality or behavior that felt like a disguise,” he said. “That’s been the blessing and the curse of my whole career up until now.”
Nivola adroitly shapeshifted from one character to the next, without an obvious through line — the British frontman who beds a much older record producer in “Laurel Canyon,” the Orthodox Jew drawn into a love triangle in “Disobedience,” the lunatic sensei in “The Art of Self-Defense.”
But along the way, disappointment over films that flopped or weren’t even released, and a sense of entitlement at being asked to repeatedly prove himself — hadn’t he already? — gave rise to crippling nerves and depression. Eventually he felt so uncomfortable auditioning in person that he stopped altogether.
“My most successful friends are sort of relentlessly positive,” said Nivola, citing his wife, the actor and director Emily Mortimer, and his pal Ethan Hawke. “I’m trying to be more that way but it’s not my nature.”
Then came David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” And after a humbling seven-year break when he stopped auditioning but also stopped getting much-wanted roles, he showed up to compete for the job.
Nivola had begun to reassess how he wanted to work, choosing great directors over great parts. But Russell’s idiosyncratic style — writing a script and then yelling out alternate lines for the actor to say in the midst of shooting — left Nivola feeling utterly out of control. Thrillingly so.
“It was a big turning point for me, where I just completely gave over to him,” he said. “And from that moment on, I really liked that feeling. I wanted to give every director that I worked with that power.”
Whatever caused Nivola to hesitate or overthink before, Russell has seen that drop away in favor of “enthusiastic inventiveness,” he wrote in an email. “I think he can do almost anything — he’s fearless. He takes what I’ve written and makes it his own. We trust each other, which allows risk and a hell of a lot of fun.”
“American Hustle” was also Nivola’s first film with Robert De Niro, whom he considers a mentor. “I mean, he might not describe himself that way,” he said, laughing, “but I insist.”
But it was watching him in motion on “The Wizard of Lies” — De Niro as Bernie Madoff and Nivola as his son Mark — that affected the way Nivola worked more than any other experience. He began learning his dialogue early so that he could untie himself from the words. He started repeating phrases in the middle of scenes, like a reset, until he’d forgotten he was performing.
“It’s almost like he’s playing music rather than saying text,” Taylor said — even if it does send the dolly crew dashing when he suddenly takes a scene back to the beginning. The director added, “Frequently what comes out of his third version is the one he was aiming for, and it really, really works.”
In September, the day after “The Many Saints of Newark” premiered at the Beacon Theater, Nivola, true to form, was elated if cautious. Critics for IndieWire, CNN and others singled his performance out with phrases like “absolutely brilliant” and “riveting.”
“So far, these have been the best reviews I’ve ever had for a performance,” he wrote in an email, adding, “I’m trying not to put too much or too little stock in them.”
But back on Mulberry Street, Nivola had intimated that his shining moment hadn’t dropped from out of the blue — not really. “I felt, to be honest, leading up to when this opportunity came, some intangible feeling that something like this was brewing,” he said haltingly.
Still, unlike Dickie, he wasn’t willing to wager on his future. “I will never think about this movie as a success,” he added, “until I’m proven otherwise.”