Interview with Oldboy’s Michael Imperioli

We sit down with Michael Imperioli to discuss his part in the Oldboy remake and what it is like to work with Spike Lee after all these years.

A veteran character actor who has been in the business for decades, Michael Imperioli is a face everyone knows. Of course, that is primarily for his role as Christopher on the landmark HBO series The Sopranos. However, prior to that gangster genre legend, Imperioli was just a fresh-faced kid with a small (but memorable) part in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. That’s when he got the call to work with director Spike Lee on Jungle Fever. Born in Mount Vernon, NY, Imperioli still fit into Lee’s now iconic group of players and filmmakers on the East Coast, leading Imperioli to go on to work with Lee again for another six projects. In their latest collaboration, Imperioli plays a friend to Josh Brolin’s Joe, a family man who has just been released from a 20-year mystery sentence in an inescapable hotel room. Worse still, he doesn’t know why he was there in the first place. The movie is of course the American version of Oldboy. Could you tell me about working again with Spike Lee after so many movies? How do you keep the collaboration fresh after so much time? Michael Imperioli: This was my sixth Spike Lee Joint, but it had been almost 17 years since the last time we worked together. Actually no, we did a commercial in between somewhere. The thing about Spike is he’s REALLY collaborative. He really wants input. [In Clockers], I show up on the set and I go, “I rewrote the whole scene, Spike.” And he goes, “Okay, I’ll see it when we rehearse.” He didn’t say, “What do you mean?” So, I went and did the scene, and he was like, “Alright keep everything except the second line. We’ll use the original,” and that was it. I mean it’s really what you want to bring, and he tries to cast people who will bring a lot. He encourages that, and the great thing is you rehearse. A lot of directors don’t rehearse before production starts. I mean I flew to New Orleans a month before I worked. I rehearsed a couple of days. A couple of the other actors, I mean Josh [Brolin] was there much longer. Go through the dialogue, see what works, see what comes out of your mouth, flush things through—It’s a very collaborative process. And I think for something like this, that’s really kind of a genre film, it’s not a movie you’d associate with Spike Lee, he’s such a very character driven director, but to have those two things operating at the same time is really interesting. [How did the original film influence your performance?] …I didn’t see the original, which I was happy I didn’t, because I like to approach things without any preconceptions or ideas. So, for me it was I just got the script, which I read and was just shocked by. The ending was just so bizarre and unexpected, but a really entertaining script. Mark [Protosevich] is a rare screenwriter, because his screenplays read almost like novels. The stage directions just aren’t technical kind of informative things. He’s very artful in the ways he writes his screenplays. They’re really enjoyable reads. I think it is the most enjoyable read I’ve had ever, and I read a lot of scripts. But he makes it fun. So, I was really impressed. It was really funny, because Spike called me and said, “Mike what’s up! We’re working together again, I’m so excited.” I said, “What?” He goes, “We’re doing the movie!” I say, “Spike, what are you saying?” [He replies], “Oldboy, you’re playing Josh’s friend. Your agent didn’t tell you?” And I said, “No! Spike I’m really happy, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And he goes, “I’m remaking Oldboy with Josh Brolin,” and then sure enough I call my agent [he says], “Oh yeah, well the deal isn’t finished yet, but obviously you’re going to make a deal because it’s Spike.” So, he just assumed that it happened, but it was a great phone call to get. It was pretty funny. And just to see how he’s grown as an artist. He’s someone who I’ve always admired a lot, because he’s always done what he wanted to do. He’s always done what he wanted to do. It was never a “let me do this, so I can do my personal baby close to my heart.” Not many filmmakers have been able to do that and over such a long period of time. And so many, [you have] documentaries, and music videos, and commercials, and stuff. His output is pretty incredible. Prolific. Even when he’s doing a heist film, there’s always a flavor. There’s that “Spike Lee” feel to it. It’s distinctive. And he brings that to Oldboy? Yeah! In a very interesting way, because like I said, it’s not something you’d immediately associate with him. Those graphic novels have a certain genre, but he embraced that aspect of it. There’s a real cool visual style and sense that he brought to this. Then you have the whole character driven [aesthetic], he’s such an actor’s director. The improvisation we bring [into that genre doesn’t happen] often, so that’s pretty cool.  You mentioned rehearsal process. When you started production did you find you stayed pretty true to what you did in rehearsal or was there still collaboration going on once production started? There was still a little bit, but the rehearsal you can really open it up. Then you try to narrow it down. It’s a little bit tricky when you’re being very exacting visually to open it up on the set, but there’s still room. But most of that was done during rehearsal. You said Spike’s very true to himself as an artist. While on set, did you get the sense that he was getting to explore certain facets as an artist he has not before? I think he really embraced the visual aspect of this. I mean he’s done that—there’s always a visual flair to his movies, but I think he took it to another level because of this material. It was a graphic novel, and there is still that feel to it. And I think he honored that in a really good way. Did you get to be in the famous tracking shot this time? No [Laughs]. I wasn’t in that shot. I wasn’t in the famous one, but I’m hearing good things about it. I haven’t seen the whole movie, but I did ADR, so I saw some of my stuff, but I’ll see it on November 11. There were some screenings in LA, but I was shooting stuff and couldn’t make it. A friend of a friend saw it, and he said it’s fantastic. Yeah, that wouldn’t surprise me [Laughs]. The stuff I saw Josh doing blew me away. The way he was approaching it, and then Elizabeth Olsen. I had never seen her work; she really impressed me. She’s a great actress and really good to work with. Those two have major roles—and then also Sharlto [Copley] who also was amazing. I’m sure it’s going to be great. What, if any, did you watch or read to prep yourself for the movie and to get into the role? Well, I didn’t really have to read anything. I played a guy who went to school—we’re school buds. We’d been friends our whole lives pretty much since childhood. And now I own and operate a bar, which at one time I owned and operated a bar, so I have that down [Laughs]. Dealing with drunks and serving people, and all that kind of stuff. My thing was really just, and why the rehearsal was so good, is that Josh and I got to spend some time together. We were in New Orleans, we went out, we hung out, and I wanted that friendship to have some kind that—wasn’t just showing up the day of and shaking hands and was, “Hello, let’s be best friends.” We had some fun. We went into the casino, and we both won money, playing blackjack. We were playing side by side and we walked in for 15 minutes, and we both won like a stack of chips and walked out. So that was good. That was the first time we went out. That was my thing really: to just be his friend. That was my function to help him get his life back. Figure out what happened. So my work really was just creating that kind of bond.  Going into a Spike Lee film, especially this one specifically because of the background that it has, because of the fanbase that it has, did you feel any more pressure than you normally do? Obviously you always to be great, you always to do your best. Did you feel anymore or did you just put your head down and do your work? You know—No. There’s enough pressure working with great people and wanting to be on their level. That’s inspirational, and working with Spike is a big inspiration for me. The first time we worked together was Jungle Fever, and he said, “We’ll work together again!” And I’ve heard that many times, but he’s the only one who actually made good on it! The other thing about this guy is you have to see—there’s like a whole school of filmmaking and filmmakers that came up under him. A lot of people that start out as PAs and assistants this or that, he kind of brought them up through his system and gave them jobs. They became DPs and the heads of departments, and with actors he did the same thing. People started with small parts, an unknown, you give them another part in another movie. There’s a whole network of people, particularly in New York obviously, that came up through the Spike Lee School. I’m one of them. That’s big! Thank you very much. Thank you. ***Photos by Matthew Schuchman  Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!