When she was preparing for the role of Gabriella Dante on The Sopranos, Maureen Van Zandt could certainly draw on her life experience. By that point, she and Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante) had been married for close to two decades. The mob element, however, was a totally different story.
“Little Steven” Van Zandt, of course, is a first-rate musician who’s been associated with Bruce Springsteen since before there was an E-Street Band. And Maureen had been living in the rock ‘n’ roll world since she was a teenager in the ’60s.
However, she did know about the world of New Jersey mob families. On the Talking Sopranos podcast, Van Zandt spoke about actually growing up in “a mafia family” herself. And she said she based the Gabriella character on someone close to her.
Maureen Van Zandt used her sister as a model for her ‘Sopranos’ character
Van Zandt made her screen debut as Gabriella Dante, and she spoke about her path to that role on Talking Sopranos. In the beginning, she didn’t set out to be an actor necessarily. Van Zandt’s start as a performer came in the ballet.
“I really was in the ballet world,” she said on the podcast. “A lot of training from age five until about 17, when I joined a ballet company. The whole time I was dancing, I was taking acting lessons. I wanted to know how to tell the stories in the ballets.”
Those acting lessons — some of which Stella Adler taught — came in handy when she landed the role of Gabriella. She landed her first audition when a Sopranos casting director approached her about replacing the actor who played Mrs. Dante in season 1. (Paul Schulze, who played Father Phil, told the casting director Van Zandt had acted with him in a class.)
When it came time to construct her character, Van Zandt drew inspiration from her time growing up. “I kind of based her on my sister,” Van Zandt said on Talking Sopranos. “Who is very naïve in a way — very New Jersey, with the nails and the hair and the jewelry. But very sweet and nice.”
Van Zandt said the New Jersey mafia world was ‘very much my life’
Though her sister was an inspiration, Van Zandt also pulled from other Jersey women from her childhood when playing Gabriella. “Just the women I grew up around,” she said on Talking Sopranos. “More of the old-school mafia wives who didn’t want to run the show.”
Van Zandt saw Gabriella as one of those women who was always standing by her man. “They didn’t want to be the boss or take charge of anything,” she said. “They just wanted to get their hair done and their nails done and have nice clothes. And just be a support to their husbands.”
She knew these women well. “This was very much my life,” Van Zandt said of the mob world on Talking Sopranos. And after leaving that world to study ballet and acting, Van Zandt’s role required her to head straight back to Jersey. “I get the part and I think, ‘I have to go back to that,’” she recalled.
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