How The Many Saints Of Newark Star John Magaro Stepped Into Steven Van Zandt's Shoes [Interview]

"The Sopranos" is a show full of larger-than-life characters, and that is especially true about Silvio Dante. Actor Steven Van Zandt is a tough act to follow — there's just nobody else like him. And yet, actor John Magaro stepped comfortably into his shoes for the new prequel film, "The Many Saints of Newark." For the actor, it was an intimidating role for a variety of reasons.

Helping to both ease and maybe heighten any fears was his own friendship with Van Zandt, who worked on "Sopranos" creator David Chase's feature film "Not Fade Away," which starred Marago. Magaro didn't want to only do the original Silvio performance justice — he wanted to pay tribute to his friend. 

We recently sat down with Magaro, who told us all about his transformation into Silvio Dante.

"There's only one Steven Van Zandt."

What'd you learn from revisiting the show to prepare for "The Many Saints of Newark"?

I grew up watching the show as a teenager and through college and when I started working as an actor. And I've known Steven Van Zandt for a lot of years now. I did a movie with David about 10, 11 years ago called "Not Fade Away." Steven was our music director on it. So, we got pretty close on that. I spent a lot of time with him, and we spent time over the years, David, Steven, and our families, having dinners together.

So, it's challenging. I'm not only playing an iconic character that's really loved, but I'm also playing someone I know and I care about. Also, as a fan, you want to do service to it. I went back and I revisited the series and watched it, and I think people tend to forget what kind of big characters these people were.

I think you do have to go back and watch, like you forget how kind of broad all of them were. I mean, I think that's why we kind of fell in love with them. I also went back and watched the old clips of Steven when he was with the E Street Band, but him as a young man with the band. Just to see how his mannerisms were in his twenties and thirties. I guess they're mostly in their thirties, those videos. But, yeah. I tried to elevate it from, not just an imitation, but inhabiting him as much as I could.

What's the main difference there for you?

Well, it's really tricky with these guys because like I said, they are big characters and they're very recognizable. It was really kind of living in it. It wasn't just like a mask you're putting on. I guess some people may still see it that way, but it wasn't just for the jokes. What the jokes became were more in the situation.

When we were watching it the other night, the walk got a laugh. He walks down to Michael. The walk was never intended necessarily to be a joke. I think that's just the way he walks. I think when we recognize that when we see that on film, we get a laugh out of it. Whereas I think if you're doing just that imitation, you do the walk to get a laugh.

Like you said, the characters are broad, but there really is only one Steven Van Zandt, you know what I mean?

Yeah, there really is. There's only one Steven Van Zandt. There's only one Tony Sirico. There's only one Vinny Pastore. Having to jump into those shoes is a scary thing because those guys, in a lot of ways, were those guys. No one is going to be that. So, it's a scary thing to do. We've seen it before. They did the Han Solo movie and stuff like that, but someone has to do it. So, we were the idiots who were dumb enough to do it.

"F*cking cheese in my shoes."

You've known David Chase for 10 years now.

Yeah. Maybe more now.

What was it like when you two first met?

Oh my gosh. I mean, it was so long ago, but I remember walking in and David, at first, he's hard to read. He seems like he might hate you. I think people just misjudge him because he doesn't put on frills. He's direct and he's honest. So at first, yeah, I thought he hated me. And even as I approached getting that part, because it took a few auditions, there was a singing audition, there was a lot of stuff. I still was unsure. But as we started working, I realized that he's just a genuine person, and he is extremely generous and caring and really loves his cast. think that's why people who work with him become kind of a family.

I interviewed him recently, and I can see a bit of what you're saying, but getting a laugh out of him, you know it's not fake.

Well, that's the thing. If he laughs, it's a genuine laugh. I respect that. I like that about people. I like that he's not a phony, that's just who he is.

Even with your relationship to him, did you still audition for "Many Saints"?

I did. Because I think, people forget Alan Taylor is the director. I didn't have a relationship with Alan Taylor. So, he wanted to see me. So, I came in. And, yeah. I auditioned for the part.

What scenes were used in the audition?

I had two scenes. They were from the series. The one scene is the scene where Sil is at the poker game, and he's making a mess with the food. And, one of the young guys comes in, Tony tells him to sweep up under him. And he starts sweeping up under him, and he freaks out at the kid. So that was one scene.

The cheese.

[Laughs] The cheese. Yeah, yeah. F*cking cheese in my shoes, right. And then the other scene is a great scene, probably one of the scenes where you really got to kind of first see Steve get to do a really nice scene. And it was a scene where he confronts Tony about giving Steve Buscemi's character, Tony B, a pass. And he's like, basically, you got to kill.

Obviously, you always want to serve a writer's vision as well as a director's, but was it different in this case?

Yeah. I imagine that was hard for Alan, but it's weird. I guess there's not a lot of situations like this. I think maybe George Lucas with "Star Wars." Coppola did all the Godfathers and Spielberg, maybe, he directed all of the Indiana Jones movies, right?

Except for the next one, yeah.

So, I don't think there's a lot of cases like this. It's unique. It is David's world. He made it. So, we all have a reverence for him and we kind of almost differed... We all kind of look to him for how he approves of it, even Alan too. It's his world, so we just want to honor it.

"That gallows humor, I think that's what gets us through it."

When the wig flies off, that's a great laugh.

But it also clarifies something. David came into this and he was like, Sil's bald. I mean me as a fan, I knew that Steven was wearing a piece, but I didn't necessarily know that in David's mind, Sil was a bald man.

So, he wanted to come into this and show that. But then, we decided on having him get the piece throughout so you see that progression. But then, it became like, well, people are going to just think it's like his handsome brother. I don't know if people will understand that this is Silvio, and he was bald and he got himself a hairpiece.

I think we were looking for an opportunity to clarify that, and that scene gave us a chance to do it. It could happen organically. Where in the struggle the piece comes off. And then, there's no question that that's Silvio, and that was him before. And then the laugh that came out of it, that was just a bonus. That became the bonus.

That gallows humor, I think that's what gets us through it. If it was just all dark and it was just all heavy, I don't think it would've worked as well. But, David brings this dark humor to it that we get a laugh at the ugliness of life.

David Chase told me how he feels about "Not Fade Away." He wasn't happy with the release, and he thinks he could've directed it better, but how do you look back at that experience?

It's a really special movie for me. When there are fans of it, I really appreciate it. I think it's an under-appreciated movie. But it was really meaningful. I formed a lot of good friendships. Obviously me and David, that's where we became friends. The other actors Will Brill and Jack Houston, Bella Heathcote remained in touch. I got to learn to play the drums. I got to sing. It was just really special for me.

I think David had a cut that was a lot longer. I remember that script being like one of the most perfectly written scripts I've ever read. And because of the industry, a lot of it got left on the cutting room floor.

I think Dave sort of regrets that. I think we all are a little bitter about how it was distributed and how it was marketed. It kind of got lost. But those are the lessons you learn. I was a young man at the time, and I had such great, wonderful memories from it. All the stuff that happened afterwards, we can't control that. That just happens.

"The Many Saints of Newark" is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max today.