There’s a scene in The Sopranos episode “Down Neck,” that proves the show is largely about dad problems. Tony (James Gandolfini) — the endlessly complex mobster who’s seeing a psychiatrist over his depression and panic attacks — is digging into family dynamics with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). They’re talking about his father, the captain of a ‘70s crime family. Was Dad Soprano a saint, as Tony’s viper of a mother endlessly extolls? Or was he a gangster who routinely and casually ignored his son while exerting his muscle on the streets?
“I was proud to be Johnny Soprano’s kid. When he beat the shit out of that guy, I went to the class, I told them how tough my father was,” Tony proudly tells his shrink. But here’s the rub. Tony’s own son, Anthony Junior, is dipping his toes into delinquency. He’s drinking at school. He’s getting into brawls. Is it his age? Or is it an inevitable byproduct of genetics, of the Soprano family legacy? Melfi wonders if young Anthony is proud of his dad.
“Yeah, probably and I’m glad. I’m glad if he’s proud of me. But that’s the bind I’m in. Because I don’t want him to be like me. He can be anything he wants to be.”
The relationship between fathers and sons is the connective tissue that runs through both The Sopranos — arguably one of the greatest TV series of all time — and its new prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, out this week on HBO Max. Set in the late ’60s and early ’70, in gritty New Jersey, the movie charts the rise and fall and rise of the Soprano family through the eyes of fellow mobster Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). The deeply affecting film is the brainchild of David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, starring Jon Bernthal as a younger version of Tony Soprano’s dad, Johnny Boy, who was a peripheral, yet key figure during the series.
Johnny Boy is a brutal cipher, a man who, as one character says, could use a personality transplant. Yet underneath it all says Bernthal, there’s a hunger to somehow find common ground with his son and do right by his family.
“I really hope that you see that there’s an inner yearning and an inner frustration there, for things that aren’t working. But it’s so habitualized to behave in a certain way,” Bernthal tells Fatherly. “Some of the weaker decisions in your life, you’re sort of trapped by those. You’re trapped by things that people in your life expect you to do. And sometimes they go completely against what you know in your heart is right. I really wanted Johnny Boy to feel that way about Tony and for you to know that it was something he just could not express.”
Bernthal shares the screen with Michael Gandolfini, who projects eerie confidence as the young Tony Soprano. In real life, Michael Gandolfini lost his own dad when he was 14. Now he’s playing his own father.
“Michael is such a beautiful young man and I was really taken with his courage and his conviction,” Bernthal says. “I really felt like this was a mission for him. He was sort of embarking on this whole thing, traveling the country, getting to know people who were really close to his dad. There’s really no words to express just brave it was for him to take on this part.”
The two became friends, sure. But they also established something of a paternal relationship. “I believe in him and I believe in the life he’s carving out for himself and the way in which he treats his relationships and cherishes his relationships,” Bernthal says, adding that the young Gandolfini is more “grounded” than “a guy almost twice his age. approached this with humility and trepidation and thought and care. His dad was one of my favorite artists of all time and getting to sort of revisit what that man did and now to feel this connection with this hero of mine, through this young man that I really love, it’s such a gift in my life.”
Bernthal, himself a father of three, has to date been best known for roles that can only be characterized as the antithesis of sensitive and reflective: He was Frank Castle / The Punisher in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and The Walking Dead’s Frank Walsh, an often remorseless, aggressive, pragmatic realist and group leader. Yet Bernthal says he approaches those roles with a combination of hope and optimism.
“I don’t believe in monsters,” Bernthal explains. “I think that every parent loves their child. My mother was a foster parent. She took in foster kids. I’ve seen really the power of what love can do for a child — unprecedented, unquestioned, unflinching love. To me, the pillars of strength, the examples of strength, in my life are all men who are very strong, very confident, but can also totally admit when they’re wrong.”
It’s the same lesson he applies to his own parenting. Admitting mistakes isn’t a sign of weakness, of acquiescence. It’s the opposite.
“The biggest thing that I swore to myself I would do as a dad is always admitting when I was wrong. Always take responsibility, always say that I don’t know the answer, but here’s my answer. And no matter what this is going to be, I’m going to roll with you on this. I’m going to be by your side,” he says.
Being a dad also gives Bernthal some leeway to cut Johnny Boy a break. The dude basically tried his best. But he didn’t have anyone modeling anything different. Nor did he have the wherewithal to realize that there was, in fact, another way to parent his kids.
“Parenting is the one job where you’re not going to get it right,” Bernthal admits. “You’re gonna fail. You just know it’s the hardest job you’ll ever have. It’s the most important job you’ll ever have and you’re going to fail. And sometimes my emotions get the best of me. Sometimes my feelings are the boss of me and it’s our job to try to become the boss of our feelings.”
This idea touches on the narrative that bridges The Many Saints of Newark and The Sopranos: Can children escape the legacy of toxic parenting? Can they forge a life separate from what they know, what was ingrained in them? For Tony, could there have been a separate path forward, away from Johnny Boy?
“It is my fundamental belief that every dad — no matter if they’re in their child’s life or out of their child’s life — if they’re present or if they’re not present; there is an unquestionable bonded love that is so strong. You want to love your child, and you want everything for your child, and you would give anything up for your child. Sometimes you can’t express it. Sometimes you can’t show it through actions or through words.”
But as The Many Saints of Newark proves, and Jon Bernthal knows, that love is still there. Always.
The Many Saints of Newark is out now on HBO Max and in theaters.