Drea de Matteo: Drea's Dread
Drea de Matteo plays tough on "The Sopranos," but in real life she claims to be wracked with fear, guilt and the desire to star in a Merchant-Ivory film.
For those of us who are addicted to "The Sopranos," the Prada-wearing Mafia girlfriend Adriana is a highlight of the show. The New Yawk-talking tough girl could easily be written off as a silly twit, except that actress Drea de Matteo has infused her with such heart that our sympathy is with her in every episode. I am sitting with de Matteo in the back of the vintage rock-and-roll clothing store she owns with her boyfriend in the heart of New York's East Village. Bits of stucco are falling on our heads and men with drills are constantly walking in and out. We're using piles of old fur coats as footrests. "This is the way my life is," de Matteo says, only slightly joking. "A mess, a complete mess."
I try to reassure her by telling her everyone feels like they're a mess, but after an hour of listening to her, I have to agree.
The daughter of a furniture manufacturer ("Big Al, we call him") and a playwright ("a real artiste, but with the talent to back it up"), de Matteo was raised in Queens, NY, mostly by her grandmother and a Nicaraguan nanny, who recently had a heart transplant and now lives with de Matteo and her boyfriend. ("It's perfect," de Matteo says. "First she took care of me, now I take care of her.") De Matteo's mother worked at the prestigious HB Studio, where she would bring Drea to rehearsals and readings. "I hated it," says de Matteo. "Instead of being out with other kids, I'd be watching these old people acting. If there was anything I knew, it was that I was never going to be an actress. When I hear that word, I want to cringe. I always expect them to be big, well, you'll pardon my language..." She goes on to spell out the c-word, as if I had never heard it.
After a series of stints in various high schools, de Matteo went to NYU to study directing. "I'd go to acting classes, but I'd always say, 'I'm only here so that I can understand you guys better when I'm directing you.' No way was I going to roll around on the floor and do monologues." But she kept returning to the classes. Every time she did a scene, she got praise. And although she didn't believe a word of it, she took advantage of an introduction to a manager who took her on--for a while. "One day she said, 'Listen, do us all a favor and do something about that voice of yours. I can't bear listening to it anymore. Go take voice lessons, opera lessons, and after a year, come back and I'll see how I feel about you, because no one is ever going to hire you.'"
De Matteo starts to laugh. "I think I became an actress just to get back at her. The joke is that I got an agent, and I got roles. I have worked on my voice. Adriana's voice isn't mine, it's the one I think is right for her."
De Matteo did two lines in the original pilot for "The Sopranos." Then they called her back in for the role of Adriana, which was supposed to last just one episode. "I was shaking from head to toe at the casting call. David Chase [the writer and series creator] wasn't sure I was Italian enough, because I had my hair pulled back and looked kind of Waspy, but he took a chance with me and they decided to keep Adriana on the show. I would get down on my knees and kiss David Chase's feet. I love him that much."
Like most actresses with TV success, de Matteo has made time for film work. She's done three indies, Sleepwalk, Abel Ferrara's R-Xmas, and Jon Favreau's Made, and two studio pictures, the '50s-set Deuces Wild, which stats Matt Dillon, Stephen Dorff and Fairuza Balk, and the summer blockbuster wannabe Swordfish. "Everybody is going to think of this as a John Travolta movie," she says of Swordfish, "but I think of it as Hugh Jackman's breakout movie."
None of de Matteo's film characters stray too far from Adriana, who, at least in an ethnic and geographical sense, doesn't stray too far from de Matteo. What de Matteo dreams of doing, though, is a Merchant-Ivory sort of piece, because, as she explains, "Being Drea drives me crazy." For now, she's busying herself with the new clothes line she and her boyfriend have created for their store. Known for her collection of rock-and-roll T-shirts, de Matteo is helping design a collection of denim and leather clothing. But just like everything else in her life, this project comes with complications.
"I love leather," she says, "and I'm a big meat eater, too. And I hate that about myself Because I have five animals, and how can I eat or wear them too? I love cows--one of my dogs looks just like a cow. I beat myself up all the time. I just ordered all this leather for my couch, and it's a sectional sofa, so I probably killed 450 cows to sit on it! My reasoning is that it's going to happen anyway and there's no way I can stop it as one person. And I know you have to be a big part of the group, but I'm a total loner. I hate all that activist shit anyway. As soon as someone tells me not to do something, I go right for it."
With that, de Matteo puts on her glasses, lights a cigarette, and for a moment, looks to all the world like the actress she is.
Martha Frankel interviewed Johnny Depp for the March issue of Movieline.