How Corey Stoll inhabits Junior Soprano seamlessly, paying homage instead of offering an impersonation

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Warner Brothers Pictures

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Corey Stoll is one of those “oh, it’s that guy” actors, a face that both moviegoers and television show lovers will recognize without knowing the name. Imagine seeing that really charismatic friend at a party but you don’t know their name, so you just walk over towards them to engage them in a conversation.

For an actor, a chameleon veneer can be your best friend and that’s very true for Stoll–who was born and raised Jewish in New York City. In “The Many Saints of Newark,” out in theaters and HBO Max starting today, Stoll inhabits one of the more famous television roles ever: Uncle Junior on “The Sopranos.”

Hardcore fans of the HBO hit series will remember Dominic Chianese instilling a sense of comedic dread and old gangster poetry as the conniving Corrado “Junior” Soprano, someone who wasn’t the biggest fan of the late James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano throughout the series. Fourteen years after the show came to an end, Stoll gets to climb into the skin of a much younger Corrado, someone still looking to mentor and guide a young Tony (played by Michael Gandolfini, James’ son). In David Chase’s new film, one can see a dynamic between Stoll’s Uncle Junior and Alessandro Nivola’s Dickie Moltisanti over Tony’s soul start to form, a battle of wills if you can imagine.

The key is Stoll not overplaying the role, just like Chianese avoided doing on television. Corrado’s biggest strength wasn’t the ability to order a hit on someone or do the killing himself: he could disarm a powerful man with his honesty. Whether he had all his marbles or not, Junior told it like it was and never felt sorry for it. During a scene late in the series at a family dinner where the family fears Junior has lost his mind, Chianese tells them out of the blue that Tony never had the makings of a varsity athlete. When Stoll says the exact same line in the new movie, at the dinner table nevertheless, the dialogue read is seamless.

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That’s due to Stoll not trying to merely impersonate Corrado, instead showing moviegoers the vines where the animosity grew between Tony and his uncle. That scene is one of the many inside joke-type pleasures that fans of the TV show will receive in “The Many Saints of Newark,” an origin tale that covers more than one character.

When we first meet Corey’s Junior in the film, he’s not as powerful as he eventually will be, but there’s a lurking sinisterness to his words and decisions that gives you an idea of what he is truly capable of. You realize just how strong of a threat he could be, and Stoll does a terrific job of understating Junior’s temper and anger.

He’s a character actor at heart, aka someone who plays supporting parts to a tee. They are more than likely not the star of the film, mixing into the ensemble of a story instead of standing in the middle. On shows like “House of Cards” and “Billions,” Stoll inhabits supporting players and makes them so good that you want more time with them, protagonist or antagonist. Marvel movie fans will know him from “Ant-Man,” where he played Darren Cross, the villain standing in Paul Rudd’s way.

In HBO’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” he’s the best friend of the lead character (Oscar Isaac), getting a handful of scenes in the first two episodes. He also helped clean up the Boston streets as a bulldog prosecutor going after Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass,’ as well as Buzz Aldrin in the Ryan Gosling-starring biopic, “First Man.” With Stoll, you look for the star of the movie or show and wait for the thorn in their side to appear. More often than not, that’s Stoll’s specialty, playing the man in the middle.

In “Many Saints,” he’s once again the man in the middle, playing the person who wanted to guide Tony but found himself pushed out of the way by Nivola’s Dickie. If there’s a conflict at the center of the film, it’s these three men and not the street turf war with the African American mafia. Stoll, Nivola and Gandolfini sell it remarkably: three supporting players getting a bigger piece of the pie.

Here’s the thing about Stoll. If he shows up, the movie is going to get a lot better. If he has a bigger part than usual, it could be a very good movie. Throughout his career-whether it’s a mad man or an innocent man twisted the wrong way-he always gives a performance with depth.

He’s one of the better parts of “The Many Saints of Newark,” out today. Don’t miss it.

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