(Photo by Warner Bros. / Barry Wetcher)
Young actor Willam Ludwig makes his feature film debut this month in The Many Saints of Newark, the long-anticipated prequel film to legendary mob TV series The Sopranos. And talk about an auspicious – and challenging – debut: Ludwig plays none other than a young Tony Soprano, stepping into the mammoth shoes of the late James Gandolfini, whose son Michael also plays the character as a teenager in the latter half of the movie.
It’s a testimony to the actor’s skills that he not only feels like an instantly believable young Anthony – here, a brilliant and promising kid with a good heart who finds himself pulled towards darker influences that fill his world – but holds his own against actors like Vera Farmiga (as his mother, Livia), Alessandro Nivola (as Dickie Moltisanti, his mentor and the protagonist of the film), and Ray Liotta (Dickie’s live-wire father).
It was Liotta who gave Ludwig one of his favorite pieces of acting advice: “Never take yourself too seriously.”
Ahead of the movie’s release in theaters and on HBO Max, we caught up with Ludwig to talk playing an icon, watching (or not watching) the Bada Bing scenes in The Sopranos with his dad, and about his five favorite movies… which include a Liotta classic.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
I really enjoy the style of Wes Anderson and the way he frames his shots so symmetrically, and the color palettes he chose, and he chooses, for all of his movies. I think that’s really impressive and amazing how he just sticks with that. And the characters that he comes up with when he writes, I think that’s so incredible; the actors that portray these characters are amazing, too.
I really like this movie a lot because the relationship between the concierge, Gustave, and the lobby boy, Zero, was really compelling – the relationship continues to grow over the film and they start to learn more about each other, especially Gustave learning about Zero and how he’s a refugee and he has his green card. And when Monsieur Gustave gets shot down by the French police and Zero continues his journey and Zero inherits, or buys, the Grand Budapest Hotel in the end of the movie and he is telling the story about how he changed it to make it feel more like him…
So good. The performance by Ray Liotta in this movie! And I love the intro because I really like making little short films with my friends and I love the big dramatic music and intros with all the cuts synced with the music. I think it’s so cool in the beginning where it starts out with them closing the trunk and it just goes [makes sound] – Goodfellas – just the coolest thing.
I watched Goodfellas when we came back for reshoots [for The Many Saints of Newark]. I was talking with Ray Liotta on the plane there and he was like, “You should watch Goodfellas.” And my mom was like, “What do you think about that? What should he take from that movie?” He was like, “No, I just want to see what he thinks of me.”
He’s such an incredible actor and he’s got this mob movie thing down to a fine line. He’s spectacular. And he gave me this really good piece of advice where he said, “Never take yourself too seriously. All we’re doing is we’re just doing our job and getting some makeup done, dressing up, and playing pretend. We have an awesome job and we shouldn’t take it for granted.”
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
I love this movie. It’s such a feel-good movie. I just love Chris Pratt and his ability to switch from comedic to dramatic in an instance. I think that’s really, really compelling and he’s a great actor for that. And I love the music in this movie. It’s just, it’s so nice how it fits with the character and how they built the character around all this music. It was really fun to watch with my family and we all had a lot of laughs.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Such a classic. It’s so dramatic. I really like the message of hope it portrays. Because it’s these guys, they’re just stuck in prison for so long, they’re there for 20 years to life, all they can think about is possibly getting parole, which they’re always like, “Ah, it’ll never happen.” It’s based in the 1940s and all the outfits and the old-timey sets are really cool to me. I love time-period things.
Rotten Tomatoes: As someone who likes period sets and costumes, was it fun to be in a period film like Many Saints?
It was like being in a time machine. It was so amazing! There was this one scene on the pier; that was originally going to be one of the third or fourth scenes, but David Chase, he rewrote it to the opening, which I’m very happy with. But that scene was with 250 extras, which was incredible. And they were all dressed up in these extravagant suits and dresses all from the 1960s, all their hair done. Because travel back then, you had to be all dolled up and everything. And seeing all this old-timey luggage and these… Even the carts that they pushed the luggage in was just amazing. It was so incredible how they put this all together. It was like being in a time machine.
The original Cars: that is my most feel-good movie. I watched that movie when I was really little, when I was struggling with my asthma; I would be on breathing treatments and I would just watch that movie. I knew every single line to “Life is a Highway.” I could sing it effortlessly and my mom would just sit next to me. We’d watch it 500 times. I think she was tired of it, but I really liked it.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: How familiar were you with The Sopranos before this opportunity came into your life?
William Ludwig: Well, the show ended the year I was born – if you can believe that!?
Rotten Tomatoes: I can!
Ludwig: So I had a little bit of familiarity with The Sopranos and that it was so legendary, but I never really understood what it meant to people until I got the role and I started doing a lot of research on it. And when we started telling people about it, they were freaking out. And I was like, “Wait, what? Oh, no, I’ve really got to do good on this one.”
I watched the first season of The Sopranos with my dad and my mom. And my dad made me cover my eyes during all the Bada Bing parts. And then we watched a few select key important episodes throughout the series. Again, [gestures covering his eyes] for all of the Bada Bing parts.
Rotten Tomatoes: You don’t share scenes with Michael Gandolfini, who plays teenage Tony, but I know you two did bond. Did you talk to him about the role and the character? What was your relationship like and how did he help you to become Tony/ Anthony Soprano?
Ludwig: Michael and I are super close now. The second I booked it, he reached out. He Skyped me. Skype, if you can believe that? He Skyped me. And he really helped me understand who Tony is as a character and what he means to so many people. And he helped me embody all the mannerisms, like the hunchback and how his face scrunches up like this [scrunches face] when he talks.
(Photo by Barry Wetcher / © Warner Bros.)
Rotten Tomatoes: How would you yourself describe Anthony as he is in the movie, at age 11? If he was a buddy of yours at school and someone said, “Oh, what’s Tony like?”, what would you say?
Ludwig: He’s someone who just wants to do the right thing. He wants to help people. He wants to be there for people that he cares about. And he’s really innocent in the beginning of the movie. And you can see throughout the film, he grows up. He turns into a plant. When you do a science experiment in class and you put the light to the right and you put the plant upside down and you see how the plant always grows to the sunlight. Tony is like that: he’s drawn into this mobster lifestyle. Something that he doesn’t want to be a part of, but he’s forced into it. And he’s trapped in this mobster box of feeling like he has to grow up to be this big, scary guy when really deep down he wants to do the right thing.
Rotten Tomatoes: As well as working with Michael, you also worked with some pretty legendary actors. You spoke about Ray. Alessandro’s also incredible in this film.
Ludwig: Alessandro’s so good. He’s an amazing actor. The first time I was on set was the funeral scene. When I walked in, Alessandro was sitting down in this chair in the front row and he was just looking down. He captured how his character feels and he just portrayed that throughout the whole day. But when I walked up to him, when I saw him for the first time in person, he snaps out of it so fast and he goes, “Hey, Michael, how are you? It’s so good to see you.” And we chatted for a little bit. And then I go to my spot and he sits right back down, goes back down and starts brooding again. It was really amazing to watch him do that.
Rotten Tomatoes: And what about working with Vera Farmiga and establishing that mother-son relationship?
Ludwig: Well, Vera is such a sweet lady. She’s like a mother, really. Mattea Conforti, who plays young Janice, we taught Vera how to hit the whoa in 2019. If you can remember what the whoa is? [Author’s note: I did not, but William demonstrated.] We taught Vera Farmiga how to hit the whoa! And she told us the story about how Millie Bobby Brown taught her how to do the whip/nae nae.
Rotten Tomatoes: And finally, did you get to eat any of the baked ziti on the set?
Ludwig: Well, the confirmation scene with young Janice, I was shoveling penne pasta down my throat for eight hours. So I had probably the worst stomach ache I’ve ever experienced in my whole life.
Rotten Tomatoes: Because there’s no tricks for that when the camera’s on, right? You’ve just go to eat and eat and eat.
Ludwig: Hey, we didn’t have to pay for any of it.
The Many Saints of Newark is in theaters and available on HBO Max from Friday October 1, 2021.
Thumbnail image: Kenneth Dolin, Bob Yeoman / © Fox Searchlight Pictures, © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, © Warner Bros., © Columbia Pictures, © Walt Disney