1 of 5 | William Ludwig plays Tony Soprano as a youth and teen. Photo by Kenneth Dolin
NEW YORK, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- William Ludwig said it was daunting for his first major film job to be playing the younger version of fictional New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano in The Many Saints of Newark.
Set to debut in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, the movie is a prequel to The Sopranos, the Emmy-winning drama series that ran from 1997 to 2006 on HBO.
The late James Gandolfini played the iconic role of Tony in his '30s and '40s on the show. Ludwig, 14, and Gandolfini's son, Michael, 22, portray Tony as a youth and teen, respectively, in The Many Saints of Newark.
"It was, honestly, a little bit scary at first because I had these big shoes to fill," Ludwig told UPI in a recent phone interview.
"But Michael Gandolfini reached out to me the moment I booked the role and he started talking to me about how to play Tony and how he really is as a person and that, deep down, he really is just this innocent guy who wants to do the right thing."
The two actors worked together so their performances would seem like a natural evolution of the character from a neighborhood kid to a powerful don.
"Michael is one of the nicest people you will ever meet," Ludwig said. "He explained to me some of the mannerisms, like how Tony's nose and cheeks kind of scrunch up when he talks. He kind of talks with a little bit of a lisp."
A dialect coach helped Ludwig with the New Jersey accent and urged him to practice swearing at home to really sound like Tony.
"My parents weren't exactly thrilled," Ludwig laughed. "They were like: 'Could you please stop doing this? We are trying to do our work here.' And I'm like, 'This is my work, too.'"
Directed by Alan Taylor, who helmed episodes of The Sopranos, The Many Saints of Newark is set amid racial tension between rival crime syndicates in the title city of the 1960s and '70s. It co-stars Alessandro Nivola, Jon Bernthal, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Corey Stoll, Billy Magnussen and Ray Liotta.
According to Ludwig, Tony didn't know initially what his family did for a living and simply idolized his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti (Nivola), because his own father, Johnny (Bernthal), was absent for most of his childhood.
"Dickie really became Tony's father figure, and Dickie taught him the ways of being a mobster, and Tony felt like he needed to prove to Dickie that he should love him," Ludwig said.
"Tony's just following in Dickie's footsteps because he didn't have any other guidance or any other direction. He felt pressured into that mobster box," Ludwig added. "This is about Dickie Moltisanti and how he shaped Tony into the monster that he is in the series."
In an example of life imitating art, Nivola was a mentor to Ludwig on the film's set, but in a good way.
"I learned so much from just watching how Alessandro gets into character," the younger actor recalled.
"Depending on the scene, he'll either be sad or super-enthusiastic the whole day," he said. "He was just such a nice guy right from the beginning."
Ludwig also enjoyed sharing the screen with Liotta, who he described as a "mobster legend," thanks to his role in the 1990 movie, Goodfellas, in which he acted alongside several future Sopranos stars, including Lorraine Bracco, Tony Darrow, Frank Vincent and Michael Imperioli.
"It was absolutely crazy to me," Ludwig said of the stellar cast of Saints. "It's so amazing to have worked with these awesome people, and it was really cool to see how all these creative minds came together."
Because The Sopranos went off the air the year Ludwig was born, he wasn't part of the show's original fanbase, so he binged the series with his real-life father to prepare for his audition.
The screening sessions helped him see the distinctive ways Gandolfini walked and talked.
"We, obviously, skipped the Bada Bing parts," Ludwig joked, referring to how his father fast-forwarded age-inappropriate scenes that took place at the strip club where most of the wise guys hung out on the show.
His mom and dad supported him as he tried out for the role, though.
"Both of my parents freaked out when they figured out this was The Sopranos movie because on the audition [notice,] it just said, 'untitled New Jersey project,'" he said.
While Sopranos fans may be the most eager to see Saints, one needn't be an aficionado to love the film, Ludwig insisted.
"It's just an awesome mob movie. It's a movie about family, and there's action and there's crime. There's a thrill to it," Ludwig said. "You could go in not knowing anything about The Sopranos and still have a really good time watching this movie."