Paul Sorvino isn’t a Mafioso.
But he does play one on screen.
Out of the 105 films in which he has appeared, Sorvino is mostly remembered for the seven roles he has played as a Mafia member.
The macho and gruff image exhibited through these characters is a stretch for the articulate actor, who begins his run this weekend as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the latest production of the North Carolina Theatre in Raleigh.
On Jan. 14, Sorvino told tales from his life and career in conjunction with the Screen Actors Guild Foundation’s Conversations series. Local actors, media members and Raleigh residents gathered to hear Sorvino’s take on the industry and the life he has led.
Sorvino joked about what brought him to Raleigh for the show, citing “an airplane,” but went more in depth about his decision to play Tevye.
“I’ve been offered the role six or seven times, and I never felt right to play it,” he said. “When I was younger I saw Tevye as passive.”
But as he has gained more life experience, it seemed appropriate to Sorvino that he finally accept the role.
“If you have two daughters, you’ve been through a lot of this stuff. Tevye struggles over powers he can’t control and adapts to very different changes,” Sorvino said. “I wish I could be Tevye, that’s where I am now, and that’s why I’m here.”
Sorvino was exposed to many Jewish refugees while growing up in Borough Park in Brooklyn, and the destruction of their way of life has ruminated with him throughout his life.
“I saw this boy with the saddest face I’d ever seen and, being a very sensitive person, it struck me very hard,” Sorvino said. “Their value of life was scarred and ripped apart, and it never has left me.”
Aside from the obvious Jewish qualities Tevye possesses, Sorvino believes the character is a model for all.
“Tevye is indeed universal. All of us have seen ways of life changed; you’ll see poverty, success and joy if you live long enough,” Sorvino said.
While Tevye struggles as a father, Sorvino is the definition of a “proud papa,” commenting often about the joys of fatherhood.
However, his memories of his father are mixed with fondness and old fears.
“Wonder Bread and happy childhood does not an artist make,” Sorvino said.
However, his mother is an entirely different subject.
“There was nobody like my mother. She could play that piano so loud, and you could put your ear in it and it not hurt. That was talent.”
Paul inherited his mother’s talent for piano, even playing backstage before his interview, but he is the first to extol on the tenacity he exhibited when tuning his acting craft.
Even in his youth, Sorvino was more into acting than roughing up neighborhood kids. He had to hide his intelligence and talent from his peers, but his gift became more obvious as he began his voice lessons and won vocal scholarships.
But having to act like a tough Italian must have given Sorvino some practice.
“I was tall but not tough; I was like Ferdinand the bull,” he said. “I had my role to play, and the habit continued. The irony of my life is being typecast as a Mafioso, and people still don’t know my intelligence.”
At his various public schools, Sorvino might have had to fake his toughness, but at New York Music & Dramatic Academy, he was able to perfect his craft.
Sorvino places a lot of emphasis on the standards he sets for himself as an actor and was amazed when notorious acting professor Sanford Meisner criticized an actress in Sorvino’s class for crying because the tears weren’t real.
Upon her review by Meisner, the girl began to cry, and the class learned its lesson.
“I will never look with my eyes again; I’ll only look with my insides,” Sorvino said, thumping his chest for emphasis. “It established my character as an actor and gave me my standards.”
Sorvino prides himself for his devotion to truth and genuine acting, but credits it not to raw talent, but to studying and perfecting methods.
“I may have bored you here and there (in my career), but I’ve never had a false moment,” he said.
“I really wanted to be good. That didn’t come by talent. I was a madman. Others I’d rather watch, but nobody does it better than I do.”
In addition to speaking about his own methods, Sorvino also advised the actors in the crowd, giving them guidance as an actor and director.
He said that his favorite projects from his career were “Dummy,” a made-for-TV movie; “A Touch of Class,” “Goodfellas,” and “A Championship Season,” a role for which he was nominated for a Tony.
He advised students to follow his lead, to not fake emotions and find classes where that isn’t asked of you.
“Make sure (the class) doesn’t violate your sense of truth; it must feel right,” he said. “If they’re applauding you for something that doesn’t feel right, leave that class.”
While Sorvino is well-known for his acting, many might not be aware of his other talents — poetry, writing, singing, piano, painting and sculpting. Currently, sculpting is leading the pack as far as Sorvino’s creative connection is concerned.
“It’s mine alone. I finish it and it’s mine,” he said. “It’s the same with Tevye. There are small moments that I feel inside myself where I’ve reached a level that makes me whole.”
Whether it’s acting, sculpting, singing or being a family man, Paul Sorvino seems to pour everything he has into each endeavor. His tenacity is admirable, and many artists could aspire to reach his level — as a person and a professional actor.
In fact, his closing remark could be applicable to anyone, actors or the public.
“Dilettantes perform well when they’re inspired,” Sorvino said. “Artists perform well to become inspired.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” will run from Jan. 22-Jan. 30, sponsored by the North Carolina Theatre and performed at the BTI Center Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com.
Contact the A&E Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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