Actress Lorraine Bracco wants people to know that she takes her role of Dr. Jennifer Melfi in HBO’s Sopranos very seriously. As Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist in the Emmy-award winning series that just completed its fifth season, Bracco believes it is very important to keep a boundary line between shrink and client.
If a viewer feels any sexual energy in the air space between Dr. Melfi and mob boss, blame it on actor James Gandolfini. He’s the one, Bracco says, who goes to the show’s costumer and tells her to shorten Melfi’s skirts. Also, blame the energy on the shoes. The costumer selects the shoes for the actress to wear in her Dr. Melfi, as she becomes the sounding board for Soprano’s rage and often misplaced anger.
Yes, some of the shoes are Manuel Blanko, a standing-room-only crowd of over 300 fans learned recently as Bracco fielded questions at the Scranton Library during a book-signing for her memoir, “On the Couch.” The event was sponsored by R.J. Julia Booksellers.
“That’s his problem.” said Bracco, defending the professionalism of her character and explaining away the sexual tension between the show’s two characters. “That’s what he [Gandolfini, the actor] brings to the room…I do everything I can not to bring sexuality into the scene.
Bracco, a Brooklyn native, brought a whole lot of her own charm and personality into the library, wooing her audience with her openness, laughter and directness as she answered questions from fans well familiar with her role as Dr. Melfi and as Karen Hill, her Academy-Award nominating performance as the mobster’s wife in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. She answered a variety of questions for more than a half hour before she signed copies of her memoir, which she wrote because she had felt she “owed her parents and girls, not an apology, but the truth. “They seem to be very proud of me.”
Wearing a soft violet blazer over a low-cut V-neck sweater and white pants, the actress was accompanied to the book-signing by her partner, Jason Cipolla, 19 years her junior. Cipolla, a native of Howard Beach, NY, who played professional basketball in Europe, is the driver for the cast of The Sopranos.
Asked to sum up his relationship with the actress, Cipolla, who is 6’6” said, “We enjoy each other’s company. We fish; we cook; we garden. We have a lot going.”
Bracco had a lot going with her library audience, who throughout her appearance praised the actress for being “a real person” who came across with truth and honesty. She fielded questions about the character Dr. Melfi, mental illness, her half-Sicilian-English heritage, self-image, and the true crime records of some of the cast members.
Bracco, who will begin filming the final eight episodes of the HBO hit, with its final season airing next year, said she never regretted turning down the role of Carmela, Tony’s wife, which the series creator David Chase first offered to her.
The actress identified with the Melfi character on a personal basis. In her book she writes:
“She was a flawed, lonely woman who questioned her own life. She battled private demons of her own…She was a failure at marriage. She and her son didn’t get along. Privately, she suffered deep doubts, just like me. She was a woman who had sacrificed everything for her work and her desire to heal other’s torments, and who ended up being tormented herself. She hadn’t expected to be so sad at this point in her life, but she battle on. She tried to be straight with herself – to do the right thing. I saw Melfi holding out the hand of redemption to Tony Soprano, even as she searched for it in herself. A chill went up my spine. I was meant to play Dr. Melfi.
“I thought the relationship between Tony and Dr. Melfi was so interesting.” The actress had a little pact with Chase that he “wouldn’t make a mockery of therapy.”
One audience member asked if Bracco had been bothered by the scene in which her Dr. Melfi character is raped by a stranger in the stairwell of a parking garage.
“I took that home with me,” said Bracco, noting that Chase’s writing the rape into the script was his way of having viewers look at violence. “It’s a despicable act.” During the scene she felt the dramatic impact the acting was having on the crew because the cameramen talked in a whisper out of respect. She said that the actor who played the rapist was actually in conflict with his role because he was really a firefighter in Manhattan who wanted to act in the HBO series. “I’m a fireman,” Bracco recalled the actor saying. “I don’t hurt people.”
As an actress in front of the camera and under the microscope, Bracco was asked what she had to say to young women and girls obsessed with their image.
“I can’t fight that. I can only be 51. I can only look 51 and I can only act 51…It’s sad. Paris Hilton is a role model for our young girls. That’s a big problem,” said the actress, who has played the role of the mother to actress Drew Barrymore and actor Leonard DiCaprio.
In discussing the process of writing her book, she said some of the events in her life were painful to relive. She wanted the retelling of her life to be fair to everyone. “It’s not easy to write a book. I can’t say I like the process,” said the actress who recounts her life as a daughter, sister, model, actress, lover, wife, and mother. For the first time, she reveals the full story of her relationship with actor Harvey Keitel, the father of one of her two daughters, her difficult breakup with him and the highly publicized child custody battle that ensued.
“On the Couch” also brings to light Bracco’s bout with depression and her realization that it is okay to reach out for help, which she did through talk therapy and medication.
When asked why she felt this country has so much trouble in admitting to mental illness, Bracco said, “There is still a huge stigma against mental illness. People feel it’s a weakness. They don’t want to admit to it and that stops people from getting help. I had the stigma. ‘I can get over this. I can work it out’ – that low grade fever, that lack of a sense of joy. I had friends say, ‘Maybe you should go see people.’ I said, ‘No, I’m fine. I can get over this.’ I am so grateful to everyone who helped me and supported me…Mental illness is equated to being weak, and it’s not true.”
Bracco is surprised that fans focus on her roles in Goodfellas and The Sopranos when she has had major roles in film and even Broadway, most recently as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Other credits include roles in Someone to Watch Over Me, The Basketball Diaries, The Medicine Man, and Riding in Cars with Boys.
Her memoir includes details of her marriage to Daniel Guerard, a hairdresser she met while she was a model with Wilhelmina’s sister agency in Paris, where she went following her high school graduation. She gave birth to her first daughter Margaux, now 27. She and Guerard divorced and she met and moved in with actor Harvey Keitel who had a major influence on her becoming an actress. Two years after meeting, the couple’s daughter Stella was born in 1985. The couple split seven years later, a year after she and actor Edward James Olmos, with whom she starred in A Talent for the Games, had a brief affair. The couple eventually married in 1994, separated in 1997 and divorced in 2002.
Bracco is sad to see The Sopranos end its run next year. “I loved the job. I loved working in New York.”
The actress’s local appearance drew fans from as far away as Bingmington, NY. Marisa Reynolds, 30 and Cathy Murphy, 38, both orchestra teachers at their local elementary schools, traveled four and a half hours to meet Bracco.
“I follow her career,” said Reynolds. “I read part of her book and looked on the Internet to where she would be appearing. I really like her character. She’s a really classy lady, a good role model. She’s made something of her life even though she had rough times. She’s the kind of person you would want to take out for a drink and have a good laugh.”
Rosemary Arnone of Killingworth also admires Bracco for her perseverance in getting through the bad times. “She’s a marvelous actress – very powerful, very dynamic…very real.”
Amy State of Branford, has been a personal friend of the actress the past 18 years. The two women met on the set of The Medicine Man in Mexico where Bracco was filming with actor Sean Connery.. State was the costumer for the movie.
a fantastic human being – a deeply kind person,” State said.