NEW YORK - In the five years since "The Sopranos" ended, James Gandolfini has eschewed the spotlight, instead disappearing into a heap of character actor performances that, while they may lack the heft of Tony Soprano, have only further proved the actor's wide-ranging talent.
This season offers a gluttony of Gandolfini, albeit in bite-sized parts. In Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden hunt docudrama "Zero Dark Thirty," he plays Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. In David Chase's `60s period drama "Not Fade Away," he plays the old-school father of a wannabe rocker. And in Andrew Dominick's crime flick "Killing Them Softly," he plays an aged, washed-up hit man.
None of the roles are showy lead men, and that's just fine with Gandolfini.
"I'm much more comfortable doing smaller things," Gandolfini said in a recent interview. "I like them. I like the way they're shot; they're shot quickly. It's all about the scripts - that's what it is - and I'm getting some interesting little scripts."
The 51-year-old actor takes scant pleasure in interviews and rarely does them. This is partly because Gandolfini - sitting attentively with his hands on his knees, his head back and his let's-hear-what-you-have-to-say eyes tilted downward - distrusts the ego-inflating effect of attention. Explaining his interest in a character, he breaks off: "I always wonder how interesting any of this is to people. It's just my own (stuff)."
Though Gandolfini's achievement playing Tony Soprano for eight years is unquestioned (he won three Emmy awards), the sensation of the show - and the long time spent playing a violent, sometimes loathsome gangster - grated on Gandolfini. He says that after "The Sopranos," he didn't quite regain himself as an actor until he starred in the Tony-winning play "God of Carnage" on Broadway in 2009. He played half of a Brooklyn couple trying to resolve a squabble with another couple over a fight between their children - a part also revealing of our underlying animalism.
"It really grounded me more as an actor again," says Gandolfini. "Then I could go off and try different things."
Gandolfini's recent work has vacillated from comedy, his genre of choice (as a Washington general in the political satire "In the Loop") to heartwarming drama (as a businessman moved to rehabilitate an abandoned teenage girl, Kristen Stewart, in "Welcome to the Rileys"). He voiced the Wild Thing Carol in "Where the Wild Things Are," a performance that, by stripping him of his sizable frame, highlighted his tenderness.
One of his favorite films, he says, was John Turturro's long-delayed "Romance & Cigarettes," a funny, anti-extravagant musical about a working class family. He's produced several HBO documentaries about veterans: "Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq" and "Wartorn: 1861-2010," which chronicled posttraumatic stress.
"He took up a lot of his time with `God of Carnage,' and I was sort of missing him from the screen," says Chase, the "Sopranos" creator. "He's doing a lot of work now but I think he was taking a cooling off period."
For Gandolfini, reuniting with Chase on "Not Fade Away" was like "getting back to work" on a simple, small movie set after the "big huge thing" of the "The Sopranos." Chase calls the actor his "first responder" to his scripts.
"The main thing we have is a small sharing of a certain amount of self-loathing and a sense of humor," says Gandolfini, laughing. "I get David's sense of humor immediately."
In "Not Fade Away," Gandolfini reprises certain characteristics of Tony Soprano - an Italian patriarch displeased with his son - but the film also turns on a tender moment that bridges the generational divide. "Every guy who was in a band, that was the father," says Steven Van Zandt, Gandolfini's "Sopranos" co-star and a producer on "Not Fade Away."
"It's the time when you find out, all of a sudden you realize as you get older, that maybe your father wasn't just there to raise you, that he actually had dreams of his own and things that he wanted to do and things that he's sacrificed," says Gandolfini, a father of a 13-year-old son and, with his second wife Deborah Lin, a 2-month-old girl.
Gandolfini grew up in New Jersey the son of a bricklayer and a high school lunch lady. His blue collar roots clearly inform his attitude about acting; he sometimes seems almost embarrassed by his profession.
"People don't know and they shouldn't know that you work incredibly hard as an actor," he says. "So in terms of a blue collar background, that matches up. But it is an odd way to make a living. Putting somebody else's pants on and pretending to be somebody else is occasionally, as you grow older, horrifying."
But Gandolfini gravitated to acting as a release, a way to get rid of anger. "I don't know what exactly I was angry about," he says.
That inner rage helped Gandolfini land his breakthrough role as a brutal mob enforcer in Tony Scott's "True Romance," a part that led to Tony Soprano. His distaste for that character and some of Tony's uglier nature is still present for Gandolfini.
"I try to avoid certain things and certain kinds of violence at this point," he says. "I'm getting older, too. I don't want to be beating people up as much. I don't want to be beating women up and those kinds of things that much anymore."
In "Zero Dark Thirty" violence is meted out by others, while Gandolfini's foul-mouthed Panetta is an intimidating boardroom presence.
"He brings to the set so much authority and gravitas just naturally in who he is," says Bigelow. "It felt like a perfect symmetry."
"Killing Them Softy," though, is a rare return to the territory Gandolfini has avoided. This older, end-of-the-line gangster, Gandolfini says, completes an arc for him of mafia men, a kind of epilogue of the "last, most pathetic one in the end."
"I was hesitant to play another quote-unquote mob guy," he says. "You know, I've played a lot of these guys and so I'm getting to a place where I want to play different people. This is kind of a guy who's a culmination of everybody I've played at the end. This is like the last nail in the coffin."