When you played a popular character on “The Sopranos” for years, movie and TV lovers knew you as “Big Pussy” – and many of them still do. Actor Vincent Pastore isn’t annoyed by it all these years later, though. He knew early on that he would primarily be cast in these roles.
His first teacher at HB Studios, a famous acting school in New York, told him, “Vinnie, you’re always going to play wise guys, because that’s how the industry will see you.” Pastore didn’t care – he was happy to be working in film, because he didn’t start out acting. He ran nightclubs for 25 years, began to get caught up in the drug scene, and saw acting as an escape. After answering an ad in Backstage Magazine while moving furniture for a living, he booked his first role in a tiny horror film.
Pastore was in his 40s when he emerged in Hollywood. Now in his 70s, he jokes that he’s working too much, but shared that he was grateful he could leave a legacy for his daughter and granddaughter. His daughter watched him go to screenings of his early films like “Awakenings,” and “True Love,” and sometimes his part would get cut. “She gets it,” he smiled. “She knew what I wanted, and if God forbid something were to happen to me today, I’m happy, I’ve got a pretty decent legacy.”
“The Birthday Cake,” his new film, tells the story of an incident that happened years ago, and is at its core a revenge tale featuring actors like Lorraine Bracco, Ewan McGregor and Val Kilmer. “My manager, Bob McGowan, called me up and said, “Do you want to do a movie with Val Kilmer?” And I said “Yeah, I want to do a movie with Val!'” Pastore recalled. “He’s a legend.”
A Bronx renaissance man, Pastore has so little free time because he’s dabbled in food ventures and still plays in his live rock band, The Gangster Squad, weekly all over the tri-state area, and hosts his podcast “Fuhgeddaboudit with Vincent Pastore.” Between gigging, recording and memorizing lines, which, he said, becomes harder as you age, Pastore seems as energetic as his days on “The Sopranos.”
You can watch the “Salon Talks” interview with Pastore here or read a transcript of the interview below.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Have you been to a movie theater in who knows, maybe over a year?
I have a pass from Regal, but I’m going to probably go back maybe, I’m thinking next week or the week after. I love the movies. I grew up in the movies.
What did you like to watch when you were a kid?
I grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and there were actually three movie theaters. I remember going to Town Theater with my wife at the time and we saw “Rocky,” and Stallone inspired me. I swear to God, he inspired me. I was doing community theater to lose weight and go after this role that I was trying to do in “South Pacific.” So, when you talk about going to the movies, I think about “Rocky,” I think about seeing “The Godfather” for the first time, and then I think about the earlier years when I used to go with my brother, Johnny, we used to go see cowboy movies and stuff. So, growing up was great because we have three movie theaters in my hometown.
New Rochelle is the hometown. So, we can jump right into your start in the nightclub business there, I understand?
In New Rochelle, yeah.
And you were working in the club business until your, I think, late 30s and then you decided to become an actor?
Forty-two. I started acting professionally at 42. I ran clubs for 25 years. That ties into this movie I’m doing now. I’m doing a movie about the disco time.
I love it. Can you tell us anything about it?
Yeah, Casablanca Records. Tim Bogart, he formed because of Casablanca Records. He discovered Donna Summer and that’s the movie I’m working on now and when I talked to Tim Bogart, the director, author, I said, “I lived that life.” Because I was a club owner. And that club owner life is like no other. I mean, I used to go to nightclubs and at one point served drinks in a night club. It’s like your night starts at nine o’clock, and then you can go to bed at dawn. And then when do you do the books and everything? Well, sometimes they don’t do the books. That’s when you lose your business.
So, you went into acting. Why?
I wrote a play called “Crazy Horse.” It’s an autobiography of me in the club days, and it’s a dark story because it’s like this movie I’m doing now. I don’t want to talk too much about it. I want to talk about “The Birthday Cake,” but this movie I’m doing now, those days were dark days because of drugs. It was in every club possible. You people talking about Studio 54, but it was even in the smaller clubs. The ’70s and ’80s was the peak of that time and it was a happy time, it was a rock ‘n’ roll time, but it was a destructive time. I was talking to Dr. Drew Pinsky, who was on my podcast the other day and I said, “I was lucky. I got out of that.” He said, “What did you do?” I said, “I became an actor.” And we talked about that. I said, “Was that my escape?” He says, “Well, a lot of people who have some kind of addiction, they go to the arts, and the arts is their substitute and the release, whatever.” But that helped me out. I started acting at 42.
You remember your first audition at 42? What was it?
Wow, that’s funny. Driving furniture for Richie, I found something backstage. I don’t know if I auditioned, but I remember saying to Richie, “I can’t come to work tomorrow. I got to go film a horror movie in the Bronx.” And he says, “You’re either working for me or you’re going to be an actor.” And I just said, “I quit.” And I didn’t have a job, and I remembered working on that horror movie. I didn’t have a job, so then I went back to Richie, I said, “Well, can I work a little part time?” So, he had me doing deliveries and stuff. When you drive a cab or you wait tables, bartender, limousines, those are the kind of jobs that actors should have because they go up to their boss and say, “I can’t work tomorrow. I’m working on ‘Law & Order,'” and they don’t freak out. So, I started driving the limo as a supplement. It was funny. I was working with Jon Favreau on “Sopranos” and Jon said to me, “Vinnie, I’m doing a movie with Vince [Vaughn] called ‘Made,’ can you drive a limo?” I said, “Yeah, I could drive a limo.”
That’s good, right? So, does that fall into the Method space?
You couldn’t get any more Method than that because they even had me driving when they normally let somebody else drive the long exterior shots. I said, “No, I’ll drive.” They said, “Yeah, well, we may see you.” And it was cool because I was driving P. Diddy around and Vince Vaughn. And actually J. Lo came to the set one night, she was running lines with P. Diddy. It was a good time. It’s still a good time.
So, like most things that are hard to do you, you make it sound smooth. You were in the nightclub business. You decided to audition for something and you obviously are tremendously committed and successful. It takes a lot of hard work and discipline and dedication and for most people, some training. So, of all your training, what do you think was the most important for you?
Well, I started to study at HB Studio on Bank Street and I’m a teacher there now. I’m on the faculty, so that’s full circle. But I had met an actor singer, Tommy Waits, he was an American Buffalo. I met him at Kenny’s Castaway. He just worked with Al Pacino next door, and Tommy became my mentor. He taught me his style. So, we would have private sessions and then we formed a group and we worked and while I was working on “Sopranos,” I called Tommy up. I said, “Tommy, are you in New York?” He says, “Yeah.” I said, “Can I hire you for the week?” And Tommy stayed at my house, so we went to the set. And I needed him. I needed Tommy to go say, “What’s my line? Where is what moment?” And Jimmy had people working with him. When you have a lot of texts and you have an episode like I had at “Fun House,” you don’t need them, but it’s good to have them in your corner, to have your coaches with you.
So much of your work is in this mob genre, right? That’s reasonable to say. Was that something you envisioned or you just fell into it?
You talk about when I was studying, my first acting teacher, Michael Beckett, great guy, he’s still there, down at HB. He said, “Vinnie, you’re always going to play wise guys.” He said, “But that’s the business, how they’re going to see you.” And I said, “I don’t care.” But do I regret it now? No, it put me on the map. But if you said to me, “Vinnie, I got this new script and I want you to play a regular guy.” I would say, “Send it to me. Let’s see it.” Because you’re looking for new stuff to do. And the only way you’re going to stretch is, like, I have a company with Maureen van Zandt and we could stretch within ourselves. But when you go and they say, “Jimmy and Raul, Vinnie, you want to play this spot?” They know I can do it. And that happened on “The Birthday Cake.” It was happening on this Casablanca movie, they write me more lines. And I said, “Okay, good, I can handle it.” Like, “The Birthday Cake,” all those lines, those were Val [Kilmer]’s lines. Those were all Val’s lines and Val said, “Give them to Vinnie.”
Tell us quickly about “The Birthday Cake.” Give us a little sense of the plot without too many spoilers and what drew you to the role?
Well, what drew me to the role is when my manager, Bob McGowan, called me up, he said, “Do you want to do a movie with Val Kilmer?” No brainer. “Yeah, I want to work with Val. No brainer.” “Okay, go see Jimmy and Raul.” And I had a meeting with them and then they talked about making my part bigger and I said, “Okay.” And then we dove into that. But the first day on the set, when I met Val, I was totally impressed. He’s a legend. “Top Gun.” Lorraine Bronco makes a cake every year, she brings it to the family. She gives it to the kid. On the way over from point A to point B, he goes through like an odyssey because from the script, and that’s when he meets Guzman and all these different characters. And then he gets to the party. When he gets to the party, then the story comes to what’s the purpose of the cake. That’s all I can really say.
So, I understand you did like to cook, you’re not in that at the moment, but you are in a band and you said you’re so busy and your band is called the Gangster Squad, is that right?
Yeah, the Gangster Squad. Vinnie Pastore’s Gangster Squad. When I was back in my club days, my club was the rock ‘n’ roll club and these are the same musicians that are playing with me and we have a lot of fun. It developed from a jam session we used to have back then and we went around, and I don’t always have the same guys, but basically people like my friend Timmy was here yesterday, Timmy Curtain, who used to play with Howard Stern’s band, Pink Vomit. And Tim was here because we’re doing a concert in the park, and the music is great because one, we’re bringing people out. We just did a show in Wildwood, New Jersey, and we brought people out, and people want to get out. They want to dance.
Are you guys doing covers or are they all original?
I redo all classic rock.
I love it. And what do you play? You buried the lead. What’s your instrument?
I play the tambourine. I shake the maracas and I sing a couple of songs. It’s a variety show. I don’t do 12 songs, I do four songs. Everybody sings. I would let you sing if you wanted to sing with us. That’s what we do, we bring people up.
“The Birthday Cake” is available on demand and on Blu-ray.