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Becoming Paulie Walnuts

For Billy Magnussen, playing a younger version of one of the most idiosyncratic characters from ‘The Sopranos’ was about much more than getting the hair right

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

During the filming of The Many Saints of Newark, Paulie Walnuts had a sitdown with himself. While visiting the set one day, Tony Sirico met Billy Magnussen. The two men, born 43 years apart, have one thing in common: They’re the only people on earth who have played the mobster Peter Paul Gualtieri.

Young Paulie and Old Paulie’s conversation was short, but it lasted long enough for the former to get a look at the latter’s legendary winged coif. That day, it was absolutely perfect. “I had to put on prosthetics and a fake wig,” Magnussen says, “and he was in the hair chair longer than I was.”

Naturally, Sirico charmed his 36-year-old counterpart. By then Magnussen was deep into his turn as an earlier version of one of the most physically idiosyncratic gangsters ever brought to screen. Though as he’ll tell you, there’s far more to Paulie than his hair. “It was a fun process just building this up and finding the mannerisms of this guy and doing his shit,” Magnussesn says. “He had this little lisp thing. He talked a little bit out of the side of his mouth.”

The actor then demonstrated the character’s signature hand gesture, carefully folding down his right middle and ring fingers into his palm and pointing at me through a computer screen. The only thing missing was the black ring on his arrow-straight pinky. Clearly, he’d done his research.

The biggest challenge that the makers of The Many Saints of Newark faced was ensuring that it lived up to its source material. Fans don’t just love The Sopranos; they’re obsessed with it. Missteps, particularly when it came to the show’s characters, would be noted. Harshly.

Paulie Walnuts was a particularly tricky role to cast. After all, it’s hard to capture his quirks without falling into caricature. To director Alan Taylor, Magnussen had what it took to leap over that pitfall. “He’s kind of got a star quality that is—it’s a cliché—a real thing,” Taylor says. “He’s got it. And I think to a certain extent, Tony Sirico, because of his weird, unique charisma, he’s always kind of performing. He needed somebody that had that kind of wattage.”

Like Sirico, Magnussen always seems to stand out from the crowd—even when the crowd is extraordinarily talented. Over the past 10 years, he’s had memorable parts in blockbusters and television series like Game Night, Bridge of Spies, Maniac, and The Leftovers. He’s been two princes (Aladdin and Into the Woods) and Kato Kaelin (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story). And this year alone, he’s appearing in the HBO comedy Made for Love, The Many Saints of Newark, Barry Levinson’s Holocaust film The Survivor, and Daniel Craig’s final James Bond movie No Time to Die.

“I think it’s clear that Billy’s a movie star waiting to happen,” Taylor says. “We were lucky to get him.”

But to become a wiseguy, Magnussen knew that he couldn’t rely only on raw magnetism. “David Chase and the team kind of came to me and pitched, ‘Would you be interested in Paulie Walnuts?’” he says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, let me figure out what you’re actually asking me to do.’”

When The Sopranos began airing, Magnussen was a teenager without premium cable. “I definitely didn’t have HBO,” he says. “I knew of the show. Knew it was a thing, but living in Georgia at the time, it was on the periphery. It wasn’t like, part of my world.” After getting cast in the movie, he had to start from scratch. That meant watching the series straight through, from the pilot episode all the way to when the screen finally cuts to black. When asked which specific scenes and episodes he used as reference, Magnussen smiles and then clams up. “That’s also my secret,” he says. “I get to keep those things.”

Apparently, when you play a made guy, you’ve gotta respect the omertà.

For an actor, playing a character someone else made famous can be intimidating. So before shooting The Many Saints of Newark, Taylor says that he gave the cast the same general advice: “Imagine you’re playing a historical figure. Don’t imitate it; do your version of it.”

To get ready to embody Tony Soprano, Michael Gandolfini methodically familiarized himself with his father’s work. John Magaro, the young Silvio Dante, hung out with Steven Van Zandt. “I do think John Magaro was almost over the top, but, to me, that was great,” Taylor says. “Because Steve Van Zandt was never not over the top.” In a recent feature about the making of the film, Alan Sepinwall of Rolling Stone reported that Sopranos creator and Many Saints of Newark cowriter David Chase had Sirico record Young Paulie’s dialogue for Magnussen to study. For his part, Magnussen binged The Sopranos and also watched interviews with Sirico. “It’s just an actor playing some character,” he says. “So who’s that guy?” The answer to that question is simple. But it also disproves Magnussen’s theory.

Unlike the other actors on the show, Sirico wasn’t playing a character. He was playing a heightened version of himself. As Sopranos writer and producer Terence Winter recently put it: “There’s a very, very thin line between Paulie and Tony Sirico. They’re practically the same person.” Taylor, who directed nine episodes of the series, agrees: “It’s very hard to distinguish where one stops and the other one begins.”

That made playing Paulie doubly difficult. Taylor once heard Chase call Sirico inimitable. “Because he’s sort of a compendium of mannerisms and tics and he’s got his own vivid culture that he created for himself,” says Taylor, whose credits include “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” and “The Ride,” the episodes when Paulie finds out and then deals with the fact that his mother is actually his aunt by birth. “So it’s hard to go into it without immediately veering into impersonation.”

Luckily for Magunssen, he didn’t have to try to be Paulie from The Sopranos. That Paulie was fully formed. “He was already made,” Magnussen says. “And this guy in the film now is not. He’s not that. These are his building blocks.”

Magnussen’s version of Paulie Walnuts is undoubtedly his own, but there are times in The Many Saints of Newark when the actor channels Sirico. “It was a really fun, challenging thing, creating this guy,” Magnussen says. “Well, not creating. But trying to catch his essence, more than anything.”

Young Paulie does biceps curls while watching Soul Train. He interrupts a brutal torture scene by getting upset at the prospect of blood staining his new mustard-colored leisure suit, a nod to the distinctively tacky ’90s leisurewear the character wears in The Sopranos. (“He got the most fun wardrobe of anybody,” Taylor says. “because that’s Paulie, too.”) Paulie’s fastidiousness also comes through on screen. After giving himself a manicure at the dinner table, he refuses to pass a pepper shaker to avoid messing up his freshly done nails. “I think that was Billy’s idea,” Taylor says.

Though playing Paulie required a certain amount of meticulous ridiculousness, the actor didn’t feel burdened by the character’s history or tendencies. “We’re shooting a movie at the end of the day,” he says. “I’m not going to be a fucking Method guy.”

At this point, Magnussen seems unfazed by anything Hollywood throws at him. He spent part of 2019 in Budapest filming The Survivor, an emotionally heavy period piece. That year he also shot No Time to Die, in which he plays a fair-haired CIA agent who Bond calls “Book of Mormon.” Preparing to make a Bond film was like nothing he’d ever experienced. “It was combat training daily with this great stunt team from France,” he says. “You’re in a fucking Bond movie. This is unbelievable. … The production, the training, everything I had to do was big.”

The production of The Many Saints of Newark wasn’t nearly as big, but the character Magnussen plays in it is. It’s unlikely that any other role he lands in the coming years will be as over the top as Paulie Walnuts. And none will have better hair.

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