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."
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