I can still vividly remember the first time I saw him on screen, 20 years ago: sitting in his chair, waiting almost cheerfully, for Patricia Arquette to walk in the motel room door.
And then that classic Tarantino speech: “The first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest. I don’t give a sh*t if you’re f*ckin’ Wyatt Earp or Jack The Ripper. Remember that guy in Texas? The guy up in that f*ckin’ tower that killed all them people? I’ll bet you green money that first little black dot he took a bead on, that was the bitch of the bunch...”
James Gandolfini only had a small role in 1993’s True Romance – this three-minute scene was his biggest chunk of screen time. But he owned it. In that time he went from reflective (“The first time you kill somebody...”) to warm (when Patricia Arquette holds a corkscrew to ward him off, he smiles and says “You gotta a lotta heart kid...”) to horribly sexual (“You wanna play with Daddy?” opening his shirt, taunting her to stick him with the corkscrew) to menacing (his “Alright, no more Mr F*ckin’ nice guy”, as she stabs the corkscrew in his foot.) He burned off the screen.
He stuck in someone else’s memory, too. Perhaps it was to do with the confessional nature of the way he leant forward in his chair and began that speech about killing...
Whatever the reason, five years later, Gandolfini would get a broader canvas to spread his blend of charm, vulnerability, menace and ruthlessness when David Chase cast him as Tony Soprano. But this was where it all began.