By Donato Bendinelli
On Sunday evening, Sept. 12, the night of last year's Emmy Awards show, Donna and Albert DeMatteo were glued to the television screen, waiting for their daughter Drea to make an appearance. Though not a nominee, Drea was expected to make intermittent appearances that night during the program, perhaps during the pre- or post-award parties, perhaps during the awards ceremony itself. In any case, they were ready. With the assistance of their sons, Joseph and Darren, they had three VCRs set to record their daughter's big night as a star of the HBO hit television series.
And last year was indeed a winning year for the premier season of “The Sopranos.” This hit show – about the life and times of Tony Soprano, a northern New Jersey mafia boss (played by James Gandolfini)-received 16 Emmy nominations and won four. The show has received five Golden Globe nominations this month. (The Golden Globe awards show airs Jan. 23.)
One major key to the show's success is the borough of Queens. Much of the series is produced at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City. Some of the scenes are shot on location, such as a wedding scene shot at a Queens catering hall.
Another reason behind the show's popularity is actress DeMatteo, a Queens girl born and bred, who portrays Adriana, the girlfriend of Tony Soprano's nephew, Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli).
“It is the Malba-Whitestone community that is responsible for my being on 'The Sopranos,' DeMatteo said with pride about an Italian-American childhood that included the annual carnivals of Holy Trinity Church and Saint Luke's Church, the annual hotdog party in September hosted by the Malba Field and Marine Club, as well as hanging out with pals at Francis Lewis Park in Whitestone. DeMatteo also attended school at Whitestone Academy and took dance classes at Annette Vallone's Landrum School of Dance.
Not surprisingly, DeMatteo was more than prepared for prime time when it came time to portray an Italian-American. According to DeMatteo, initially she was called to audition for a bit part for the pilot of “The Sopranos,” created by David Chase, the Emmy award-winning writer and producer of “The Rockford Files,” as well as the writer and producer of “Northern Exposure.” For this initial round, DeMatteo was cast in the pilot, which would later be picked up by HBO (after being considered “too risky” for the networks.) The credits of episode one simply list the Malba-Whitestone native as “hostess.” DeMatteo said that David Chase did not think of her as being “Italian enough.”
“Then, about a year later HBO picked up the series and now Mr. Chase is looking for someone to be Adriana,” said DeMatteo. “And by now I know more about the show and the character Adriana and I really want this part.”
Contacted for an audition, an eager DeMatteo cooked up a surefire way to get and keep Chase's attention.
“Not that this alone had any real importance in my getting the job,” she continued. “But when I was 7 years old, I made my confirmation, so that I could get a nameplate made out of gold with diamonds spelling out my given name of Andrea.”
“I wore that gold and diamond-studded nameplate as a personal touch during that audition to give credibility to my portrayal of the character,” she continued. “It may have looked like I had a nameplate spelling the character's name. It is something that Adriana would wear.”
During the audition, DeMatteo made another key move that helped her win the coveted role.
“One of the scenes in that audition calls for Adriana and Christopher to leave the hospital where he has spent some time. He grabs my arm and twists it and my character says, 'ow,'” DeMatteo recalled. “Well, I say, 'ow-waaah' creating four syllables for a one-syllable sound. That characterization, the nameplate and my background were factors in my being successful in getting the part.”
“I understood who this woman is and I was able to demonstrate to Mr. Chase that I can make her come alive,” she said. “I am Italian-American. I grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood and I know her personality. That came through in the audition and now I am a series regular.”
DeMatteo recognizes that her role on the hit show is a huge break for any actress, but she has reconciled herself to the reality of her good fortune.
“It is very special to me that my big break as an actress comes as being part of 'The Sopranos', a drama about Italian-Americans,” she said. ” It means so much to be part of this very high-quality show. I feel privileged to be part of the cast.”
So very often you hear an actor say that his or her fellow actors in the cast are helpful, almost like a family would be, and Drea makes it clear that this is very true about “The Sopranos” cast and crew.
“Everyone has been very generous. Michael [Imperioli]. who I am on screen with most often, has been very kind and supportive,” said DeMatteo, adding that another series co-star, Dominic Chianese, who portrays Tony's Uncle Junior, is one of her favorite actors. Indeed, she contends that the actor, who has extensive stage, screen and television experience, should have won an Emmy for his work
“But, he was not nominated for an Emmy. Watch him act. Look at his eyes,” she stressed, adding, “If I were not in this series I would be jealous.”
The “Sopranos” HBO web site offers a bulletin board for viewer discussion. More than 33,000 postings have been left in expectation of the second season, episodes 14 through 26. And with the premier episode of its second season scheduled to air on HBO this Sunday at 9 p.m., New York City's streets are currently being blitzed with pre-season publicity. Even city bus shelters have featured DeMatteo's face.
“It is not real to me. When someone comes up to me and says hello because they recognize me as Adriana, I still am amazed,” she said. “It sort of settles in a little when a family member or friend calls and tells me what they think about the HBO promos that show me getting out of the sports car. Or the TV Guide interview and cover-flap. Or the Details Magazine photo and interview.”
DeMatteo also recalled taking a car service out to St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn one day to visit her 85-year-old grandmother who was recovering from double bypass surgery. Briefly stalled on the Long Island Expressway, a motorist pulled his car up alongside hers, yelling, 'Hey, Sopranos! You're from Whitestone, right?'”
Nodding in the affirmative, DeMatteo then heard the fan's rejoinder of, “Me, too,” before he sped away.
She has also done some previous television work, having starred as a guest lead in an episode of a one-season show, “Swift Justice,” on UPN. “I was just starting out. I got through it with fear, not experience.”
In addition to her work for television, DeMatteo has also been in theater and says she wants to return to the stage soon.
“You get to live someone else's life for two hours straight,” she said “not in five minutes intervals with a variety of takes, like film.”