From Lead Guitar To Leading Man With Steven Van Zandt

Credit: Mike Coppola / Getty Images for Little Kids Rock)

David Chase no doubt saw something special in Steven Van Zandt when he brought him, at the time with no background in acting, to audition for the role of Tony Soprano after seeing him joke around during The Rascals' Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. The role went to the late James Gandolfini, of course, but Van Zandt was eventually brought on to play the coveted role of deadly mob consigliere Silvio Dante. His performance in the groundbreaking series was met with great acclaim and suddenly the longtime guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's legendary E Street Band was a TV star, too.

Having never even considered a career on the silver screen before, and with his Springsteen tour dates keeping him busy, Van Zandt took his time looking for the right project before returning to acting. During his hiatus, he executive produced Not Fade Away, which teamed him back up with his with his Sopranos friends Chase and Gandolfini.


The right project came along in the form of a crime dramedy based in, and named after, the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer. The show had Steve returning to familiar territory as a former gangster trying to turn over a new leaf in another country. After it aired in Norway, Netflix purchased and distributed the premiere season as their first experiment in exclusive content. Now in its third season, which Van Zandt assures is the best yet, it seems to have paid off. "Netflix is just a little bit ahead of everybody," he says.

From his Manhattan office where he coordinates his many gigs (producer, actor, musician, composer, disc jockey), we talked to Van Zandt about the show, his thoughts on binge-watching and Bruce Springsteen's upcoming series debut.

I'm excited for Lilyhammer to come back.
I'm very happy we made it to season three. It's a very complicated show to do, business-wise and artistically. It's one of the most complicated shows in history. Season three was a bit of a miracle, and I'm very happy we did because I think it's our best season. You know, we've been evolving. I think we filmed in four different countries and we got three or four different arcs throughout the season. Quite a lot happened this year and we're very conscious of the fact that we're probably the only international TV show, really. It starts off with Brazil and then it ends up with some trouble coming from New York. And a whole lot in between. But I think so many of these actors are just so good. We're very, very proud of the fact that we're the only European success story ever in history to travel and not be remade. They always remake 'em, except for our show.

You're staying true.
It's just wonderful, because you get a chance to actually see the Norwegian actors, which wouldn't happen if it were remade, obviously.

What would you say is your favorite part about playing Frank?
Well this character's really wide open. It's a lot of fun. There are almost no limitations. You're starting off using the archetype, using the sort of cliché mafia guy as your foundation. These days, that particular character, that mafia-type character is so well known now in our culture that you can actually have fun with it and just kind of use people's expectations to go a different way. The show is just completely unpredictable. You don't know where it's going, and same thing with the character. We're having some fun as the show has progressed. Of course, he brings a little bit of New York with him to Norway, but also half the fun is to see Frank slowly turn a little bit more Norwegian as he's there. We explore that this year, too.

After doing The Sopranos and now Lilyhammer, you've been playing some intimidating characters for a while now. How do people react to you on the street, do you find yourself intimidating people?
People tend to let me go to the front of the line. [Laughs] I always have a seat at a restaurant. I never have trouble getting a reservation. You know? When people owe me money they pay me right away. It comes in handy for playing a gangster for fifteen years.

I got to get on this show.
People start thinking, ‘Maybe there's something to this…' But in actuality I always wish my life were as easy as Frank's was.

Do you ever feel like you want to do something different? Is there a musical or a comedy role in your future?
I like this show because we have some serious moments but we do have lots of funny stuff. I've never really thought other genres too much. I haven't woken up in the middle of the night thinking, "I have to play Shakespeare in the Park." I'm fine, especially because the acting part that I'm doing now is actually the small part because I'm one of the writers, I'm one of the producers, I got the chance to direct an episode this season. It's been helping me as an actor, I think, to not think about acting.


I really enjoyed Not Fade Away. Do you see more films in your future?
I'm really into TV at the moment, but if something comes along... I mean no matter how you plan your life, I find that your destiny walks in the back door. You're looking one way, it comes at you the other way. I'd just go with it. That was the case of The Sopranos and Lilyhammer. I'm open to anything. We'll see. Technically, at the moment, I'm unemployed. So, we'll see…

Do you find your old friends from The Sopranos calling you up, wanting to be on the show now?
To tell you the truth, the more we do this, the more people will just want to be in it. Everybody I've run into in the last year has said, "Please. Write me a part. I want to go to Norway for a few days!" It's surprising, actually, that people want to go on an 8-hour flight to 10 below zero. We've got a couple of cameos this year, we have a couple of fun things happening.

Are there any big cameos that you've been trying to make happen?
The big one quite honestly, was when Jimmy Gandolfini was going to do a scene. It was a fantastic little dream sequence. Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to do it. That was a big one that I was looking forward to, he had agreed to do it and really was looking forward to it. So that was unfortunate.

Well what can you tell us about the next season?
We do have Bruce Springsteen's acting debut this year. He's going to be playing my brother, my third brother is Tony Sirico, which we introduced at the end of the season last year. He's my oldest brother, the priest, and then there's going to be a middle brother, which Bruce plays.

That's incredibly exciting. How did Bruce do while filming?
Great. It's a small part, but a very significant part for the plot. It's very important part of the story.

I can't imagine he gets nervous…
He was very cool about it, he was very good. You'll see him in the last episode this year. You've got to watch them all.

Binge-watching. Isn't that the name of the game?
Yeah, most people are going to have it done by the weekend.

How do you feel about that?
You know, you work for a year, year and a half on these things, and it's gone, it's completely absorbed. It's amazing. The amount of output it takes to fill people's lives these days, it's tough. I have two radio channels on Sirius XM. Once you eliminate commercials my playlist is about 4,000 songs, a week. Every week. You know what I mean? It's a whole different thing. It's hard to keep up with the amount of content that people want these days.

You do the music for Lilyhammer as well, right?
In a few weeks I'm going to put out a soundtrack, the score that I've been doing for the show. That'll be fun. Mostly the score, instrumental stuff, a couple of vocals, my character sings occasionally. We're putting that out this month. Other than that, the only thing I know is I'm going to put out a Darlene Love album. I've promised that to her for only about 30 years. So it's about time the greatest female living singer gets an album. It's going to blow your mind, I promise. Keeping busy, because who knows if there's going to be a fourth season of Lilyhammer, it's always a complete unknown.