Michael Imperioli hasn’t been in a Spike Lee movie since 1999’s “Summer of Sam,” which he wrote with him. The two did do a vodka commercial in the meantime, which he can barely remember. But through the ‘90s the “Sopranos” star was a staple of Lee’s movies, popping up in “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X,” “Clockers” and “Girl 6.” In “Oldboy,” the director’s “reinterpretation” of the South Korean cult classic, Imperioli plays Chuckie, who’s shocked when his good friend Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) shows up after 20 years, saying he’s spent the entire time locked up by a mysterious stranger. Imperioli also had not seen either version of the film at the time of this interview, but he was about to rectify that.
It’s been awhile since you two worked together. How did he pitch this to you?
It was kind of funny: He called me out of the blue. I hadn’t seen him in a year. He was like, “Hey, Mike, I’m really excited, we’re doing this movie together!” I said, “What movie?” “’Oldboy!’ You’re playing Josh’s friend!” Spike probably had told the casting director but it hadn’t gone through the proper channels yet. He just assumed because we know eachother it would happen. Which was a good assumption.
Spike Lee’s films are often viewed through the prism of politics, but this one has very little of that. Where do you think his usual concerns come into play here?
This one to me is about karma. And I think you always go back to “Do the Right Thing.” Is doing the right thing throwing the garbage can through the window at the end, or is it being a pacifist? I think Spike would see that you have choices. And you have to know your choices have repercussions. Whether or not the punishment [in “Oldboy”] fits the crime depends on who you are. I think Sharlto Copley’s [villain] probably thinks the punishment fits the crime. Joe Doucett probably doesn’t think it fits the crime. I think Spike really has this affinity towards responsibility for your own life and your own choices. You have to take responsibility for what you do in the world. If you don’t, the world will force you to.
Lee is also perceived as being very opinionated. At the same time he’s very collaborative. How much does he ask actors to bring their own thing to the table?
He encouraged that — in a disciplined way. That’s why he has a rehearsal period. Many do not. When you’re on the set, though, it’s not exploration time anymore. It’s done and we’ve got to make the movie. Spike is like his first [assistant director] on set. He’s very aware of the energy level that needs to be maintained to be spontaneous and make the magic happen. He’s not a screamer or one of those lunatics who belittle people. It’s more done in enthusiasm and to keep people motivated — in a good way.
Your character doesn’t have much screentime. How did you view him?
It was really about being [Joe’s] friend. We had that rehearsal period, so Josh and I had time to get to know eachother. Because we didn’t. We hung out, had some fun, some laughs, and bonded. That’s better than meeting on set, shaking hands and trying to pretend that we’re friends. Josh’s character disappears after this murder happens, and I think Chuckie probably says, “You know, he has a really bad drinking problem. He gets crazy when he’s drunk. Maybe that’s what happened. He went off on a fucking bender and lost control and did this thing.” And then he comes back and tells Chuckie the most ridiculously outlandish story he’s ever heard, and Chuckie decides to believe it. That’s the cornerstone of who the character is.