Depending on where their interests lie, most people probably know Steven Van Zandt as Tony Soprano’s main man Silvio or Bruce Springsteen’s main man and longtime guitarist for the Boss’s E Street Band. These days, however, Van Zandt has a whole new gig, playing — you guessed it — a New York mafioso hiding out in Norway on Netflix’s “Lilyhammer.” Van Zandt produces, writes and stars in the show, which was Netflix’s first original series, paving the way for the likes of “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black.” We got Van Zandt, who just might be the busiest man in show biz, on the line to talk TV, music and mobsters and found that he’s a pretty open book. Also, he’s kind of giggly, for a tough guy.
How did you get involved with Netflix?
We started filming the first season and we spent a year writing it, me and the two creators, and a month or two in we realized that we’ve written a show that we can’t afford to shoot. It was bigger than the budget, this little Norwegian budget. [laughs] And it just happened to be good timing. Netflix had just signed House of Cards but they were looking to broadcast something sooner. And we were going to be ready sooner. It was quite a compliment and quite a statement by them, I think, to not just give lip service to this whole global universe. They were going to be, yes, global distributors, which was a fairly new idea, but also that was going to include global content, which was radical. I remember going to Cannes and all they wanted to talk about was Netflix and were they really putting a foreign show on an American network with subtitles, not even dubbing it or remaking it? That had never been done in history. That was just a radical move and a brilliant move. And they were really making a statement that they intended to make. It’s a whole new ballgame.
On that note, how do you feel that new platforms like Netflix are changing the game for television?
Well, you have this idea of a global network. You picture five years down the road, they’re going to have a lot of territories which means it’s going to be one stop shopping for content creators, which is a wonderful new concept. And I believe they’re the first of what I believe is going to be a whole new series of global, digitally distributed networks. You know, I believe there will be a Google TV, and an Apple TV. Who knows who? In the end, what’s going to distinguish one network from another is the original content. So I think we’ll see that in the next five years or so, they’re just a little bit ahead of the game. And I think putting all the episodes up at once is a little bit ahead of everybody else, and is very much how people watch things now. And even better than that, right now they’re following this HBO model — and HBO remains the gold standard — that principle that you sign artists and let them do their thing. Rather than that old network model of sending down notes every hour and diluting and diluting and diluting and compromising and lowest common denominator thinking. I think now we have a new developing world where not only are they letting artists do their thing in an uncompromising way, but for the first time in history we’re now seeing TV elevated to the hierarchy of entertainment. Above film, and I never thought I‘d see that in my lifetime. And a lot of cable networks are starting to do adult programming as well, which is wonderful to see. And by that, I don’t just mean violence, sex and language, I mean complexity — complex characters and complex plots and literature and subjects that aren’t mainstream. That are more sophisticated or more intelligent or require more education. It’s wonderful that there’s an outlet for that kind of thing. And not just that lowest common denominator world that network TV has become. Or a kids’ world, which is what film has become! You know, it’s all comic books and video games. So it’s nice to have a place for adults to go.
Yes, but I also feel that there’s this dichotomy on TV right now, where you have this great, high-brow art and then, on the other end, all this reality slop.
That’s true. But that’s why the timing of this is so perfect. All that reality stuff, is sort of justifying all these bean counters and accountants who have taken over, it justifies them cutting the budgets. So you get down to, OK, we can make a reality show for 600 grand — why pay three million for a drama, you know? And you get nothing but that now, for the most part, with one or two exceptions per network, and here comes this wonderful new infusion of money and giving control over to the artist, and saying ‘we want to make quality programming.’ It’s a fantastic moment for content creators right now. I’m lucky enough to have been at two of the most important points of this new golden era of television — I happened to be there at the beginning, I think, with “The Sopranos.” And I think, now with Netflix, it’s taken this golden era to a new evolution. So I think it’s interesting to be at both places.
So how did you end up playing a mobster again? Is it a “writing what you know” sort of thing?
[Laughs] No, no. I had no intention of doing that. But it happens to be something I know a lot about, so it saved me a whole lot of research! But, no, this brilliant husband-and-wife found me — I was producing a Norwegian band that’s on my label in Bergen, Norway — and they said ‘listen, we have an idea’ and in one sentence it was ‘Norwegian, gangster, Lillyhammer’ and I just thought a bunch of things simultaneously. One of which was, I can’t possibly do this, I just played a gangster for 10 years! And soon after that I thought, this is a terrific idea, because what I knew of Norway already was that it’s a really conservative place — no crime, no poverty — they make the rules, they keep the rules. So it was just the perfect premise, the ultimate fish out of water thing. So my people, of course, were freaking out. Like, you’re coming from the most successful, legendary TV show, like, ever, and you’re going to go do a work in Norway? [laughs] No one is ever going to see it! And I just felt that, becoming one of the writers and producers, I could assure that the quality would be up to my standards, which are quite high. So once in a while you take a shot. But that’s how life is, right? You plan and you plan and you plan, and then life just happens to you anyway.
Was it difficult, at first, playing Frank differently than you played Silvio?
No, I really do an extensive biography of the guy and what is whole thing and history and likes and dislikes are. And it was really obvious to me that Silvio was the only guy on “Sopranos” who didn’t want to be the boss. But this guy really is a boss, and much more outgoing and much less having to be concerned over his job, like Silvio was, trying to keep Tony Soprano alive and economically viable and all that. This guy had very little pressure and is much more enjoying life. So the character is quite different. And look, in the end, is my priority to show what a great, versatile actor I am? Or to do good work? And I decided that the good work is going to win every time. And, in the end, if somebody looks at the show and feels that it’s Silvio that came out of the coma and went to Norway? I got no problem with that. [laughs] That’s OK! If that helps you relate to the show? Good!
Do you find it hard convincing people you’re a nice guy, always playing mobsters?
[laughs] No,because I’m not. I’m not a particularly nice guy actually!
Fair enough! Well, what are some different types of characters you’d like to play in the future?
I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it that way. I have about 10 different treatments in the works right now, that I’ll probably pursue at some point, and there are many different characters. But at the same time, in the back of my mind, it’s like no matter what you plan on doing, somebody is going to come up with some crazy idea that you never thought of, and that’s what you’re going to end up doing. [laughs] I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about it.
I understand you had to take time off from touring with Springsteen to film this new season, and Tom Morello (of Audioslave/Rage Against the Machine) filled in for you. Was it hard to give that up?
No, no, not really. It was unfortunate, but I feel lucky that my life doesn’t overlap more than it does, actually. Just that last tour alone, which was a two year tour, I did a second season of “Lilyhammer” and I directed a Broadway show for the Rascals, in addition to my radio show and everything else — and that was while I was on tour. So, I really can’t complain too much. And I was really happy that Tommy was there for Bruce. I did feel a little guilt for abandoning my friend, in that sense. But I was very happy that Tom was there to make up for that, onstage. I mean, Bruce works hard enough as it is. It’s basically me and him up there interacting with the audience, you know? So I didn’t like the idea of him having to do that by himself. So I think Tommy was a big help at that moment, so I appreciate that. And now, for Australia, we’re both going to go and it’s going to be fun.
Tom Morello also filled in for you when Springsteen recorded “High Hopes,” right?
That’s a whole other story. You know, Bruce is always recording, constantly. So, sometimes I don’t even know what I did and what I didn’t do! This time around, he decided to feature Tommy on most of the album, but I think we’re all in there somewhere. I haven’t heard it yet, myself [laughs].
I feel like Springsteen has gotten more prolific than ever, in his old age. Do you think he has a ton more albums left in him?
I don’t see him slowing down at all, you’re right. I agree with you. You know, maybe not quite as crazy prolific as …. writing 80 songs for each record, you know, literally. [laughs] But he certainly always has an album in his pocket, he usually has two albums, and he’s always got a couple things on the shelf. So I don’t see any slow down any time in the future.
At this point, what do you enjoy more — acting or performing music?
I like doing different things, you know? I like to do at least one great thing in every medium. I kind of enjoy that, you know?
Yeah, well, I mean, Broadway was a new medium for me this past year, and even though it was kind of a hybrid show, I feel like there’s room for one more traditional Broadway show. And I actually wrote half of one about 20 years ago, that I should go back and revisit, maybe. And last year I did the score for “Lilyhammer” which was a new thing. And then I just did a big commercial last week, which I’ve never really done, so that was a new form that I found really fascinating. And I’ve started writing a book about a hundred times, so I probably need to do that at some point. And I still haven’t created a TV show from scratch, which I’d really like to do, when I get a minute. And decide which kind of character I’d like to play. And then maybe do some things that I don’t necessarily star in.
So you’re not the nicest man, but you might be the busiest man.
[laughs] That’s right. It takes a nasty, tough guy to get things done.
Season 2 of “Lilyhammer” premieres on Netflix on December 13.