Steven Van Zandt, right-hand man to not one but two kings of New Jersey – lead guitar player for Bruce Springsteen, and consigliere to Tony Soprano – didn’t set out to star in a Norwegian television series. It wasn’t his childhood dream. But luck has a way of finding Van Zandt, 63. “You’re planning your life, working hard on various things, and then your fate just walks in the door,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Most of the great things of my life have been things that found me.”
In conversation, he is warm and chatty – unlike his Sopranos character Silvio Dante, who communicated mostly via shrugs and head shakes. Van Zandt tells me that if his mother hadn’t remarried and her second husband hadn’t adopted him (that’s why this icon of Italian-Americaness has a Dutch last name), he might have grown up in Boston, where he was born, and not the Jersey shore, where he moved at age seven. He might never have knocked around in bands developing the Jersey sound; never been a founding member of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes; never earned his nickname Little Steven or wrapped a bandana around his head; and never hooked up with Springsteen or written the signature lick for Born to Run, and all that followed.
“That was a bit of destiny,” he says.
Similarly, if Van Zandt hadn’t been inducting the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, at the very moment when Sopranos creator David Chase was channel surfing, he may never have been cast as Sil, the only character who was loyal to Tony (the late James Gandolfini) until the end. “I had no intention of being an actor, no interest,” Van Zandt says. “David Chase said, ‘No, you are an actor, you just don’t know it yet.’”
Gandolfini generously allowed Van Zandt to learn his craft on set. “Jimmy set the tone, and the other actors followed,” he says. “I’m in total denial about his death, and I probably will remain that way. I’m finding as I get older that this whole denial thing is actually convenient. When you’re young, you want to confront things, examine your experiences and fears and emotions. But at this stage of life, when I think of Jimmy, I think: ‘Our schedules are just not crossing at the moment.’ We were very close.”
As well, if Van Zandt hadn’t played Sil, he certainly wouldn’t have found himself taking a pitch from a Norwegian husband-and-wife TV writing team. He was in their country producing bands for Wicked Cool Records, the label he founded in 2006. The TV writers’ pitch was one line: An American mobster in the Witness Protection Program chooses to relocate to the postcard-perfect Lillehammer, Norway. Van Zandt couldn’t resist. “Knowing Norway as I did – no crime, no poverty, very civilized – it was the ultimate fish-out-of-water story,” he says. “I couldn’t say no to this bizarre adventure, making a little show for Norwegian TV.”
He spent a year working with the writers, figuring out the arc of his character, Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano (who quickly corrupts the law-abiding Norwegians, but is changed by them, too), the tone of the show (he wanted it to be a dramedy, not a farce) and the language issues (Frank understands Norwegian but speaks English). He also wrote the theme song and did some music supervision.
“They supplied the Norwegian eccentricities, and I made sure the American stuff was authentic,” Van Zandt says. “I wanted to make Norway a character. It remains, to a degree, a mystery to the world. You can’t name one celebrity, one product from there; it’s a very insular, strange country. We exaggerate a bit, but a large part of the show’s surreal element is that we’re depicting Norway accurately.” He chuckles. “It’s an authentically surreal place.”
A few months into filming, they realized they couldn’t afford to shoot the show they’d written. So Van Zandt went shopping for a producing partner, and luck found him again: Netflix, which was just getting into the business of original programming, decided to make Lilyhammer its first series.
“Which was incredible, considering that it’s subtitled,” Van Zandt says. “They wanted to make the statement that, not only is the future going to be global distribution, it’s also going to be global content. It was quite a radical game-changer. I’ve had the great fortune to be, I think, in the two most important places at the two most important times in this wonderful, golden age of television that we’re in: beginning the age with HBO and The Sopranos, and now continuing it in a global way with Netflix.”
Season two of Lilyhammer premiered last month, and Van Zandt flew to Norway yesterday to work on season three – albeit without his wife, the actress Maureen Van Zandt (she played Sil’s wife Gabriella on The Sopranos). “She doesn’t like cold weather,” he says, laughing. “One thing that’s kept our marriage together is spending time apart.” (They just celebrated their 31st anniversary.)
The secret behind Van Zandt’s good luck is that he’s a maniacally hard worker. “I don’t really relax too much,” he admits. He has his record company; a weekly syndicated radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, heard by four million-plus listeners worldwide; and is program director for two Sirius Satellite Radio channels. He also wrote, produced and directed Once Upon a Dream, a Broadway show that reunited the Rascals.
At the end of January, he’ll go on tour with Springsteen, to South Africa and Australia. “We’re still getting bigger, which is strange, since we’re not on radio,” he says. “We never lived off the gossip columns. We were working-class guys, for real. And we had a long, slow build: We’d go to a city three, four times in the same year. There would be 50 people, then 150, then 300. We built our audience one person at a time.”
Springsteen’s band has stayed alive by staying fresh, Van Zandt says: They take requests, so the show is different every night; and if the band isn’t used to playing a song, they figure it out live, which the audience loves. “Basically, we reduce stadiums down so they feel like clubs,” he says.
After saxophone star Clarence Clemons died, they added a full horn section, which opened up new sounds, and Springsteen is “writing to an incredibly high standard, much higher than he has any reason to, really,” says Van Zandt, ever the loyal right hand. “He’s proved himself as one of the great songwriters of all time, and he’s continuing to write like it’s his first record, his last record, like it’s the only record that he’s ever gonna do. So that’s inspiring.
“If you don’t become a drug addict or drunk, you tend to get better,” he adds. “We’re really good right now. That incredible energy exchange that we have on stage, that comes from the creativity that Bruce continues to nourish.”
Van Zandt concedes that there are advantages to being the star: “When it comes to acting, you’re waiting around a lot less, which is a big plus,” he says. “I’m comfortable enough being the boss. But my natural inclination is to be behind the scenes. Just out of the spotlight, to the left or right.”