Michael Gandolfini was so focused on the work of playing a young Tony Soprano in a new "Sopranos" prequel that he didn't think too deeply about the connection to his late father in the midst of the filming.
However, once he finally saw the finished version of "The Many Saints of Newark," the bond he felt with James Gandolfini and his iconic role hit home.
"When we were doing it, I never thought about it, it was just doing the best job, but when I sat in that theater and I watched it for the first time, I felt like, ‘Oh man I got to do this with my dad, we got to do this thing together,’ and it was a really incredible feeling," Gandolfini, 22, told Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on TODAY Wednesday alongside co-star Jon Bernthal.
"It shocked me just because I think I numbed that out because I just wanted to be a good actor and do my job and learn, but I did feel that when I watched it for the first time."
Gandolfini died at 51 in 2013 when Michael was 14, and now the younger Gandolfini's first movie involves inhabiting the role made legendary by his father on the acclaimed HBO series.
Michael was a child in the heyday of Tony Soprano when the show aired from 1999 to 2007. He knew only of James Gandolfini as dad, not as the fearsome New Jersey mob boss.
"When the audition first came around, I had never seen the show, I never really had any involvement, so I didn’t even really know what Tony Soprano was," Gandolfini said.
He had put off watching the show even as an adult until getting involved in the new movie, which premieres on Oct. 1 in theaters and will stream on HBO Max for 31 days.
"I just felt it’s going to be an intense experience when I do it, and I couldn’t really convince myself a reason to do it yet until I got this amazing opportunity in this movie, and then I got to sort of become a fan like everyone else," he said.
Gandolfini had to go through three auditions before landing the part of a young Tony. His close relationship with Dickie Moltisanti, the father of Michael Imperioli’s Christopher Moltisanti, is a focus of the film.
The younger Gandolfini bears a striking resemblance to his father in the trailer for the movie.
"He approached this with so much courage and conviction," said Bernthal, who plays Tony Soprano's late father, Giovanni "Johnny Boy" Soprano. "My job on this film was to be there by him, by his side, getting his back."
There has been enough time since Gandolfini lost his father that he was able to mark what would have been his 60th birthday on Sept. 18 with more love than sadness.
"It’s been so long that it felt like a good day," he said. "Any anniversary is a celebration of him and just like the gratitude, all the lessons he taught me, and all the people in my life that have stepped up and helped me, and so it felt like a celebration of him."