TORONTO — Steven Van Zandt says he didn’t want to merely be a hired gun for his return to the small screen.
The former Sopranos star was already making a concession by playing a New York Italian gangster — something he believed he’d never do again — in the Norway-set series Lilyhammer.
So if he was going to jump back into a mob role, he at least wanted to have some say over how his character Frank (The Fixer) Tagliano played out.
Van Zandt notes he signed on not only as star, but as a writer and producer of Netflix’s first original series.
“A lot of logistics had to be worked out, to say the least, and it was a bit of a risk,” Van Zandt said Tuesday during a stop in Toronto to promote the off-kilter dramedy.
“I felt, well, if I have at least that sort of control I feel it’s worth the risk.”
Van Zandt says he was lured on board by the show’s husband-and-wife creators, Anne Bjornstad and Eilif Skodvin, who pitched the rocker when he was in Bergen, Norway producing an all-girl rock band for his label.
He says they hooked him with a bare bones description: a New York gangster in the witness protection program is sent to Lillehammer.
Van Zandt notes he was already a big fan of Norway and Scandinavia in general — he describes the region as the “rock and roll capital of the world.”
But he admits that several things had him worried: the show’s small-town setting, largely subtitled dialogue and quirky sense of humour might make it a hard sell in North America.
So Van Zandt largely took charge of his own character’s dialogue and also had a say in the dramedy’s multiple storylines.
“We spent a year on the script to make sure they were good and they were terrific writers to begin with,” he says.
Striking the right tone and getting the right mix of Norwegian and English were early dilemmas for the fish-out-of-water tale.
“We did not want to make it a straight-up comedy exactly, you know — a little bit of a dramedy as they call it — so the humour would come from the situations and the characters rather than jokes,” says Van Zandt, who describes his exiled mob boss as a one-man crime wave.
“The other thing was how much English (to include)? We hit upon the premise that the characters understood Norwegian but didn’t speak it…. That was a risky thing that we weren’t sure was going to work right up until we saw it. And then it really worked, it worked very well especially for the American audiences who are not crazy about subtitles. Because the lead character is speaking English it just kind of sucks you in.”
If anything, Van Zandt says he pushed for as many Norwegian touches as possible, believing the eccentricities could be exactly the thing to draw curious North Americans viewers.
Although Van Zandt has never written for television before, he notes he learned from the best — Sopranos creator/writer/producer David Chase.
“Seven seasons in 10 years, you better learn something,” says Van Zandt, who played Tony Soprano’s consigliere Silvio Dante.
“I was spoiled from the beginning by my first thing being one of the greatest shows ever and the writing was amazing. I learned from that.”
Lilyhammer is already making waves as part of a new band of shows that are being streamed, not broadcast, to audiences.
Along with Hulu’s Battleground, the slick mob series represents a new vanguard for online television as it challenges traditional TV networks for viewers. Future endeavours for Netflix include the hotly anticipated House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, and a long-awaited reunion of the cult comedy Arrested Development.
Lilyhammer has already been a smash in Norway, but Van Zandt suspects it may experience a slower build on this side of the pond.
“All eight episodes go up at once and you discover it when you discover it I guess,” he says.
“It’s more similar to releasing an album. And you just continue to turn people on to it and talk about it and I’ll be talking about this thing the whole year while I’m on the road.”
Van Zandt and the rest of the E Street Band join Bruce Springsteen for a lengthy tour starting next month in Georgia. It heads to Europe over the summer.
Canadian dates have not yet been announced but Van Zandt says dates in the Great White North are likely.
The tour is the band’s first without saxophone giant Clarence Clemons, who died last June.
“It’s going to be weird and it will always be weird,” Van Zandt says of hitting the stage without the fan favourite.
“You don’t get over these things, really, you never get over it. I haven’t gotten over losing Danny,” he notes, referring to keyboardist Danny Federici, who died in 2008.
“I’ll look over and just for that couple of seconds I’m still surprised when he’s not there.”
Joining the tour will be Clemons’ nephew, Jake, who will be part of a five-piece horn section including two saxophones.
“It’s a nice emotional thing I think for us and I think for the audience to have, as a transitional sort of bridge to whereever we’re going, to have it sort of all in the family.”
Lilyhammer is available on Netflix.