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Interview: Steve Van Zandt of Lilyhammer

I recently had the chance to interview Steve Van Zandt, who’s most famous for being the lead guitar of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, as well as playing mobster Silvio Dante on The Sopranos. He’s got a new series called Lilyhammer, it’s the first original programming on Netflix and he was in Toronto to promote the series. I’ve been a big fan of Steve’s music and acting since I was a teenager, and though I’ve interviewed an assortment of professional hockey players, hockey media types and celebrities in the past – this time I was nervous.

Maybe that nervousness was a sense of foreboding, because about four minutes into an interview that was going well (you can see the first bit of the interview embedded above) the memory card on our camera went haywire. What’s worse is that we didn’t have a back-up, and were forced to record the rest of our interview with only audio. Needless to say it was embarrassing, but Steve was a good sport and continued to answer our questions – even as they got more difficult, and his answers became more revealing.

What struck me about immediately about Steve, was his humility. He’s never starred in a series before, much less been the “face” of original programming for an entire network and this kind of promotional blitz seemed new to him. That’s not to say that he seemed nervous, he didn’t, he was funny, eloquent and engaging – but I’m pretty sure there’s a million other things he’d have rather been doing.

We discussed the series, what it’s like working with a mostly Norwegian cast and crew, and the memorable title sequence. Van Zandt also composed the score for the intro and described his vision as following the character’s journey from New York where the song is “a sort of 50s Jazzy, New York kind of theme” to Norway where “the Jazzy theme transitions into a Norwegian folks song.”

Where things really got interesting, was when I asked Steve if he was relishing being the “face of Netflix original programming.” He laughed, and responded with a really good self-deprecating joke “and what a face!” before giving us some curious insight into his outlook as an artist.

“Now that you put it that way, it makes me nervous. I’m not really a solo guy – I’m a band guy, I’m an ensemble guy. I’m not that comfortable being the lead.”

While Lilyhammer has been getting mixed buzz on this side of the pond, it has been an absolute ratings phenomenon in Norway. The show itself, which, I’ll admit I’ve enjoyed through the first handful of episodes, is superficially a standard “fish-out-of-water” serio-comedy – Gangster seeks refuge in Norway: hilarity ensues – but beneath the surface it’s an ambitious project, for reasons even beyond the Netflix format.

The show is laser-focused on exploring cultural differences between Americans and Norwegians and between the show’s Muslim, American and European characters. It generates laughs and tension by playing with the language barrier that separates Frank from the other characters on the show, and dramatizes that language barrier in a unique way. While most of the show is subtitled, Steve Van Zandt’s character (Frank “The Fixer”) navigates his fictionalized setting while speaking English – something that’s totally unique for a serialized television series.

If you just look at the structure of the series, which, is almost formulaic – it’s easy to miss the scope of Lilyhammer’s ambition – but it’s there. And at the core of that vision is Steve Van Zandt, a first time leading actor and the star of the first, big-budget original content series produced by an online content provider. “When you put it that way, it makes me nervous.”

You see, Frank “the Fixer” isn’t the only “fish-out-of-water” here, the series (debuting entirely on the internet) and Steve Van Zandt are as well. He’s written, produced and starred in the series and over the past few weeks – before he went on tour with the Boss and the E-Street Band – it was up to him to promote it, as best he could. It’s a role he may not be entirely comfortable with, but when I spoke with him, it was a role he may yet excel at.

Also, if you check “Little Stevie’s” Dork Shelf, he’s got a Don Corleone bobble-head that gives him its blessing.

Lilyhammer - Steve Van Zandt

Here’s the raw text of our interview (what’s not included in the video above):

Dork Shelf: You also did the music for the title sequence, musically what was your concept for the intro?

Steve Van Zandt: I just wanted to follow the essence of the series –  a gangster travels from New York, so I did a sort of 50s jazzy, New York kind of theme to reflect that. Then he goes to Norway and I got a Norwegian folk group so the jazz turns into a Norwegian folks song, and makes the transition as the character does. So I got the best jazz guys in Norway, and the folk group all in the studio at the same time – and we filmed it so perhaps it’ll go on the DVD later because we filmed the session. So it was meant to reflect Frank’s journey.

DS: In the title sequence you’re in transition from New York to Lilyhammer, and in an absurdist way, it kind of echoes the iconic commute Tony makes in the intro to the Sopranos – was that an intentional allusion?

SVZ: I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it. That’s funny, but that honestly never occurred to me – so no, it was just the simplest way of showing that he was “traveling from here to there.”

DS: You’ll be joined shortly by the Arrested Development cast ans Kevin Spacey but at the moment you’re the face of original content at Netflix. Is that a role you’re relishing?

SVZ: Ahhh… what a face! Now that you put it that way, it makes me nervous. I’m not really a solo guy – I’m a band guy, I’m an ensemble guy. I’m not that comfortable being the lead, but seriously, it’s quite a compliment to the first original program on Netflix and to represent the vision of the Netflix guys, who looked at this and said “this is our identity.” It’s quite a quirky, weird thing – but I love that – and it really impressed the hell out of me that they’d choose this to represent what they’re going to be. They’re making a statement that artists and their vision are going to flourish here. Artists are welcome, you know, art is welcome. And that’s nice and it’s really something I’m quite proud of.

DS: Steve what would we find on your Dork Shelf?

SVZ: On my Dork Shelf there is a bobble-head of Don Corleone looking down and giving me his blessing.