Netflix’s House of Cards has been a step forward for television on the Internet – but even better, the series has given audiences another opportunity to enjoy a plethora of great actors. One such talented performer is Al Sapienza, who plays Marty Spinella, and who has previously appeared in some of TV’s best series, including HBO’s The Sopranos and Showtime’s Brotherhood. BFTV recently caught up with Al to talk about not only House of Cards, but his thoughts on the developing landscape of television.
Given how many wonderful credits Al has to his name over decades in the business, it might surprise you to learn that House of Cards was a particular eye-opener for him. “I made the commitment back in 1981,” he explained. “But it wasn’t until February first of this year – I went home after the red carpet and I watched House of Cards, and when I watched my scenes with Kevin Spacey and my storyline with that show, it was the first time ever in my life that I was satisfied with my work and I felt like I’d made the right choice. It was a big epiphany.”
“You’re going to love this show,” he continued. “This show has a quality to it and an intelligence to it, from like the first second you see it. It’s just a top notch piece of film. Everything about it is well done. Most importantly, the written content, it’s about our American political system, and what could possibly be more relevant right now? I really love the show.”
With a cast that also includes the likes of Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll (Law & Order: Los Angeles), Jayne Atkinson (24), and Ben Daniels (Law & Order: UK), House of Cards is great entertainment. But has the program’s online-only status or Netflix’s decision to release all thirteen episode at once affected its reception at all? Not according to Al. “I was skeptical,” he admitted. “I thought, ‘Aren’t they going to lose thirteen weeks of word of mouth and thirteen weeks of suspense? Would that be worth it?’ And apparently it is. I got more emails and Facebook things and texts and voice messages from House of Cards than I did from The Sopranos.”
Al is no stranger to being a part of great productions. He belongs to that group of character actors who have been working so well and for so long that you may not know their name, but you definitely know the roles they’ve played, and you’ve probably seen them a dozen times without being any the wiser. And every part that Al takes has its own significance to him. “I love it all because I love working,” he said. “I loved 24. I loved Prison Break. I think The Sopranos is one of the most unique, creative TV shows ever.”
Ask him about working on Brotherhood – one of BFTV’s best drama series of all time – and Al makes perhaps the most impassioned argument on record for why that show was criminally overlooked. “One of the most underrated shows ever is Brotherhood, created by Blake Masters,” he explains. “It was brilliant. It was about American politics. It was a contrast of the corruption in government compared to the corruption in the mob. I think that was one of the greatest shows ever. It was brilliantly written. So real and so intelligent. It won the Pulitzer Prize. And nobody watched it. I’m incredibly proud of that show.” All three seasons of Brotherhood are available on DVD.
You can also get a look at how great the show was – and how great Al was playing the Mayor of Providence – from Al’s YouTube channel, where he’s helpfully compiled all his scenes from the series. Below is the first part of that selection.
Given the sheer size of his body of work, and the belief that there are only so many original ideas in entertainment, how often is the veteran actor legitimately surprised by material these days? “Very seldom,” Al said. “House of Cards, I was surprised by the material. Brotherhood, I was surprised by the material. Sopranos, I was surprised by the material. It’s just not that often anymore – but it happens and it always will happen.”
One look at any line on his resume and you’ll discover that Al is a talented actor who makes any project he’s working on better just by showing up. What really makes him stand out, though, is who he is as a human being. Talk to him for five minutes and it’s impossible not to be moved by the passion he has for his work – not just as a career but as something much larger than that. He elevates the material not just by taking it on, but by wanting it to be something more. Actors like Al Sapienza are the reason why the rest of us have something to write about.
“I’m just trying to do good and do my best work,” he reflected. “I’d love to be in film. I’d love to have nice, juicy roles in films that not only entertain people and make them laugh and cry, but elevate their consciousness, like The Killing Fields, like Platoon. That’s the ultimate as an actor to be involved in projects like that. Those are the greatest shows. I think the way to reach the people is when they don’t know you’re trying to reach them.”
He added that there are two factors which will make him consider his career a success when he looks back on it. “One, that no matter what I was in, that I’ve always done my best and to be the most credible I could be, put one hundred percent into it always,” he explained. “And secondly, to look back and go, ‘I’m proud of those films, they affected American culture in a positive way.’” Hopefully, he won’t be looking back for a long time, because the world of entertainment is a lot better off having Al Sapienza as a part of it.