Steven Van Zandt is best known for his role in two of New Jersey’s most fabled families – Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and The Sopranos. In both ensembles he plays the trusted lieutenant – Springsteen’s bandanna-wearing guitarist foil and sidekick on stage, and on screen Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s coiffed consigliore.
Van Zandt thought he had left acting behind when The Sopranos came to an end in 2007 but then he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. “It was a husband and wife team from Norway,” he reveals. “They said, ‘We have an idea for a show: a gangster enters a witness protection programme and chooses Lillehammer in Norway’.”
The writing team had pitched the series to television executives with the 61-year-old Van Zandt in mind and, although he was nervous about returning to the mob territory of The Sopranos, he found the idea too irresistible to turn down. “I didn’t expect to play a gangster again,” he admits, “but this is a very different character to Silvio Dante. This show is the ultimate fish-out-of-water story.”
In Lilyhammer Van Zandt plays Frank Tagliano, aka Giovanni Henriksen, aka “Johnny”, a New York gangster who is relocated to Norway after testifying against a mobster. He chooses to go to Lillehammer after falling in love with the town when it hosted the 1994 Winter Olympics.
The tone of the show is lighter than The Sopranos (left) and it plays the outsider theme for laughs – you don’t need to look too hard to find in-jokes about The Godfather. Filming had to be fitted around Van Zandt’s other commitments with Springsteen and the radio station he runs, the Underground Garage.
“I told the directors that I couldn’t come for four or five months in a row, but I could come every other week from January to June,” he explains. “And that was a wonderful way to work because every time I got back on set, I was refreshed and ready to work.”
Back in the 1970s, Van Zandt went by the nickname of Miami Steve because of his love of warm weather, so how did he cope with filming in Norway? “I was not a big fan of cold weather so it took some adapting,” he admits. “But it helped that my character was also going through that process of adjustment. It snowed every day of filming and I would look out of the window and the landscape was a like a fantasy, a bizarre winter wonderland.”
Van Zandt is also a producer and a writer on the show. “What I learnt from working with Bruce Springsteen and [Sopranos creator] David Chase was the more detailed one tends to be, the more universal [your work] ends up becoming.” He pauses: “People are interested in nuance and the things that are unique and different, so I told the producers to make this thing as Norwegian as possible. The more Norwegian culture we can show, the better. Then we’ll get my character just trying to fit in.”
The show explores not only the cultural differences between Americans and Norwegians, but also those between the Muslim, American and European characters. Alongside the culture-clash comedy, there is middle-aged romance and Sopranos-style tough-guy moves.
Lilyhammer has proved to be hugely popular in Norway (20 per cent of the country’s population of five million watch it) and it has also been shown via streaming site Netflix in the United States. Unlike other Scandinavian series, such as The Killing – of which Van Zandt is a fan – the show was not remade for American viewers, but was broadcast in its original form with subtitles.
The success of Lilyhammer has made Van Zandt big in Norway, so much so that Springsteen and the E Street Band sang a new song inspired by it when they performed in Scandinavia in July. That leg of the tour won rhapsodic reviews and the band played some of the longest shows they had ever performed – the Helsinki gig clocked in at over four hours.
I caught the tour at London’s Hyde Park on the infamous July night when concert officials turned off the power on Springsteen and his surprise guest, Paul McCartney. Van Zandt vented his fury on Twitter immediately after the shutdown, dubbing Britain “a police state”, but by the time we meet he is in more of a reflective mood.
The Fab Four were an inspiration for the teenage Van Zandt in New Jersey, and they continue to inspire him. “Sharing a stage with McCartney meant everything to us. The British invasion was the source of our lives. The Beatles opened up a new world, and to be on stage with McCartney was thrilling. The Beatles never stopped growing or experimenting, and the E Street Band is the same. That’s why this tour is one of the most relevant and important we’ve ever done.”
Van Zandt reveals what Springsteen and McCartney may have gone on to play had the concert not been abruptly halted. “I was on my way to suggest I’m Down, but before I got the words out of my mouth, the plug was pulled,” he sighs. “So if it was up to me it would have been I’m Down and possibly Long Tall Sally, but we will never know.”
The E Street Band is now in the United States, continuing a tour that looks like it could stretch into the New Year which will mean some logistical challenges for Van Zandt. Lilyhammer will be returning for a second series, but how its star will make the time to film it isn’t yet certain.
“It’s going to be tricky trying to figure it out,” he admits. “This tour could continue for quite a while, so filming may be forced into the middle of it. I have to somehow find a way to take a couple of months out because we need to find some time.”
The music, the TV series and the radio station keep Van Zandt insanely busy. “I am lucky in that everything I do I love, but I have ten other things I am frustrated about that I haven’t been able to get done. I focus on what I am working on rather than enjoying the successes.”
But how does it feel, after decades spent as a sidekick, to be the main event? “The best thing is that everyone bases their schedule around you. So when you are the star you wait around a whole lot less, and it turns out it’s fun to be the boss.”
Catch Steven Van Zandt in the first episode of Lilyhammer – tonight at 10:00pm on BBC4