Many children dream of becoming rock stars or popular actors when they grow up, but Steven Van Zandt is one of the lucky few that is both! The longtime guitarist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is also well known to television audiences as Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s Mafia enforcer on the acclaimed series The Sopranos. “I had been a little bit famous for a long time, but I was surprised at the power of TV,” Steven, 72, admits to Closer. “The show had been on maybe three weeks, and suddenly all people wanted to talk about was The Sopranos. Three weeks erased 25 years of rock and roll, just like that!”
Steven continues to be a renaissance man, moving easily between music, acting, radio hosting, writing, producing and philanthropy. He also recently launched Little Steven’s Underground Apothecary, a line of holistic products.
How old were you when you first realized you wanted to be a musician?
“I was 13 when the Beatles arrived, and that was it for me. The Beatles, and rock and roll in general, showed that you could make a living and have fun at the same time. That was a revelation, and I thought, ‘That’s me.'”
If your music career didn’t take off, what do you think you would be doing today?
“I think I could have been a real-life Soprano! [Laughs] I don’t know. I like to think I would have ended up somewhere in show business, but my life took a very weird path. So, it’s easy to say showbiz, but when you’re in the suburbs of New Jersey, there’s no show business there really.”
You played Silvio throughout ‘The Sopranos’ run. Where did you find inspiration for him?
“I’ve always been a fanatic about that particular milieu. I’ve seen all the early movies. I love George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Robert Montgomery, Peter Falk — so I used those guys. And I read every book [about the mob] so I kind of felt like I understood that world a little bit.”
Who were you closest to in the cast?
“Vinny [Pastore] has a theater company with my wife Maureen, so I see him a lot. I’m also very friendly with [show creator] David Chase. I was very close to Tony Sirico, who we just lost, and Jimmy Gandolfini, another huge loss, also Lorraine Bracco. Honestly, we all got very friendly.”
Do you have a favorite memory making the show?
“Well, it was acting school for me. I had never acted before, so my memories tend towards the craft. As I’ve said many times, you do a scene with Jimmy Gandolfini and you walked away a better actor just from his intensity and his wonderful ability to focus.”
Is it true that David Chase asked you to star on ‘The Sopranos’ without knowing if you could act?
“Yes. It was all born from David Chase picking me out of nowhere and saying he wanted me in his show. I said, ‘David, I’d like to be in your show, but I’m not an actor.’ He says, ‘Yes, you are, you just don’t know it yet.’ It proved to be true.”
Do you want to return to acting?
“I do. As soon as this tour [with the E Street Band] is over, I want to get back on TV. We’re going to be out for about two years, but when we get back, I really want to get back on TV. I miss it.”
Do you have any roles you want to play?
“I have five scripts, any one of which I would like to do. I would even go back to Lilyhammer for that matter. It was the first series on Netflix, so a lot of people missed it the first time around. They discovered it during the pandemic, which was nice. It still has an infinite amount of possibilities.”
How did Little Steven’s Underground Apothecary come about?
“During the pandemic, I was hearing doctors say that the virus was attacking our immune system, so I thought we needed to do something to make our immune systems stronger. A good friend of mind, David Roth, has been in the wellness business for a while using raw ingredients like ginger, turmeric and kava. I thought, let’s take those ingredients and create some fun products. That way you can have your coffee, tea or even brownies, but they are actually doing you some good.”
A percentage of the line’s profits benefit Teachrock.org. Why is this organization important to you?
“It’s really my pride and joy. We’re creating a music history curriculum for schools. It’s absolutely criminal that art is considered a secondary, irrelevant sort of learning in the education system. I believe it’s really essential to our quality of life. We’re creating a new [teaching] methodology for this generation who are smarter than us, who are faster than us, and have no patience whatsoever. The long-term goal is also to help reduce the dropout rate, which is just terrible in poor neighborhoods.”
That’s a really huge task, but a worthy one. It sounds like you work a lot — what do you do for fun?
“For fun? I don’t know. Everything I do, I enjoy. But I wish the balance of my life was a little bit more creative and less business. I don’t like business. But you’re always trying to find funding for something, which is a drag, but I’m always trying to tip the balance more towards creativity when I can.”
You’ve been married to Maureen for 40 years. What is your secret for a happy union?
“I half joke about this, but if you want to stay together, stay apart. I’ve been on the road so much. I just feel very strongly that each of you has to have a separate life and a separate identity that complements each other when you do come together. I think your relationship is stronger if you also have a strong individual identity.”
Is there anything else you’d like to achieve in your career?
“My favorite thing I’ve ever done was a Broadway show that I wrote, directed and produced [The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream in 2013]. I love producing live events, so I’d like to do more of that. It may not be in the cards in this life, but I did it once and I really did love it.”