From the nasty side effects of Prozac to a troublesome slice of cappicola, Tony Soprano’s unlikely struggles with psychotherapy have spawned some of the most darkly comic moments of ”The Sopranos”’ three seasons. But Lorraine Bracco is as serious as a Mob hit when it comes to her portrayal of therapist Dr. Jennifer Melfi, which just garnered her a third Golden Globe nomination. For Bracco, the role is a sacred trust of sorts: a chance to pay tribute to the real-life therapists who helped her through her own personal crises.
”I knew what a good psychiatrist was before I ever heard of ‘The Sopranos,”’ Bracco recently told an audience of psychotherapists at a New York City discussion held by the American Psychoanalytic Association. ”When I got the script, I said, ‘Oh my God, I can do this. And I can do this well, if [they] allow me.”’ With Bracco’s Oscar-nominated role as Mob wife Karen Hill in 1990’s ”Goodfellas” in mind, ”Sopranos” creator David Chase originally wanted her to play Tony’s wife, Carmela. But Bracco insisted on playing Dr. Melfi — with one caveat.
”You have to promise you won’t make a mockery of therapy,” Bracco said she told Chase. ”If you want to make her the psycho-killer sex addict at the end, I don’t want to do that.” Fortunately, the show’s creators shared Bracco’s interest in creating a realistic shrink. For starters, writer/executive producer Robin Green’s brother Ronald is a psychiatrist who gives advice on such issues as Tony’s Prozac dosage.
In fact, Bracco’s Dr. Melfi is so far from a ”psycho-killer sex addict” that some critics have suggested the character is a little too stiff — that she delivers advice like she’s reading from a textbook. ”I love that [anyone would] think Dr. Melfi is a little wooden,” said Bracco, who wore an un-Melfi-like pair of fishnet stockings to the seminar. ”To me, my psychiatrists WERE a little wooden. I’m very freewheeling and free-speaking — and they, I felt, were a little more serious. It was a fantastic acting challenge.”