Talk about the school of hard knocks. Thus far, both of Jason Cerbone’s noteworthy showbiz gigs have placed him on the wrong end of some nasty business. He first got himself noticed in 1987, as the titular abused child in the video for Suzanne Vega’s ”Luka.” Fourteen years later, as cugine-without-a-clue Jackie Aprile Jr. on ”The Sopranos,” Cerbone, 23, not only incurred the wrath of Tony Soprano — but also paid the ultimate price for his sins.
In between those bruising roles, Cerbone took 13 years off from the biz; he simply didn’t want to deal with the hassles of New York City commuting. ”It was a hike to come into the city [for auditions],” explains the sweatshirt-and-jeans-clad Cerbone, who has made the trek from Yonkers, N.Y. (where he still lives with his parents), down to a Chelsea cafe, looking every bit the clean-cut suburbanite. ”So I stepped away to do normal kid things.”
Eventually, normal got old, so after earning a bachelor’s in biology at New York’s Concordia College, Cerbone fired off a pile of head shots, one of which led to a tryout for Jackie Jr. As the son of late don Jackie Aprile, the ally of Joe Pantoliano’s hotheaded Ralph Cifaretto (who’s shacked up with his widowed mother), and the philandering boyfriend of Tony’s daughter, Meadow, Cerbone became a focal point for the HBO drama’s third season. ”Jackie had his hands in everything,” says Cerbone. ”He’s arrogant, he’s cocky, and he’s a little stupid.”
A little? Whaddya call cheating on Meadow with a lap dancer in full view of Papa Soprano? That screwup led to a brutal thrashing in the strip club’s men’s room. ”That was a real bathroom and those were real tiles,” remembers Cerbone of the bone-crunching encounter with bearlike James Gandolfini, who made it all too easy for him to feign terror. ”He’s in your face, screaming at you…. It wasn’t hard to step into [the scene] — let’s put it that way.” A few bumps on the head aside, Cerbone has nothing but acclaim for his A-list costar: ”He knew I was inexperienced and was there for me in every way.”
Not even Gandolfini could prepare Cerbone for the news he got from ”Sopranos” creator David Chase while shooting the season’s penultimate episode, in which Jackie Jr. perpetrates an ill-advised holdup of a wiseguy poker game. ”He just hit me with it,” recalls Cerbone. ”He said, ‘Your character is going to die. It has nothing to do with you — you did a great job this year. It just has to be done for the story.’ ” Spending hours lying in a coffin for Jackie’s wake scene, meanwhile, was even more discomfiting. ”That was the worst day — it felt extremely creepy,” recalls Cerbone, who finished his last scene at 8 a.m. and lingered on the set till eight that night. ”It was very hard to leave.”
Cerbone’s costar Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Meadow) was also sad to see Jackie go the way of Big Pussy. ”He’s an absolute sweetheart,” says Sigler. ”All of my girlfriends are in love with him and tell me how lucky I was that I got to make out with him.” (As for life imitating art, the pair are quick to squash recent tabloid reports linking the two romantically. ”There’s been no ‘canoodling,’ no ‘bussing,’ ” she retorts. ”We’re just very good friends.”)
Cerbone — who’s busy mulling over scripts while shuttling back and forth to Los Angeles — notes that his portrayal of the unfaithful louse may have been a little too convincing. ”Some women will come up and say, ‘You’re such an a–hole!’ ” he says. ”Thank God I haven’t met anyone who takes it too seriously.” Even so, better watch your back, pally.