AKRON, Ohio — Making a new movie involved a lot more than acting for John Magaro. There was the singing audition, with the renowned Steven Van Zandt playing guitar. There were months of drum lessons from Andy White, whose resume dates back to a couple of early Beatles tracks. And through it all, Magaro was trying to please the famously formidable David Chase, mastermind of “The Sopranos.”
The result is “Not Fade Away,” a movie inspired by Chase’s own life, written by Chase and marking his feature-film directing debut.
Magaro plays Douglas, a young man in ‘60s New Jersey who becomes the drummer and singer in a rock band with friends. But the press notes argue, this is not a saga of making it in music. Instead, it aims to be “an intimate, powerful, alternately painful and funny drama about coming of age and the sort of indelible memories — musical and otherwise — that end up making us who we are.”
Magaro did not find it easy to become part of the film.
“It took me about six months to get the job,” he said in a recent telephone interview. He first auditioned for the casting director and then met Chase. “I don’t think he said two words to me. I was sure he hated me. ... I went away from that audition thinking I’ll never hear about this again.”
Six months later, Magaro was headed to a fishing trip in Gloucester, Mass., as part of a bachelor-party celebration for his friend George Nicholas who, like Magaro, lives in New York City.
“We were in the car on the way up there, and I got a call from my agents and they asked, ‘Do you play drums?’” He said he could keep a beat. Soon enough, he was reading for Chase and a producer — and for a final audition, singing “Time Is On My Side,” one of the first Rolling Stones hits.
With Van Zandt playing behind him, Magaro said, “It was extremely intimidating. After I was done, I was apologizing.” But he got the job. And Chase, he said, “is actually a great guy, and extremely authentic and one of the most honest people I’ve ever met.”
He was impressed by Bella Heathcote, the Australian actress who plays Douglas’ girlfriend: “She’s extremely committed. I never heard her speak with an Australian accent the entire time we were shooting.”
And he had a reunion with James Gandolfini, who plays Douglas’ father.
“We’d actually done a film a few years ago (“Down the Shore”) that is ... sort of in the void of movies that haven’t come out,” Magaro said. “I think that gave us a comfortability with each other and an idea of how each other worked that made it a lot easier for us to play our scenes together.”
Still, before the movie started shooting, the 29-year-old Magaro had to get steeped in the ‘60s milieu — something that he did not know firsthand.
Secondhand, he had some sense of it. His mother, Wendy Cooley, and father, James Magaro, “are baby-boomers. I grew up with a knowledge of the ‘60s.
“My mom went to Kent State; her freshman year was the year of the shootings. And my dad is a little older than her, so he was in high school the same time David was in high school. I had heard a lot of those stories (about the ‘60s) and you get the history in school, and I grew up listening to a lot of that music because of my parents.”
And when he was making the movie, Magaro said, “One of the most fascinating things for me was seeing what a shift in culture was happening at that time. I don’t know if we’ve had that since the ‘60s. I don’t know if we’ll have it again. When the Beatles hit, there was just this huge tidal shift, and this shift would happen again, month after month, every time the new album by the Stones or the Kinks or the Who was released. It would alter pop culture and the political tone.”
He had to learn how to play drums convincingly. Chase’s love of music was evident in the rich eclecticism of “Sopranos” soundtracks. Van Zandt, who played Silvio on “The Sopranos,” is a longtime bandmate of Bruce Springsteen — and was music supervisor for “Not Fade Away.”
“Luckily for us, we had Steven Van Zandt institute this rock ‘n’ roll boot camp that (co-stars) Jack Huston, Will Brill and I needed to take because none of us played our instruments,” Magaro said. White, who lives in New Jersey, “would come in five or six days a week, for about nine hours a day, and he would drill me on drums.”
The other guys, meanwhile, were at guitar school with veteran musician Robbie Mangano.
“After about a month of doing our drills, we started to get together and attempt to eke out a few songs — which was an amazing feeling. ... Even though it sounds like crap, you feel amazing that you made it through it.” All told, the training took four months, after which the band had mastered old material and was working on new songs — as well as bonding in a way that fit with their characters.
But one of the challenges was to avoid getting too good. Magaro said he was working on relatively simple drumming — “before Ginger Baker and Keith Moon really start to change drumming and make it a lot more complicated.” More to the point: “Some of the reviews I’ve seen have said, ‘They don’t have the charisma, they don’t have the swagger of the Stones.’ But part of the point of the story is they’re not the Stones.”
After this visit to the musical past, Magaro will be on view in some more contemporary films this year. One, “Captain Phillips,” is the story of the American ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates — with Tom Hanks as the captain and Magaro as his son. Another, “Deep Powder,” is “about some skiing and drug smuggling and all the craziness that goes with that.”
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