We all remember Carmela Soprano.
Recently named the most important pop-culture character of the past 25 years by Slate, Carmela (Edie Falco) was the materialistic, guiltily complicit spouse of suburban New Jersey gangster Tony (James Gandolfini) on “The Sopranos,” which premiered on HBO in 1999. Lorraine Bracco co-starred as Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s no-nonsense therapist.
But nine years earlier, Bracco helped pave the way for morally bankrupt women like Carmela in “Goodfellas,” which was released in theaters 30 years ago on Sept. 19, 1990. In Martin Scorsese’s Mafia epic, Bracco played the similarly complex Karen Hill, wife to real-life mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). She earned a best-supporting actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal.
Karen is headstrong and combative, yet besotted and suggestible, feeling erotic pleasure when Henry first asks her to hide his bloodied handgun early in the film. “I got to admit the truth: It turned me on,” she says in voiceover.
“It’s not very often you get great women roles,” Bracco tells USA TODAY. “We’ve seen some fabulous women (on screen), but I hope and pray that Karen goes down with some of the great women characters. I really hope that.”
Playing Karen was so great, in fact, that Bracco turned down the role of Carmela when “Sopranos” creator David Chase first offered her the part in the gritty crime drama, which wrapped its eight-year, six-season run in 2007.
“Look, Carmela was a great character,” Bracco says. But “when I read the script, I said, ‘I don’t really want to play Carmela.’ I wanted to play Melfi, because it was different for me and not just the mob wife. David was like, ‘Really?’ He was surprised I wanted to play Melfi, because it was a much smaller role and wasn’t the lead. But I said, ‘Yeah, I could do a very good job.’ ”
Bracco, 65, isn’t the only link between “Goodfellas” and “Sopranos”: There are 27 actors who appear in both the film and TV show, including Michael Imperioli (Spider in “Goodfellas,” Christopher Moltisanti in “Sopranos”) and Tony Sirico (Tony Stacks in “Goodfellas,” Paulie Walnuts in “Sopranos”).
“There were a lot of the guys,” Bracco says of the overlap. The series “was very expensive, and David insisted that everything was as good and organic and authentic as he could deliver,” and thereby dipped from the same talent pool.
The actress, who garnered four Emmy nominations for “Sopranos,” next stars in HGTV show “My Big Italian Adventure,” in which she’ll renovate her Sicily home. But “Goodfellas” will always hold a special place in her heart as the Brooklyn native’s Hollywood breakthrough.
Thirty years on, “I’m really proud and happy that people are still talking about this movie. It’s unbelievable,” she says. “Worse things could happen to a girl, for sure.”
She recalls being in awe of Scorsese, a “very specific” director who shot 18 takes of the movie’s iconic three-minute tracking shot of Henry and Karen walking into the Copacabana nightclub. She was also intimidated acting alongside legends including Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro.
“I remember every morning saying to myself, ‘I better bring my A-game. I better bring everything I got. No holding back now,’ ” Bracco says.
Maybe she should’ve held back a little: She vividly remembers filming a scene where Karen wakes Henry with a gun to his head and accuses him of cheating. (“Yeah, I’m crazy! I’m crazy enough to kill the both of you!”)
“At one point, when Ray hit me, the gun went flying out of my hand and I sadly hit (cinematographer) Michael Ballhaus in the head,” Bracco says with a laugh. “He was OK, but still. I definitely remember that day.”