When I was 19 and I read the part of “Tracee” on The Sopranos, I immediately knew I would play her, and I knew I wanted to play her because there was something about her story that I understood so well and wanted to do justice to.
I had never seen The Sopranos, but I knew it was a gangster show with plenty of violence and misogyny. Tracee was a young mother, stripping at the Bada Bing, who over the course of the episode happily gets braces (’cause she didn’t want fake tits but has messed up teeth), tries to befriend Tony by making him bread, gets groped and sexually used plenty, gets pregnant by the out-of-control Ralphie, gets smacked around by Silvio for not showing up to work, then insults Ralphie and gets beaten to death for it.
In the original draft of the script, at the end when Tracee is dead out behind the Bada Bing, Tony Soprano comes out and says something about how it’s going to ruin another rug to wrap her bloody body up in it. He is totally careless about her death. I loved that.
It showed what I already knew about my worth as a young attractive woman in the eyes of many men–I was an object to be used and thrown away. Even at 19 having grown up in a pretty safe Vermont environment, I still knew what Tracee was going through; I had already experienced it, scaled in a lesser way.
I wanted to play Tracee so innocently–like she didn’t even know the world she was in–like she thought she was a Disney Princess. I wanted the audience to truly feel her innocence, so they would also feel stunned when she was so easily killed, and disgusted at how they had previously admired these gangster characters.
When James Gandolfini read the part with me, he put in a request to change the ending of the episode. Instead of responding to Tracee’s death by being angry about the destroyed carpet, he changed it to say, remorsefully, “20 years old, this girl”. I thought it was kind of lame for him to change it, but probably professionally a smart move. He had an instinct about audiences turning against him and wanted to prevent that.
And apparently the audiences did rage about it. I was absolutely delighted when David Chase and James later told me what “trouble” I had caused HBO–people canceling their subscriptions in protest to Tracee’s death. (Funny they said that I caused that trouble…kind of like how the woman often gets blamed for provoking the man after he has violated her…hmmmm.) Joey Pantalone, who played Ralphie, even lost financing on a project he had coming up because of what his character did to Tracee. I got a kick out of that, too.
Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t at all against the show. They created Tracee to show other parts of their characters. It’s a brilliant show and amazing that they loved what I did with Tracee. It’s not that I was against them, it’s just that I was entirely for Tracee–and happy her impact was felt, beyond just shock value and ratings.
After the show I got lots of other offers. I was offered a spread in Playboy and other really suggestive parts. But they weren’t what I was about, and I didn’t take any of them.
Instead I kept waitressing to pay the bills. I played Tracee to EXPOSE SOMETHING ABOUT WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE A WOMAN IN THIS WORLD, not just to expose myself. I wanted to somehow show the world her humanity, not just that she was an object. I wanted them to feel her from the inside.
All these women now speaking out…it’s weird. I actually feel very strange about it. Like I’m breaking code by even writing this. Isn’t it just part of the deal of living in a woman’s body that you get groped or harassed sometimes? Isn’t it to be expected that if you drink too much and doze off in the wrong place, someone might be molesting you when you wake up? Is this really news to anyone?
Aren’t powerful men entitled to say or do what they want with me, if they own the building or write the checks? It’s not always sexual either, oftentimes it’s just the assumption that he has the right to silence me and be the only voice in the room–to tell me who I am and how it is…he will always have the final say.
Is it even possible that it could be a different way?
I am grateful to be in the yoga world now, because the culture is much safer feeling than it felt to be an actress. I don’t come across the issues in professional settings that I did back when I lived in Hollywood. I feel very respected and genuinely appreciated.
Plus, I was really quite satisfied after playing Tracee. After getting to do that role, it felt like my work in the entertainment industry was done. James Gandolfini was so happy about this. He knew what the fame game was like, and heavily encouraged me to quit and go back to college. Which I ultimately did.
I went to the series finale party years later, the day after graduating from NYU. When I told James I’d just gotten my diploma, he was thrilled. He broke out into a huge smile and impulsively hugged me. He was a real Buddha.
But I feel for those gals who regularly have to choose between unwanted advances and career advances. I feel for anyone out there who is being exploited or demeaned, and doesn’t have the option speak up or walk away. I hope those options become more and more obvious every day…
And to all you wonderful men who are making the effort to better understand and be considerate of these issues, I just LOVE you! Your support means the world.
This post originally appeared on ArielKiley.me.