GLEN RIDGE, NJ — John Ruggiero has checked in on his IMDB profile periodically throughout the last few decades to make sure it was still viewable, and in 2019 it paid off.
The Glen Ridge native was asked to audition for a role in “The Many Saints of Newark,” the prequel movie to the long-running New Jersey–based mob drama “The Sopranos,” and is in a few scenes as a bookie who is part of character Dickie Moltisanti’s crew.
“It’s ‘The Sopranos,’ and I’m a New Jersey guy,” Ruggiero said in a phone interview with The Glen Ridge Paper on Sept. 23 about the movie, which is set during the 1967 riots in Newark and follows the teenage years of Tony Soprano. “I was a young kid at that time, and I remember it. Not in great detail, but I do have memories.”
It’s Ruggiero’s first taste of acting in a long time. A 1980 graduate of Glen Ridge High School alongside Tom Cruise, he was friends with Cruise and stayed in touch when he moved to Atlantic City a few years later. When Cruise was in Atlantic City filming “The Color of Money,” he told Ruggiero he was in town and Ruggiero went to check it out.
“He wasn’t filming that day, but I didn’t know how it worked,” Ruggiero, who now lives in Mays Landing, said. “I just thought everyone was there all the time. But I weaseled my way in as an extra and I loved it.”
It didn’t turn into a career in Hollywood. Life got in the way, and Ruggiero got married and had children. He worked as a mortgage banker, and his turn as a movie extra became a fun thing he had done once. But in “The Many Saints of Newark,” Ruggiero has lines, and he has been able to turn one role into a few more in the two years since the movie was filmed in 2019. Nothing has been released yet.
“It was a fun thing,” he said. “Even now, it’s a fun thing. But because I became friendly with so many of the actors and the people who worked on it, you get to know them and the other things they go to work on.”
Parts of “The Many Saints of Newark” were filmed in Newark, in addition to Bloomfield and Paterson. Ruggiero filmed his scene on a set on Long Island but said the places will be recognizable to anyone who lived in North Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s. So will the wardrobe.
“I would think, ‘I can’t believe I’m wearing these clothes,’ with the pants up to my chest. They wore them high back then,” Ruggiero said.
The gambling in the movie also brought back childhood memories. Ruggiero said his father would take him to a barber shop every Saturday on Bloomfield Avenue, and he would see men placing bets. He didn’t understand what was going on at the time but figured it out when he got older.
“I would go with my father to get my hair cut every Saturday,” Ruggiero said. “But I didn’t get a haircut every week. It was my father going and taking care of his business.”
Acting is a big pivot from mortgage banking, but it eventually started to feel like another job. Filming days are long, even to shoot scenes that last only a few minutes.
“You go in and you do your job,” Ruggiero said. “It’s fun being on set, but it was a 17-hour day to shoot a five-minute scene. After a couple of minutes, you do what you have to do and it feels like any other job.”
Ruggiero and other cast members have been to several “Sopranos” conventions this year, where superfans of the show dress up as characters in the hopes of meeting the actors. One such actor is Michael Gandolfini, playing the teenage version of the character his father, the late James Gandolfini, made famous.
“He’s the sweetest kid you’ve ever met in your life,” Ruggiero said. “He has a lot of his dad’s mannerisms.”
Despite growing up in the area and being a frequent customer at Holsten’s, the Bloomfield diner that “The Sopranos” used as a shooting location, Ruggiero wasn’t originally a diehard fan of the series. But when he was cast in the movie, he sat down and watched every episode from the beginning.
“I was a fan, but not a fanatic,” he said. “I watched it when it was on, but I wasn’t sitting down every Sunday night and saying ‘Don’t bother me, “The Sopranos” is on.’”
Ruggiero hasn’t seen the finished product yet; the film will be released Oct. 1 in theaters and on HBO Max. There’s always a chance his part could end up on the cutting room floor. But Ruggiero is in the movie’s trailer, so he’s pretty confident he’ll see some screen time.
“I’m going to go to the first screening by myself and then go back with my family. They were saying, ‘Let’s all go together,’ but it’s a two-hour movie and I’m in it for five minutes,” Ruggiero joked. “I’m excited to see it.”