"Cats," Drea de Matteo says. "Cats. That's when I knew I wanted to act."
And so a thank-you note to Andrew Lloyd Webber is in order, for making possible Adriana, the Mafia bride who was never meant to last beyond her first episode on The Sopranos. "I was 8 or maybe 10, sitting in the third row with my parents, and Rum Tum Tugger took me on stage and made me dance with him and sing," she says, then begins to sing, "'The Rum Tum Tugger is a curious cat... ' I was petrified but I didn't want to get back down. I liked it there."
"That was the moment?" I ask.
"That was the moment," she says.
"But isn't Rum Tum Tugger scary up close?"
"Nuts," she says. "But not as crazy as Mr. Mistoffelees."
"The magical Mr. Mistoffelees?"
"Yeah," she says.
ANGELINAS IN AMERICA
The admission is strange, considering Drea de Matteo's reputation as a wild child, a rock chick. The first round of media stories about her were so taken with her past that the results were little more than strings of sensational life details. A feature in a British style magazine dutifully recorded the angel dust she smoked when she was 12, her father's limousine shuttling her to Chippendales when she was 14, the stolen car, the AC/DC tattoo, the plans for the pet mausoleum, and the preserved dog testicles she keeps on a shelf beside her bed. The coverage burned, and so Drea, now 29, unguardedly explains that she's learning to be guarded.
"People prep you for these interviews and say that you don't need to be yourself," she pleads. "'Just don't be yourself.' And I don't know how to be any other way. I know how to act. I don't know how to do this shit."
Which is one of the reasons why Drea de Matteo is easy company. Her features, which appear angular and defiant in photographs and on television, are softer in person. She isn't on the star trip, which is a good thing, because clubs and restaurants are still slow to recognize that she's Adriana from "The Sopranos." The only reason she suggests that we relocate from her East Village apartment to Pastis, the meatpacking district bistro with the fashion party temperament (empty tables inside, empty tables outside, but nothing available; it's 4 p.m.), is to pursue a particular steak sandwich, which she orders with extra cheese.
When in conversation with Drea, it's natural to discuss Angelina Jolie, who resuscitated the Uncalculating Bad Girl. "I like her," Drea says. "She says what she wants to say, people write it, and then she gets a lot of heat for it. She's just being who she is; she's honest. There's such a curse about that."
Then she turns on me. "You better not do that to me, man."
She pauses. "I was young and nuts, but not that nuts. I was a real careful kid, a really scared careful kid. I never took anything over the top; I won't even go on a roller coaster. I'm not that wild."
Later, after the conversation turns to beer, Drea talks about how she tries not to drink too much. "It's OK to misbehave," I remind her. Delighted, she doesn't miss a beat. "Yeah, I love it," she says. "But I'm a real careful misbehaver."
REAL ESTATE, ARETHA, DOGS
Andrea Donna de Matteo was born in Queens, Italian and Catholic. She grew up with two older brothers, a grandmother, a father who manufactured furniture, a playwright mother, and a godmother called Monkey, who raised her from birth. They lived in a series of familial combinations, in a series of theatrical homes, all decorated like sets with the spoils of the family business.
When Drea was in second grade, they moved out of Queens and into Aretha Franklin's two-floor brownstone apartment next door to the Guggenheim. "She moved out, we moved in," Drea says. "But back then I didn't like it because it was scary and I was short and the ceilings were high and it was lonely. But it was Aretha Franklin's apartment. She had just put this crazy marble tub in there. And I used to swim laps in it."
Now Drea shares an apartment with her boyfriend, Filthmart boutique owner Michael Sportes; Monkey, whom she now cares for; and five crucial, life-affirming pets -- among them two Great Danes. (The misbehavior of her 7-month-old bulldog has become a repeated matter of public record: He crapped on a Rolling Stone writer and now humps my leg. "No humping, no humping," Drea reprimands.) "It's just a lot of stuff. It's a mess," she says, inaccurately, about the very neat, spectacularly decorated sprawl of books, platform boots, Bowie records, and American flags.
* Drea wears a top by Imitation of Christ, jeans by Filthmart, gun and holster by Whiskey Dust, bracelet by Buffalo Chips.
"You should do a Cribs," I suggest, reminded of MTV. "You're Cribs-friendly." But she's too self-effacing for that.
"I don't think my apartment is good enough for a Cribs," she says. "People would think I was so poor and not on a TV show. Even though I'm not rich. But I am on a TV show."
"You're on a special TV show," I say.
"I know, but we don't make truckloads of money like the other guys," she responds. "I want a brownstone. It's my goal in life. For my dogs."
She also wants good real estate for Adriana and Christopher on the show -- she says it's time they moved out of their tiny apartment. "I want us to move on up already. He's made," she says. "And I want to have a baby on the show. That's what I really want. I really want to have a baby on the show."
AN AMERICAN BEAUTY
When you pry hard enough -- or only a little bit -- Drea will tell you that she had a miserable, nervous, and uninteresting childhood, and then leave it up to you to figure out that between bizarre episodes of loneliness (that resulted in her impersonating Regan from The Exorcist, peeing on the floor of her apartment), she was very good at being a teenager.
She's a rocker now, but she's made all of the pop cultural stops. She was "a huge Deadhead, man," which translates to nine Grateful Dead shows. She went through a serious Menudo moment, when she persuaded her parents to fly her to Puerto Rico because that's where Menudo were (she quickly learned it doesn't quite work that way, but ended up making out with a member of Los Chicos, the sous Menudo, instead). She also remembers roller-skating to Lionel Richie's "Hello" with Eddie, the most popular skater at Laces, in New Hyde Park. Then there were the Capezio and back-pocket raccoon tail phases, the Skinny Puppy bubble-goth phase, and the relationship, encouraged by her mother, with a place called Little Bits, which would plant the seed for future acclaim. "Cher bought all her daughter's clothes there, all this rhinestoned stuff. That's why I was into the rhinestones," Drea says. "Everything rhinestoned-out, always: army fatigues with rhinestones all over, cowboy outfits with rhinestones, tuxedos, tie-dyed skintight little shirts with little tie-dyed hearts."
* Drea wears a T-shirt by Filthmart, stockings by Wolford, hat, boots, dragon necklace, and bracelet by Buffalo Chips, ring by Chrome Hearts, spurs by Whiskey Dust.
Little Bits would lead to Drea's involvement in Filthmart, the East Village focal point for the slashed-and-studded rock-tee moment. "I'm impressed with myself. I won't tell you that I'm a great actress, but I'll tell you one thing: I'm a good Bedazzler," she says. And she is -- she was even responsible for the "Rock Royalty" T-shirts that Stella McCartney and Liv Tyler wore to the last year's Met Costume Institute gala. After Patricia Field (the 8th Street costumer for Sex and the City), Filthmart is the newest jewel in HBO's unwitting network of downtown retail outlets. But she's tired of it -- the fad that got away, the "so-three-years-ago" shirts, "because classic rock should never be a trend, man." Now she makes jeans.
At the end of the day, Drea is an actor, negotiating the intricacies of her television and film roles with intensity. "I get nuts, I make myself crazy, I torture myself," she says about preparing for challenging scenes. "A lot of music, a lot of music that reminds me of all my dead friends. I kill off everyone in my family, everyone's dead, everyone's getting in an ambulance right before I walk into a scene like that. All my dogs are dead. I also keep a lot of those pamphlets from animal societies with the calves in cages. Sometimes I even go to that."
She's the girl who waited her entire career to work with Abel Ferrara, and now she has, starring as a Puerto Rican drug lord in his new, as-yet-untitled project about the heroin trade. Somehow she's also Jenny McCarthy's wacky neighbor in the independent feature Perfect You, Hugh Jackman's alcoholic ex-wife in Swordfish, a "fashion girl" with Jennifer Esposito in Jon Favreau's Made, and "Dorff's girlfriend" in Deuces Wild, a 1950s gang pic with Stephen Dorff, Brad Renfro, Norman Reedus, Balthazar Getty, Max Perlich, James Franco, Fairuza Balk, Debbie Harry, and, oh, Johnny Knoxville. It's a whole issue of Movieline.
"The scary thing is, people really don't think that I'm acting. People don't really have that much of an imagination. People really think that I'm Adriana and I'm just showing up," she says.
"But with these photo shoots, I swear that I'm going to be mellow because people really want to make me out to be this wild chick. And they want it to be like a cover of Maxim magazine kind of thing. And it's really not who I am. I really don't think I'm sexy. All of that is so bizarre to me." "But you've heard that from beautiful people before," I say, "'I don't understand why I'm so special and why everyone wants to take my picture... '" "It's the whole sexpot thing," she says. "It's a little over-the-top for me." If not for us.
* Hair by Roberto di Curia/ de Facto * Makeup by Grazia/ Garren NY