More Than Rock 'n' Moll

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

"I'm not denying the stuff I've said or done," says actress Drea de Matteo, her off-the-wall humor getting her more lines in magazines than in scripts, "but I think a lot of people are only going for that one side of me that's the crazy rock 'n' roll thing. And that's so silly. There's a lot more to me. I'm not just some girl who likes to listen to music, bang my head all day long."

De Matteo straddles the edge of a well-worn, second-hand red velveteen couch at Filth Mart, the rock 'n' roll vintage clothing store she co-owns in Manhattan. She's wearing her size-4 denim hip-huggers and hand-painted Rolling Stones loudmouth-logo jacket, and taking a drag from her Winston.

"I don't know her personally, but I love Angelina Jolie. And the reason why I love her is because when I look at her, I don't see any hard exterior at all. All you've gotta do is look into that girl's eyes and you know that she's not [hard]. She may put across that thing --I guess I'm talking about myself too, I would imagine."

De Matteo, 28, ponders the last statement, realizing she may have found a kindred spirit, as one both admired and ridiculed. Read anything about her and the implications are evident--here's a woman with the total package of intellect, beauty and talent, wrapped up in something tawdry and socially unorthodox. Like the Academy Award-winning Jolie, De Matteo, who stars as Christopher's (Michael Imperioli) Mafioso moll, Adriana, in HBO's "The Sopranos," came out of nowhere, with an attitude that insists she belongs in this business, but the confidence not to care if she's not accepted.

She's got the rebel appeal: "tons" of tattoos; a string of nearly nude photo spreads in FHM and Arena (which featured De Matteo in a bikini designed from an American flag); a tough-chick, streetwise way of expressing herself; and a few, well, eccentricities--for instance, she keeps the testicles of her deceased dog in a jar on her mantle. In fact, these days despite the heat of "The Sopranos," De Matteo gets a lot more mileage in the celebrity magazines from her style than her career. Whether it's certifiable insanity or savvy marketing in a field with few standouts, Jolie and De Matteo have gotten our attention.

"It's really the human qualities underneath [that] people are drawn to," says Imperioli. "If she was just another girl with tattoos and wearing rock 'n' roll clothing, she'd be easily overlooked. She's a very soulful person, very compassionate. She's very real and down to earth, generous and not full of herself. Generosity is a big trait with her, and those qualities come out in an actor's work, and people are always drawn to those things, I think."

As Adriana, De Matteo has captivated audiences with her dead-on portrayal of a New Jersey moll goddess who's become as noted for her love of Versace and Dolce & Gabbana as De Matteo has for her rock-chick chic, which helped set off the latest retro-rock T-shirt craze.

"She's definitely one of the original pioneers of the dressed-up rock T-shirts," says In Style senior writer Eleni Gage. "She was wearing them herself, being photographed in them, and making them for her friends, and also she sells them. So it caught on. For her it's not so much a trend, but an expression of herself. But now there are some people who get the T-shirts and put it with their regular clothes to be part of a trend."

"We've ruined the whole world with them. Now we wish we didn't do it," says De Matteo, eyeing the shoppers rummaging through the racks of label-less flea market treasures that could have been found in the wardrobe room of "Welcome Back, Kotter."

Those clothes hang alongside $150 low-slung hip-huggers, and rhinestone-studded tank tops and jeans bearing Judas Priest logos or New York City skylines that are priced at up to $500. That's about what it costs for a pair of Filth Mart shoestring-fly silver leather pants or button-down denim bell-bottoms too.

"This is all Drea's style," Michael Sportes, 31, says of his girlfriend and creative muse as he snatches a pair of Filth Mart-label jeans off the rack. The pants are uniquely stitched in purple thread and cut to ride lower on the hip than even Britney Spears would dare. (Then again, maybe not.) "This is how Drea likes 'em," he says.

As Filth Mart co-owner, Sportes creates much of the dressed-up casual wear for their East 13th Street shop, which draws celebrity rockers such as Lenny Kravitz and Joan Jett as well as the likes of Liv Tyler (daughter of Steven) and Stella McCartney (child of Paul).

Filth Mart is the couple's personal homage to '70s hard-rock bands as evidenced by the four KISS face masks over the door and the Black Sabbath and AC/DC posters that adorn the red, white and blue walls ("I'm obsessed with the flag I don't know why," says De Matteo.)

Although business is brisk, with a line of denim-topped, wood-carved, Candies-style stiletto sandals scheduled to be added to the line this year, this was not intended to be a retail venture.

"We wanted to sell the shirts to companies, but nobody wanted them. We had so many, we just started embellishing them, and everybody and their mother copied us," De Matteo sighs. "This is our personal style with music. Classic rock shouldn't be trendy, and now if you're wearing a classic rock T-shirt, you're trendy. Most of the kids wearing these T-shirts don't know any of the songs by these artists anyway. Even the Stones. It's crazy."

Filth Mart introduced its line of customized clothing in 1999, just around the time "The Sopranos," a life-and-times saga of an Italian New Jersey mob boss, hit HBO. De Matteo, a Queens, New York, native, fresh from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, was performing in local theaters when she landed a one-line, one-episode part in the series as a waitress.

Producer David Chase thought De Matteo, with her lithe frame, sandy brown hair and makeup-less angular features, looked too "WASPy" for a supporting role in the cast. Impressed by what he saw of her on-screen--what that was exactly De Matteo says she still doesn't know--he changed his mind, developing Adriana with her in mind.

"If that part were being cast as a series regular, I'm sure someone like Jennifer Esposito [who played Michael J. Fox's sassy/sexy/smart assistant on ABC's 'Spin City'] would have gotten the part because I can't audition to save my life," she says, later admitting she was a "really twisted shy" person in school.

"I went to film school instead of acting school because I was just so nervous about auditioning for the theater department. I'd make comments like, 'Who wants a degree in drama? What a stupid degree!' But that wasn't it, I was just nervous. When I started taking acting classes, I'd sit in the back of the class and never get up and do a scene because I'd be too nervous.

"I'd just be in a corner lookin' like I'm all tough with lots of eye and I was really there with a mask on, just hiding because I was so scared and shaky," says De Matteo, who notes she studied with an acting coach. Then she adds, lighting another cigarette, "But I'm like this nervous crazy person. Nothing like Adriana."

In Adriana, De Matteo sees a vulnerable, trusting soul who's almost childlike in her adoring devotion to her beau. But, like De Matteo, there are some misperceptions of that image.

"At the premiere of 'The Sopranos,' " she recalls, "this guy came up to me, looked me up and down, and saw that I was wearing all black leather, and I guess to him [that] meant I was tough, and he says something like, 'How do you play someone who's so slow when I can tell you move real quick?' A lot of people tell me that they think she's stupid, and I get really defensive," De Matteo says. "People don't understand, she is the only character on that show who is not jaded. Everybody else is so guarded and she is not. Adriana's just masked by the accent, the heavy makeup and the hair. That's all image."

Her perception in Hollywood, she now believes, has been marred by her on-and off-screen personas. And since she still doesn't audition for roles, she takes the few offered to her--supporting parts in this month's '50s gangster drama "Deuces Wild" and "Swordfish" with John Travolta, Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman, and upcoming in Jon Favreau's "Made," "The Perfect You" with Jenny McCarthy.

In "Swordfish," she says, "I play Hugh's ex-wife, but it's just one quick scene. I originally took the part because she had a Texas accent, and I'm good at accents.

"They gave me the job and said, 'Now just do a heavy New York accent, we know you can do that.' People don't want to cast me because they think I'm this crazy rock 'n' roll lunatic or they think I'm Adriana. I can't win either way."

"Since she really got known in the last couple of years, and she became known for such a specific kind of character, people think that's all she can play is this kind of New York tough chick," Imperioli says, "but in the next coming years, you're gonna see a lot of different types of characters coming from her."

She'll have her opportunity to show another side of herself with the theatrical production of "The Heart Transplant," a loosely autobiographical play written by De Matteo and her mother, playwright Donna de Matteo, which is expected to debut in Los Angeles sometime later this year.

"I've said it before that if it only becomes about [my image], then it's not worth it to me. I don't get to act that much, and that's really what I love to do," the actress explains.

"I love 'The Sopranos,' but I don't get to do that much. With television, you say a line, and then you wait 40 hours on set. So I've been focusing a lot on the clothing line, and I haven't been on stage for a long time. I'm a little rusty so I need to do some theater before I decide I'm never gonna act again."

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