Van Zandt drawn to 'Lilyhammer'

Bill Harris, QMI Agency
Steven Van Zandt in 'Lilyhammer'.

Steven Van Zandt in 'Lilyhammer'.

Steven Van Zandt isn’t considered just an actor and musician in Norway, but also an unlicensed psychiatrist.

At least, that’s one of Van Zandt’s theories to explain the big success of his new TV series Lilyhammer, which currently is airing in Norway and is available in Canada on Netflix.

“Because they’re so civilized over there (in Norway), with civilization comes some amount of suppression,” Van Zandt said. “You have to suppress some of that individuality and the complaints you might have about the bureaucracy for the benefit of the community. That’s part of civilization, you know?

“So I think (Norwegians) are getting off on the fact that my character doesn’t have any patience. He has no respect for any rules. He probably is a little bit of what they would like to be if they could get a chance to be it.

“I think there’s some vicarious living through my character that might be sparking this, because it’s enormous.”

So how did Van Zandt - a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and also the guy who played Sil on The Sopranos - get involved with a Norwegian TV show?

“These Norwegian writers, a husband and wife, found me in Norway, mixing an all-girl group called the Cocktail Slippers that I had signed to my record label,” Van Zandt said. “I had been going there for a number of years, because all of Scandinavia really is the rock ’n’ roll capital of the world right now. There’s more great rock ’n’ roll going on there than anywhere else.

“So they sent me an idea for a TV show: Gangster, witness protection in Lillehammer (which is how the actual place is spelled). I really wasn’t planning on playing a gangster again so soon, if ever, but I couldn’t resist it.”

Lilyhammer’s eight episodes follow New York mobster Frank Tagliano (Van Zandt) as he enters the witness protection program after ratting on his boss. A sports fan who isn’t interested in the stereotypical warm-weather relocation, Frank choses the Norwegian town that hosted the 1994 Winter Olympics, Lillehammer – or as he pronounces it, “Lilyhammer.”

“My character understands Norwegian, but doesn’t speak it, so he speaks English in the show (the Norwegian dialogue is subtitled on Netflix),” Van Zandt explained.

“Most Norwegians understand English, all of Scandinavia does, so it was very believable for Norwegian TV.

“Now, I wasn’t sure how that would work for America, or if it would work for America. But here comes Netflix, and they said, ‘We love this thing.’ And I said, ‘You don’t want to dub it?’ And they said, ‘No, we want it in its artistically pure state,’ because, they said, you become this guy, because he’s speaking English and you’re experiencing what he’s experiencing.

“It’s a very odd, experimental sort of thing. I don’t know if it can be used again in other circumstances, but for this show, it’s working marvellously.”

We give Lilyhammer credit in this regard: It looks and feels different. In a TV landscape where imitation is the sincerest form of an easy buck, that’s saying something.

“Well thank you, that means a lot, because it means that what we set out to do, we actually did,” said Van Zandt, who insisted on being involved in Lilyhammer’s writing and production processes.

“I told the other writers and producers, ‘I want this thing as Norwegian as we can make it. I want every weird Norwegian location, every weird Norwegian eccentricity, I want every single bit of it in this show.’ ”

So Steven Van Zandt knows Norway. Hence, his unofficial new job as an unlicensed psychiatrist.

“Well,” Van Zandt said with a chuckle, “as a record producer, that’s half the job anyway.”

Van Zandt talks Grammy performance

Steven Van Zandt has spent a lot of time around the same microphone as Bruce Springsteen. Like, right in each other’s faces.

So, Steve, when the E Street Band performs, do you and Bruce make sure you give each other breath mints just before you hit the stage?

“We’re clean guys, believe me,” Van Zandt said with a big laugh. “We are sparkling clean.”

Springsteen, Van Zandt and the rest of the E Street Band recently opened up the Grammy Awards, which occurred a day after Whitney Houston was found dead at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

“It could have been a bit sombre considering the circumstances,” Van Zandt said. “But I was glad the whole show took a different direction.

“We already were coming with our own tragedy, with Clarence Clemons (the E Street Band saxophonist who died last June), so we turned that sadness into what we hoped would be intensity, and just used it.”

Of course, the Grammys were fortunate that an act like Springsteen and the E Street Band was scheduled to get things started.

“I do know what you mean - we’re built for that,” Van Zandt said. “We’ve had that intensity most of our career and that’s the way Bruce writes and that’s the way we perform. So in those high-pressure sort of occasions, we are prepared for that.”