A mix of excitement and fear registers on Jamie-Lynn Sigler's face as she contemplates the end of The Sopranos. The everyday tale of New Jersey Mafia folk is about to begin its sixth and final season. A few extra episodes will be broadcast to serve as a grand finale and a sop to besotted fans, but then it will be time to sleep with the fishes for Mob boss Tony Soprano and his family.
That means Sigler, 25, will say goodbye to the role of Tony's daughter, Meadow, a part she has played since she turned 16. "That final day of filming will be extremely sad but celebratory. I have grown up on the show," she says.
Here in a room at The Dorchester, Sigler looks more beautiful than her on-screen counterpart, with dark chocolate eyes and smooth caramel skin. Her accent is pure New Yorker and her speech is littered with the teenage verbal staples of "you know" and "basically". Yet her poise and thoughtfulness make her seem older than her 25 years. Just like Meadow, she had to mature quickly. She wasn't coping with life in a Mafia family, but Sigler had her own demons to deal with.
As a teenager, she had a debilitating eating disorder called exercise bulimia. "We filmed the pilot of Sopranos in June and then we had about 10 months before we started filming," she says. "During that time, I suffered from an eating disorder. When I went back, they threatened to recast me. I was too thin."
The producers feared that Sigler no longer looked the part of a teenager in an Italian-American family. They also worried that she would not be up to the demands of a TV filming schedule. At one point, she weighed only five and a half stone and wore children's clothes to cover her frame.
Exercise bulimia is a little-documented but common disorder causing sufferers to purge away calories through exercise. Sigler would rise at 3am to begin her exercise regime. She doesn't blame The Sopranos. "It was just hard being a teenage girl. My body was changing, my first boyfriend broke up with me, I had all this work and school, all these pressures. I needed a sense of control and my eating disorder became my sense of control."
The threat of losing her role kick-started her recovery. The following season saw her weight rise as she tried to reach a happy medium between starving her body and overfeeding it. "During the first few seasons of the show, my weight fluctuated dramatically. It's like a documentation of my eating disorder," she recalls. "I had to deal with it on a public level as well because all these people were poking fun about my weight. So I came out publicly about my disorder because I wanted people to leave me alone."
Her announcement had a remarkable effect. Girls with similar experiences contacted Sigler and she became a spokeswoman for the National Association for Eating Disorders. Today, she mentors a group of young women with the disorder, staying in daily e-mail contact and taking phone calls from them.
She wrote a book, Wise Girl, to catalogue her experiences. "What do I really have to say about my life? Wise Girl wasn't really an autobiography like: 'Here is my wonderful life and how I got to where I am.' It was more to just focus on my eating disorder," she says.
How does this fresh-faced young woman cope with a drama that fixates on aggression and the dark side of human nature? Sigler points out that her character's scenes are normally one step removed from the violent action, but, even so, she commends the drama's graphic approach to violence. "It's real and gritty but that is what I love about it. They are not sugarcoating anything. Even with Dr Melfi's rape scene, it was so graphic and brutal and in your face. They are not censoring anything. This stuff happens."
She insists that the subject matter doesn't spill over into the atmosphere on set. "It's such a light set," she says brightly. Hard to imagine, really.
Sigler hails from a tight-knit family in Long Island, New York State. Her parents have revelled in their daughter's creative talents ever since they enrolled her in a local dance school at the age of seven. Her mother, Consuela, is a Cuban immigrant, while her father, Steve, is of Greek descent.
It's fortunate for her that she didn't hail from the Italian-American community, which reacted angrily to The Sopranos. Many Italian-Americans felt the series reinforced negative stereotypes of them as gun-wielding Mafioso gangsters, and they organised protests against the show. Sigler felt bemused by their reaction. "This is entertainment," she says. "We are not saying that all Italians are like that." She believes the show contains positive role models as well as negative. "Look at Dr Melfi: a very successful psychiatrist, a wonderful woman. Look at Meadow: very educated, graduated Colombia."
As a local girl, Sigler managed to juggle her schedules to stay on at high school and continue filming. Maybe this accounts for her normality in comparison with other home-schooled actors spoilt by the Los Angeles bubble. As for what's next, you only have to look at the cast of Friends to see that a television hit does not guarantee a successful career thereafter. But Sigler is upbeat about her chances, largely thanks to the movie roles already coming her way. She stars in an upcoming high-school movie called Lovewrecked, a gory horror film called Dark Ride and an indie comedy called Homie Spumoni.
Next she must head back to the States to film the last episodes of The Sopranos. Will Tony remain mildly depressed, sitting at his table at the Bada Bing!, or will justice finally catch up with him? Intriguingly, Sigler says that the show's creator, David Chase, has known how the series will end right from the very first day of filming. "So it will probably be something quite, you know, fantastic, but I could not even try to guess," she says, and smiles before making her farewell and sweeping from the room, a purposeful and happy young woman, untouched by nine years of living with the Mafia.
The sixth and final season of 'The Sopranos' is currently showing on E4, and will be shown on Channel 4 in January 2007