Is it fun for you shooting in New York, being a New York boy yourself?
It really is. I don’t know if you’ve had a dose of this yet, but time just flies by so quickly, and sometimes you have to literally stop yourself and process what’s happening. One of the things that pops up is having a dream job, getting to work as an actor and getting to do it in New York. I feel spoiled. I can shoot an episode, and then go home and have Sunday dinner with my family. It’s pretty cool.
When you first got the role, how did you study up on the real-life Lucky?
Luckily at the time, the show wasn’t out, so the Internet was pure of Lucky. Other than the rapper, most of the stuff you got was about the real guy, so I was able to find a lot of books really easily. I started compiling biographies and the one autobiography, which is out-of-print, The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano. And then I started getting other gangsters’ accounts of him, excerpts from Lansky’s biography, Capone’s, Joe Bonanno’s, just to try and create a clear picture. It’s amazing the different accounts…he was many different things to many different people, and because of the secretive nature, it was hard to untangle what was real and what was bullsh*t. So I kind of laid it all out in front of me, and started to read milestones. Then I ordered the 600-page FBI file on him. I had his arrest record, I had details on his personal life. I was looking for any opportunity to see how he would change and grow. He was a really fascinating guy.
Do you ever find yourself feeling sympathetic for someone who was generally a bad guy?
Not generally. Specifically a very bad person.
I didn’t want to offend you.
[Laughs] Well, you can’t judge a character when you’re playing him. The key is trying to find what’s driving him. In the reality, escaping the persecution of Europe at that time and the poverty of Sicily and then the racism that existed during the time he arrived in the United States, someone of his skin tone and heritage, you understand the chip that he had on his shoulder. You understand what drove him. He escaped a life of squalor; he wanted something better. I think it speaks for his passion for a better life, his determination for a better life, and those are positive things you can play. The problem is, when you fall into a trap and someone’s just evil. Well, what is evil? Why are they hung up on it? They feel judged, they’re fearful, and I think that was part of his thing, too. He asserted such an angry nature on people because he was afraid of them, he was intimidated by them.
Do you have a favorite fact about the real-life Lucky?
One thing was, he loved the finer things, but it was the things he pointed out, like a doily on a table or he talked about the first time he had corn beef hash on his eggs, and his family thought he was crazy because he was trying such an American meal. He was so in love with American culture, despite being Sicilian, he suffered from serious depression when he was exiled. He wanted to spend, he said, “Just one more day, I want New York, just one day.” That’s all something to get behind as an actor portraying him, all the little eccentricities. You could murder two people and then find yourself admiring the fabric on their suits.
The show Boardwalk is most often compared to is The Sopranos. You’re one of the few people who’s been lucky enough to be on both sets. Are there any big similarities of difference between the relationships?
First of all, I have to say that on Boardwalk, there’s a wonderful culture on set. The crew, the focus of everyone, the camaraderie that exists. I was only on The Sopranos for a brief time — I was lucky enough to be around for three episodes, I think — but I did go to the table reads for each of them, and what I did see, as a guest…there were so many cultural similarities between the cast. It was very Italian-American, so you had a real sense of…it was beyond camaraderie; it was family. It was a real tight knit group of people. With Boardwalk, it’s so diverse. You have British actors and Scottish actors and you have American actors and actors from the East Coast and the West Coast. So it’s interesting because there’s not a lot of extracurricular hanging out that you might expect. It struck me that The Sopranos had something very special, and so do we. It’s just different.
So…any good Paz stories?
No, no, she’s a sweet friend. I haven’t seen her in awhile, but I hope she’s doing well.
What was your reaction when you heard the show was nominated for Outstanding Drama Series at the Emmys?
It was just awesome. It surpassed any of…when you get a job, you just hope that the pilot gets picked up. That’s the first thing you’re rooting for. Then you’re shooting the season, and all of a sudden, you wrap a season and you say, “Wow, I think this group did something special.” And then it comes out and gets great ratings. People are responding to it. And then all of a sudden, boom, you start getting these nominations that seem so otherworldly. It’s still like, “Really? Wow! That’s amazing.” When I read the pilot, I was like, “This is really amazing material — how are they going to be able to create 11 more of these?” Then you get through a season, and say, “Well, now what are we going to do?” Each time, they manage to dig deeper and find more.
Boardwalk Empire returns to HBO on Sunday, September 16th, at 9 p.m.