In America, 1920 was a time of change. Women got the vote, broadcast radio began, and young people ruled the world. The Great War was over, Wall Street was about to boom, and everything was for sale.
From Terence Winter, Emmy Award-winning writer of The Sopranos, and Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese, the new HBO drama Boardwalk Empire is set in Atlantic City, at the dawn of Prohibition, and showcases the time period when the sale of alcohol became illegal throughout the United States and certain individuals learned how to profit from that.
During a recent interview, the series’ lead actor Steve Buscemi talked about playing the town’s treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the undisputed ruler of Atlantic City, getting the opportunity to be a romantic lead, and how this is one of the best roles of his career. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Steve: Usually, I only get to work a few weeks on a movie, or I often don’t make it to the end of the movie because I’m disposed of, so I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be playing a character who is this central to the story.
What kind of reading have you done about the era?
Steve: I had the book that it’s all based on, and I read some other books. With the magic of the internet, you can do a lot of research, but really Terry [Winter] and the writers did all the work.
They made it easy for you?
Steve: Oh, absolutely. The scripts are so richly detailed and, if ever I had a question, they were always available. I always find that it’s when a script is not detailed, then I have to do more work as an actor. With this, they truly made my job easy. And everything about it, from putting the wardrobe on to stepping onto those sets, just makes you feel like you’re there.
Was the wardrobe fun?
Steve: Well, I need help getting dressed. People ask me, “Do you get to keep the wardrobe?,” but I don’t think I would want to because I would need help getting dressed. It’s certainly the best I think I’ve ever looked, not only in film or TV, but in life.
How many people does it take to help you?
Steve: I have a dresser, who literally is a guy who makes sure the tie is right. It’s a little bit of a process. I could probably do it by myself, but it would take me three times as long.
Were you surprised you needed that much help to get in costume?
Have you spent much time in Atlantic City?
Steve: I have not. I’m not a real gambler and it seemed okay not to go there. Stepping onto that boardwalk set that they constructed in Greenpoint, that’s the feeling that I used so much because it was really built to scale. It’s a small part of the boardwalk, but it’s 300 feet long and all of the stores inside are real sets. It’s not just a backdrop. The incredible source material and just having Terry Winter at the helm makes my job easy.
How do you imagine the ocean?
Steve: That’s the one thing where you have to just go, “Okay, now I have to rely on my own imagination.” We weren’t looking at the East River. We were looking at these huge canisters that was a big blue screen.
Will you direct any episodes?
Steve: I don’t know. Right now, we have so many wonderful directors on it and a long line of great directors that I’m sure want to get on it, and I have my hands full playing this character, so it’s not really in the forefront of my mind. I just want to keep playing this character.
Do you have a natural curiosity for this era?
Steve: Absolutely. I also love the popular culture of the time and I’m so glad they’ve incorporated people like Eddie Canter and Sophie Tucker. People just looked great then, even working class people. People just looked so different in those suits, and it’s a shame that we haven’t kept that up.
Why do you think that is?
Steve: I think because it’s work. It’s a lot of work to look that good.
What do you think it was about the governmental apparatus that allowed for so much corruption at that time?
Steve: At the time, I think there was less concern about corruption, as long as people were getting what they wanted. What Nucky Johnson was able to do, the real character, was that he fought hard for roads to be built, for the trains to get there and he provided an atmosphere for the people who lived there to make a good living, and also for the working class people who were coming from out of town to have an inexpensive good time. That’s what he provided.
Do you identify more with the character or the historical figure?
Steve: It’s the character because you can’t play a historical figure, you can’t play a bad guy and you can’t play a politician. It’s the man. So, in some ways, I was really glad that Terry changed the name so that we were free to invent the character that we wanted to make.
What do you like about playing the ladies’ man side to him?
Steve: What’s not to like?
How did it feel to play the big boss who makes all the rules against the girls? What were the challenges and the fun of that?
Steve: This is one of the best parts I’ve ever had in my life, and it’s just so exciting for me to go to work and know that these scripts are so strong, and to play a character who is ambitious. He certainly has a dark side, but there’s also a lot of humor that goes along with it. I think he genuinely has a good heart. I believe that he wants to share the wealth and help people. He likes being a politician and a leader. He is presented with this opportunity with Prohibition, and you’re either on the trolley, or you can be put six feet under. I suppose he could step down, but I don’t think it’s in his DNA. He’s where he is after lots of years of hard work, and he wants to stay there because he enjoys it. Now the stakes have risen, and he rises to the challenge. It’s so much fun to play a role like this. Really, going to work every day was a pure joy.
You’ve played a lot of vivid supporting characters in your career. Did you ever think you’d be top of the marquee in this big, sprawling mini-series?
Steve: Only in my wildest fantasies or dreams. When I first read the script, I could tell from page one that this was the man. It was terrifying, in a way, but also so exciting. I hadn’t gotten the offer yet to play the character, and I just thought, “Wow, I’m almost sorry I’m reading this because, if I don’t get it, I’m going to be so disappointed and so sad.” So, when Terry did call me and he said that he and Marty wanted me to play this role, my response was, “Terry, I know you’re looking at other actors, and I just appreciate that my name is being thrown in.” He said, “No, Steve, I just said we want you.” It still didn’t sink in. I’m so excited to be a part of this group, and work with Terry and Marty again. It was great to have worked so closely with Marty because, every day on set, he was the most energetic person there and it just inspired everybody. Selfishly, I hope this continues for years and years.
Steve: I never know what I’m going to get. A Sopranos fan is very different from a Big Lebowski fan. Every day’s an adventure when I step out of my door. That’s why I usually wear a hat and keep my head low.
Do you set out to mix your career up as much as you do?
Steve: I’ve never had a grand plan. I’ve only just tried to keep open to many different possibilities, have fun and work with people who are passionate about what they do. Certainly Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese fall into that category.
Do you have any films coming out soon?
Steve: I did Pete Smalls is Dead, which was made by Alexandre Rockwell, who I go way back with. He made In the Soup. I have a small part in that. I play a producer. It’s always fun to get to do independent film because I believe that that’s the life blood of film. It’s about writers and directors who truly have their own vision, and that’s hard. Somebody like Alexandre Rockwell has remained true to his unique vision and, in this country, we don’t often treat them with the respect that they deserve. I don’t blame any director for wanting to do something more commercial. That’s all part of the business. I certainly have done it, as an actor. I think both sides need each other.
Boardwalk Empire premieres on HBO on September 19th.