The Epix drama series Godfather of Harlem follows infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson (Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker), who returned home from ten years in prison in the early 1960s, only to find the streets he once ruled being controlled by the Italian mob, and more specifically by Genovese family boss Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio). In a fight to regain control, the battle leads him to form an alliance with Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch), at a time when social upheaval is tearing the city apart.
While at the Epix portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to sit down an chat with co-stars Vincent D’Onofrio, Nigél Thatch and Giancarlo Esposito (who plays Baptist pastor and politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.) about what made them want to be a part of this project, really getting to sink their teeth into this story of American history that’s being told, how colorful each of these men were, having to go all in with their portrayals, and their memorable experiences working with Forest Whitaker.
NIGEL THATCH: For me, personally, it was not necessarily about sinking my teeth into Malcolm X. It was about sinking my teeth into this story that’s being told. With that comes delving into who Malcolm X is and trying to get to the essence of him. Quite frankly, anyone can tell a story about anybody. If you just choose a project based on the character or who it is that you’re portraying without actually looking into the writing and what story is being told, as an actor, you’re making a mistake. First, for me, is definitely the project, the writing, what story is being told, and how well it’s being told. That was the draw. Plus, we have so much time to tell his story and to peel back the layers of that, if you will. I don’t recall actually seeing Malcolm X depicted in a television series, at all. Everything I’ve seen of Malcolm has been on film, which is over in a couple hours here. Here, in the first season alone, we have 10 hours to not only delve into Malcolm X, but the other pieces of this puzzle, as well. And hopefully, if things go as planned, we’ll have even more hours to tell that story.
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: This was a fun role for me to play. I play Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and he was flashy. He passed more bills in Congress than any other congressman, ever. He was a minister. So, to have all of those collars to play is fascinating, for me, because he wasn’t just one thing. The ‘60s were a turbulent time, and this guy was about his constituents. He was about the people in Harlem. He disagreed with the more aggressive movement of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. He believed we can do it politically. He believed that he could act like the white Dixiecrats from the South. And then, when he got nailed for going to Paris and taking two women with him, he felt like that was a railroad for him. He came back from that, and he was a strong, very important guy, but he was fun. He had fun in his off hours. That particular time period is a fun decade, but very turbulent, as well. People were looking for outlets. They were looking for somewhere to go to have fun, relax and blow off some steam, and Harlem was that place. So, our show explore history and these incredible characters whose position was to clash. You had the Italians that were still very prevalent and prominent, you had African Americans who had no real leadership and nobody willing to speak up for them, and you had Ellsworth Raymond Johnson, or Bumpy, who was an African American man, coming out of prison and trying to find his sea legs in a Harlem that seemed lost to him. He knew he had to do something, on his own behalf, and started to realize, through that, that the people there were suffering and he should help them, too.
These are such layered and interesting characters, and even though we kind find them in history because they were real people, it still seems like we’ll learn so much more about them through this series.
ESPOSITO: That’s due to the writers and their very specific writing. They landed all of this together to allow this story to breathe and for us to live in it, in the ‘60s, but also to draw parallels to the contemporary time that is now.
Vincent “Chin” Gigante doesn’t seem like someone who walks a fine line or a grey area. He’s just not a nice guy.
VINCENT D’ONOFRIO: With his family, he does. With the context of the blackness rising up, I think he feels threatened by it, like all white people did. Abbie Hoffman said, as long as white America is scared of the black man, it ain’t ever gonna change, and he was right. That’s exactly why. Senator John Lewis said, “It’s because we’re black.” That’s what my character is made up of, in the context of his business and his community and his world. The only thing that breaks him out of that is the love for his family. But even in the context of the love for his family, there’s a lot of hate when it comes to blackness. So, the way my character is written, for this particular story, the composition of my character within the structure of the story is fueled by that.
When you play someone like that, do you just have to go all in with it?
D’ONOFRIO: You have to go all in. It’s the only way that you can do it. I don’t know how much I’m really allowed to talk about it, but I didn’t really want to play this part. I avoided it, like the play. It meant a lot to me. I immediately started feeling sick to my stomach. I’ve been friends with Chris Brancato, our showrunner, for a long time, and I said no. He kept pressing me, and I had to have a conversation. I had a big conversation with a lot of people, and everybody that I trusted, that was a person of color, brown or black, said that I should do it and not hold back, and that I should go all in and make sure that the company I was working for was not gonna screw me over, and that they were gonna go all in with me. That was their attitude, and that was definitely Brancato’s attitude, and they’ve held to it. So, everything that my character said and did, and the stuff that we shot is gonna be in it. Some of it is hard fucking core, enough to feel sick to your stomach when you go home.
ESPOSITO: That’s like how I felt when I did Do The Right Thing, and Danny Aiello and I did the last scene. We got caught up in the scene, and Danny said one thing that I knew wasn’t written, and it was from his life. He called me a name, and I went there and called him a name, and it was like all of our past ghosts came up. We wound up just crying and hugging to release it, but we both were healed that day because we were harboring some shit. It was nasty and ugly, and it was present.
D’ONOFRIO: You just can’t tonight. You have to go all in all.
It’s difficult to hear all of the racial slurs, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to say it for the scenes.
D’ONOFRIO: Yeah, especially when you have children and you’ve raised them. When we have a party at our house, or when our kids have a birthday party, it’s like the United Nations at our house. That’s the great thing about being a New Yorker. You’ve got every race, color and religion in your household, all the time. That’s how my kids were raised. And now, I’ve gotta think about the young ones, when I play a part like this. That’s why you have to go all in. The easiest thing for me to say to them is that I had to go all in. Otherwise, you don’t get the point across.
What’s it like to add Forest Whitaker as that piece that connects all of your characters together?
D’ONOFRIO: We had never met before, and we’d certainly never acted before. I remember one particular scene, a few weeks in, when we were both still finding our characters, and the two of us were so locked in. I have this enormous love for him because of the inspiration of everything that he’s done. So, we were doing this one scene, and we were opposite each other, and the camera was rolling, but we hadn’t started the scene yet. Because we’re older, we can start the scene when we want to. The little guys have to go out action, and we just go when we fuckin’ feel like it. So, we were looking at each other, we had three marks to hit, and we were all set. But the way Forest talks sometimes, you don’t understand a fuckin’ word he’s saying, but I was looking in his eyes, and I knew he was there and I was there. On the first take, we got into the scene, we stepped off onto our first mark, and he rocked my fuckin’ world. I don’t get rocked easy. He fuckin’ backed me up on my heels. Not in a physical way, but in an internal way. The actor inside me was like, “Woah, pay attention to what you’re doing. You’ve just been rocked. Pay attention to what you’re doing.” We get through the scene and the director’s was like, “That was great.” And then, they had to change the lighting, so I went back to my dressing room, and half-way back to my dressing room, I started laughing to myself. I’m an old fuck. I’ve been doing this a long time, but I was just like, “Holy fuckin’ Christ!” I closed the door I, physically and mentally, just threw my hands up in the air and went, “Holy shit!,” and I cracked up. This is a true story. I leaned back into the couch, by myself in my room, and I laughed until I couldn’t laugh anymore. And then, I thought, “Okay, I’ve gotta get back.” We went into it a second time and we were just inseparable. It was a very heavy scene. My point is that the guy has the ability to rock you, when he’s at his best. He can knock you back on your heels. That’s how I feel about Forest Whitaker.
ESPOSITO: I had a very similar experience. We had a scene, and Forest was just trying to find the connection first. He found out that he had lost someone, and I came in with all of my bravado. Forest looked at me, and through our dialogue, exactly as Vincent described, he comes from this very streamlined place, and the emotion just grows and grows and grows, and before you know it, you’re so locked into him that you just felt where he’d gone. There’s nothing like that, to experience that with a scene partner. And if you’re present and conscious, then you’re able to reflect that back to him, and be supportive or be contentious, whatever the scene calls for it. There were certainly powerful moments that came up for me, in working with him. I was very, very honored to work with such a present actor. If he didn’t feel like something worked, then he would step away and be very differential and talk to the writers. He’d say, “Can I just change this one little thing?” And of course, they would allow him to do that. But he’s a gem to work with because he’s humble and he’s present, and he’s willing to allow himself to be in the moment. That’s what it’s all about.
D’ONOFRIO: He’s just a guy that knows his shit. Like all of us, we’re just guys that know our shit.
THATCH: One of the most extraordinary things about him is that he is so humble, and he is willing to be present in the scene and do what it takes to make the scene work. Myself, as an actor, being in a scene with Forest Whitaker, he’s Forest Whitaker, but once they say action, he’s Bumpy Johnson and I’m Malcolm X. I’m not thinking about Forest Whitaker, at all. I’m not bamboozled by Forest and his magic. We’re Malcolm X and Bumpy Johnson. That’s just how I roll.
Godfather of Harlem airs on Sunday nights on Epix.