Based on a novel about Nucky Johnson, a real life mobster who ran Atlantic City in the twenties, Terence Winter, the Emmy Award-winning writer of The Sopranos, and Martin Scorsese, the Academy Award winning director (The Departed) have teamed up to create the new HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.
It was the dawn of Prohibition, and the undisputed ruler of Atlantic City was the town’s treasurer, Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, a political fixer and backroom dealer who was equal parts politician and gangster.
Taking on the role of Nucky is the consummate actor Steve Buscemi, who has played many unique and unforgettable characters, including Carl Showalter in Fargo, Donny Kerabatsos in The Big Lebowski and Tony Blundetto in season five of The Sopranos.
Are you playing Nucky as an historical figure or as a made up character?
As a character, because you can’t play a historical figure, and you can’t play a bad guy, you can’t play a politician. It’s the man, and so in some ways I was really glad that Terry changed the last name so that we were free then to invent the character that we wanted to make
What research did you do?
I read the book the series is based on, and read some other books; with the magic of the internet you can do a lot of research. But really Terry and the writers did all the work. 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 that I have to do more work as an actor. This, they truly made my job easy. But everything about it, putting the wardrobe on, stepping onto those sets, you just feel like you’re there.
Was the wardrobe a lot of fun to get into?
It’s certainly the best I think I’ve ever looked, not only in film or TV, but in life. But I literally had a dresser, a guy to attach the collar and do the tie right. I probably could do it by myself, but it would take me three times as long.
Can you talk about the governmental apparatus that allowed the corruption?
I think at that time there was less concern about corruption as long as people were getting what they wanted. And what Nucky Johnson was able to do, the real character, he fought hard for those people, for the trains to get there, and he provided an atmosphere where the people who lived there could make a good living, and also for the working-class people who were coming from out of town, so they would have a good time.
Having had a part in The Sopranos, and other crime-based movies, do you get a lot of people who love you because you’ve played crime figures?
Well, I never know what I’m going to get. A Soprano’s 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!
How does it feel to play the big boss who makes all the rules? What were the challenges and the fun of that?
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 to know that these scripts are so strong and to play a character who is ambitious. He certainly has a dark side, but there’s certainly a lot of humor that goes along with it. I think he genuinely has a good heart and I believe that he genuinely wants to share the wealth and help people.
He likes being a politician; he likes being a leader. And he is presented with this opportunity now 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, and now the stakes have risen, and he rises to the challenge. It’s so much fun to play a role like this. Really every day going to work was a pure joy.
You’ve played a lot of vivid supporting characters in your career. Did you ever realistically think you’d be top of the marquee in this big, sprawling series?
Only in my wildest fantasies or dreams; when I first read the script, 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, so sad.’
Of course, when Terry did call me and he said that Marty and he wanted’ me to play this role, my response was, ‘Terry, I know you’re looking at other actors, and I appreciate just that my name is being thrown in.’ He said, ‘No, 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 again and to work with Marty again and to have worked so closely with Marty because, every day on set, he was the most energetic person on set, and it just inspired everybody. So just selfishly, I hope this continues for years and years.
Do you have a natural curiosity for this era?
Absolutely, yeah. And I also love the popular culture of the time, and I’m so glad that they’ve incorporated people like Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker. And people just looked great, even working-class people. People just looked so different in those suits and it’s a shame that we haven’t kept that up.
What happened to us?
I think it’s because it’s a lot of work to look that good!