Anthony D’Alessandro is managing editor/contributor to AwardsLine.
For anyone who found the first season of Boardwalk Empire pedestrian with its decadent sets and deliberate pacing, well then, watch season 2: HBO’s Prohibition gangster saga is more breathtaking than a moonshine explosion, triggered in large part by its tin god Nucky Thompson, the crooked Atlantic City political boss played with pungent deftness by Steve Buscemi. In season 2, the beachside Camelot of bootleggers and politicians that Nucky propped up in season 1 emasculate him of his power with an election rigging scandal, leaving the fashion-plaid suited kingpin no choice but to off his rebellious protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) in a shocking finale. While some critics scratched their heads in season 1 over the idea of a character actor playing the lead, it couldn’t be more clear that Buscemi’s steely acting was meant for the part. Look no further than the accolades Buscemi has racked up: a best actor drama Emmy nod last year and a best actor SAG win in January. His coarse stares, machine-gun diction and cocksure swagger are Nucky’s underpinnings as the pivot in this gangland’s Ferris wheel. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather taught that such unhinged behavior leads a man to his inevitable doom, i.e. Sonny Corleone. But in Boardwalk, such manners are prerequisite for survival.
AWARDSLINE: Did you realize early on in the season that Nucky’s murder of Jimmy Darmody was inevitable?
Steve Buscemi: No, it wasn’t obvious to me or anybody. When I talked to Terry (Winter) about why Nucky was taking this course of action, he brought me back to the pilot. Nucky said ‘You would be very unwise to underestimate me James.’ He gave Jimmy a pass then. Nucky said ‘I could have you killed.’ And so Jimmy clearly crossed a big line in season 2 as far as Nucky is concerned, so in his mind there was no going back. What was more surprising to me was that Nucky chose to do it himself. He could have had someone else do it. I talked to (Boardwalk director and exec producer) Tim Van Patten about this. He directed the final episode. Tim said over the course of prohibition and gangster history, there’s the names of guys we don’t know because they didn’t make it. And that’s Jimmy’s story. Not to speak for Michael Pitt, but when you look at what his character went through with his (incestuous) mother and World War I, he had a recklessness about him. There was a self-fulfilling prophesy.
AWARDSLINE: Tell me about preparing for this role – was it through photos, did you leave a lot of Nucky’s factual bio behind? (Editor’s note: Buscemi’s role is based on real-life Atlantic City political boss Nucky Johnson).
Buscemi: For me as an actor, a lot of it is physical. When I put on Nucky’s suits designed by costume designer John Dunn, when I see my hair a certain way and in that make-up and we’re on these incredible sets and these scripts are so tight and beautifully written, that does a lot of the work for you. On the pilot, I talked with Martin Scorsese about that era. He’s so knowledgeable about everything, not only film, but history, music and art. We talked about Prohibition and how these gangsters came into being. After the show aired, I also spoke with my Dad. He came to visit the set in that first season and was struck how it reminded him of his father’s era. My grandfather was a singing waiter on Coney Island with Jimmy Durante. So it was through photos, articles, the book (as source material), but mostly talking about it.… I don’t go to the writers’ meeting or am involved in the development of his character. In season 2, I didn’t talk creatively with Terry until the final episode. If I had questions in the second season, it was more with Tim (Van Patten) as well as any writer that was around on set such as Howard Korder.
AWARDSLINE: Since you’ve been cast in a lead role, have other opportunities for leads come your way? Is it easier to get funding for any indie films you’re planning?
Buscemi: We don’t have a long hiatus. Even if I was pursing lead parts in films, there isn’t much time. I don’t know how it’s impacted independent films that I’m trying to get off the ground. All the attention is a good thing. It only helps rather than hinders. I just did a really great supporting role in a film directed by Don Scardino, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, starring Steve Carell and Jim Carrey. I was excited to do it because the character was completely opposite of Nucky and it’s fun to mix it up.
AWARDSLINE: Do you plan to write or direct episodes of Boardwalk?
Buscemi: I’m happy to be playing this part and I have my plate full just playing Nucky.