Season three of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire begins this Sunday at 9 p.m. EST, which is a very important thing to know because Boardwalk Empire got very, very good last year. Now, the cast’s ranks have been thinned, new characters have been brought in, and a certain someone has turned pure evil — in the words of Vincent Piazza, who plays up-and-coming mobster Lucky Luciano, this season will be “incredibly gangster heavy.”
We had a chance to speak to Piazza to discuss what fans should expect this season, TV’s most shocking death in 2011, and how one prepares to play a guy who killed people in real life. Also, Paz de la Huerta, obviously.
So, you’re pretty much the guy who brought heroin to New Jersey, or at least popularized it, judging by last season’s finale. That’s a pretty big deal.
Yeah, it is. [Lucky’s] such a complex character, and obviously he’s this iconic gangster, but he’s been portrayed so many times, and my hat goes off to the writers and the creator of the show because they’re trying to demystify who he was. Trying to bring some understanding to him that we may not have seen before.
How shocked were you with the way last season ended?
Oh my god, very. First off, as an actor, you never want to see friends lose work, but the show breeds it. It’s a gangster series; people are going to come and go. It was very shocking. But in a way, it was great. It keeps the audience off balanced. Let me put it this way: it was great from the show’s standpoint.
Do you think Lucky’s happy to have Jimmy out of the picture?
I don’t think he’s happy. I think Jimmy was a part of the landscape, and as long as he’s not working against Lucky, there’s no reason to see him go away. I think time proves that he was shrewd enough to have people follow his current of what he wanted to achieve. He wasn’t the hierarchy, so he wasn’t in his way.
Along those lines, where do you think Lucky sees himself in the power hierarchy?
He’s always perceived himself as being a boss, and I think that’s part of his trouble. He has a real problem with authority because he sees himself as the authority. And I think it’s going to become…it has become, in the past season, it’s part of his hang up. It’s almost a character flow because he’s not able to ebb and flow with what people are telling him to do. But history has shown that when given the opportunity to be in charge, he’s been an effective leader. And I think that’s in part with his relationship with [Meyer] Lansky. It was such a symbiotic relationship. A guy like Lucky would have never lasted without a guy like Lansky, and a guy like Lansky never would have lasted without Lucky. They just complimented each other so well.
The new season begins in 1923, which is right around the time the real life Lucky begins to become more and more powerful. Is there a shift in the way you played the character?
We haven’t gone to that change yet. Time proves he will change in certain ways, but I think his core never…there was a part of him that was always a thug, and I think he’ll learn different dances with different people in different social circles. I think his view of the world changes, but up through season two, we haven’t seen that yet. You need force to get power.
I know you can’t say too much about season three, but is there anything you can tease?
Unfortunately not, but I can say it’s incredibly gangster heavy. There are some great new characters, too. Bobby Cannavale comes in, he’s wonderful. He plays Gyp Rosetti [Nucky’s new rival]. There’s some great people that shake up the landscape.
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.