“There are moments when I become aware that I’ve been thinking like a gangster”
Note: This interview was taken by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) for The Sunday Guardian. An edited version of the interview can be found here: http://goo.gl/drIeeF.
You can also read my interview with Joshua Malina of Scandal/West Wing here: http://goo.gl/0FrRV8.
Next week, watch out for my interview with Rupert Friend (Peter Quinn) of Homeland.
Boardwalk Empire’s been one of my favourite shows of the last few years and certainly one of the best things to have happened to television; and it’s such a tragedy that the show’s never broken out as well as other HBO shows. It’s constantly been rewarding and has had such terrific writing and such a fantastic cast over the years, led by the great Steve Buscemi, that it’s a pity it’s getting over.
And that’s why I *had* to speak to an actor from the show, because that’s been something on my ‘To-Interview list’ – speaking to actors I admire from the shows I love. I reached out to Anatol Yusef, who plays Meyer Lansky, in specific because I believe he’s one of the most solid actors on the show, and one of the most underrated things about it. Last year was truly one of the best years for Anatol on the show, as we saw Lansky’s climb to the top, and his performance really blew me away. I also loved watching Anatol in the haunting Brit show, #Southcliffe. You should check out the show and his terrific performance in it.
Anatol, like most Brit actors I’ve spoken with, was polite and gentlemanly and very intelligent to speak with. His answers were refreshing and he spoke in detail about pretty much all aspects of Boardwalk Empire and Lansky too; and I loved that he really understood the humanity of Meyer Lansky, the person. Anatol also had a seemingly spiritual connection with India, which I was unaware of, and he discussed that at much length in the interview. That was one of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with him. I absolutely love interviews where the person I’m speaking to is an equal participant in a conversation, instead of merely being an interviewee. And Anatol was just as interested in talking about India as he was about Boardwalk; in fact, he approached the topic himself. So it was quite an insightful interview, and I really enjoyed writing it as well.
I’ve divided the interview into the following segments:
- ON THE PROCESS OF BOARDWALK EMPIRE & OUTLIVING OTHERS
- ON WORKING WITH THE LEGENDS OF THE SHOW
- ON BEING LANSKY & FINDING THE HUMANITY IN BEING A GANGSTER
- ON THE PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF PLAYING EVIL
- ON BEING ENAMOURED WITH INDIA & WHAT’S NEXT
So you can skip to the part you want to, or go through the entire interview and enjoy Anatol’s answers.
“As an actor, you’re more used to things ending than carrying on. So it surprised me how sad Boardwalk ending was to me.”
As fans, we are crushed that Boardwalk Empire is coming to an end. What was the last day of the shoot for you guys like?
Well, it surprised me how sad it was. Because, you know, the show has been winding down for a little while and you prepare yourself for that kind of thing. One is, you’ve got to remember that as an actor, you’re more used to finishing things. You’re more used to things ending than carrying on. So I didn’t expect it to be a sad moment, but it got quite emotional, moreso during the leading up days. When I did my last scene with Steve Buscemi, we gave each other a hug and said, ‘Oh, that’s it, that’s the last time Lansky and Nucky are going to do a scene together,’… moments like that got quite emotional. But it felt the right time for things to end, and we had a nice celebratory drink and from then on, really, there was party after party after party after party, so we said goodbye to the show quite well.
Were there speeches made? Do you have any favourite moments from the after parties?
(Laughs) I don’t know if I can share that with you. No, but there were some fun moments and there were some good speeches. I was actually there on the final day of the shoot, which I wasn’t involved in, because (chuckles) I went to see if I could take a suit or two. Steve gave a beautiful speech to everyone, and there were many more moments that such moments, during conversations you might have with one of the wardrobe girls or with the hair and makeup, or the DP, or the casting directors, or one of the directors, where you recollect these little memories that you’ve shared along the way. I was reminded of some fond memories about my first read-through and the first costume fittings and things like that. What’s really interesting is talking to the other actors, some of whom you shared scenes with and some of whom you never worked with, and hearing what people remember and indeed, what they don’t, about you, you know. It’s really lovely to know that that some cherished little moments are remembered and you know, are appreciated.
Before I ask you anything else, I need to ask you this about Season 5. We’ve seen some really cruel deaths in Boardwalk Empire but Arnold Rothstein being killed off screen in the time jump in between Season 4 and 5 was perhaps the cruellest of them all. How did you and Michael Stuhlburg take it?
It was very sad for me, yeah. As a fan of the show, Rothstein’s probably one of my favourite characters, and I think it’s a brilliant performance. So it was sad for me, especially to have not been able to know when your final scene with Michael was. It was obviously sad for Michael as well. But I guess you’d see with this season that there are so many things to wrap up that perhaps the Rothstein story would’ve been a lot to have encompassed in only 8 episodes. But of course, I’d have much rather known about and been part of the Arnold Rothstein story ending.
2. ON THE PROCESS OF BOARDWALK & OUTLIVING OTHERS
“People did the show with an acceptance to keep looking over their shoulders about as to when their characters might be killed”
One of my favourite things about Boardwalk Empire is how incredibly detailed and nuanced it is. As an actor, does that make the process of the show any different from other shows? How does a typical episode work?
(chuckles) Well, it depends on the season. In the earlier seasons, we had a little more lead up time, but as the stories got complex and more major characters joined the show, the writers worked a lot more closer to the shoot dates. Usually, you’d get the whole script or sometimes you go to the read through and know what’s going on in the whole episode, but as the seasons went on, pretty much all of us would only just get our scenes, and we could get them a week or two weeks before we shoot, and sometimes they would change the night before (laughs).
So the preparation time would be very, very short. Having said that, after 3,4, 5 years of being with the character really, you don’t need as much preparation as you would on another job because the characters are really more yours than anyone else’s. So, they’re relying on those actors who’ve been with those characters for that length in time to be able to work in the moment and think in the moment, and sometimes it serves you to not prepare too much so you can work more spontaneously. Sometimes, it’s more awkward because there are questions, like you know, you are talking about someone that you’re going to kill but you don’t know who that person is (chuckles). So the process varies.
And the other side of it is that a lot of the work is done for you anyway. Sometimes you step on to half made sets or sets that look very familiar. Boardwalk’s sets, the costumes, and everything is so elaborate that your imagination doesn’t have to do as much work as it might have to on another job. A lot of the work’s done for you. So you just get on and do it and trust that your instincts are right because you’ve been playing this character for so long.
A lot of the show was filmed on New York on the streets. Was that a particularly tough thing to do, getting rid of modern day elements of New York to showcase a New York in the 1920s?
No, because New York’s not that old, quite frankly. In New York, most of the buildings were as they were. In fact, some of the buildings are exactly as they were. It’s just been about changing some furniture. Possibly the only thing different in New York was the light because there were no skyscrapers around. It’s a good question for the production designers, but I imagine it’s pretty easy shooting in New York and in the surrounding areas where lots of these buildings still exist and still look like they did. And many of them have lots of the features which were the same as they were in the twenties, you know. It’s really just dressing and using those features with a camera, along with other elements, and that’s where it’s about being clever. It’s amazing, you know, if you put three gangsters dressed in suits in many of our locations, that’s half the job. So yes, it’s never been that difficult. In fact, it’s been one of the pleasures as a New Yorker, playing a New York gangster on a New York TV shows in New York. It’s one of the things I miss actually, it’s been lovely.
Can you share with us one incredible detail about the show that fans wouldn’t know?
You know, as you’d suspect, the show’s crew has worked incredibly hard to recreate the exact environment of the time. I’ll give you an example: There’s a scene in season 3 when Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, Joe Masseria and Lucky Luciano are on a dinner table plotting the way forward. And that table is positioned in exactly the same restaurant in exactly the same way as the meeting would’ve taken place, as written by Lansky and Luciano in their autobiographies. So we’ve had some pretty good days like that.
Since the show’s landscape was so vast and covered, did it often happen that you’d never get to interact with any of the other actors on the show?
It varied, but most of the time, you didn’t have any interactions. The most interactions you had were read-throughs. There’s be the odd time if you were shooting at a studio, then you might have a crossover, where, you know, you’d be coming in and someone else would be coming out or vice versa, but a lot of the times there’d be different locations. There was a time where New York was shooting in Brooklyn, Chicago was shooting in Staten Island, and Atlantic City was shooting in another part of New York. So it’s one of the things that was a little bit of a shame about the show, and those of us who’ve been on air a long time feel like this, because there are a couple of actors that we’ve never worked with and vice versa. Each season you hoped, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll get to work with Michael Shannon or maybe I’ll get to work with Gretchen (Mol)’, but it didn’t quite happen. Steve, I know, has loved the fact that he’s been able to work with everyone. So he’s got to experience everyone on the show, which is fantastic!
Going back, since Lansky outlived most of the gangsters, did it ever get awkward for you with the other actors knowing that you’re going to be on the show till the end, while they may be bumped off anytime?
(Chuckles) No, in fact, it was the last thing from being awkward because I’ve known that they can’t kill me! I do know that a couple of the other gangsters feared that they might change history and kill them but I never did because I knew it wasn’t that kind of a show. I do remember that in the early seasons I empathised with the actors coming into the read through, not knowing whether they would live or die. More than awkward I was intrigued to see how the writers kept everyone guessing about these guys.
But what I was most intrigued about was how, with a character like mine who outlived everyone, there were at least a couple of important scenes throughout the seasons where my character thinks he’s going to die. I think I’m most proud of those moments, because, if you, as the actor playing Meyer Lansky, and if the writers writing it can make the audience believe that he might die or he’s in fear of his life, then you’ve really achieved something. So it’s probably been more awkward, in a sense, for the writers to find unusual, unexpected things to do with these characters than it has been for us, you know.
Having worked with so many actors on the show whose characters were killed, from your understanding, how did they deal with such a part of the show?
I mean, it was an accepted part of the show, you know. I mean, it’s a gangster show, about a post-war era, about life on the streets and outside of it, when lives were cheap. So I think people did the show with an acceptance to keep looking over their shoulders about as to when it might happen. There haven’t been any occasions where I’ve known that I’m going to kill someone and they don’t know; that would be bizarre. I don’t think the writers would every put anyone in that position.
3. ON WORKING WITH THE LEGENDS OF THE SHOW
“Steve Buscemi immediately brings humanity to a situation, no matter what’s going on in the scene.”
So what are your favourite memories of working with Martin Scorsese?
Martin Scorsese’s influence on the show is really strong and really important. The pilot set the tone: the pace, the aesthetic, the tone was really set by him and his approach. I was told that I was his choice for the character of Lansky, but I didn’t work with Martin Scorsese directly. I think one of the most amazing things about Boardwalk for me is: I was living in New York and five months before I got the job, I had applied for my Green Card, and, kind of, made a quiet promise to myself that if I didn’t get it, I’ll go back to England and start again over here. The week after I auditioned for Boardwalk, I got my Green Card and things just changed from there.
A few years later, I was at the premiere of Hugo, and I was walking around and I saw Mr. Scorsese, and he approached me and complimented me on my work on the season. Two years after that I was at the premiere of Wolf of Wall Street and again the same thing happened. I looked over to where his table was and I thought I’d caught eyes with him and I became quite nervous and a friend of mine who knows him quite well said we should go over because I had some really specific thoughts about the film and about why I enjoyed it so much. So I went over there and before I could say anything, he told me exactly what he liked about my work in season 4; he told me the scenes he enjoyed and you know, moments like that, Nikhil, are… (pause) That moment four and a half years ago, when I didn’t know if I was going to stay in New York or not and then having one of the real greats, having one of our great modern artists in any medium, know your name and like your work, I mean that’s a wonderful thing. So I’m really proud to have been a part of Boardwalk Empire.
Terence Winter was already quite a critical darling because of The Sopranos before Boardwalk Empire Happened, but since then, he’s got mass acclaim because of The Wolf of Wall Street. Have your interactions with him changed over the years?
Terry has always been such a great boss. He’s always been encouraging, and never really been someone to get involved in an actor’s performance. Like any boss you work with, you get more comfortable as time passes. Terry is someone I see every year regularly, and sometimes outside of shooting, when there’ll be a dinner that some of us will go to. And with Terry, he’s one of those people who’s interested about what else is going on in your life as well, you know. Work isn’t the main topic of conversation with him, which is nice.
The thing that’s struck me about Terry is that he’s fascinated with the psychology of humans. I remember talking to him when he created the character Gyp Rosetti and he said that he had a friend who, when he was growing up, used to just get in fights all the time. He took everything very personally; and he based that character Gyp Rosetti on this friend that he had as a young man. And I think that’s very much Terry’s approach: he takes things in his own life and puts them in these worlds and he’s fascinated by the psychology of humans of every era.
I can imagine how working with the great Steve Buscemi must have been a massive perk of the job.
Oh! I’ve absolutely loved it. You know, with TV shows like this about gangsters and powerful men, there can be a lot of egos flying around, actors can get touchy when they are under pressure or tired. But Steve has been such a gentleman and maintained such an excellent demeanour and his quality of work’s always been so high, that no one else has behaved in any bad way because our lead has been such a good example to everyone. Anyone who’d have behaved poorly would have stood out like a sore thumb. So I’ve loved working with Steve and getting to know him.
I think of him as a friend now, and working with him has been one of my favourite things about the job. I’ve been lucky to work with him quite a lot over the years; we’ve had a lot of really great scenes together. I recently went to the premiere of an HBO documentary about New York firefighters that Steve’s done and I sat there and watched this, what would you call it, an offering or homage to his past by his peers and by his friends. And I just felt honoured to have worked with Steve, really, that apart from being a fine actor, he’s a fine man. So yeah, as you can see I can’t, I can’t say enough about Steve (laughs). I’m very grateful to him.
What did you pick up from him as an actor, and particularly an actor of a gangster drama, a genre that Steve Buscemi has a wealth of experience in?
I don’t know if it was specifically to do with playing a gangster. I mean, what Steve does very naturally – and all excellent actors do the same thing – is that he immediately brings humanity to a situation, no matter what’s going on in the scene. The hallmark of a great actor is bringing humanity before any showmanship or before trying to be intimidating or trying to be scary or trying to be cool or any of these things, which are all the enemies of good acting. Steve’s very, very gifted in just finding the humanity in a situation. And he’s a very poised and calm actor as well, so, you know, that’s always good to be around.
But I don’t know if I learnt anything directly to do with playing gangsters. I mean, I don’t think – Nikhil, I don’t think of myself as an actor who played a gangster, you know. I didn’t play Meyer Lansky as a gangster, I played him as an immigrant who came from great oppression, who wanted to make his way up and to find his identity, and who thought of himself very much as a businessman. So I never really thought about my character as a gangster. It’s more a reference point for interviews.
4. ON BEING LANSKY & FINDING THE HUMANITY IN BEING A GANGSTER
“In season 4, when Lansky beats a man to death for being anti-semtic, that was the closest I felt to the real Lansky, not because he was a killer or I am one, but that deep in his heart was a real anger and lust to make things fair and even, at least in his own eyes.”
It’s interesting that you talk about the humanity that Steve brought, because I believe you brought the very same to Lansky as well. You played Lansky as a calm, composed and smart man, one who doesn’t believe in knee-jerk reactions, the New York counterpart of Nucky, if you will. How difficult was it to give humanity to a character that is historically seen as a gangster?
(Pauses) It’s a good question. I don’t know if I was conscious of it. I knew that Lansky was a calm man, even at a young age, though he did have his moments, you know. Historically, he definitely must have been physically tough, and must have been quite lethal as a young man to have survived the streets that he did. I don’t believe that he didn’t beat anyone up or take anyone’s life, I think he did that – and he does that on the show. But I think generally he was calm, knowing his history, and knowing where he came from… knowing that survival was living.
You know, I have to say: now-a-days, we live in comfort. That’s what the modern age is, it’s comfort. Back then, it was survival. And these guys didn’t really weren’t conscious of the term ‘survival’ but that’s what they were doing, they were literally surviving. And being a ‘gangster’ was one of the means he chose to survive. Lansky, in fact, came from a Jewish culture, where knowledge and studiousness were great tools, but he was also hard as nail. I mean Lucky said about him in one of his biographies, ‘Pound for pound, he was the toughest gangster I knew’. And I think there’s truth in that. He was alarmingly tough – he was as tough as he was smart. He was surprisingly tough and surprisingly smart.
And yes, understanding the oppression that he came from and understanding what all those young men shared in that era, the ones that survived and the ones that didn’t, is that they there desperate for identity and desperate for a place in this new world, this kind of wild east, this new frontier that arrived in. So, you know, that’s a side of human nature that’s very recognisable.
(Chuckles) And, also, it’s very easy to be calm when you are surrounded by less calm gangsters, you know, when you are surrounded by the Luckys and the Busgys, certainly. I also think Arnold Rothstein’s tutelage was very important that for Lansky. Rothstein told him that he was very young and there was great honour and intelligence being slightly in the shadows and not being the frontman. Because if you are not at the front, you are less likely to get enemies and envied and killed. So, it all had reason. And that was Lansky’s greatest tool. Reason backed up with fierce intelligence and real toughness.
Over the seasons or in your research, what would you say were the moments that really made Lansky human for you, as a person of history?
He was human to me from day one, off that there is no doubt. I recognised him absolutely. I’ll give you two moments. One in the research and one in the show. In the show, there was a scene in episode 4, season 4, where Lansky loses a father figure in Rothstein at the poker table and then seeks another father figure in Nucky, who overthrows his business in rescuing his deal, and all this while he’d witness this man at a poker table being mildy anti-semetic to Rothstein. And after the deal with Nucky, it was the first time you really see Lansky on his own and you see him frustrated and excited, and you see his need for identity and family and home clearly. And that manifests into this moment where he beats that man to death for being anti-semestic, and doing so while speaking Yiddish, no less. That was the closest I felt to the real Lansky, not because he was a killer or I am one, but that deep in his heart was a real anger and lust to make things fair and even, at least in his own eyes. Does that make sense?
And then, the quote that I always remember, which I found in his research, is from when he was in hospital in the sixties after he had had a heart attack in his sixties and the Feds were bugging his phone. Phone bugging was the end of organised crime as we knew it, really. So he said this thing that someone who’d called him, his quote was, ‘You have to treat the good with the bad, that’s life, but some of us never learn it. One quarter of us is good, three quarters is bad, and that’s a tough fight, three against one. So some people never learn to be good.’ And I think, that was Meyer Lansky for me. Over time, his first son was born, I believe, with multiple sclerosis, and his wife accused him that it was his fault and it was god’s revenge. And I think from then on Lansky had a real change of conscience, and thought of himself as three quarters bad and tried to be good and that battle and that friction kept him alive but also made him make incredibly tough and ruthless.
Since Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky were partners for such a long time, did you and Vincent Piazza (who played Lucky) developed a process on approaching the scenes together?
We did at the beginning, very much. We very much worked together, hung out together and formed a relationship. We still see each other outside of the show but it became more occasional as the seasons went on because you didn’t need to, you know; the chemistry’s just been there. But yeah, in the first season particularly, we hung out loads, shared stuff and found our vocabulary as actors. So then, when you come to the scene, you know that there’s different ways that Lansky and Lucky would react in a situation and you’d agree on which way they’d be dealing with it.
You know, as time went on, they started to have their own moves and their own storylines, and certainly with Lansky, there was a choice he made – the choice of when to move things forward and the choice of when to step back. And as time went on, Lansky very much wanted lucky to be the man that stepped forward, and Lucky wanted to be that kind of man too, the front man. And it made sense historically as well because we’ve mainly been dealing with Italians in the gangster world. So that’s what’s happening this season. Meyer’s becoming very much the observer and advisor. But together with Bugsy, the three were a very, very lethal team.
There was a quote from Bugsy Siegel where he said, ‘I think they were more than brothers. They were lovers.’ But there wasn’t anything sexual between them. They would just look at each other and know what the other wanted to say. So if you go back and look at the seasons, you’d see the amount of looks that Lansky and Lucky share (laughs), there are loads of them, and they all mean different things.
As the seasons went on, did Vincent and you have your own looks too?
(Laughs) Yeah, of course. Vince and I used to talk about those looks first, and then they became natural for us as well.
Since Lansky was also a New Yorker and the show was shot in New York, have you ever had people coming to you with stories about him?
All of the time! The reality is that Lansky had his fingers in so many different pies that it was likely that somewhere, one of your grandfathers in New York brushed with him or one of his organisations. So I’ve sat in bars and all kinds of people have come to me with stories, from a Jewish guy who’s uncle or granddad worked with Lansky or someone of the older generation who’s worked with him indirectly. But the most complimentary thing that I got to know through a couple of writers who wrote books about the Jewish mafia or about Lansky himself, who’ve been in touch with Lansky’s family, is that a couple of them really enjoyed my portrayal. His grandson actually, through one of the writers, sent me a sketch that he did of his grandfather when he was a kid, so, yeah that side of it has been really interesting, you know, hearing people’s stories. And I have to say, it’s been nice to have the compliments from the older generation of New Yorkers to the way I portrayed him. It’s really lovely getting that, not being from there or not being Jewish; it’s been really nice.
Can you recall a story about Lansky that someone told you that stayed with you in particular?
One story that’s really stayed with me about Lansky came through Eric Dezenhall, who knew his grandson. Eric wrote a pretty good book about Lanksy called The Devil Himself, about his meetng with the US government and organising the docks to be cleared in World War Two of Nazi sympathisers. So Lansky’s gransdson spoke to Eric about this look that Meyer had. That he’d be affable and lovable, a good father, a good husband, a kind man, but there were moments where he’d give you a look that would chill you to your bones. And I loved that image, that he would sometimes do it knowingly and playfully, and sometimes do it to put someone in their place. That look meant that there was a place in his heart and in his soul that had seen real horror, and he could call on that whenever he needed.
5. ON THE PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF PLAYING EVIL
“There are moments when I become aware that I’ve been thinking like a gangster”
Do you have an acting process similar to that? When you’re playing a historical character, and a gangster on top of that, is there a method you go through, or a zone you go into?
I guess I do. I’ve been doing it a while now so I’m not really aware of my process anymore. I do have a process but at least feels like I just do it naturally. There’s initial work of the research and the talking to the writers and talking to the other actors who play your friends or mentors, like Rothstein or Lucky or Bugsy, and really trusting your instincts. Sometimes there are some moments where you have to consciously get yourself into a very receptive place, you know, in some of the more deeper scenes. For example, the scene where I’m on my knees in season 4 with Nucky – when Lansky’s in the grave – those scenes require some conscious concentration. But after the initial work and the initial stepping into the character is done, it really becomes enough yours that your challenge is to just to go with it and trust that you have the essence of the character there, and usually that’s been fine, you know. Some characters come along and you have to be very well aware of your processes and be quite methodical with your approach, but this character hasn’t required me to be too aware of what my process is.
Let me ask you this: After having played him for five seasons, do you ever find yourself thinking like Lansky off screen?
Yeah, yeah, definitely, in approaching business, for one. I guess I’ve learnt something from Meyer in that you’ve got to do business straight then you’re less likely to get any trouble, and it’s very useful for me in the business I’m in now. But there are also things that I haven’t enjoyed. You know, there was paranoia associated with men like Meyer, from that era. They’d build speakeasies with eight different exists, which was very much an illustration of their depressed and sociopathic mind. There are moments when I’m aware that there’s a paranoia I’m adopting in situations, and that really has got nothing to do with me. Yes, there are moments when I become aware that I’ve been thinking like a gangster, you know.
Being so long on a show like this, which is about powerful men who can take what they want, does that somehow start empowering you in real life too?
I don’t know if I’m consciously aware of it. Also, it’s taken Meyer a few years on the show to become as powerful as he is, and you know, beyond the life of the show, he becomes much more powerful. But I know what you mean but I think the opposite is true. Because you get that little bit of lust for power out of your system during your work and I’d like to think, one is a little more humble when one gets home.
Also, I want to know about the psychological aspect of playing evil. The show’s about the process of evil; does that ever psychologically effect in you in real life? Do the belief systems you follow on the show start seeping into your system?
You mean if I’m inspired by it all?
I mean, is it hard not to be inspired by it all?
I understand your question but I don’t think of it like that. I do know that they’re from a completely different era and I see its echoes in modern society too, even though it’s a different thing going on now. I mean, the lies, the guns, the lust for power did not stop in the 1920s in America. So what a show like this does is that it informs your understanding of society and human nature. But as an actor I don’t judge the belief systems of that time, and so it’s been easy for me to not get affected. Perhaps it might have had an effect on me if I had Nucky’s role because he’s lived it in far more scenes than I have. But I guess we’ll really know in a few months time (chuckles).
Be honest here: having played a gangster with such a lavish lifestyle, have you picked up any gangster habit off screen?
(Laughs) Well, it’s certainly made me love wearing suits again. I’ve always liked the working class, you know. My family was also an immigrant family that came to London so I’ve always enjoyed the idea of a working class man getting dressed up. I can’t say that I wear three piece suits around the house but let me say, unofficially, and even though I’m not allowed to tell you, that I have got with me at least one suit, a jacket, a pair of shoes… and I might even have a wig. But you didn’t hear that from me (chuckles).
You know, since we’ll be finishing our interview soon, I’m really intrigued by Boardwalk’s popularity In India.
6. ON BEING ENAMOURED WITH INDIA & ON WHAT’S NEXT
“Filming in Benaras was one of the most amazing moments of my life. It gave me something at a really early age – that you can look at things with a much wider lens.”
Well, the show’s certainly got its audience and that’s evident on social media, especially Twitter, where you see people discussing it many a times. I also know, first hand, that a lot of filmmakers I’ve worked with are big fans of the show. It’s one of the cult shows of our time, and while it’s not a massy show, it’s got its legacy and its own fans.
Well, it’s interesting to me because I’ve spent some time in India. It’s a country I’m very fond of. When you got in touch about the interview and expressed that you’re a fan of Boardwalk, it really intrigued me. Because I think there’ something in the palette and the size of the show that appeals to the Indian culture and the Indian landscape, because you’re not dissimilar to the Americans, in the fact that you’re really a continent, just like America, with many different states, you know. You have many different languages throughout in the country. You are a huge continent but also the geography of the country, like the geography of America, is so dramatic that I think these shows, with this kind of a broad palette might appeal to the Indian eye and the Indian culture.
Also, I for a little while I was interested in Indian films and I remember reading about them 10 years ago – this might not be the case now – that the whole Mumbai noir movement in the ‘90s was being financed in the film industry a lot by the Indian mafia. That’s similar to the America in the 1940s and ‘50s and ‘60s, you know, as depicted in the Godfather. I also didn’t realise that organised crime, at least modern day organised crime, is quite a recent thing in India. It’s fascinating to me. Because I think of Indian culture as ancient and spiritual and I had some amazing times when I visited India.
And, of course, Mumbai, as a city, is not dissimilar to New York, in its make up, and, you know, the amount of different types of traffic that goes through there. It’s fascinating to me that Boardwalk’s popular in India and it actually makes a lot of sense why it would be on many different levels. Is that fair?
Absolutely. I really couldn’t have put it better. While the mafia connection with the film industry is long over, the new age Indian film is usually one that deals with the underbelly of Mumbai and its crime. In fact, any time we’ve moved away from Bollywood in India, it’s usually been through a film about crime inspired from that era, although that’s changing now. But for a long time, if you were in a festival abroad and you saw an Indian film, chances were it would be a dark film to do with crime, corruption and the underbelly. So yeah, you’ve hit the nail on the head, so to speak. Boardwalk may certainly be popular for that reason, although the other HBO shows that’ve been watched quite a fair bit in India are Game of Thrones and The Newsroom.
Well, that really makes absolute sense to me, Nikhil. This is really interesting to me. That appeals to what I understand of the Indian culture, you know. Game of Thrones is the fantasy kind of mystical side of Indian culture. The Newsroom is the political and media side of it and Boardwalk is the underbelly. So, you know, it makes absolute sense. It’s really interesting to me because there’s also what’s happening in India – and that’s always been there – this gap between the rich and poor, which is something that’s also really prevalent in the American society. And Indians have been through it time and time again, having been ruined by colonialism as well. So to watch this country that went through it from the early 1900s through to now, this young, big, dramatic country like India having been through it… I don’t know how conscious it is to your audience… but I imagine that would be a real emotional draw to the show. Even in terms of the colour, I think.
You know, my experience in India was when I was 13-14 and I was doing a thing called The Chronicles of the Young Indiana Jones. I was actually playing a kid from Chicago and we filmed in Benaras and Agra. Filming in Benaras was one of the most amazing moments of my life. I remember being down by the Ganges, and you know, it was my first experience of seeing real poverty, and of seeing what humans can be put through in other places. But it was under the backdrop of this incredible landscape, this incredible light, the spirituality and the community and all these things in it. I was conscious about it in the moment… there was something so honest about that picture, you know, this great poverty and this great landscape and this great spirit present, that, I think, it gave me something at a really early age – that you can look at things with a much wider lens. You lose some of the, kind of, social ideals on how things are and how things should be, you know. Because it was kind of very shocking and very hard on me for a little while, and then it became quite glorious. Does that make sense?
And I think there’s an element of that – I don’t think the show always pulls it off –but there’s elements of that in the ethos; it marries the kind of huge and epic and dramatic to the day-to-day of putting your clothes on and going to work, to the almost fantastic, the mystical, you know. There’s something in that; there’s a romance in it, which I think would appeal to Indian culture.
I genuinely don’t think I could have been able to analyse the show better from the Indian perspective, so thank you so very much for your thoughts. I must say, though, that since you’ve not been to India for quite a long time now, you should come back here again. A lot has changed since the last time you are here, but of course, some of it is also the same. But I think you’d be able to take back a very different image of India the next time you’re here, and perhaps be inspired in new ways.
Oh thank you, Nikhil, I’m very fond of your country and it’s one of my dreams to make a movie there. And even if not to make a movie, but to just to go back and spend some more time there. Because I’ve been there twice – the last time I came was 10 years ago – and it’s a fascinating country. And yeah, no, I would expect that India as a country is always evolving, culturally. What’s wonderful about India and the difference between America and India is that the background or sometimes the foreground has these layers of ancient culture that provides this perspective and that’s what I enjoy so much about being there. There’s this kind of modernity happening but at the same time, this real deep ancient culture. I don’t think of it as a country, I think of it very much as a continent, and yeah, I’m, very fond of it. I’m a big cricket fan as well, so….
Haha! Well if we start talking about cricket then that would be another very long discussion.
We must do that in our next interview, for sure (chuckles).
So what was the last Indian movie you saw?
I must admit that the last Indian movie I saw was while back, it’s not new age. I remember watching Salaam Bombay.
Wow, that’s really long ago.
Yeah, well that’s because, honestly, I don’t enjoy the Bollywood stuff that much. I’ve seen some of it but I don’t enjoy a lot of it. I’d love to see the new stuff. Maybe you could give me some recommendations.
Well, I’ll certainly send you an email on that. So what are you up to next after Boardwalk, and even though you probably can’t but is there *anything* you can tell us about the end of Boardwalk?
I’m in London for a few weeks for meetings on a few projects that have been on hold for the past year because of Boardwalk. Those projects are in their early stages and I can’t talk about them much but what I’m hoping for is that Boardwalk’s been wonderful for me and it’s brought me some great opportunities, and the truth is that I just want to keep doing quality work frequently. As for season five, there’s nothing else to say except that you watch the stuff that I don’t know about and the stuff I do know about; and that I do hope this season would be a satisfactory ending to five great years.
Note: Meyer Lansky’s grandson, Meyer Lansky, has mentioned that neither he nor his cousin Gary (Lansky’s only two grandsons), ever provided information to the writers of Boardwalk Empire or a sketch of their grandfather. Read Mr. Lansky’s comment in the comment section below for more.
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Note: An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian in the October 19, 2014 issue.
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