Anatol Yusef Interview: Boardwalk Empire, Meyer Lansky

Boardwalk Empire season five hits the streets. Anatol Yusef drops dime on Meyer Lansky.

Boardwalk Empire washed into the surf after five years on HBO. The last sands of a once towering castle that ruled Atlantic City were swept off the planks when Jimmy Darmody’s kid took out Nucky Thompson. Thompson, played by the perennially solid actor and all around goodfella Steve Buscemi, had just turned his empire over to the new crew. The Organization was a democratic committee of crime that had been put together by wisest of guys, Charles Lucania, aka, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky.

On Boardwalk Empire, Lansky was played by Anatol Yusef, and Vincent Piazza got to get his eyes drooped as Luciano. Den of Geek got a chance to talk with the ruling committee of this criminal organization. Michael Noble took a crack at Piazza and I interrogated the brains behind the next generation of crime, Anatol Yusef.

Anatol Yusef has lived in New York since before Boardwalk Empire was even a done deal, but he doesn’t sound like Meyer Lansky. Yusef was born in Essex, on the outskirts of London. He is a Bristol Old Vic Theatre School-trained actor and was a resident member at the Royal Shakespeare Company. While, as Lansky, he may have cursed in Yiddish as he pummeled a gambler into the pavement, Anatol sounds like he might ask one lump or two, but he once played the young version of a Bob Hoskins character which, at The Cotton Club, is a bona fide gangster pedigree.

Now that Boardwalk Empire is coming out on DVD do you have any kind of celebration? A pub crawl?

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No, unfortunately no. But I’m looking forward to, we got nominated for an ensemble Screen Actors Guild Award, so it’s a chance for all of us to get together. It’s probably the only thing I enjoy about the awards stuff is the time we get together. Because even when we’re on the show, we all operate in so many different worlds that we rarely get to see each other. Any opportunity we have to get together, we all enjoy it very much.

Having done Boardwalk Empire, are you on any kind of HBO shortlist for upcoming projects?

I hope so. I don’t know but I certainly hope so. It seems to me that HBO  are quite mindful of that. If you look at the cast of Boardwalk, how many there were involved in other HBO shows.

Mark Wahlberg recently said he wants to put Boardwalk Empire on the big screen. 

What’s that?

He told a Jersey paper he wanted to make a movie.

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Oh did he? Well, that would be very interesting. I hope that would be an opportunity to get into the meat of our story, because it really begins where Boardwalk Empire ends. The story of Meyer and Charlie, Bugsy and Frank Costello. That would be fascinating. Or, indeed, if they did the period of the time jump. That was a fascinating time in their lives. The time around Rothstein’s decline and subsequent death. Depends on what time period they choose.

Were you a gangster fan before you took the part?

I don’t know if I was a gangster fan, but I love, some of my favorite films are the American quote-unquote gangster films. I think some of them are beautiful films. Even being about gangsters, there’s a kind of epic quality to them, almost Shakespearean, Greek tragedy, a classical quality, in American culture and American history. They’re almost anti-royalty, if you like.

Meyer’s birth certificate says he was born on the Fourth of July.

I’m not sure I believe that. I don’t know that it’s true. That was perhaps more of Meyer’s wishes than reality.

The gangster thing is interesting because it’s classic storytelling of double-crossing, manipulation, power and lust, all that kind of stuff, is fascinating stuff to watch. Shakespeare did it with the kings and queens of England. I think in American culture, it takes a similar place.

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So, yes, I guess I was interested and I do love those movies. But I didn’t know anything like what I know now. Firstly, about that period of history and secondly about what Lansky, and all those young gangsters, achieved in such a short span of time. It’s quite amazing, really.

What was the difference between what you found about the real life Meyer Lansky and Terence Winter’s Meyer Lansky?

I think it’s pretty accurate. We don’t know that much about the young Meyer. Lots of criminal records of that time have disappeared. One idea is that it was part of the deal that Meyer did with the government when they asked Meyer and Charlie to rid the docks of Nazi sympathizers, when they were fearing Nazi U-Boats were coming in during the Second World War. That would cancel out their prohibition criminal records. So we don’t actually know that much about Meyer as a young man. We only know through hearsay and stories generally told as the kinds of things gangsters say. We know more about the man Meyer became. I think Terence Winter’s Lansky is pretty accurate.

I read in Tough Jews that Lansky had to kick heroin.

Tough Jews is a wonderful book. Forget the subject matter, it’s a great book. I sat with Rich Cohen, more than a few times actually, and we talked about that side of Lansky and that time.  Around the time he had his first son who was born with, I don’t remember if it was multiple sclerosis or spina bifida, things got bad. He kind of lost his way. That would be a fascinating thing, to explore that period in Meyer’s life. Anything could have happened in that time.

Did you have any experience with gangster street life growing up?

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My family’s from the East End. The East End of London is not dissimilar to that kind of Lower East Side/Brooklyn world. Working class, lots of immigrants, that kind of hot mix of different cultures trying to feed their families.  So I had that sense of it. The other thing is that it is very driven by family. Most of these gangsters in this period, the foundation was family. I think that’s true of the East End of London.

My grandfather used to own a lot of fish and chips shops around East London and he’s got a lot of stories about the big gangsters of the time coming to eat there, offering him protection, all that kind of stuff. I wouldn’t say it was dangerous when I was younger, but it was a little rough at times. It isn’t alien to me, but I wouldn’t say I really know it.

Did any real-life gangsters show up on the set of Boardwalk Empire?

Not that I know of, but I’ve had plenty of people tell me that, in some way, they’re connected to a real life gangster who is in some way connected to Meyer Lansky. That has happened on quite a few occasions. I have no way of knowing.

I met someone on the West Coast, a very nice man whose best friend was called someone Levine. He told me that his father was a gangster and we established that it might well have been a man called Red Levine. I suppose you read in Tough Jews that he was Meyer and Charlie’s main assassin in Murder Incorporated. That was one of the few moments that I saw these guys are still relevant and present.

Every kid in Bensonhurst knows the house where Albert Anastasia lived.

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When I was younger, some people I knew skirted the edges of those worlds.

I read that you attribute your easy way with accents to your Turkish upbringing, but how do you actually train to keep the accents consistent? What does a dialog coach actually do, hit you when you mispronounce something?

I don’t work with a dialog coach, so I can’t answer that. I attribute my accent to having different sounds when I was younger. There wasn’t a lot of Turkish spoken around, but my ear had an agility, if you like. In England, we grow up with the American accent in a way that Americans don’t grow up with any other accent. A large percentage of what we consume is American – cartoons and movies, things like that. I think I’ve got some kind of natural whatever for it.

In Meyer’s case, there’s something about the accent that’s logical, once you get the general sound and the quality of the writing. He was kid from Eastern Europe, Russia, so that sound is pretty clear and strong. You add that to the Brooklyn or Lower East Side accent and you get that sound. But also the vocabulary allows you do that to yourself. My father didn’t speak English until he was nearly the age 11 but his vocabulary is better than mine will ever be, because that desire to assimilate and excel and do all that with a sound. All those things, some of them are conscious, some of them not, add to Meyer’s sound. And the great thing is that you get five years to hone and develop it. It’s something I find easy and enjoyable about acting.

You went from the person who was on his knees in a garage in the first season to an elder statesman in the last. Do you adjust your weight or does it come naturally?

It’s all natural. You are mindful of it in some ways. I consciously allowed my voice to shift to a slower, lower place as the seasons went on, closer to my voice. I think, in the early seasons, I was trying to be young. I don’t know if that was necessary, but I was older than Meyer was. So, you think about that but it should happen naturally. The situations he was in, they all certainly had power. Well, you do what do you need to do when you have that huge arc. The situations he finds himself in, the way he deals with it, gives it that sense of weight and heaviness.

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You trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. How do you get into the frame of mind for a scene like the one where you kicked the shit out of the gambler who tried to humiliate Arnold Rothstein? Were you taught a method or is it just acting like Olivier told Dustin Hoffman?

I very rarely need to do that, sometimes there’s one aspect to understand why you get into some kind of zone where you’re very receptive. You take in everything around you, because your character is taking in everything around him and everything around him is affecting him. In that scene, it was interesting, that process. I had ideas about it before we started doing it and things happened which were really enjoyable and took it out of me. It was kind of fun, at first, planning the fight, and the guy who did it with me was really brilliant. So, it was fun and as we started to repeat it, reality set in on me, Anatol the actor, and that’s when you have to take a moment to go, okay, will he get hurt? You take a moment and realize that’s a horrible thing to do. So, I don’t know that I do anything special, I’m sure that I do I’m not sure how conscious I am of it.

My favorite thing about Boardwalk Empire, and HBO in general, is how they pay attention to the comedy in the drama. How do you find the comedy in a role like Meyer?

With Meyer you have to, it would be very easy to make Meyer very studious and just the man who ran the numbers. But it is important to give him some charisma. Also, my character and us, came from their youth. On one level, they’re just a bunch of kids trying to get ahead. That in itself is the comedy. I don’t think one looks for comedy, but we’re mindful that it’s a violent show, in many ways a dark show. Whatever the year is, life is like that. It was such a crazy time in history that there was a comical edge to it.

Is there anything that makes it more fun to play a comedic part or a dark part?

It’s fun when you’re all in on it, it’s a collaborative thing and it’s really fun. I’ve always wanted to do a few episodes of a sitcom or something like that to find out what that would be like. Comedy can require much more precision and focus as tragedy or drama so I don’t know how much fun it can be. Comedy can take less of a toll on you. I love acting so it really doesn’t matter much.

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Did similar relationships form between the actors and the parts? Did you have a Dutch Uncle like Arnold Rothstein on the set?

Did life imitate art? When we first started, I spent a lot of time with Vincent and Michael, who played Rothstein. We kind of needed to, really. As the seasons went on that became less and it became more genuinely about work. There was certainly a time when me, Michael and Vincent were hanging out reflecting the kind of relationship we were forming in the show. Because, also, we didn’t get the volume of scenes that you need so the relationship can just be there. But as time went on, the friendships we made on the show were very real and I still enjoy those friendships. When you’re on something for that length of time, you kind of find friends, in all departments, not just the actors.

You’re playing Dirty Dick in the upcoming You Can’t Win with Michael Pitt. It’s set in the 1920s, do you have an affinity for period pieces?

I don’t think so, that’s a very different part. Nowhere near as put together, a bit more vicious and a hot head than Meyer Lansky.

You narrated an episode of a show called Paranatural, do you have an interest in the X-Files of life?

I don’t have a special interest in it, but I believe everything is valid. I don’t rule anything out. The fascination with these things is timeless, folks who try to understand the more para-natural things that are outside religion and science.

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So are there any ghosts at the Royal Shakespeare Company?

I’m sure there are. I haven’t come across any yet. I didn’t find any ghosts at the RSC. I found a few hungover actors in a rehearsal who, I’m not sure to this day, whether they were my friends acting in the show or the ghosts or zombies from a time before.

Is there a different work ethic between British and American film and television?

Possibly yes. It depends on which medium. I think the training is different in England. The kind of classical training is more prevalent in drama schools in England, whereas here there are different schools of training and they all kind of compete. Each has established their own techniques. I don’t know if I subscribe to the idea that British actors work hard or American actors work harder.

What is different is that we have generally more of a theatrical training, theater-based training, which brings about a certain approach. Certainly the core, the initial way to approach acting as a young actor is different from someone who hasn’t had that training. An American might want to do theater less because one of America’s main exports is film and television. Film and television is part of the fabric here in a way that it’s not in England, so that’s different.

Hard work is a bit of a misnomer. Some actors are better when they work hard. Some actors are much more free and creative when they don’t work as hard or don’t prepare as much.

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I was only going from what I heard Ricky Gervais say that after making an episode of The Simpsons he needed a six week lie down.

Well, that’s Ricky.

What are you working on now?

I’m gainfully unemployed. I did do a movie called Bastille Day in Paris. That was at the end of the year. That was fun. I’m developing things, one of which is gaining traction. Other than that, gainfully unemployed and looking for work. Looking for a challenging role, that would be the ideal thing. I don’t really mind what medium that’s in, if it’s in film, television or theater

What makes a role interesting?

If the character has a really interesting journey in a world other than mine. But I don’t really mind so much about that anymore because I’ve been fortunate enough to explore so many different worlds and eras. For me at the moment, it’s a role with a journey, where you get to explore different shades in the eyes of one character. That would be ideal.

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Was there any improv in Jeeves and Wooster?

It was mostly scripted. I was very young when I did it. There was always a little improv. Steven Fry and Hugh Laurie were always doing something. Generally not in the scene but to make each other laugh. As a child actor it was so much fun to be around, watching actors on the top of their game who loved each other and tried to make each other laugh.

Was there any improv in Boardwalk Empire?

Very rarely. We were very faithful to the writing. It wasn’t that kind of job. I know that during the pilot, Mr. Scorsese was very able to do it. But it’s also a time issue.

Any directors from the past you would have liked to work with? Would you prefer working for Alfred Hitchcock or John Huston?

I think actors are asked less and less about directors. I don’t know what’s changed it used to be that actors would talk about directors like a musician would talk about a composer.

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I would have loved to have worked with a lot. I would have loved to work with all of them. I would love to work with Hitchcock or Altman. Kubrik, Jean Luc Godard, Alan Clarke. Did you see the documentary on Altman? He was so collaborative. All the actors who worked with him loved him. There are some really good directors around now, although I think the director has become less powerful under the studios and the networks. I still think there are really fine artists out there that I’d like to work with. Of course, Mr. Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and some of the Scandinavian directors as well. Once you start thinking about it, the list is really endless.